Revisiting the Masters of the Universe at 35
Tom Jolliffe looks back on one of Cannon Films’ most iconic films, Masters of the Universe…
35 years ago today, Cannon Films launched a film adaptation of a long-running series of children’s cartoons and toys to the world with the release of masters of the universe. In the modern age, such a force of intellectual property and pop culture would likely result in instant box office gold. Things were a little different in 1987 though.
In reality, masters of the universe was both a sign of Cannon’s lofty ideals to match the era’s big blockbusters blow for blow, but also a first knockout blow for a company in decline. 1987 saw Cannon spend big, but at the same time only spend a fraction of what they originally planned on both masters of the universe and Superman IV: Quest for Peace (the latter in particular had substantial budget cuts and the boy showed it).
For He-Man’s leap from cartoon TV to the big screen, Cannon certainly put some financial clout behind the project, even though they initially looked to spend more. They had already spent considerable sums on films like life force a year or two ago. They desperately needed a hit. The project gestated for a while, eventually hitting the cameras with a plot that would see He-Man come to Earth and then save money on sets. The few sets they built, like the interior of Castle Grayskull, were impressive enough. The problem was that by the time the movie was ready to hit American theaters, the main man had lost momentum from his breakout role.
Dolph Lundgren busted huge with Rocky IV, playing the iconic Ivan Drago. In an ideal world, when the buzz was still fresh and his name was on the lips, mastery should have come out a year earlier. On top of that, the range of cartoons and toys far exceeded the peak of their popularity. The cartoons ran from 1983 to 1985. They were still a regular feature of reruns, but kids by this point had moved on. Likewise, the toys suffered from oversaturation and overpowering. They created a ridiculous amount of new characters, some of which would only appear once in the cartoon. You can have too much of a good thing (Marvel and Disney take note). So we had a He-Man the film comes too far beyond the peak of the source material.
Messrs. Golan and Globus of Cannon Films have always had a knack for chatter when it comes to promotion. The problem was that they sometimes thought their loud showmanship could be enough on its own. There wasn’t enough pressure to really promote masters of the universe as it should, to compete with its rivals. The film faced Surveillance at the box office, as well as continued runs for Living daylights and the lost boys. Despite a passable open, it underperformed in the key US market.
The film was also hammered by critics due to the plot that saw He-Man come to Earth, the omission of several key characters from the original series (and slightly misfired stand-ins like Gwildor instead of Orko). ). Dolph Lundgren didn’t receive much acclaim, especially since the custom of critics at that time was, by default, to hammer anyone with big biceps and a six-pack. Some of his dialogue also couldn’t hide the remnants of his Swedish accent.
Still, there were positives. Like many Cannon productions, mastery is an odd hodgepodge of impressive production and effects, and some that seem cheap. Cannon gathered many crew members from star wars in the production/set and visual effects departments, and also had Anne Coates (Lawrence of Arabia) edit it. For all the things that didn’t work, there were sets, costumes, and special effects that worked. Then there was a theatrically trained actor, Frank Langella playing a Shakespearian version of Skeletor, intent on universal dominance. For critics, he was a bright spot in an otherwise rote children’s film.
Then there was me. I had to wait for Boxing Day 1987 for the film to fly to the UK. I was a huge He-Man fan. As soon as I heard of a movie version (if I remember correctly, I saw a TV spot announcing its imminent arrival) it was a must. For many fans, the Earth setting and lack of Eternia, Orko, Adam, Cringer/Battlecat, etc., was a point of contention. However, we welcomed the changes. We could separate toys, cartoon and movie.
The darker costume designs and less colorful visuals just made Dolph’s He-Man feel more inherently real. The film is always enhanced by a lot of contrast and color. The production sought to overcome the restrictive budget by thinking outside the box. One of those decisions was to place a lot of neon lighting incidentally in the staging. Dolph was suitably imperious, if mostly physically. Skeletor was indeed intense, a complete antithesis to the goofy bosom we knew from cartoons. Her makeup is also creepy, like something out of a horror movie.
So I watched the movie on the big screen and loved it. The following Christmas, my grandmother bought me the VHS (to date one of the best gifts I have ever received). In return, I wore the band within an inch of its lifespan. I loved masters of the universe. It became my most defining film of my childhood and a favorite for many years. Besides, Dolph was my childhood hero. Ironically, I had previously had a dislike for him as Rocky fan, naturally hating him as the villain of Rocky IVhowever, it took a few years before I recognized Lundgren as both characters.
Time may have shown me some flaws, but it hasn’t diminished my appreciation of masters of the universe. I’ve always loved the score (Bill Conti) and I still listen to it regularly. Then, a few years ago, I managed to see a big screen showing at the Prince Charles cinema in London. For the uninitiated, they regularly screen great classics, classics, iconic movies and B-movies. 80s stuff is very popular there and there is always a good atmosphere.
Something remarkable struck me rewatching with a mix of nostalgic people my age and young people who were probably discovering it for the first time. The film is very fun to watch. It’s funny. Sometimes it’s so bad that its good element, but it’s also intentionally funny. It was made in a good spirit with a holistic approach to making a film that has ideas beyond its financial means. We’re in a time when Marvel movies are all the rage, and structurally and even tonally, there’s a lot of MCU hits in masters of the universe which the younger crowd likely picked up on (while happy to forgive the roughness of the old-school composition and questionable mattes).
Wry-watching B-movie fans had plenty, nostalgics too, but those who welcomed what the film offered in genuine terms were equally entertained. It’s aged pretty well, like many flawed ’80s fantasy classics, because it has artistic merits (like many of the aforementioned production elements and score) that deserve praise. Langella’s Skeletor too, got great reactions from the crowd. A perfect blend of pantomime villain, theatrical set-chewing, and intensely menacing presence. They loved him.
For many Cannon aficionados, masters of the universe was a key film in their childhood. It often tops Cannon fan lists and is often one of the films that kickstarted their love affair with the affably random studio. It has gone from being an example of bad cinema, despised, to something much more appreciated (even for those who watch bad movies for entertainment, something that really woke up in the age of the internet). It may have been 35 years, but the film is still remembered, garners regular cons and convention interest, has numerous retrospective screenings around the world, and has probably never been more popular.
SEE ALSO: Cannon Films Essential Scores
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Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and avid film buff. He has a number of films released on DVD/VOD worldwide and several releases scheduled for 2022, including Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray) , Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more information on the best personal site you will ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/