If you were to take the year 1987 and simmer it down into a thick gelatinous paste, then leave it undisturbed in a warm, moist environment for eighteen months, you could look at the resulting slurry under a microscope and what you would see is the Masters of the Universe movie unfolding before your eyes. This film is the most ingenious parody of an 80’s film ever executed, or it would have been if it had been intended as a parody. The story and characters are based on a series of loosely connected generic action figures designed in-house in 1981 by the Mattel toy company so they wouldn’t have to pay licensing fees to make actual franchise toys. It stars Dolph Lundgren (who at the time was not fluent in English) as a virtually naked barbarian creatively named He-Man, one of the few fantasy genre characters stuck awkwardly into an otherwise vaguely Power Rangers-esque science fiction movie. Part of the movie takes place in an alternate fantasy/sci-fi mashup dimension and the other part is trying really hard to be an aggressively typical 80’s high school angsty love story. The result is an absolute mess of the most quality entertainment you can imagine, if you’ve got some booze and an hour and forty-five minutes that you never want back.
If you watched the animated series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, bear in mind that this film is not based on that relatively successful piece of media. Masters of the Universe is a feature-length film based literally on the He-Man series of toys, with the storyline having been gleaned from the packaging inserts. Cannon Films didn’t even own the rights to the cartoons, and the film was made at a time when the toy sales were declining but the television series was still relatively well-liked. The movie was effectively a marketing scheme to try to revitalize interest in the toys and distract from the lawsuit claiming that the He-Man figure was a ripoff of Conan the Barbarian. While this explains why the writers tried so hard to put the character of He-Man in a sci-fi setting and minimize the fantasy, it doesn’t excuse the fact that the genre mixing doesn’t make any goddamn sense.
The target audience for Masters of the Universe was almost certainly young boys between the ages of five and nine with incredibly short attention spans, and for that demographic I can see how the premise worked, in theory. You’ve got spacemen, you’ve got sorcerers, you’ve got a barbarian, you’ve got some vaguely G.I. Joe-looking dudes and some aliens or mutants or whatever, you’ve got attractive teenagers. It’s painfully obvious who’s a bad guy and who’s a good guy, and if nothing else can be said about the narrative, at least the objective is clear, consistent, and uncomplicated: the baddie wants to rule the world and kill the good guys, the good guys want to stop the baddie. Unfortunately, unlike with more successful hokey children’s media of the 80’s, the characters were not particularly dynamic or likeable, which could have made up for the absurdity of the premise. I saw this movie for the first time at age eleven, with my cousins who were of similar age, and even our discerning preteen selves found the movie hilarious for all the wrong reasons. From the very start, after hearing the main character introduced as He-Man, we immediately started referring to all the other characters as similarly structured names like She-Lady, Him-Dude, and Man-Man. I don’t think we even ended up watching the movie in its entirety.
Dolph Lundgren’s performance as He-Man was awkward enough to make anyone cringe. Not only did the Swedish actor have a limited grasp of the lines he was saying, he spent most of the movie halfheartedly pantomiming whatever action move he was meant to be doing. Overall He-Man was just too flat to relate to and came off as resoundingly uninteresting. His friends, Duncan aka “Man-at-Arms,” and Teela (both of whom wore sci-fi armor in contrast to He-Man’s cape and leather undies) were completely pointless hangers-on, and not even charming to make up for it. They could easily have been replaced by the actual action figures they were meant to be personifying and nothing about the plot would have changed. Courteney Cox gave a decent performance as Julie, the hapless human teenager caught up in the quest to defeat the evil Skeletor, but unfortunately her “dead parents” side-narrative was kind of contrived and the character overall didn’t actually do much to contribute to the simplistic objective I mentioned.
In contrast, the villains Skeletor and Evil-Lyn, in spite of having names somehow worse than “He-Man,” were surprisingly engaging. Frank Langella really committed to his role as Skeletor, delivering hands-down the best lines in the film, some of which he ad-libbed and a few of which included references to Shakespeare. Meg Foster as Evil-Lyn, although basically a henchman, captured a chilling demeanor amidst all the overblown nonsense and actually managed to make her character intimidating and dramatic. I would have gladly watched a spinoff movie about the villains if given the opportunity. It would have been similarly absurd, but much more captivating.
I hadn’t actually noticed until I re-watched Masters of the Universe for this review, but I did not spot a single non-white person anywhere in the movie, not even as a background extra. Granted, many of them wore full-face sci-fi space helmets not dissimilar to the stormtroopers from Star Wars, but even so, hiring only white people for visible roles—even as extras—can’t have been a total accident. Racism in film is frustrating in any context, but especially in fantasy or sci-fi movies, which don’t have to be constrained by prejudices of the here and now. It’s also a testament to institutionalized racism that I had never noticed the overwhelming whiteness until my third watch-through.
This is a terrible movie, overall, but it does cross the line into being so bad that it’s hilarious. The best time I had with it was watching it after coming home from Katsucon with a fellow cosplayer last year. Slightly delirious from exhaustion, we both plotted out (in total seriousness at the time) which Masters of the Universe character we were going to cosplay for the nonexistent group we were going to put together. I was going to be Skeletor and Marcy was going to be Evil-Lyn. (We’re still in the conceptual stages.) So if you can get the movie for free somewhere, it’s worth watching, ideally with a group of friends whose sense of humor works with your own.