Masters of the Universe
2009, Warner Home Video
Original Release: 1987, Cannon Films
Feature-Length Commentary by Director Gary Goddard
Do you remember walking through the movie theater in 1987 and seeing this…
I do! YES! A live-action version of Masters of the Universe! But wait… That’s gotta be He-Man but why does he look like he belongs in a Mad Max movie? Why is he holding an assault rifle ?! Why is the gun more prominent than the Power Sword ?!
Yes, I remember seeing that poster and instantly feeling a mix of joy and doom. I was extremely happy that a live-action He-Man movie was coming but just by the teaser poster alone I already was not liking how they were going to be portraying the world of Eternia. Oh yeah… Eternia. Didn’t really feature as much in the movie as we He-Man fans would’ve wanted, did it?
That is probably my one biggest gripe about the movie — how can you have the very first Masters of the Universe movie and then not set the entire film on Eternia? Granted, the movie is a goofy cheesy ’80s movie no matter what but taking the majority of the film to Earth in the year of 1987 extremely dates the film and isn’t what people wanted to see. Maybe something like that could’ve been done for a sequel but for the initial MOTU film? Nah. Keep it on Eternia.
Given that Cannon Films was usually very budget conscious, my theory is that they built the bare minimum set pieces that they could for Eternia (basically Gwildor’s hut and Skeletor’s throne room) and then filmed on location in Los Angeles because it was cheaper to do that than having to build even more set pieces. So that’s why we ended up with the story of He-Man & Co. ending up on Earth. To be fair though, I think this movie was probably had one of Cannon’s biggest budgets. Wikipedia states $22 million but in the director commentary Gary Goddard states they had a $17 million budget at a time when most movies had $6-8 million budgets.
As you can see from of the artwork, they were really going for a Star Wars vibe right down to getting Drew Struzan to do the artwork. Great artwork though and it does a great job of making the movie look amazing. Even Skeletor’s soldiers (something he didn’t have in the cartoon) look like Storm Troopers except their armor is black and their helmets appear to be that of Imperial Gunners.
Anyway, Eternia issues aside, it would’ve been nice to also see a bit more character depth. I guess the writers & producers just assumed anyone coming to see this movie already knew the backstory so we get thrown right into the middle of the action. That’s commendable on some levels because I know many fans of geek culture groan over “origin” movies but it still would have been really nice to see a live-action transformation of Prince Adam to He-Man. There is no mention of Prince Adam at all in this movie.
Even the Power Sword receives very little recognition in the film. He-Man seems to prefer using laser blasters. He holds it up one time towards the end of the film to yell “I HAVE THE POWER” but it’s too little too late and the moment is glossed over. The He-Man/Skeletor sword fight is pretty brief and lame compared to what Luke Skywalker & Darth Vader had done. In the movie’s defense, director Gary Goddard does that that due to time restrictions the final battle was not staged the way he wanted it and some portions of the throne room set went unused.
Another weird quirk is the absence of the typical MOTU villains. Sure, we have Skeletor, Evil-Lyn and Beastman but what about Tri-Klops, Merman or Trap-Jaw? The movie introduces some new villains: Blade (who almost seems like a stand-in for Tri-Klops), Saurod (a reptilian creature that reminds me of the Goombas from the Super Mario movie) and Karg (who reminds me of the late Ronnie James Dio). None of those three characters were ever on the TV show, which was canceled by this time anyway, but Blade & Saurod were given action figures.
On the Heroic Warriors side, I think they did pretty well: He-Man, Man-At-Arms, Teela and a captive Sorceress. They could’ve expanded upon that if there was a sequel and added Mekaneck, Stratos, Man-E-Faces, Ram Man, Buzz-Off and/or Orko. Speaking of Orko, even as a kid, I always assumed Gwildor was meant to be his replacement in the movie. Upon listening to Goddard’s commentary, he confirms that by saying it would’ve been too financially & technically difficult to put Orko in the movie. So, they replaced a magician that always screws up and is played for humor with an inventor that always screws up and is played for humor.
Ultimately, the film was not a critical or financial success. Released in August 1987 (and I remember seeing it in Fort Walton Beach, Florida on opening weekend while visiting my grandparents), it made only $17 million total. Had it been released a year or two earlier (remember, the show had been canceled in 1985 and the toy line had been losing steam as well since it had no show to help promote it) and had it stayed more faithful to the fantasy-based cartoon/toy line rather than going in a sci-fi direction (that was inspired by Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” comics from DC Comics) it probably would’ve done better.
Even though the movie kinda broke even or maybe even lost a few million for Cannon, a sequel was written and planned. Unfortunately, Cannon ran into financial troubles in 1989 and could no longer afford the MOTU license. The sequel’s script would later go on to be re-worked into Cyborg starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and when that movie was played on television it was sometimes retitled Masters of the Universe 2: Cyborg.
I think Masters of the Universe is a fun cheesy ’80s fantasy/adventure. It almost seems forgotten but I think it’s a real cult classic. Dolph Lundgren was a great voice (visually at least) for He-Man and Courtney Cox is cute as a button in her first movie role and plays her part well.
With plans for a new MOTU on the way, I’m sure a small spotlight will get thrown back on this movie in the next few years. I think the movie has been released on DVD twice. Once in 2001 through Warner Home Video but it was in a snap case. I made sure to order the 2009 edition because it features the standard DVD keep case which I prefer over the snap case that Warner Bros. well hell-bent on using for a number of years. Both editions have the same special features. My particular copy was made for distribution in U.S. & Canada so that’s why you see the film’s title in French on the cover.
I’m truly surprised they even bothered giving the movie a director’s commentary. You’d think something like would would’ve been made bare bones and then thrown into the $5 bin at Walmart. I usually never listen to commentaries but for this movie, I felt like trying it and enjoyed it.
Either DVD edition can be found for $6-8 and it’s well worth picking up for all He-Man fans. Sure, it’s not the MOTU we wanted to see but it’s a lot better than New Adventures of He-Man that’s for sure!