“It is not too late to undo this madness” | Masters of the Universe (1987)

In 2007 Paramount Pictures released Transformers, a glossy big-budget science fiction film based on a range of action figures. It was a massive commercial hit, grossing more than US$700 million theatrically and inspiring an entire franchise with four sequels to date and a total worldwide theatrical gross of US$4.4 billion. Transformers was, of course, not the first live-action feature film to be based on a range of action figures. That film was Masters of the Universe, directed by Gary Goddard and released all the way in August 1987.

Masters of the Universe was not the commercial hit that Transformers was. Critically reviled and essentially ignored by audiences, the story of its making seems at times a cavalcade of mistakes, poor choices and occasionally some exceptionally bad behaviour. Despite this there is a surprising amount of decent material in the film. For the right viewers of a certain age there is even a large amount of nostalgia. There has never been quite enough for Masters to ever really qualify as a cult film, but it has its fans. I am one of them.

Tracking the origin of the film probably needs a jump back to 1976, when aspiring writer/director George Lucas was making a science fiction adventure film titled Star Wars. With a forward-thinking eye towards merchandising, Lucas had arranged with studio 20th Century Fox that he would retain the rights to sell and license Star Wars goods while the studio would retain the rights to the film itself. One of Lucas’ top priorities was a line of tie-in toys. When he approached major toy manufacturer Mattel, he was turned down. In the end a small company named Kenner picked up the rights and found themselves with the most lucrative action figure property of all time. Mattel – along with every other major American toy company – was left kicking itself with regret.

 

With the success of Kenner’s Star Wars line, pretty much every other popular movie franchise hitting cinemas came with its own toy line. All of them were hopefully going to be the next big hit with children; none of them really came close. Mattel gave serious consideration to licensing the characters from the fantasy film Conan the Barbarian, but blanched at the idea when the violent content of that film became apparent. Instead they took an alternate route: abandoning the idea of licensing a property and choosing to develop their own instead. Rather than aim for fantasy or science fiction, Masters of the Universe blended the two genres together. Characters were kept intentionally simple: an ultra-masculine hero literally named He-Man, and a skull-faced villain named Skeletor. To expand on their stories and fictional universe, comic book writers like Donald F. Glut were hired to produce miniature comic books that could be packaged with the individual figures.

The Masters of the Universe action figure line launched in 1982 to immediate success. A DC Comics series was released to expand on the characters and story, and one year later Filmation launched a lengthy animated television series to syndication. It remains one of the most commercially successful TV cartoons of all time, despite accusations at the time that it only existed to advertise toys at children.

In 1982 the film producer Edward R. Pressman – who had co-produced the Conan the Barbarian film that Mattel had almost licensed – approached Mattel with an offer to purchase the rights for a Masters of the Universe film. He immediately recognised the popularity of the brand and its potential to be adapted in a summer blockbuster. ‘On Masters,’ said Pressman, ‘we insisted on Mattel’s blessing but as little input as possible. We knew going in that for Masters to work as a movie, we could not be restricted by a corporate entity. Our goal was to make a movie and not to sell toys.’[1]

To develop the film’s screenplay Pressman hired writer David Odell, then fresh off co-writing the screenplay to Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s fantasy film The Dark Crystal. One of Odell’s main problems was that of cost: the television cartoon presented a faraway planet named Eternia, featuring vast alien vistas, a massive gothic castle named Grayskull, and a plethora of strange fantasy characters wielding laser guns and swords and driving all manner of vehicles and beasts. A Star Wars-sized production budget would be required to realise the toy line on screen, and it was unlikely that a major studio would back Masters of the Universe to such an extent.

Odell suggested a ‘reverse Wizard of Oz’ storyline in which He-Man and his companions would travel from Eternia to present-day Earth, where the bulk of the film could play out. Such a plot device would not only help Masters of the Universe to stand out from other fantasy films, it would also make the production significantly cheaper to shoot.

While Odell wrote the screenplay, Pressman began hunting for a studio and a director. Finding a studio proved difficult, as none of them were convinced by the idea of turning a set of children’s toys into a narrative feature. Pressman persevered, and quickly zeroed in on Gary Goddard as a possible director.

Goddard did not come from a film background but rather theme parks and live theatre. He had designed the Japanese pavilion at Disney’s EPCOT Centre, and developed and directed the Conan the Barbarian live show at Universal Studios. When he was first approached by Edward R. Pressman he was beginning work on a film project titled Children of Merlin, which he hoped would mark his directorial debut.

