Home > Flashback Feature, Movies, TV > Flashback Feature: Masters Of The Universe (1987)

Flashback Feature: Masters Of The Universe (1987)

Nostalgia, retro, a refusal (and perhaps inability) to grow up: call it what you will, but we all have fond memories of movies, TV shows and games from our youth. If you’re honest, you probably find yourself watching/playing them occasionally, or at the very least, wishing you could.

To that end, welcome to a new (and hopefully recurring) feature on BurnAllZombies: the Flashback Feature is a look back at some of the games, movies and shows that hold a special place in my heart, jogging some memories, getting those subtexts you never quite got as a kid, and wondering what’s happened to the stars and the franchises since.

Suggestions for future Flashback Features are welcome, but for this, the inaugural entry, let’s take a look at Dolph Lundgren and 2009 Academy Award Nominee Frank Langella in 1987’s “Masters Of The Universe.”

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“Master Of The Universe” as a franchise made its debut in the stores long before it hit the screens. Mattel’s toys came a good while before there was even the thought of a TV series or movie, both of which were made to…well, let’s be honest, they were made to sell toys. Of course, originally the toys came with mini-comics, as all the best toys do, short strips telling a story about the characters and even before they made the transition to the little screen (and from there, to the big screen) the characters were imbued with motivations and personalities. 

Although the Filmation TV-series originally aired from 1983-1985, it went into the cycle of repeats lasting up to the early 1990s along with the literal sister-show,  “She-Ra: Princess Of Power.” The series was really the first of the toy-line tie-ins to air: “Transformers,” arguably the biggest of the bunch, didn’t air until one year later in 1984, while “G.I. Joe” and “Thundercats” both premiered in 1985. However, being the first to air meant that “He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe” was also the first to face controversy, with many ‘discerning parents’ concerned about letting their kids watch what was, effectively, a thirty-minute commercial for toys that condoned and glorified violence.

In retrospect, the cartoon series is marked more by implied  threatening imagery and the promise of violence than anything tangible: despite the sharpness of the Power Sword, and the strength that it imbues, it was rarely used as a sword, with Prince Adam/He-Man resorting to wrestling moves and throwing/pushing his enemies more than any buckling of swashes. Equally, the transformation that Cringer undergoes to become Battlecat is more notable for its jumping and pouncing than anything he might bite, slash or rend with his teeth. heman3

It was the TV series that introduced Cringer’s transformation, along with that of He-Man, and his alter-ego of Prince Adam. It makes sense from a narrative point of view, aligning this incarnation of He-Man much closer to Superman/Clark Kent than the ultra-violent muscle-bound Conan (and let’s face it, he looked a lot closer to Conan than anything else) but I’m unsure why anyone out there really thought that the effete, blonde-quiffed, pink-shirt-wearing Prince Adam would sell many action figures. Then again, perhaps there’s something telling about a nobleman who wears pink and purple and yet keeps the leather harness a secret from his parents…

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The movie ignored a lot of this storyline in favour of something unashamedly action-driven: Skeletor (Frank Langella) finally seizes control of Eternia, capturing the Sorceress (Christina Pickles) and setting out to control Castle Greyskull’s Great Eye Of The Galaxy in order to grant himself god-like powers. When He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) tries to stop him, alongside Man-At-Arms and Teela (played by Jon Cypher and Chelsea Field respectively) they team up with the dwarfish Gwildor (Billy Barty) who has invented a trans-dimensional device called the Key. Using this device, He-Man and his allies are pursued to Earth by Skeletor’s generals (chief amongst them Meg Foster as Evil-Lyn) where their paths cross with Julie (Courteney Cox) and her boyfriend Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill.)

