Masters of the Universe: Star Wars and the Fall of Grayskull

Masters of the Universe poster


How Star Wars contributed to one of Cannon’s most infamous creative flops


During their 80s B-movie pomp, Cannon Films were a modest distribution company who far exceeded expectations. Originally formed by Dennis Friedland and Chris Dewey as a soft porn production company, the struggling duo were forced to sell to Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who would tap into the home video boom of the 1980s. Golan-Globus would achieve immediate success exploring the popular action genre, their tenuous ninja trilogy of Enter the NinjaRevenge of the Ninja, and Ninja III: The Domination fuelling the Western martial arts craze of the early ’80s, but they didn’t stop there. Buoyed by Golan’s childlike enthusiasm, the Israeli cousins churned out all kinds of low-grade trash: slashers, Indiana Jones rip-offs, surprisingly popular movies about break dancing. Hell, they even picked up three Academy Award nominations for the Kurosawa-devised independent thriller Runaway Train. The newly named Cannon Group’s production style was opportunistic, erratic and borderline haphazard, but for the first half of the decade it proved hugely successful, and things were about to get a whole lot better. At least in principle.

The big name actors would soon follow. As well as buying the rights to the popular Charles Bronson-led vigilante series Death Wish and transforming it into one of the most dubious and controversial of the decade, Cannon would cast Chuck Norris in the Missing in Action movies, even attracting Hollywood megastar ‘Sly’ Stallone for a two-movie deal that included cult vigilante flick Cobra, which with Hollywood giants Warner Brothers as distributors would rake-in an incredible $160,000,000 worldwide, though Sly would swallow a huge chunk of that in what was a record-breaking deal. During 1986, The Cannon Group would release an incredible 43 movies, some successful, some not so much, but rarely did they lose money, and with a genre output that broad they were never short on punters, especially in the booming home video market. Thanks to the unmitigated success of their B-movie model and a newfound taste for the big-time, Golan-Globus would ultimately make the decision to branch out, and branch out they would.

Cannon collage

You couldn’t blame them for having such high ambitions. The future looked bright for the foreign outsiders who had somehow managed to devour the sweet nectar of the American Dream, who had done so in a brazen manner that lacked decorum and forged a whole army of Hollywood nasal- gazers, but when you take your product mainstream audiences expect a little more bang for their buck, and this is where they ran into problems. Sticking to their bold and charmingly shoddy origins, the company would pump their resources into blockbuster vehicles as they set about running with the big boys, and were so committed to their brave new venture that they were practically living hand-to-mouth from movie-to-movie, relying on funding from the next project to cover the previous one. By the end of 1987, the company had plundered so much money into high-profile flops that they were facing bankruptcy. Stallone saw the writing on the wall after starring in monumental flop Over the Top, a kids movie about an arm wrestling trucker that was such a commercial misfire Stallone cut ties with them forever. “Menahem Golan kept offering me more and more money, until I finally thought, ‘What the hell — no one will see it!”, the star later quipped. In may ways, Stallone’s departure was the beginning of the end for the company’s bold ambitions, but two other high-profile outings were more damaging overall. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is widely cited as the film that ignited their capitulation, but it was another movie, released that same year, which proved an equally risky venture that failed to live up to its cocksure promotion.

Skeletor : Do you hear, Sorceress? The final moment has come. All the forces of Greyskull, all the powers in the universe will be vested in me! ME! And you will cease to exist!

Based on the popular cartoon series He-Man and The Masters of the Universe, Masters of the Universe was dubbed ‘the Star Wars of the 80s, and if by that they meant ripping off George Lucas’ universal phenomenon, they weren’t kidding. Those who were regular viewers of He-Man’s terrestrial battles were in for a surprise when the movie finally opened on August 7, because though the characters were for the most part familiar, their environment certainly wasn’t. In fact, beyond those characters it didn’t look or sound like He-Man at all save for a few costumes and familiar catchphrases. For years, folklore would have us believe that the He-Man toy range was put into production as a cost-saving exercise when Conan the Barbarian proved too violent to market to kids, and though that claim has since been disproved, He-Man’s swords and sorcery formula is far more reminiscent of Arnie’s breakout movie. Still, Michael Halperin’s ludicrously camp, Mattel-backed cartoon was unproven on the big screen. Conan had somehow nailed it for adult audiences, but a kids version would have to be handled rather differently. A bigger, more accomplished studio may have fared much better by making the property their own, but Cannon had always found it easier to imitate others, and George Lucas’ space-bound phenomenon was a far more lucrative source of inspiration. At least in theory.

