THE YEAR: 1987
THE DIRECTOR: Gary Goddard
THE WRITER: David Odell
THE CAST: Dolph Lundgren, Frank Langella, Meg Foster, Courtney Cox, Billy Barty
Adapting a live-action theatrical movie out of one of the most successful cartoon series and toy-lines of the decade is practically a given. It being a success at the box office is practically a given, as well. So what if your studio was also on the brink of producing one of the most highly anticipated films of the last thirty years right after? A film featuring a friendly neighbourhood wall-crawler. What if that film depended on the success of this film?
So let’s hold aloft the rewind button and have the power to see how things went down…
If you were a kid in the eighties, there were three things that ruled your life: Transformers, G.I. Joe and He-Man. All three of these properties were huge runaway successes. Like much in the eighties, they were all cartoons based around the almighty toy-line. It went without saying that all of these should and did have major theatrical movies. While all three had animated features in cinemas, only Masters of the Universe delivered a live action film.
And what a perfect lead it boasted! Dolph Lundgren, fresh off of the massive juggernaut that was Rocky IV, a sculpted blonde Swede who was a spitting image for the hero. Well, with arguably better hair. And, a legend in his own time, the sexiest of the Draculas, Frank Langella as the villanous Skeletor. The stars for this movie seemed to be aligning.
Us kids excitedly flocked to theatres, awating the spectacle of Eternia on screen. The film opened with Skeletor having conquered Castle Greyskull! Gasp! Unheard of! Skeletor entered the throne room like he was badder than Darth Vader, looking just epic. Evil Lyn, venomous and beautiful. Perfect. Then we get a endless looking fantasy desert and the reveal of He-Man, who was everything a young boy could have asked for.
Then everything fell apart. Quickly. We see a Sorceress old enough to be our grandmother, Teela in a blue sci-fi bodysuit packing a pistol, Beast Man with a pony tail, and several characters whom we had never ever seen before. And then they went to Earth. Modern day Earth. No Eternia. For the whole movie. The longer the movie went on, the less and less it resembled our beloved Filmation cartoon.
As children we were befuddled. I’m sure our parents were befuddled too, but probably no more than when they tried watching the cartoon with us.
Well, grown-up eighties kids, here’s what happened:
Cannon pictures gave Masters of the Universe a deservedly high budget. At least for them. It was the highest budget film the company had ever made. However, it was still less than would be required to set the film in the epic Eternia. More so, the effects technology of the time wasn’t enough to effectively produce many of the weird and wild characters of the He-Man universe.
Further, Cannon had purchased the rights specifically to the toyline from Mattel back in 1982, three years prior to the Filmation animated series. Cannon only had the rights to the rough story that Mattel had put into the mini-comics that were packaged with the action figures. While there were some similarities, there were many more differences. He-Man wasn’t a prince, but a wandering barbarian who was trying to help rebels reclaim Eternia from the overlord Skeletor. This became the basis for the film version.
Worse, some signature characters made their debuts at the time the film was in production, too late to be included in the movie. So, with many obstacles working against them, they did what they could.
And some of what they did was very impressive. The Castle Greyskull set is still one of the most impressive and immense sets I’ve ever seen, spanning two full sound stages. The scene of Skeletor’s army storming through the portal and spilling into the streets of Earth is full of brilliantly designed, menacing ships that did echo some of the toy and animated style. And Frank Langella just knocks it out of the park as a deliciously evil Skeletor.
Director Gary Goddard, who went on to develop and direct several of your favorite theme park attractions, was vocally passionate about the project, and whatever source material it was faithful too, I feel that passion is visible in the end product.
But for fans, our inner-child is likely to stay disappointed with Masters of the Universe.
This is actually where things get really interesting!
Cannon films had the film rights to make the much anticipated live-action Spider-Man movie. Unfortunately, It didn’t quite have the funding in place. So the studio split the budget that it did have on hand between Masters of the Universe and a fourth Superman movie, both being huge properties at the time. The plan was to take the profits from each film to give Spider-Man its desired huge budget. Sadly, both Masters of the Universe and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace were disasters at the box office, making significantly less than their sizable budgets. Coupled with pre-existing financial issues, Cannon lost the rights to both He-Man and Spider-Man due to non-payment and went out of business not long after. It would be fifteen more years before fans would see their favorite web-slinger.
But the story doesn’t end there. Masters of the Universe had a sequel already in pre-production, helmed by low-budget maestro Albert Pyun, building a number of sets that were planned to be shared with Spider-Man. With the financial fiasco and ill-will of its predecessor, Masters of the Universe 2 underwent severe budget cuts and some re-writes to remove the He-Man characters.
Tune in next week and we’ll take a look at the movie that was to be the sequel to Masters of the Universe: Cyborg!
What if Filmation had been involved more closely with production? Would we have seen a story closer closer to the cartoon? More favorite characters? Likely, yes, and no. There may have been a few more ties and significantly less disappointed children. However, while the film did have a moderate budget, most of the Masters of the Universe characters would have been near impossible to execute with the effects technology at the time. Today, however…
THE BIG QUESTION:
What classic He-Man characters would you have liked to have seen brought to life in a Masters of the Universe live action movie?
Let us know in the comments below!
Taken out of context of the animated series, there actually is some interesting fantasy elements that would appeal to fans of the genre. Younger audiences might enjoy it as well. And Frank Langella, come on! However, fans looking for the a piece of the show will undoubtedly be mixed at best.
Two feature length Masters of the Universe Fan Films!
For more info on these projects, check out: www.trialsofdarksmoke.com