Goddard’s main inspiration for the film’s storyline and aesthetic was not the Masters of the Universe toy line or cartoon, but superhero comic books. He was a keen comic book fan and was eager to adapt their storytelling style to the big screen. ‘I still have my Marvel comics collection,’ he told one interviewer, ‘all the X-Men, Fantastic Four and The Avengers.  You name it I’ve got it.’[2]

In, of all things, a comic book letters column, Goddard responded to writer John Byrne’s observation that Masters of the Universe bore an uncanny resemblance to Jack Kirby’s New Gods series published by DC Comics. ‘Your comparison of the film to Kirby’s New Gods is not off,’ he wrote. ‘In fact, the storyline was greatly inspired by the classic Fantastic Four/Doctor Doom epics, The New Gods and a bit of Thor thrown in here and there. I intended the film to be a “motion picture comic book”, though it was a tough proposition to sell to the studio at the time.’[3]

There is a striking similarity between the characters of Masters of the Universe and New Gods, in some cases dating back to the original action figures of 1982. The character of Zodac, who was included in the second wave of figures, is a direct lift of the New Gods character Metron. In Goddard’s film one can quickly draw further lines between the two properties: He-Man as Orion, Skeletor as Darkseid, Skeletor’s off-sider Evil-Lyn as Granny Goodness, and so on. Even the inventor Gwildor’s ‘cosmic key’ is essentially a New Gods mother box in all but name.

 

As the film was being developed, Mattel started to make creative demands that Pressman had hoped to avoid. ‘At first,’ said Goddard, ‘the directive was “He-Man cannot kill anyone” – and I remember saying “well this is an action movie and He-Man’s going to have to kick some serious butt or we are going to have a problem.’[4]

The script in development had the film opening with Skeletor succeeding in invading Castle Grayskull with an army of soldiers. To avoid giving the perception that He-Man was killing people on screen, Skeletor’s numerous troops were re-imagined from alien mercenaries into robots.

Early iterations of the film’s screenplay included a small supporting role for He-Man’s twin sister She-Ra, as well as a brief cameo for the villainous Snakemen. Both of these elements were cut from the shooting script. In the case of She-Ra, some design work had been done prior to her being removed. Also designed and then excised was Skeletor’s home Snake Mountain.

Despite providing feedback through the scripting process, Goddard ultimately found Odell’s screenplay a little too light-hearted and camp. He would work with his cast on-set to give some scenes a more dramatic approach.

The first role cast in the film was He-Man. Only one performer was ever seriously in contention: Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren.

Born Hans Lundgren in 1957, he had originally intended to be a chemical engineer and indeed graduated from the University of Sydney with a master’s degree in 1982. A chance meeting with American model Grace Jones, however, led to a career first as a model and subsequently as an actor. After a small role as a KGB officer in the 1985 James Bond film A View to a Kill, Lundgren was cast in the high-profile role of Russian boxer Ivan Drago in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV.

At almost six-and-a-half feet in height, the muscular Lundgren was visually the perfect actor to perform the role of He-Man. Golan and Globus signed him onto Masters of the Universe while he was on a promotional tour for Rocky IV.

‘I thought it was a joke when I was offered the part,’ admitted Lundgren. ‘I remember thinking, “Oh yeah, right. This is exactly what I need to finish off my career before it’s even started.’[5]

‘It was a very hard decision to make, because Masters is one of those films where if you didn’t do it right, it would be a disaster and everyone would laugh at you for another 20 years. I thought about it for months and months’[6]

Once cast, Lundgren then struggled to convince Gary Goddard that he was capable of enunciating the character’s dialogue. Lundgren had it stipulated in his contract that he was allowed three takes of every dialogue shot in order to ensure he could be understood through his Swedish accent. Were a fourth required, Goddard was authorised to seek a vocal replacement to dub over the dialogue in post-production.

‘I saw the rough cuts,’ recalled Mattel marketing executive Paul Cleveland, ‘I listened to Dolph Lundgren’s voice and I just about had a heart attack. It’s okay if He-Man has a little bit of an accent, but you have got to be able to understand him.’[7]

Despite Goddard and Cleveland’s objections, Lundgren’s own voice was retained at the insistence of producer Menaheim Globus.

The production scored something a coup when it cast the Tony Award-winning theatrical actor Frank Langella as Skeletor. Their secret weapon in convincing him: his own children played with the Masters of the Universe toys.