One of the most notable things about “Masters Of The Universe” is how obviously 1980s the film is, dating it quite a lot when watching it now, over twenty years later.  Just look at the promo poster to the left and you’ll get an idea of how the movie was influenced by the big-muscled, big-gunned movies of the era. It stars Dolph Lundgren, so I’m not really surprised, but the film never really gets involved in the sword-and-sorcery elements that are at the heart of the franchise, choosing instead to have most of the movie take place in our world where, yet again, the Power Sword is ignored in favour of some wrestling moves and laser-blasting. Yes, I said laser-blasting. As if the big sword wasn’t enough. Somewhere out there, a psycho-analyst is wondering if He-Man is using his weaponry to make up for his failings in some other area.

Teela

It’s easy to say this about any movie you’ve watched as both a kid and an adult, but “Masters Of The Universe” really isn’t sure what it wants to be, and nowhere is that more evident than in the characters of both Evil-Lyn and Teela. The muscles and action might point towards an adult take on a kids’ franchise, but this is the same franchise that has its female characters wearing…well, not a lot of clothes, and then gets them to cover up in full-body jumpsuits for the movie. It’s understandable, to a certain extent: I’m sure if any real woman wore the same clothes as Teela is here, it’d easily get the film an adult rating. But let’s compare and contrast with the amount of Dolph’s flesh on display, shall we? 

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And then there’s the Key: looking back on it, it’s unclear if this was meant to be something futuristic, or to look space-age and new, but really, I mean really, how very 80s does a film have to be for the powerful device at the centre of the plot to be a glorified synthesiser that looks like a sex-toy for the Borg? Oh, did I mention it comes with its own guitar-strap, one of the characters mistake it for a musical instrument and there’s a shoot-out in a music store?

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But all that nonsense can be easily forgotten because of one simple thing: no hero is complete without his villain, and while “Masters Of The Universe” includes a rogue’s gallery of He-Man’s adversaries (some of whom had their first appearance in the film) the star of the film is obviously Frank Langella’s take on Skeletor, one of the greatest villains of 80s kids’ TV and movies, if just because he looks so damned terrifying. The guy has a skull for a face, for crying out loud!

skeletorParts of Skeletor work in the film, and parts don’t: for starters, having any character looking quite so terrifying as Skeletor should…well, like the scantily-clad women, it works for a cartoon, but in real life, we’re dealing with some serious nightmares and unhappy parents. Toning it down just a little bit works, mainly because Frank Langella maintains a thoroughly menacing presence wearing make-up that…well, let’s be honest, he looks like a popcorn kernel. A popped, popcorn kernel. And one that’s a little bit overdone around the nose area, tastes a bit burnt, isn’t quite salty or buttery anymore…y’know?

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Suffice it to say, by the film’s close, when Skeletor achieves godhead…well, it just looks like we’ve got popcorn wrapped in gold tinfoil, by which stage the aged-up Sorceress, in full-on crone mode, is starting to look significantly scarier. Of course, she’s a benevolent figure dressed all in white, why should you be scared of her? Because she’s an old lady with wrinkly skin, that’s why! But Skeletor…he still manages to be scary, but it’s a kind of scary pretty. In the way that most middle-aged men with pasty skull faces tend to be scary when they’re trying to gain ultimate power while wearing jewellery and pretty robes. Such pretty robes…

Most people don’t actually know about Skeletor’s most terrifying scene though, since it comes after the credits: don’t all action movies have to have the obligatory sequel setup? But there’s something about Langella’s ferocity, combined with the make-up (and the teeth), the purple water and even just the suddenness of his appearance that sends shivers down my spine even watching this scene as an adult, knowing what’s going to happen. It makes me glad I didn’t know about it when I was a kid.

Langella’s obviously gone on to slightly more dignified roles since appearing in “Masters Of The Universe,” with this year’s Oscar’s nod for his role as Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon” but some more of the cast and crew have gone on to greater things too.