In hindsight, it perhaps wasn’t the best marketing strategy for a production company with franchise aspirations. It was one thing tapping into the international ninja craze, of stealing from the popular and inherently derivative slasher genre, but was a different entity entirely. Alan Quartermain, Indy clones King Solomon’s Mines (1985) and The Lost City of Gold (1987) were absolutely panned, each suffering paltry box office returns. They were rejected as brazen, almost insulting imitations of an internationally renown property. Masters of the Universe was less obvious in that regard. This time Cannon had their own unique film property to capitalise on, but under the surface it’s just as imitative. They just couldn’t help themselves.

Star Wars was and is an unprecedented cultural phenomenon, packed with rich and wonderfully conflicted characters, star actors, innovative costume and set design, all with a degree of financial power that has its own gravitational field. It also exhibits the kind of breathtakingly grandiose world-building that a company of Cannon’s B-movie heritage could only dream of. Sure, those early Star Wars movies had a pulp appeal too, but they weren’t cheap or throwaway. They borrowed genre staples and well-known philosophies, practically retelling the bible with strong western cues, but they didn’t imitate in a way that was so glaringly transparent. What they brought to the table was fresh and unique, a concept that is still as strong as ever, swallowing generation after generation like an all-consuming black hole of timeless appeal. It is the ultimate monument to franchise-making, something you would imitate at your own peril. I mean, the absolute gall of Golden-Globus to pull something like this. However it turned out, you have to admire the sheer audacity of it all.

Promoting the movie as something fresh and unique wouldn’t have proven too much of a problem either, as Masters of the Universe was already a cultural phenomenon in its own right. With a bigger emphasis on its swords and sorcery roots, Cannon may have been looking at a commercial goldmine away from a galaxy far, far away. Kids had already bought into the He-Man concept and a more familiar big screen translation may have proven a safer prospect. Why toy with a winning formula by essentially competing with the most successful movie franchise in history? The whole Indy thing certainly didn’t work. It was like being born in someone else’s shadow. Inferior knock-offs may have flew on the home video market, but this was the big time, baby, and Star Wars had a deeply loyal fan base. Kids would lap it up regardless, but Masters of the Universe would only inspire derision in those who were old enough to know better.

You can’t blame Golan-Globus for pursuing a movie with such imitative aspirations, even if it did prove an incredibly misguided move on their part. Imitation had long been their lifeblood, and without the foresight of a sound franchise strategy it made perfect business sense. Naturally, imitating a global franchise carries its own risks in the long term, particularly if you lack the credentials to fulfil such bold ambitions. Though many of the movie’s creative decisions had been made before they came on board, Golan-Globus were in charge of physical production and marketing, utilising their budget in a manner that put them at loggerheads with producer Edward R. Pressman, who had already purchased the adaptation rights for a Masters of the Universe toy range. A gaudy and overblown movie which fails to fulfil its epic proclamations, Masters of the Universe would prove a critical and financial failure just months after the embarrassment of the notorious Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, and its easy to see why.

For one thing, the camp aura of the cartoon and its characters struggles to translate to the silver screen given the movie’s muddled, pseudo-Star Wars aesthetics. Led by a ludicrously homoerotic Dolph Lundgren, the characters are largely laughable, particularly antagonist Skeletor’s rabble of cornball mercenaries. Looking more like a collection of cuddly toys with an iron-clad bald fellow thrown in for variation, the motley crew of Blade, Karg, Saurod and Beast Man spend most of the movie’s running time bumbling uselessly about the place, continually lambasted by the evil Skeletor in a manner that leaves them yelping like hungry kittens. That’s not to say the cartoon versions were any more terrifying or successful in defeating the protectors of Eternia. They barely put a dent in Skeletor’s adversaries over 130 episodes. But if you have serious aspirations of creating a money-spinning franchise you need villains with a little more bite, or at the very least a modicum of intelligence. Where are all the usual suspects; those characters kids had grown accustomed to watching the TV show? They could have chosen a little more wisely. They even invented a reptile character for the film when Kobra Khan already existed. It just didn’t make sense.

