That special time of year has finally come, when lifelong geeks like me celebrate the big screen premiere of a certain red-caped, goldilocked hero.
No, I’m not talking about Thor, in Marvel Studios’ upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, but that flick looks pretty cool, too.
No, I’m talking about He-Man, from 1987’s Masters of the Universe. Despite Masters’ reputation for effectively ruining He-Man’s reign over the toy aisle, that movie has a special place in my heart — and in the history of film as the prototypical superhero movie of today.
Yes, as a kid, I anticipated the big-screen, live-action debut of my beloved hero, He-Man — and, yes, I was sorely disappointed when the adaption lacked the lore and charm of the Filmation cartoon series. Now, as an adult, I think the movie was both perfect for its time, and also ahead of its time. That’s right — I truly believe Masters of the Universe set the stage for many of the tropes popular in contemporary superhero movies, specifically Marvel Studios’ big hits. Here, in typical Internet listicle fashion, are my top reasons why.
1. Masters of the Universe brings fantasy to reality.
I won’t waste too much time describing the torrid history of He-Man’s big-screen premiere, but needless to say the studio, Cannon, was infamous for quickly produced, low-budget movies. Bringing He-Man and Skeletor’s fight to Earth was undoubtedly a budgetary move, saving money on Eternian sets and wardrobe — but it was also a wise one, making a fantastic story a little more relatable for parents or teens oblivious to the power of Castle Grayskull.
Earth as the center of the universe’s battle between good and evil has totally become a thing since then, from the Avengers’ first fight with the Chitauri, to the Transformers’ search for the AllSpark, to the Justice League’s upcoming tussle with Steppenwolf from Apokolips.
For some reason, Earth is a magnet for cosmic trouble, even in cinematic universes with multiple populated planets. If you want to master the universe, I guess you have to start somewhere — and Masters of the Universe was the start of this trend.
2. The Kirby connection
Speaking of Steppenwolf and Apokolips, Jack Kirby is a major influence on contemporary superhero movies for many obvious reasons, and Masters of the Universe is actually no exception. Prompted by a mention from artist John Byrne in an old issue of Comic Shop News, MOTU director Gary Goddard confirmed that the film was meant to honor the breadth of Kirby’s work, from his classic Fantastic Four/Dr. Doom stories to his New Gods epic.
When you watch Masters of the Universe with this in mind, the parallels become obvious! Basically, Skeletor uses an inventor’s cosmic key to get the drop on Castle Grayskull, and He-Man and his friends spend a majority of the movie on Earth recouping from battle and strategizing how to save their world. The doorways opened by the key between Eternia and Earth are Boom Tubes, no doubt about it. The special effects around the portals look a lot like Kirby’s classic “crackle” come to life.
In the end, when Skeletor ascends to godhood, his new duds, especially his headdress, are outright Kirby-esque, and the villain’s speeches about power are reminiscent of Darkseid’s musings about the Anti-Life equation.
Jack Kirby’s 100th birthday just passed us by, on Aug. 28. Coincidentally, the 30th anniversary of Masters of the Universe was just a few weeks earlier, on Aug. 7. It’s not too late to celebrate both of these geeky milestones!
3. Casting celebrities-to-be
If I told you Principal Strickland from Back to the Future, Monica Geller from Friends, and Tom Paris from Star Trek: Voyager teamed up to help He-Man defeat Skeletor once and for all, you’d think I’d written the most drug-induced fan fiction ever. Fortunately, that credit goes to Goddard and the casting director of Masters of the Universe. Courtney Cox, best known at the time as “the girl from the Bruce Springsteen video,” was cast alongside a young Robert Duncan McNeill to play the audience’s Earthen avatars, the small-town sweethearts along for a crazy cosmic ride. James Tolkan returns as a parallel Strickland — this time, a cop. For Dolph Lundgren, our hero, MOTU was his sophomore effort on the silver screen, and his heavy accent was a major concern for Mattel, who wanted kids to understand the few lines He-Man had.