  • Dolph Lundgren (He-Man), everyone’s second favourite action star adequate Arnie-fill-in for when Governor Schwarzenegger is busy being political, well he hasn’t disappeared of the face of the planet as some of you might have believed, but will be appearing with every other action star imaginable Sylvester Stallone, Mickey Rourke, Jet Li, Jason Statham and Arnie himself in “The Expendables.”
  • Courteney Cox (Julie) went on to star as neurotic cook and neat freak Monica in “Friends.” But have you figured out yet that Christina Pickles (the Sorceress) played her mother, Judy Geller?
  • Robert Duncan McNeil (Kevin) played basically the same character as Kevin for seven years as Tom Paris in “Star Trek: Voyager.” It gave him a chance to flex his directing muscles though, and he’s now a fully-fledged TV director. Seriously, you name the show from recent years, and he’s directed some episodes of it, “One Tree Hill,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Chuck,” “Supernatural”…shall I continue?
  • The Star Trek links continue, if somewhat tenuously, thanks to Chelsea Field‘s appearance as Teela. You see, she’s married to Scott Bakula, also known as Capt. Jonathan Archer (from the Star Trek series nobody likes, “Enterprise.” And Robert Duncan McNeill directed some of that too.) Or if you’d rather, Sam from “Quantum Leap” (and let’s face it, who’d prefer “Enterprise” over “Quantum Leap”?)
  • Evil-Lyn herself, played by Meg Foster: that recognisable voice of hers can be found underneath make-up in yet more Star Trek, this time the “ST: DS9” episode “The Muse,” but more importantly, did you know Foster also played Detective Chris Cagney for the first six episodes of “Cagney and Lacey” before she was replaced by Sharon Gless?
  • Director Gary Goddard…well, he never really directed anything again, save for two 3D shows, but he appears in the beach scene of the first “X-Men” movie (that very same scene that has Stan Lee’s cameo.) However, my nerd-meter went off the freaking charts to discover that he was a writer and creative consultant for “Captain Power and the Soldiers Of The Future” (which you can expect to see in a future Flashback Feature.)
  • Last but not least is the credit for special designer for Jean Giraud, aka the French artist Moebius. He’s done his fair share of comic book art, but Moebius also worked on the design for “Alien,” “Tron,” “Willow,” “The Abyss” and “The Fifth Element.”

Consider your appetite for nostalgia whet, since that brings to a close our first Flashback Feature. Check back for more here at BurnAllZombies, and just comment or e-mail us if you’ve any ideas or requests for future Flashback Features (try saying that eight times fast).

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  1. May 26, 2009 at 7:48 PM

    OMG, this is some going back. haha. It made me go and start looking up some sci-fi films from the 80s and I found http://www.filmsandtv.com/genre.php, list it via decade and genre. There is some bad stuff in there but so many memories. If you don’t get Flash Gordon in I’ll be disappointed. Hmmm, may have to look at this feature for my blog (I’d call it a homage to your idea, but it’ll be plagiarising really), especially as I’m watching all my DVDs through at the moment A to Z.

    • burnallzombies
      May 26, 2009 at 10:13 PM

      Well the next one’ll be either a game or TV series, just to mix it up a little bit. Probably Thundercats, just to give me an excuse to watch all of them again. Still stands up, amazingly so.

  2. morethinking
    May 21, 2009 at 5:33 AM

    Interesting write up. I might check out the movie.

    Man, Frank Langella has come a loooong way.

    Oh, by the way, do Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (The first live action film), please?

    • burnallzombies
      May 21, 2009 at 11:37 AM

      You haven’t seen? Whoa, you really should.

      I think there’ll be a TMNT one up at some stage, but for all the live-action films rather than just the first.

  3. Dan
    May 19, 2009 at 11:56 PM

    Great article.

    Skeletor scared the bejebus out of me when I was a kid and I’m glad i didn’t know about the after the credits scene when i was little. You’ve gotten me wanting to rewatch it again and I’ll think of some films for you to feature…:p

    When the inevitable relaunch happens Langella and Moebius better be involved.

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