‘I asked them to tell me about the Masters characters,’ Langella said of his children. ‘Since they played with the toys and watched the cartoon show, they were able to tell me a great deal about how Skeletor should be played. My portrayal of Skeletor is a present to my children.’[8]

Despite focusing the bulk of his career on the theatre, Langella had already appeared in a string of successful and acclaimed movies including Diary of a Man Housewife (1970), The Deadly Trap (1971), The Wrath of God (1972) and Dracula (1979), in which he played the title role.

As Gwildor the production cast 73-year-old actor Billy Barty. The creation of the dwarf-like inventor Gwildor was for practical purposes: the floating wizard Orko, developed for the cartoon, was not easily recreated in live-action. Gwildor was a more cost-effective and readily achievable replacement.

Skeletor’s lieutenant Evil Lyn was played by Meg Foster. ‘This film is not Shakespeare,’ she told one interviewer. ‘At least not Shakespeare in the grand theatrical sense. But the challenge of making toys into living, breathing creatures is one that I’m taking very seriously.’[9]

As the film’s two human protagonists, Goddard cast Robert Duncan McNeill and Courtney Cox. Cox, who almost failed her audition before the casting director begged Goddard to see her a second time, was most famous at the time for appearing in a Bruce Springsteen music video – “Dancing in the Dark”. The cast was rounded out by James Tolkan (Back to the Future) as Detective Lubic, Chelsea Field as Teela, and John Cypher as Man-at-Arms.

The film’s production designer was Bill Stout, who joined the production in March 1986. ‘The first time they asked me,’ he said, ‘I thought of the toys and the potential of making a really stupid movie and turned them down. The second and third time they asked, it was the same thing. But the fourth time they asked me, something had changed.’[10]

Both Gary Goddard and David Odell met with Stout several times, showcasing their ideas and the film’s characters and impressing upon him that their interest was making a fantasy film inspired by toys, and not simply a translation of them. Stout originally signed on the provide some design work, but with the sudden resignation of original designer Geoff Kirkland he found himself promoted to a full-time role.

‘The idea was to keep the essence of the characters while making them believable. I saw this as a chance to make the characters more three-dimensional, to flesh them out. It was an opportunity to give each character a history, a sense that they had a past and a background so that they would seem real to us and therefore become real to an audience. The toys themselves were not believable – after all, they were never intended to be movie characters. Primarily, they were designed with economics in mind so that Mattel could take different heads, put them on different-coloured generic bodies and create different toys. Obviously, we couldn’t do that.’[11]

Stout found his task complicated as a result of Mattel’s involvement. Every change in character design from the original toy to the finished film had to be directly approved by the toy manufacturer, who seemed particularly resistant to any deviation from the source material. This included rejecting a new design for He-Man developed by noted French comic artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud. In order to prevent too many disagreements over character designs, the decision was made to largely create entirely new villains to work for Skeletor. Asides from Beastman, whose modified look was eventually approved by Mattel after close to 25 iterations, Skeletor gained an almost entirely new rogue’s gallery including Blade, Saurod and Karg. Since they had no equivalent character in either the television cartoon or the toy line, Goddard was free to have the characters designed, abused and killed off as he saw fit. It also gave Mattel a ready source of new intellectual property to adapt into action figures.

Both Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella gave feedback on their own costumes. Langella in particular was keen to ensure his character had a cloak that Langella could work with effectively on set.

Designing Skeletor turned out to be the greatest challenge among the film’s fantasy characters, as there were opposing needs to reflect the skull-like face of the original character and to provide Langella with the ability to emote and deliver a proper performance. Four prototypes of Skeletor’s face were developed. ‘We wanted to experiment with the placement of Skeletor’s teeth,’ said make-up designer Michael Westmore. ‘We did our initial design with the teeth placed inside Langella’s mouth, while the others had different types of teeth sculpted into the actual appliance. We ended up using the design with the teeth inside Langella’s mouth because we felt it was the most effective. With the teeth sculpted onto the outside of the skull, we found that the makeup had a smiling look to it at the time.’[12]

Anthony De Longis, who played the sword-wielding mercenary Blade, also worked as Dolph Lundgren’s broadsword trainer and co-choreographer of the fight sequences.