Masters of the Universe mercs

Facing the pseudo-dark side are He-man’s lustreless comrades Teela (Chelsea Field) and Man-at-Arms (Jon Cypher). Masters of the Universe was supposed to be Field’s big, silver screen break, but her career would instead take a monumental nosedive. The long-time TV actress, who is fairly talented by the way, would return to the mainstream in 1991‘s The Last Boy Scout, but Cannon’s punt at cultural marketing immortality saw the actress relegated to low-budget horror such as the dizzyingly lurid Death Spa by 1989, proving that not all ‘big breaks’ pay dividends. Cypher was another TV stalwart, presumably acquired on the cheap, who was nowhere near the calibre necessary to take Cannon to that next step. He was a veteran actor who put in a fine shift, and he certainly fit the character’s cartoon profile, but Cannon were hardly shooting for the stars for what was supposed to be their stepping stone to mainstream relevance. All in all, an opportunity blown casting-wise.

He-Man: I have the power!

Caught in the middle of our intergalactic tug-of-war is Courtney Cox’s cutesy heroine Julie, who proves so insufferably naive that halfway through the movie you completely lose faith in her. When she hands the fate of the Universe over to an apparition of her dead mother, you want to shake the shit out of her, despite her emotional hardship. Future headliner Cox is one of the few performers who left this movie unscathed. The rookie actress had shot to fame a year prior as the the adorable star of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark video, and even as an extra chosen for her bright-eyed beauty, you just knew she was meant for big things. Star Trek: Voyager‘s Robert Duncan McNeill plays Julie’s musician boyfriend, Kevin. McNeill was another crowd-pleasing face plucked from the realms of small screen obscurity, a place where he would remain for much of his career. In fact, Masters of the Universe was his solitary shot at sliver screen stardom. You have to feel for him.

Providing the ‘what the hell is going on with you kids?’ comic relief is Back to the Future‘s hard-line principal, Mr. Strickland (James Tolkan), who proves endearingly hammy as the wildly dismissive but ultimately good-hearted cop who dumps his humdrum life for bliss on Eternia. Tolkan does very little to harm his reputation, all things considered. The contrived, made-to-order script hardly helps in assisting with his character’s arc, but his personality shines through. It’s so refreshing to see a character who begins as an ignorant heel, only to drop his stubborn principles entirely. In movies of this ilk it’s a rare thing indeed. Last, and most certainly least, there’s the infamously insufferable Gwildor, a leprechaun-like creature who somehow holds the key to the well-being of the entire universe while looking like he belongs on the cover of a cereal box. Masters of the Universe required a C3P0 for their band of galaxy-hopping rebels, and Gwildor is what they settled on. Even as a young He-Man fanatic I knew better. If he was borderline-insufferable then, you can probably imagine what he’s like all these years later.

Masters of the Universe also suffers from a thinly-sketched screenplay. Thanks to a garish and inexplicably-controlled key that opens gateways to other dimensions, a power-mad Skeletor has found a way to finally conquer He-Man and the imprisoned Sorceress of Grayskull (Christina Pickles), but the hapless villain soon realises that there are two keys to be had, the second of which our heroes fortuitously utilise to escape the monster’s evil lair. The fact that they are able to randomly open a vortex using a highly complex alien contraption with only a few aimless taps should have been taken as fair warning by a rabble of baddies who never seem capable of overcoming their earthbound foes. Golan-Globus were infamous for their harebrained approach to filmmaking, often selling a movie based on a conceptual poster and coming up with plot developments on the spot. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a little of that going on here.

Masters of the Universe Cox

Of all the places on all the planets of all the galaxies in the universe, our cheapo crew of intergalactic crusaders somehow end up in the sunny state of California, which one has to admit is a pretty convenient plot development production-wise, a cost-cutting to rival the film’s largely unknown or irrelevant terrestrial cast. That’s not to say they scrimped on everything — the movie did contribute to Cannon’s capitulation after all — but most of the $22,000,000 budget was spent on schlocky, faux-epic sets and Star Wars-esque hover crafts, which means the majority of action takes place on home shores. The screenplay’s original draft spent more time on Eternia and Snake Mountain, and even revealed that He-Man’s mother actually came from Earth, a sub-narrative which could have gone some way to fleshing out a story which proves painfully predictable.

For all the lolly Cannon splashed on their potentially money-spinning extravaganza, you also have to question the Day-Glo special effects. From the sub-par laser guns to the horrifically-staged portal leaps, much of the production comes across as amateurish, especially when you’re attempting to emulate the glorious, model-work aesthetic of Star Wars. Watching the film, it’s almost as if too much money proved an obstacle, like they didn’t know how best to use it. It reminded me of being a kid and having money burning a hole in my pocket. You go to the store on your birthday, only to find out that the item you had longed for is sold out. The clerk assures you that the item will be back in stock later that week but you just can’t wait, throwing your money at any old substitute they care to flog you. You arrive home and tear open the packaging, and for a day you convince yourself that you’ve made the right decision. In reality, you know you’ve thrown it all away.

