As a 15-year-old, I absolutely hated this movie. He-Man was a known property with a series that was on TV every day, one of the best-selling toys and just about everyone knew everything there was about the mythos of Eternia, but the movie only spends a few minutes in Eternia and has human characters in the place of ones you’d want to see like Stratos, Fisto and Zodac. Or Tri-Klops, Batros and Man-E-Faces. Or Mer-Man, Ram Man and Sorceress. If by now you don’t realize how deep my He-Man fandom goes, by the end of this you’ll realize just how little I ever believed that I’d date anyone.
If I’d just realized that it was a secret Jack Kirby movie, maybe I would have loved it.
John Byrne, who is one of my biggest artistic influences — well, next to Kirby — called this out, saying, “The best New Gods movie, IMHO, is Masters of the Universe. I even corresponded with the director, who told me this was his intent, and that he had tried to get Kirby to do the production designs, but the studio nixed it. Check it out. It requires some bending and an occasional sex change (Metron becomes an ugly dwarf, The Highfather becomes the Sorceress), but it’s an amazingly close analog, otherwise. And Frank Langella’s Skeletor is a dandy Darkseid!”
To be fair, Star Wars is also a complete pastiche of the New Gods.
Director Gary Goddard responded in the letter page of Byrne’s comic book Next Men: “As the director of Masters of the Universe, it was a pleasure to see that someone got it. Your comparison of the film to Kirby’s New Gods was not far off. In fact, the storyline was greatly inspired by the classic Fantastic Four/Doctor Doom epics, The New Gods and a bit of Thor thrown in here and there. I intended the film to be a “motion picture comic book,” though it was a tough proposition to sell to the studio at the time. “Comics are just for kids,” they thought. They would not allow me to hire Jack Kirby who I desperately wanted to be the conceptual artist for the picture… I grew up with Kirby’s comics (I’ve still got all my Marvels from the first issue of Fantastic Four and Spider-Man through the time Kirby left) and I had great pleasure meeting him when he first moved to California. Since that time I enjoyed the friendship of Jack and Roz and was lucky enough to spend many hours with Jack, hearing how he created this character and that one, why a villain has to be even more powerful than a hero, and on and on. Jack was a great communicator, and listening to him was always an education. You might be interested to know that I tried to dedicate Masters of Universe to Jack Kirby in the closing credits, but the studio took the credit out.”
As it was, the look of this movie was created by William Stout, who has drawn several comic books as well as drawing the storyboards for Raiders of the Lost Ark and First Blood and concept and production art for Invaders from Mars, Conan the Barbarian, The Hitcher, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Willies, Return of the Living Dead, Theodore Rex, Predator and The Warrior and the Sorceress, which he also wrote. Obviously, I’m also a huge fan of Stout’s work.
He was joined by Jean “Moebius” Giraud, an artist whose influence on movies can’t be measured, from working on Jodorowsky’s Dune to being in the art department for Alien, TRON, Willow, The Fifth Element and The Abyss. So much of Blade Runner and its visual style is deeply in debt to Moebius.
Cannon claimed that Masters of the Universe would be the Star Wars of the 1980s and if we go just on the look of the characters, they tried. The hard part is that the end result is very Cannon: a lack of budget, focus and understanding of what they had on their hands.
Screenwriter David Odell had worked on The Muppet Show and The Dark Crystal. His original take on the material was closer to the cartoon, with He-Man’s mother coming from Earth, more of Beast Man and more time on Eternia. There was a rewrite by Goddard and Stephen Tolkin, who also wrote Albert Pyun’s Captain America, which was produced by Menahem Golan as part of his 21st Century Film Corporation after Cannon broke apart.
Instead, the movie begins at an apocalyptic ending, with Skeletor’s (Frank Langella, one of the major bright spots of the film; he was incredibly excited to make the movie as He-Man was his son’s favorite cartoon) army finally taking Castle Grayskull and capturing the Sorceress (Christina Pickles).
There’s one chance to save the day and it involves He-Man (Dolph Lundgren), Man-At-Arms (Jon Cypher) and Teela (Chelsea Field) mounting a rescue mission to get Gwildor (Billy Barty) free and find his Cosmic Key, which has been stolen by Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster, forever staring directly into your soul). Their escape takes them to Earth and meeting up with orphaned schoolgirl Julie Winston (Courtney Cox), her boyfriend Kevin Corrigan (Robert Duncan McNeill) and Detective Hugh Lubic (James Tolkan, pretty much playing what you hire James Tolkan for, an incredibly angry authority figure like he was in Back to the Future).
Skeletor sends Saurod (Pons Maar, who was the body model for The Noid), Beast Man (Tony Carroll), Karg (Robert Towers, who was Snoopy’s voice in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown) and Blade (Anthony de Longis, The Warrior and the Sorceress, The Sword and the Sorcerer, Dangerously Close and the voice of Lord Zygon in Starchaser: The Legend of Orin; he’s also one of my favorite people in this film and trained Lundgren in sword fighting) to battle the heroes.
The battle eventually does take them back to Eternia, but I can tell you, when I first saw this movie, I never wanted to see any action on our boring planet. But as I’ve watched this numerous times, I’ve come to really enjoy the look and feel of what Goddard was able to capture with the budget that he had.
Goddard has claimed that Cannon forced the movie to be mostly on Earth to keep the budget down. He did ask for more money so he could at least start and end the film on Eternia. However, Cannon’s financial woes — there was so little money that Goddard did every pickup and second unit shot — saw them shut down filming three days early and the final battle between He-Man and Skeletor was unfilmed. Luckily, Goddard was able to get a day to shoot the end, but as sets were being torn down throughout and the need to get it done quickly, that’s why the final battle has no background in it.
A supposed sequel was written and would have been directed by Albert Pyun and star surfer Laird Hamilton. In it, Skeletor would return to Earth and destroy it, making this a post-apocalyptic movie. After Masters of the Universe wasn’t the Star Wars of the 1980s, Pyun rewrote the script and made Cyborg.
As for Goddard, he had quite an interesting career after He-Man. Producer Edward R. Pressman (who executive produced this movie) hired him to create, write and direct a Universal Studios show, The Adventures of Conan: A Sword and Sorcery Spectacular.
Goddard also wrote Tarzan the Ape Man for the Dereks, as well as developing the Captain Power and Skeleton Warriors shows and toy lines. He also helped develop Spider-Man, Terminator and Jurassic Park rides for Universal Studios.
There have been numerous attempts to make a new Masters of the Universe movie. The bar, obviously, is not very high, but perhaps my love of the past and Cannon makes me look at this film — not the first movie for the property, as He-Man and She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword came out in 1985 — in a much kinder light.
As you can see, I’m very influenced by the look of this film. If you’d like to see more of my art, I post a new Masters of the Universe painting every week on Instagram.