‘I trained Dolph for a month,’ said De Longis, ‘giving him a solid one and two handed broadsword vocabulary. He’s a terrific athlete and a trained kick boxer so he had terrific natural skills. Then, due to the filming schedule, I didn’t even see him for the better part of the next month. I kept asking [stunt coordinator] Walter Scott when I could see the location so I could plan choreography for the film. The environment always plays an important part of any action scene and can either be embraced or struggled against. I prefer to make the setting an active character in the scene when I can. Walter assured me we’d have “plenty of time once we got there.” Guess what scene we shot first on the very evening we arrived at our Whittier location. You guessed it, the big sword fight. Fortunately I’d taught Dolph some double sword versus single sword choreography as part of our training regimen and that gave us something to build on with virtually no rehearsal.’[13]

Further improvisation was required when it came to choreographing He-Man and Skeletor’s final fight. An elaborate golden helmet had been added to Skeletor’s costume without De Longis’ knowledge, making his entire developed routine unusable. A new set of combat moves was developed on the fly as the scene was filmed, with De Longis standing in for Frank Langella.

Masters of the Universe entered development as a strategic promotional tool to push the success of the action figure range well into the late 1980s. It entered production as a ‘hail mary’ bid to save the entire line from cancellation. In 1986 the sales of Masters of the Universe action figures accounted for a total of US$400 million in revenue to Mattel. In 1987, with a glut of figures on the shelves and children moving onto new properties, Mattel sold just US$7 million dollars’ worth of stock. The live-action feature was effectively released to support a dead toy line.

At the same time, Cannon Films’ long-running strategy of selling global rights to future productions in order to finance their current ones was collapsing. Poor box office returns on their increasingly expensive films was catching up, leaving the studio with next to no money available to co-fund Masters of the Universe. When the film entered production, roughly half of its production budget had been contributed by Mattel. Now Golan and Globus went to Mattel with an ultimatum: fund the other half or throw the existing investment away.

Throughout the entire production shoot there was a constant pressure to cut scenes, reduce the film’s scale and save money by any means possible. Since sets had already been constructed this proved to be difficult. Skeletor’s throne room, for example, was so large that an adjoining wall was knocked down between two soundstages to create one massive chamber. At the time it was the single-largest film set in Hollywood in almost 40 years.

The original climax shoot came on the day that Cannon Films executives literally walked onto the soundstage to physically shut down production, having completely exhausted the entire production budget. A desperate Goddard shot the fight with a single stage light and camera, simply to ensure that whatever film was edited out of the extant footage could have some form of conclusion.

Two months later a small amount of additional funding was allocated to reshoot the climax; still unsatisfactory for Goddard’s intentions, but at least useable.

Masters of the Universe was released months after the bottom fell out of the franchise. It opened in third place in American cinemas, behind the James Bond sequel The Living Daylights and the action-comedy Stakeout. It fell to sixth place in its second weekend, then 10th in its third. By its fourth week it was effectively out of the charts, with a total domestic gross of US$17 million. The critical reception was as savage as the audience reaction was tepid.

Despite the film’s commercial failure, Golan and Globus were keen to exploit the Masters of the Universe license for as long as possible. They immediately started development on a much cheaper sequel, and to that end had sets and costumes constructed for a North Carolina shoot despite lacking a screenplay or director.

‘I would have welcomed working on the sequel,’ said Goddard, ‘but another director had convinced them he could make a He-Man movie for $6,000,000 or less. I think that is what led to the Cyborg movie eventually. Mattel saw the script, or perhaps the storyboards, and pulled the license.’[14]

The director to which Goddard refers is Albert Pyun, whose low budget fantasy film The Sword and the Sorcerer became an unexpected hit back in 1982. Pyun’s original proposal was to shoot both Masters of the Universe 2 and Spider-Man back-to-back using shared sets and locations. When Mattel withdrew the Masters of the Universe license, and Cannon’s precarious financial position made a Spider-Man production unfeasible, Pyun redrafted the in-development Masters 2 into an original science fiction film titled Cyborg. The final film starred up-and-coming action star Jean-Claude Van Damme and was a low-budget hit in 1989. It was Cannon’s last hit. Following a period of re-shuffles, buy-outs and business changes – including a move into both distribution and a British chain of cinemas – the company released its final film (Hellbound, starring Chuck Norris) in 1994.

Dolph Lundgren moved on from Masters of the Universe – he rejected an offer to star in the then-expected sequel – to establish a lucrative career as an action star in a variety of independent and direct-to-video productions, including directing several films in addition to starring in them. He also appeared in a number of higher-budget studio pictures including Universal Soldier (1992), Johnny Mnemonic (1995) and Blackjack (1998). Between 2010 and 2014 he co-starred in the ensemble action franchise The Expendables.

Of the film’s Earth-based cast it was Courtney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill who had the greatest success post-Masters; McNeill played pilot Tom Paris in seven seasons of the TV series Star Trek: Voyager, while Cox struck pay dirt when she was cast as Monica Geller in the long-running and globally popular sitcom Friends.