Each of these actors would somehow become major pop culture icons, and Masters of the Universe is their humble beginning. Studios scramble for great, virtually unknown actors to play these big roles, so the actor’s reputation doesn’t overwhelm the work, and that philosophy began with Masters of the Universe. Imagine the day when an old Tom Holland blushes at that campy film he was in all those years ago, called Spider-something.
4. The villain is the bigger deal
When Tim Burton’s Batman hit theaters in 1989, Jack Nicholson received top billing — and he wasn’t even playing the titular character. Jack was the bad guy — but compared to Michael Keaton, he was the bigger name, the box-office draw. Superhero movies have been doing that ever since. Just think of the actors that have played major supervillains: Willem Dafoe, Jeff Bridges, Liam Neeson, just to name a few. Compare their celebrity to the actors that portrayed the heroes against them, at the time of their respective movies’ releases, and you can see how responsible the bad guys were for their films’ successes.
Of course, before Batman 1989, you have Masters of the Universe 1987. Frank Langella is still a well-respected actor, and looking at his pre-MOTU work, you wouldn’t think Skeletor is a role he’d entertain. Apparently, he leapt at the chance, since his then 4-year-old son was a huge He-Man fan! He may not have been credited before Lundgren, as Jack was before Keaton, but Langella was the most familiar name on the cast at that time. Goddard admits that Langella’s excitement to play ol’ skull-face, coupled with Dolph’s acting struggles, made Skeletor the primary focus of the movie. He may not have mastered the universe this time around, but he certainly mastered the screen.
5. The power is in the music!
Soundtracks to superhero movies have become an important part of their story. From the classic, campy Batman and Wonder Woman TV theme songs of the ’60s and ’70s, to John Williams’ and Danny Elfman’s soundtracks of the ’80s, some scores practically define the tone of their respective heroes. Now, Marvel Studios has doubled down on the marriage between movies and music, with the obvious example of Guardians of the Galaxy. Would you believe — yes, say it with me — it all began with Masters of the Universe?
The cosmic key opens portals to other times and places in the universe by finding and playing their phonic resonances, affirming that life as we know is music. The climax of the film is preceded with the desperation that He-Man’s friends don’t know the song that will get them back home, until McNeill’s character remembers the tune and plays it on a synthesizer. It’s very ’80s, but it’s also very today, and quite timeless when you think about it. Certain songs certainly trigger memories that make the past more vivid to us, and that’s practically the message of Masters of the Universe. Perhaps that’s how we master the universe! I knew I could tie karaoke in here somehow!
6. The post-end credits scene
I’ll never forget when my dad took me to see Masters of the Universe in theaters. We were told by the ticket-tearer to wait for the end of the movie for a special message. As a He-Man fan, I was very familiar with the morals Orko and the others would share at the end of every episode, so I wasn’t surprised. We sat through the credits, which for a 7-year-old is quite a chore. Finally, at the very end of those credits, Skeletor reappears and proclaims, “I’ll be back!”
My dad laughed.
“What’s the lesson, that evil is unstoppable?” he wondered, and I concurred. I completely missed how cool a post-end credits scene was then, because I expected Teela to tell me to respect my parents. Now, if a superhero movie doesn’t have a post-credit scene, I feel ripped off!
Note: Years later, when I watched MOTU as an adult, I realized that Man-At-Arms’ coined the lesson, when he said, “Every destination is a doorway to another.” I appreciate the sentiment now, but I still say that young ticket-tearer is guilty of false advertising!
So, yes, Masters of the Universe was the doorway that led to many of the beloved tropes of today’s superhero movies. I may have even missed a point or two here, but I didn’t want this list to be comprehensive — just persuasive. Even as I type this, He-Man fans are gathering for this year’s annual PowerCon, a convention that celebrates the legacy of the Masters of the Universe franchise. You’ll be tipped your cap to He-Man soon enough, when you go see Thor: Ragnorak later this year.
And when you see that blonde-haired, bronze-skinned hero raise his signature weapon the skies … remember who has the power.