Awfully Good: Masters of the Universe

This week marks the 30th anniversary of one of the greatest awfully good movies ever forged….


Masters of the Universe (1987)


Director: Gary Goddard
Stars: Dolph Lundgren, Frank Langella, Courtney Cox

On the run from the evil Skeletor, He-Man and his friends are transported from Castle Grayskull to a strange new world called New Jersey.

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE is the epitome of an awfully good film. Coming from B-movie factory Cannon Films (whose own SUPERMAN IV was released only two weeks earlier in 1987), MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE had a notoriously tumultuous road to the big screen. There was a shrinking budget that completely ran out during production, a lead actor who wasn't fluent in English, multiple companies that had final approval on all creative decisions, and of course the goofy toy-inspired source material. But even with all this working against it, there's still something undeniably charming and enjoyable about how this fantasy epic turned out, to the point where three decades later audiences are still discovering the joys of Dolph Lundgren's He-Man and Frank Langella's Skeletor.

The image that hardened a thousand nipples.

I think what works most about MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE is the fact that it's all played relatively straight. That's a weird thing to say about a movie that feels like a mix between CONAN, FLASH GORDON and a little bit of HERCULES IN NEW YORK, but even at its cheesiest, it's obvious no one involved, from the cast to the crew, was phoning it in. Everything about Eternia was beautifully realized with massive sets and brilliant costumes. The production wasn't afraid to embrace the weirdness of the property. (Just look at the bizarre creatures making up Skeletor's team of mercenaries.) And even Bill Conti's heroic SUPERMAN-esque score manages to make a guy running around in leather underwear seem a little less silly.

Even though he changed his name and appearance after losing to Rocky Balboa, Ivan Drago was still hated everywhere he went.

Dolph Lundgren gets a lot of flack for his role as He-Man (including from himself), but the actor wasn't exactly set up for success. For one, he may look like He-Man physically, but Lundgren was not skilled with a sword before signing on and the film's quick production schedule meant that the actor had to learn from a stuntman on the fly. The result, as you can guess, is not pretty—the He-Man movie features a He-Man who looks awkward brandishing a weapon and out of place in most fight scenes. However, that pales in comparison to Lundgren's notoriously bad performance. Mainly his accent, which goes from Swedish to British to indecipherable within the same line. In fact, it was so bad that pretty much everyone agreed that someone else should dub over all of his dialogue to make it, you know, understandable. But Lundgren's contract stipulated that he got three chances to re-record his lines in post and ultimately the producers decided it was easier to just leave it as is. This was only the actor's third film and his first with any real dialogue, so you kind of feel bad for the guy. But still, when his He-Man pulls out his sword and yells "I have the power!" in his unmistakable Dolph Lundgren accent, it's legitimately hilarious.

Skeletor went solo as a rapper after leaving Bone Thugs 'n' Harmony.

On the flip side, he may be the villain but Skeletor is the real savior of this movie. Frank Langella is, no joke, truly great in MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE. He's a little scary, a little silly and makes for a truly formidable bad guy. Not only does he thespian the hell out of his performance behind a goofy rubber mask, but Langella really sells cheesy lines like, "I must possess all or I possess nothing!" And much of the last act is just his character ranting and raving about power and kneeling. With a lesser actor all those monologues would be a chore, but I could watch Langella's Skeletor chew scenery all day long.

Young Courtney Cox sees Old Courtney Cox's face.

While everything with Eternia in the film is great, unfortunately in order to save on costs, the film takes a pretty quick detour to Earth. And as the story turns its focus to a young Courtney Cox and her boyfriend, MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE loses a little of its spark. With all the great fantasy elements in place, it's less compelling to follow two random teenagers and see our heroes relegated to fish-out-of-water gags involving fried chicken. The scenes with Cox, or the cop who thinks He-Man is a Soviet invader (played by TOP GUN and PROBLEM CHILD star James Tolkan), aren't bad per se, but I don't want He-Man and his friends feeling like supporting characters in their own movie.

Evil-Lyn and the Henchmen, the universe's greatest heavy metal band.

Director Gary Goddard spent most of his career directing theme park rides, which actually seems fitting for this gig. (The hoverboard chase definitely feels like it could be a ride at Disneyworld.) There's just a lot of memorable stuff in this movie that the director pulls together, from great side characters like Gwildor and Evil-Lyn to the fun but laughably PG-rated shootouts and fight sequences (thanks to folks at Mattel, who legally prohibited He-Man from killing anyone). But I have to really give Goddard credit for the film's ending, which by this point is the stuff of B-movie legend. The production literally ran out of money before they could shoot the finale. After months of waiting, Goddard convinced Cannon to pay for one single day of filming with just himself, Lundgren, a stunt person stand-in for Skeletor, and a camera man, to wrap up the entire movie. Since all the sets had been torn down, they came up with the "stylistic" choice to have He-Man and Skeletor fight backlit against a dark background. The fight choreography was pretty much made up as they went along, but they managed to get enough to finish the film AND shoot a post-credits tag at the end setting up a sequel that sadly never happened. In the context of the finished film, the weird ending does seem like a creative choice, albeit wildly unexciting as a finale.

If you examine the subtext and squint really hard, you start to get the feeling this movie was made to sell toys.

That seems like a great analogy for MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE as a whole. Even when things are down and just seem like they shouldn't work, the movie has an indomitable spirit that makes it impossible to hate.

Mostly Frank Langella's amazing performance as Skeletor.

The film's best (and goofiest) action moments.

You get to see most of Dolph Lundgren. Who doesn't want that?

Don't have the power? Buy this movie here!

Take a shot or drink every time:

  • Someone plays the Cosmic Key
  • Someone says the word "Grayskull"
  • Someone says "Good journey"
  • Someone says "I have the power!"
  • Skeletor looks directly at the camera

Double shot if:

  • Monica Geller meets her mom


Thanks to Benjamin, Diego and Marlene for suggesting this week's movie!


Seen a movie that should be featured on this column? Shoot Jason an email or follow him on Twitter and give him an excuse to drink.

Extra Tidbit: Dolph Lundgren has said this is his least favorite performance, while Frank Langella has claimed the exact opposite.
Source: JoBlo.com



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