At The Movies: Masters of the Universe (1987)


Masters of the Universe


1987 • 106 minutes • Cannon Films

As a connoisseur of bad movies, I am also a connoisseur of bad movie podcasts. (I am, at some point, going to do a podcast roundup, now that I listen to even more of them. I just need to blast through one or two backlogs first.) The best and popular two are The Flop House and How Did This Get Made? I prefer The Flop House (sample episode: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Live!), due to its charming hosts, focus on studio movies, and some kind of East Coast allegiance. Or it could just be that blasting through their backlog got me through the first few months of my current day job. I look forward to every episode. But I do listen to its West Coast sibling/rival, How Did This Get Made? on occasion, if they cover a movie I’ve seen (sample episode: Xanadu, with a great riff on how it could possibly be as over budget as it was). I like it, but I haven’t ever been so excited for an episode that I went out and watched the film in question.

Until How Did This Get Made? covered Masters of the Universe with guest host Tatiana Maslany. Swoon. I’ve been meaning to watch Masters of the Universe since forever—because have you met me?—and this was just the swift kick in the rear I needed to finally sit down and watch it.

Masters of the Universe is, in the context of the much less franchise-obsessed cinema landscape of the eighties, an odd duck. One wonderful thing How Did This Get Made? has been doing recently is commissioning oral histories of the films they cover from Blake Harris, the author of Console Wars. The Masters of the Universe one is quite a doozy, and appeals to the same weird part of my lizard brain that was recently only gratified by spending two days down a Jem and the Holograms clickhole. Basically, Mattel was so thrilled about having a boys’ toy line (ugh, gendered toys) that was doing well that it really pushed the cross-promotion, which led to the animated series and the film. However, because the film was in production largely in isolation from the toy line and animated series, its links to the greater Masters of the Universe… universe are a bit tenuous. Sure, all the main elements are there (like a Star Wars-esque science fantasy setting), but some are missing (like He-Man’s identity as Prince Adam of Eternia). And there are some baffling additions, like setting most of the film on Earth with a teenage couple taking up major screen time.

Well, that’s not baffling when you consider the film’s budget. This is a film, after all, where the producers had to persuade the studio to let them finish shooting the darn thing. Lounging like Roman emperors in 2015, where we can gorge ourselves on CGI until we’re sick and often do, Masters of the Universe looks a little rickety. It feels, despite being one of the first toy-to-film movies, a little slapdash, the edges and seams a little more obvious.

And that makes Masters of the Universe an extraordinarily charming science fantasy flick. And I don’t mean that just personally, even though less than stellar eighties sf films are practically a security blanket for me. No matter how threadbare and cheap it may seem, it’s clear that everyone working on this film enjoyed themselves and worked hard to make things work. That sense of unified belief can sometimes make or break a good bad movie—I recently suffered through The Raven (review to come, don’t you worry), a film whose creative team seemed largely disinterested in what they were making.

Masters of the Universe is such a good bad movie. (Also: such a good bad movie.) The plot is a pretty basic MacGuffin quest—the MacGuffin being a Cosmic Key, which also works as a synthesizer because the eighties were rad, okay—which allows everybody to go ahead and do what they’re best at. Dolph Lundgren’s He-Man is best at looking great in practically nothing and beating up dudes. Man-At-Arms is great at having a mustache and reading off absurd lines with relish. Teela, Man-at-Arms’ daughter, is spunky and fun, literally delivering the line “Woman-at-Arms!” into the camera at one point. (This was the point when I knew I loved this movie.) Meg Foster’s Evil-Lyn is well-dressed, competent, and delightfully intimidating without ever firing a single gun. Even Courteney Cox’s Julie is a warm and engaging presence.

But Frank Langella’s Skeletor is a thing of transcendent beauty. Since 1987, Langella has become a respected and respectable character actor, but his affection for this role has never waned. In Langella’s hands (and with his considerable prosthetic acting skills—he should teach a class, that information is vital), Skeletor becomes a grand, Shakespearean element, his obsessive search for power his greatest asset and his greatest flaw. He bellows, he hisses, he reaches out to the cosmic power at the very heart of the universe. “Tell me about the loneliness of good, He-Man, “Skeletor hisses when he’s finally captured He-Man. “Is it equal to the loneliness of evil?” It is, honestly, a masterpiece that elevates this film to an almost absurd degree. Nobody can keep up with him in anything but affection and pep, and that’s just fine.

So thanks, How Did This Get Made?, for bringing this into my life. I owe you one.

I watched this film on Netlfix.

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