The death rattle of the super-macho aesthetic began in the 1960s, with pulp comics about large men tearing into Stone Age beasts. It was into this market that toy designer Mark Taylor introduced He-Man in 1976, a prehistoric warrior fighting to protect his tribe on the alien planet of Eternia.
The line of action figures from Mattel, released in the ‘80s, were an almost immediate success, once they got the obligatory you-ripped-that-off-from-Conan lawsuit out of the way. From there, He-Man’s never-ending battle against the forces of evil spawned a series of comics, a cartoon show, and eventually, a movie. While Masters of the Universe may not have won any awards during its brief time in theaters, it stands as a cheesy, fun adventure story that’s sure to spark some nostalgia – in those fans old enough to have enjoyed the strange battle between an alien barbarian and his skeleton adversary.
Adapting the Source Material
Let’s begin here, with the sin of raised expectations. When Masters of the Universe premiered in 1987, it was panned by critics. At present it has earned a really terrible 17 percent rating on review aggregator RottenTomatoes.com. Of course, the low critical rating is totally deserved. It stars Dolph Lundgren for Christ’s sake. That alone should tell you what you need to know.
Masters is, in terms of its cumulative effort, not a very good movie. Fortunately for the flick (and Dolph Lundgren’s career as a whole), quality and enjoyability don’t always go hand in hand. It’s a fun movie if you’re willing to simply lay back and let the silliness wash over you.
Honestly, what did you expect? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans can moan all they want about the films’ lack of quality, but He-Man fans don’t really have a leg to stand on. Where the pizza-eating Turtles were comic book characters first and marketing gold later, He-Man began his existence with the sole purpose of selling action figures to kids. There was no backstory, no real character development beyond the scant context provided on the back of the box.
In other words, it seems unfair to critique Masters of the Universe based on other adaptations of the source material, since each imagining of the character is — at its core — based on a line of molded plastic. So, no, it’s not like the cartoon or the comic. Master of the Universe the movie doesn’t give a shit about what came before.
In execution, the Masters of the Universe movie is a weird blend of Conan the Barbarian and some long lost science-fiction relic escaped from the 1930s. Oh, and for a big part of the film, the main characters get stranded in a small American town (with Courtney Cox!). It’s an odd story that’s firmly planted in a pulpy mindset that manages to wink at itself while fully engaging in the events at hand.
In a way, in its ability to juggle a tongue-in-cheek tone with heavyweight drama, Masters is a (very) rough prototype for the modern Marvel movie, only shellacked with a sleek eighties gloss.
Let’s Give It Up for the Bad Guys
More than anything else, Masters of the Universe is worth watching for the film’s big bad. Brought to life by Frank Langella — a man who is way too talented to actually be in this movie — Skeletor is the man who’s obsessed with gaining access to the powerful forces at the very core of the Universe. As a megalomaniac at the head of a faceless army, Langella has so much fun chewing scenery that he more than makes up for the tricks that Dolph Lundgren learned in Rocky IV while attending Sylvester Stallone’s “Yo” School of Acting.
In what should be a starting point for any actor hoping to overcome a face hidden behind inches of makeup, Langella throws himself into the villain, making expert use of every tool at his disposal. Kids movie or no, those eyes will haunt your nightmares.
Backing up Skeletor in his nefarious endeavors is Evil-Lyn, played with velvet-voiced assurance by Meg Foster. As Skeletor’s second-in-command, Evil-Lyns only real job is to deliver bad news and then react accordingly while Skeletor is vamping. Thankfully, Foster is more than equal to the task, making excellent use of her screen time as she clearly enjoys playing the sociopath.
Dig that Music
One of the film’s key plot points revolves around some McGuffin called the Cosmic Key that spews sweet synth jams (and opens doorways in space and time). The fact that the music coming from the Cosmic Key actually works is all thanks to Bill Conti, another legit talent who helps elevate the film above what it could have been.
Conti is the man responsible for the scores to Rocky and The Karate Kid as well as a slew of other films. In Masters, Conti conjures an insistent, yet engaging score that’s perfect for the universe-hopping adventure, yet so perfectly “of its time” that you could probably call the exact year the movie was made without being experienced to anything but the score.
It’s an accomplished fantasy soundtrack that required a lot of versatility from Conti. He needed to keep new fans engaged with new-sounding music, while appeasing older fans with a fantasy-adventure score. The composer accomplishes both tasks admirably.
An Overlooked Classic
While it may not have the polish of modern day blockbusters, Masters of the Universe still largely holds up. The story might be silly, but you’ve still never seen anything like it. The world and atmosphere of Masters of the Universe are fully realized (even if they werent what cartoon fans were expecting), and the performances are pulp gold on par with good Tarantino.
Sure, it’s not a “brilliant” movie, but Masters of the Universe is great fun at it’s best and inspired cheese at its worst.