We go back to 1987. He-Man and the Masters of The Universe are one of the most popular intellectual properties in the world. A successful toy line and TV show, the film released starring Dolph Lundgren,Frank Langella, James Tolkan and a young Courtney Cox should have been a success. Unfortunately it was branded a failure and cast aside as another cheap effort at making a film from a toy line like Transformers, the previous year. What people don’t see however, is the shining example of artistic licence, that makes this one of our formative films.
When looking at the subject matter the film makers had to work with, it’s easy to see that there had to be some embellishment on the original series. He-Man, was an enjoyable series, aimed at the under sevens. Colourful and exciting, it told a simple story of good versus evil between the two leads, He Man and the evil Skeletor. To make a feature film from this, the creators had to expand greatly on the source material. What they come up with was brilliant if poorly executed.
We start with a brief exposition of the state of He-Man’s home world Eternia. Things are bad as Skeletor and his troops have somehow invaded Castle Greyskull and imprisoned the sorceress that resides there. All he needs now is to wait to moonrise, to drain the power of the Sorceress and add it to his own, becoming the most powerful being in the universe. The titular Master of the Universe. This is the first diversion from the source material. He-Man, was never in a position of weakness in the series and Skeletor by comparison, was quite a bumbling bad guy. Immediately we are introduced to a more sinister Skeletor, played brilliantly by Frank Langella, who has the upper hand, right from the start.
As far as setting goes, the colourful Eternia of the animated series, has now transformed into a desert-like state. The troops of Skeletor, look like stormtroopers and the whole ambiance of the film is gritty and serious, guns are prevalent on both sides, making battles a combination of shoot-outs and He-Man decimating the enemy forces. We are told of heavy losses at the castle and He-Man, Man At Arms and Teela plan a covert assault to retake the castle. Here is where things really begin to change from the animated series. We are introduced to the character of Gwildor, your typical muppet in space. Think Jar Jar Binks but less fatal to the success of a film. He is the creator of a cosmic key, a device that when a musical tone is played transports the users to anywhere they want to go in time and space, the device, which allowed Skeletor to storm Castle Greyskull. Gwildor gets the three heroes into the castle with another prototype cosmic key and the plot of the film begins in earnest.
Hopelessly outnumbered, the cosmic key is triggered and He-man and his team are transported to our world and our time, before the portal closes a hook shot is fired back and the key is taken through the portal as well. This is a major departure and takes the film from the normal comic book or toy fare, into the realms of science fiction, not dissimilar to the Terminator series. They meet and interact with Courtney Cox’s character Julie and her estranged boyfriend Kevin, a musician who works in a local keyboard shop, who has recovered the key. Kevin mistakes it for a synthesizer and takes it to the music shop. Here the forces of Skeletor attack and after rescuing Julie, He-Man has to do the same with Kevin. He has been imprisoned in a truth collar used by Skeletor’s lieutenant Evil Lyn.
Amongst this we get the excellent James Tolkan, playing an authoritarian detective investigating the synthesizer and Kevin. The movie follows a number of popular sci-fi elements. Skeletor is shown to be ruthless when he kills one of his own generals, much like Vader in Star Wars. We have a great show of strength when Skeletor hits earth to reclaim the key and the fights are brutal, taking advantage of Dolph Lundgren’s body size and ability as an action star. The guns and overall aesthetic of Eternia, for me are the stars of the show. The throne room, where the majority of battle scenes take place, is brilliantly made from marble with large pits, that lead to the depths of the castle. Of course these are a perfect set-up for scenes where He-Man throws or shoots troopers, who subsequently fall to their doom. All of this is originally created for the movie, as none featured in the series. The only aspects to carry over from the series. are the main characters names and the sides they are on. Gwildor and the whole cosmic key/our planet are complete departures from the lore of the series. Of Skeletor’s henchmen only Beastman and Evil Lyn are from the show, the others Saurod, Blade and Karg are original and work well, especially Blade. Blade is as his name suggests an expert with two swords. The highlight of his character is when he finally gets a chance to test his skill against He-Man. He fails miserably, which adds a bit of comedy value to proceedings, that otherwise would have come from Gwildor.
Gwildor and Evil Lyn are perhaps the two most interesting characters we have here. Gwildor ,despite appearance is much more fleshed out character than we are used to. He is a Thenorian Locksmith, that created the cosmic key. Here is where the story would normally end for him, instead he is brought along and remains an integral part of the story. He provides shock value to the characters in our world and light relief to He-Man and his group. The scene where he is eating a KFC and suddenly becomes disgusted when he realises it is an animal is noteworthy. In plot terms he manages to recreate a cosmic key with earth components to get the group back to Eternia only this time with Tolkan’s character in tow.
Evil Lyn is much more of a departure than her one dimensional series counterpart. In the movie Meg Foster plays her as not inherently evil, more, efficient in getting the job done. Despite this she is a deplorable character. She manipulates Julie into handing over the cosmic key by disguising herself as her dead mother. Julie’s parents died in a plane crash and this is the defining back story of her character. She blames herself for not stopping the flight, so any excuse to make amends is exploited by Evil Lyn. She even plays a part in the climactic battle. When Skeletor takes the power of the sorceress and becomes a golden version of himself. Lyn inadvertently causes him to release He-Man setting the scene for the battle.
The final battle is like all classics of the 80’s, man on man, sword versus sword. With elements of Star Wars, Highlander and even Conan, Lundgren and Langella, cheese it up with a classic line ‘let this be our final battle.’ When He-Man wins he offers Skeletor mercy only to be attacked again before casting his nemesis into the pit. With order restored the sorceress heals Julie, who was injured in the battle and sends her home to before her parents were killed.
In all this film has more than enough going for it to be reappraised in a modern light. The effects, story and setting are all excellent. Lundgren’s performance is a bit off and he himself says it is one of his least favourite. By contrast Langella loved playing Skeletor and it shows. Te real formative aspect of is film however, is the world it manages to create, with so little to work with. Compare it with Super Mario Brothers The Movie and there is no contest. This is a far superior film, that is well worth a revisit.