The fight sequences are pretty bog-standard too. Part of it has to do with He-Man’s ostentatiously large sword, which does very little for Lundgren’s sex appeal, despite the glaringly obvious phallic symbol, intentional or otherwise. As they had with Stallone, Cannon put all their stock in former Ivan Drago, Lundgren, but he wasn’t half the actor or presence that Sly was. He had the physical presence, as is flagrantly highlighted here, and he looks as close to the cartoon He-Man as you are ever likely to find, but it’s all just a little slow and clumsy. Sometimes the combination of muscle mass and primitive choreography proves a hindrance to the action, whose saving grace comes in the form of Bill Conti’s lush, if wholly derivative score, which lends an emotional prestige to several uninspired sequences, but more on him later.

If Cannon’s intention was to make the movie as camp as the cartoon series, they achieved it and then some. He-Man’s supposedly momentous ‘I have the power!’ money shot looks like an image culled from a beginner’s guide to Photoshop. No $22,000,000 movie should look like this, not even by 1987’s standards. Much like Superman IV before it, the film’s money-sapping embellishments look decidedly second-rate, and the famous post-credit sequel-setter tells you that those involved were none the wiser, and those who were obviously didn’t have the stock to say as much. Cannon’s back catalogue was so deeply ingrained in bottom-rung schlock that they seemingly knew no other way. And fans loved them for that. They were the ultimate cheap thrill production machine. Having delusions to the contrary proved the death knell.

Masters of the Universe SFX

Still, for any ’80s kid bred on a breakfast of Saturday morning cartoons, the movie’s release was a monumental happening, and though it could very well be nostalgia putting up the blinkers, it’s hard to not have a certain degree of affection for such a gaudy piece of trash cinema, and going off the movie’s modern-day cult status it seems that a whole generation of you agree with me. Though those kids may have been somewhat disappointed by the glaring differences between the movie and the TV show, the youngest of us were easily swayed. The movie’s action figure range may never have materialised, but many of us already owned figures from the original Mattel toy line, and a trip to the cinema to see our ludicrously camp hero, in any form, was an irresistible prospect — though those of you who bought video game tie-in Masters of the Universe: The Movie may still harbour some ill will, and I wouldn’t blame you.

Like many Cannon productions of the mid-1980s, Masters of the Universe sums up the decade’s cheapo charm so deliciously that you can’t help but fall for its crude sense of opulence. As well as the camp and clunky costumes and contrived sense of idealism, you have a whole array of lurid gadgets to get the juvenile juices flowing, from Evil-Lyn’s hypnotic truth necklace to a visual device that allows you to see events which have already taken place, and you just know that both of those gadgets were used with cost-cutting in mind. You also have the movie’s bigger-is-better gateway key, which features so many buttons even inventor Gwildor can’t figure out quite how to use it, although the fact that it plays musical chords identical to those established on Earth means one of our cast will prove rather useful in getting He-Man and his cohorts safely back home. Who said a career as a rock star was a waste of time?

Masters of the Universe Evil-Lyn

The movie also benefits from some pretty impressive performances amid the silliness. Theatre veteran Frank Langella is excellent as the unquenchable force that is Skeletor, his thespian turn taking more than a leaf out of Darth Vader’s book, while an army of imitation storm troopers and a John Williams-eque theme by veteran composer Conti only punctuate affairs. Having produced such movie theme wonders as Rocky and The Karate Kid, Conti probably wasn’t used to composing blatant derivatives. I wouldn’t be surprised if the notoriously on-the-fly Golan marched directly up to him during production and demanded a John Williams knock-off for his intergalactic venture ― at least I’d like to imagine such a thing. Langella struts to Conti’s Vader-esque theme with theatrical impudence, chewing the scenery with a relish that makes you wish there was a sequel, and the make-up department do a fine job with his skeletal pallor, a creepy design that puts his cutesy underlings to shame. Langella is the colossal presence the movie was crying out for, and easily the best thing about Masters of the Universe. The actor brought more than a degree of prestige to affairs, and he didn’t look down on the project, has in fact cited Skeletor as one of his favourite ever roles. “It’s one of my very favourite parts,” he would proclaim. “I played him because my son was four years old and walked around with a sword yelling, ‘I [have] the power!’ And he loved, loved, loved Skeletor. I didn’t even blink [when I was offered the role]. I couldn’t wait to play him.”

