'Masters of the Universe' wasn't all bad: 13 things to actually admire about the 1987 flop
Of the action-oriented Saturday morning cartoon series aimed at young boys in the 1980s, I always gravitated towards "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe," which followed the homoerotic exploits of the blonde-tressed hero who fought to keep Castle Grayskull from the evil clutches of Skeletor. I loved the colors and the spectacle of it. I loved the fantastical setting of Eternia. And as a burgeoning gay man in particular, I loved that it integrated strong female heroes like Teela and the Sorceress into the action (the franchise would later be expanded to include She-Ra, He-Man's equally badass twin sister).
In the summer of 1987, the series (itself based on a toy line) was adapted into a live-action film entitled "Masters of the Universe," which was...not a success. Originally ballyhooed as the "Star Wars" of the '80s, the Gary Goddard-directed film was ripped to shreds by critics and grossed only $17 million on a $22 million budget (its box office failure also helped lead to the dissolution of Cannon Films). Dolph Lundgren's performance was described as "polyethylene" (read: plastic) by one critic and "awful" (read: awful) by another, and the special effects as "painfully cheap," among other choice descriptors. (I also happened to watch it about 97 times.)
And here's the thing: they weren't wrong! But having recently re-watched the film for the first time since I was a kid, I would attest that "Masters of the Universe" is not without its redeeming qualities. As "Thor" screenwriter Christopher Yost prepares to take a pass at the script for the long-developing reboot, here are 13 things to actually admire about the notorious 1987 flop and nostalgic (camp?) classic. Good journey.
Frank Langella as SkeletorPhoto Credit: MGM
No joke: Langella has described Skeletor as one of his favorite roles, and you can sense it in his game, scenery-chewing performance. The double Tony winner and Oscar nominee brings a sinister theatricality to the part of He-Man's main adversary that breathes life into every scene he's in -- even when he's seated on a throne that looks like it was built out of cardboard.
Meg Foster as Evil-LynPhoto Credit: MGM
The series' Saturday morning cartoon roots shows with character names like "Evil-Lyn," who is, indeed, evil and a woman. But like Langella, Foster takes what is essentially ridiculous material and elevates it above and beyond what is required; particularly in their scenes together, they generate real sparks and convey real stakes. Foster's striking blue eyes, once dubbed the "eyes of 1979" by Mademoiselle magazine, are startling for their clarity, intensity and sly intelligence, and Foster uses them to convey a complexity to the cartoon villainess that feels out of sync with the simpleminded film that surrounds her.
Bill Conti's score
To be quite frank: "Masters of the Universe" does not deserve this score. Conti, a five-time Oscar nominee (and one-time winner) who composed the scores for classic films like "Rocky" and "Broadcast News," wrote a classic, triumphant symphonic theme here that evokes John Williams' work on both "Superman" and "Star Wars" (a film that "Masters of the Universe" clearly owes a debt to). Alas.
It introduced us to Courteney CoxPhoto Credit: MGM
Okay, so really the "Dancing in the Dark" music video introduced us to Courteney Cox, but "Masters of the Universe" was the future "Friends'" first major film role, and she acquits herself more than adequately as the rad, jean-skirted '80s teen Julie Winston. While she doesn't get a lot to do in the movie (He-Man literally carries her at one point), her spunky delivery of ridiculous dialogue provide a glimpse of the lovable TV mega-star we would come to know a few short years later.
Dolph Lundgren's bodyPhoto Credit: MGM
Dolph Lundgren may be the most physiologically "perfect" human being on earth who has zero on-screen sex appeal. And yet it is impossible not to admire that insanely ripped, marble-carved, buttery-brown body, which you see...pretty much all of in this movie. As in, he is literally wearing underwear and boots.
Billy Barty as GwildorPhoto Credit: MGM
Oh, Gwildor! Barty brought a goofy, Yoda-esque spirit to the part of the dwarf-like Eternian and Cosmic Key inventor, who served as a live-action stand-in for the animated series' Orko, whose physical characteristics would have proven too complex for the film's budget. Luckily, the screenwriters' diminutive invention was a welcome one, and Barty's portrayal is lively, engaging and genuinely hysterical.
Karg. Just Karg.Photo Credit: MGM
Evil-Lyn's rat-faced punching bag (played by Robert Towers) wasn't a character in the original cartoon series, but he's a welcome addition to the live-action movie thanks to a memorable physical appearance (he is literally running around in a stole and a Lita Ford wig) and a simpering incompetence that's regularly called out by his villainous overlords. "Outmatched? Outclassed is more like it," Evil-Lyn intones after catching him in a lie. Karg's wordless, nose-wriggling reaction is worth a thousand GIFs.
Charlie. Just Charlie.Photo Credit: MGM
If the utter '80s-ness of "Masters of the Universe" can be boiled down to a single character it is Charlie (Barry Livingston), the hip hop-attired music store employee who serves essentially no other function aside from being comically awestruck by everything that's happening around him. Best moment: his "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" aside to Detective Lubic.
James Tolkan as Detective LubicPhoto Credit: MGM
"James Stewart Tolkan (born June 20, 1931) is an American actor, often cast as a strict, overbearing, bald-headed authority figure" is the greatest, most specific opening line to a Wikipedia entry I've read in awhile. The thesp, best known for playing the uber-strict Principal Strickland in the "Back to the Future" movies, brings a had-boiled, incredulous comic energy to the role that keeps the energy crackling even when the Eternians aren't on screen.
Dolph Lundgren's line readingsPhoto Credit: MGM
I harbor a strange affection for Lundgren's goofball performance as He-Man, which is wooden and...well, bad, but also somehow endearing. His awkward readings of such lines as "Let her go" and "I'll never kneel to you!" lend a camp charm to the film that accounts for a large part of its present-day appeal.
Julie's coworker at the fast food restaurantPhoto Credit: MGM
Arguably the second most quintessentially '80s thing in "Masters of the Universe" is Monica (Jessica Nelson), Julie(-slash-future Monica's) co-worker who offers a witty, big-haired supporting word to her friend just before she embarks on her would-be move out of town. I love how casually she chews on that drumstick. I love that she seems like a good friend. I love the way she looks almost exactly like Linda Hamilton in "Terminator." I love that she feels like an entire decade wrapped up in one casually-wise, advice-spouting package.
The commitment of the castPhoto Credit: MGM
Credit where credit is due: not a single one of these folks dialed in their performance (Dolph Lundgren is actually trying, I swear to you). Kids can sense insincerity, and there's a sprightly energy to the acting that I found transporting as a child and which I can admire even today as a rational(-ish) adult. Anyone who can commit fully to a role in such an obviously flawed B-blockbuster is deserving of our respect and admiration.
Skeletor's climactic transformationPhoto Credit: MGM
With his third-act transformation into a god-like creature, Skeletor goes from power-hungry Eternian overlord to Chinese contestant in the 1987 Miss Universe pageant in the span of about three seconds. The gold headdress is an audacious, fabulously over-the-top costuming choice and I approve wholeheartedly. Let us celebrate this! Let us celebrate "Masters of the Universe," an objectively bad film with a big heart.