Why the 'Masters of the Universe' reboot may have finally found the perfect director
Needless to say, Masters of the Universe isn't exactly high art. The long-defunct Mattel franchise -- which began as a toy line first before being spun off into a popular Saturday morning cartoon series in the 1980s -- was a silly diversion for the under-10 set that was perfectly suited to being served up with heavy doses of sugary breakfast cereal. And yet so was Transformers, which didn't keep it from being turned into a multi-billion-dollar live-action film franchise that cut across demographic barriers.
Still, it hasn't been quite so easy for He-Man -- Masters' blond-locked, impossibly-muscled central hero -- on the big screen. The first effort at a live-action film, 1987's Masters of the Universe, was beset by numerous production problems, a lead actor who could barely deliver dialogue, and ridiculous contractual stipulations from Mattel that inadvertently led to charges of Star Wars copycatism. While it certainly had its charms, the film was a notorious flop on release, grossing $17 million domestically and garnering such withering critiques as this one from Empire Magazine's William Thomas: "The first film to be based on a line of toys, this might not be the last, but it'd take something awful to replace it as the worst." Oof.
No, Masters of the Universe was not a good movie. It wasn't even a particularly good cartoon! But in a world where films based on toys (Transformers, The Lego Movie) and even amusement park rides (Pirates of the Caribbean) have been successfully turned into enormous global hits, a lucrative live-action He-Man film franchise certainly isn't outside the realm of possibility, given the right director and a focus on pleasing the series' nostalgic original fans (on this last, they can take a lesson on what not to do from last year's disastrous Jem and the Holograms movie).
Since the MotU live-action reboot was first announced in 2007, various directors have been attached to the project, most notably '90s action-movie wunderkind John Woo and Kung Fu Panda helmer John Stevenson. So while, given the project's history of false starts, it would probably be unwise to read too much into today's Deadline report that Terminator Salvation helmer McG is in talks to direct (from a new script by Thor: The Dark World screenwriter Christopher Yost), I do think that in many ways he's the perfect choice to bring the inherently campy, colorful and ostentatious land of Eternia to life.
It's instructive to look at his history. Starting out as the director of splashy pop-rock videos for bands like Sugar Ray, Smash Mouth and The Offspring (and later TV commercials for brands including Gap and Coca-Cola), in 2000 McG hit the big time when his feature directorial debut -- the candy-coated, high-octane, delightfully fun Charlie's Angels reboot -- grossed over $264 million worldwide and helped usher in a wave of fleet-footed, wire-work-centric martial arts action films. Though the film's 2003 sequel Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle proved somewhat less successful by arguably overdosing on the qualities that gave the first film its bubbly charm, the overall commercial triumph of that franchise nevertheless gave McG carte blanche to explore darker, grittier and relatively more grounded material with films like football weeper We Are Marshall and, most notably, the notorious $200 million stinker Terminator Salvation, which arguably became better known for Christian Bale's leaked-from-the-set temper tantrum than anything that ended up on the screen.
Since that film's underperformance both critically and commercially, a comeback hasn't yet been in the cards for the onetime next hot thing; his two directorial outings since -- the 2011 action-rom-com This Means War starring Reese Witherspoon and DOA Kevin Costner vehicle 3 Days to Kill -- haven't fared much better.
And yet despite the fact that he never lived up to the promise of his first film, I would argue that McG could in fact be the perfect director to bring the corny, Day-Glo likes of Masters of the Universe to vivid life, provided he brings the same unhinged, ebullient chutzpah to bear as he did to Charlie's Angels. The worst thing distributor Sony could do, given the source material, would be to force gritty realism into a franchise that never had that in its bones to begin with; and with his career perennially on the skids, McG might do well here to tap into the essentially sweet-natured lunacy that made him a star in the first place. Imagine the world of He-Man filtered through that sensibility, and there's potential for a film that would both appease fans of the original show (who know how essentially ridiculous it was) and introduce/reintroduce audiences to McG's lately-unrealized ability to concoct frothy, unpretentious silver-screen pleasures.