Julie Winston: Thank you. He-Man, Teela, Man-At-Arms…

Teela: Don’t say goodbye. Say Good Journey.

Duncan: It is an old Eternian saying. Live the journey, for every destination is but a doorway to another.

Julie Winston: Good Journey.

Meg Foster is also rather special as the lovelorn Evil-Lyn, a conflicted character whose continued subservience to an unappreciative master hints at something deeper. Every supervillain needs a dastardly sidekick to blindly follow their lead, one who believes in their dastardly deeds wholeheartedly, who believes in them as a person, regardless of how unconscionable. Evil-Lyn would willingly follow Skeletor into the pits of hell. There’s no physical attraction, no real commonality beyond the pursuit of pure evil, but there’s certainly more to their relationship on an emotional level, which quietly simmers in the subtext of not only the movie, but the cartoon series as a whole. There’s a certain grace to Lyn’s toadying, far more than the obsequious rabble trailing in her wake, who are motivated by fear rather than respect, and Foster is able to translate those subtleties quite beautifully. Some faces are made for the screen, and hers can certainly tell a unique story.

In the end, a sequel never materialised. In fact, nobody has touched the property since, which is quite incredible when you think that the cartoon series and expanding action figure range is still going strong today, and in an era of superhero obsession, the climate has never been better for a Masters of the Universe reboot, which as of writing is once again in production limbo after years of false whispers and complex development issues. As a kid, the infamous post-credits set-up was a real source of confusion. For a start, I’d never stuck around long enough to see one before, and the sight of Skeletor suddenly emerging from a pool of pink-coloured water to utter the words ‘I’ll be back!” was quite the novelty. At the time, I didn’t see this as a cheap nod to the hugely popular Arnold Schwarzenegger. I instead saw it as a promise of more He-Man, as a sign that the irrepressible Skeletor would soon return to enact his vengeance. I had witnessed his return from the dead with my very own eyes, had heard him make that promise. Why was there still no sequel? How long did it take for an evil genius to devise a new strategy? Unfortunately for fans of the series, it is still decades and counting.

Ultimately, it was probably for the best back in 1987. You only have to look at what the film meant for the majority of its stars to see how badly the whole thing was handled, and after Cannon finally returned to the B-movie doldrums with their tails between their legs, it wasn’t surprising that no other studio wanted to touch the property. The majority of audiences needed time to recuperate. Take away the nostalgia and it’s easy to see why the movie flopped against all odds, proving a rather hefty nail in the coffin of Cannon’s incredible ’80s run. Perhaps the most high-profile of all the company’s movies bar Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Masters of the Universe is cheap, lazily-conceived, badly translated, wholly derivative, poorly realised and such a woefully transparent imitation of Star Wars that it’s hard not to shake your head in disbelief. What’s even harder is to dislike this movie on any serious level. In fact, if you’re anything like me you’ll probably love it, and for all the reasons millions more condemned it to the creative scrapheap.


Masters of the Universe logo



2 comments

  1. I’m surprised by how many Cannon films I’m familiar with, not realizing at the time that they were the production company. Especially, ‘Superman: Quest for Peace’, for which, unfortunately, Christopher Reeve shared writing credit with 2 others. I thought ‘He-Man’ was cast well. It’s what the actors had to work with that made it a ‘gaudy piece of trash cinema’, thought still enjoyable to a point. For me, it was Dolph Lundgren’s ‘ludicrously homoerotic’ He-Man that caught my eye at the time. As a gay boy I was seduced by his lack of clothing, usually regulated to female T&A. I even had several He-Man collectable toys and action figures that are valuable today, but sadly, I didn’t hold onto them.

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  2. Hi Louis,

    The He-Man cartoon has more than an inkling of gay subtext if you ask me. Just look at Adam. Tidy and constricted in his everyday garb and then POW!, he’s into his He-Man gear and out of the closet. His sword could even be construed as phallic. Either way, he certainly has the power.

    Yes, this was great casting from top to bottom. The fact that it was wholly derivative of Star Wars and not true to the original conception served only to confuse kids back in the day I think. Still, hard not to succumb to its cheapo charm. A nice 80’s time capsule which I don’t revisit nearly enough. Something tells me that might change.

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