Immediately following his work on Masters of the Universe, Gary Goddard co-created the children’s science fiction series Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. In 1995 he created Skeleton Warriors, a 13-part animated series with a matching action figure range. To date Masters of the Universe remains his sole feature film as director, although he has produced a number of popular theme park attractions including T2 3D and Jurassic Park: The Ride.

The Masters of the Universe action figure range was retired in 1988, although it was briefly resurrected with all-new design as The New Adventures of He-Man in 1990. A third iteration was released in 2002 with yet another cartoon but a story more faithful to the original narrative. A second live-action feature has been in development for several years. At the time of writing the remake is scheduled for release in late 2019 but this could easily be delayed or even cancelled.

So why talk about Masters of the Universe at all?

It should probably be noted, first and foremost, that it is not an exceptionally good film. It is regularly quite corny, and to a large degree feels patched together out of a lot of earlier and much better films – its debt to the Star Wars trilogy, for example, cannot be overstated. At the same time there is a huge amount of creativity in the film’s design work.

Dolph Lundgren commits to the role of He-Man and, despite some limitations from his comparatively weak English and acting skills (both would improve over time) he successfully sells the character without even feeling ridiculous or embarrassing to watch.

The rest of the cast work in fits and starts. Both John Cypher and James Tolkan are solid, and Meg Foster is nicely entertaining as Evil Lyn. The group of alien mercenaries – a clear steal from the bounty hunters of The Empire Strikes Back – make for a strong set of enemies for He-Man and his friends to fight. Courtney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill are less effective, sadly with fairly weakly written characters and not experienced enough to overcome all of the stereotypes.

Towering over everybody else, however, is Frank Langella as Skeletor. It is a genuinely impressive performance, with Langella presenting a range of emotions and nuances despite the restrictions of his full-face prosthetic make-up. He wisely accentuates his performance through voice and gesture. It is a comparatively rare case of a genuinely talented actor taking a seemingly ridiculous, throwaway role, and treating it with as much effort and respect as they would Shakespeare. He even sneaks a Shakespeare quote into his dialogue.

It is also with Skeletor that the screenplay is at its strongest. He is a tyrant, but he can unexpectedly be a man of his word as well. He is cruel, but he also works to a calculated strategy. Occasionally a film comes along where one element is strong enough to make the whole production worth watching at least once; I think Frank Langella is absolutely such an element here. He is quite simply marvellous.

The film’s production design is beautifully crafted as well, despite straining the budget from time to time. As noted above, it all owes a massive debt to the Star Wars films, but it steals smartly and delivers a very contemporary (for 1987) aesthetic.

The most frustrating part of Masters of the Universe is not any individual shortfall, but rather the realisation that the film comes surprisingly close to being a properly good Summer blockbuster. Its screenplay almost works. Its cast are almost universally good. With proper studio backing, more time to improve the screenplay and a more relaxed shoot without constant threats of a complete shut-down, it might actually have become the Star Wars successor that its producers so desperately wanted it to be.

[1] Marc Shapiro, “From here to Eternia”, Starlog #122, September 1987.

[2] Steven Simak, “Gary Goddard toys with Masters of the Universe”, Galactic Journal, Summer 1987.

[3] Gary Goddard, writing in Next Men #26, Dark Horse, June 1994.

[4] Quoted in “Q&A with director Gary Goddard”, MOTU Movie, 24 February 2010.

[5] Alan Jones, “He-Man Dolph Lundgren”, Starburst #112, December 1987.

[6] Carr D’Angelo, “Dolph Lundgren: The ascent of He-Man”, Starlog #123, October 1987.

[7] Corey Landis and Roger Lay Jr, Toy Masters, Urban Archipelago Filmed Entertainment, 2012.

[8] Quoted in Masters of the Universe official poster magazine, 1987.

[9] Marc Shapiro, “From here to Eternia”, Starlog #122, September 1987.

[10] Marc Shapiro, “Bill Stout in Toyland”, Starlog #118, May 1987.

[11] Ron Magid, “Masters of the Universe”, Cinefex #31, August 1987.

[12] Ron Magid, “Masters of the Universe”, Cinefex #31, August 1987.

[13] John Atkin, “Q&A with actor Anthony De Longis”, MOTU Movie, 18 November 2010.

[14] Quoted in “Q&A with director Gary Goddard”, MOTU Movie, 24 February 2010.

  1. What a great post! I’ve never seen the movie, but I just might track it down on YouTube for a looksee. 🙂

    Reply

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