35 Years Ago: ‘Masters of the Universe’ Crashes to Earth
In the eminently entertaining documentary about the rise and fall of Cannon Films, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, we see how founders Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus ultimately failed once they pretended to be something they weren’t: a legitimate Hollywood player. Cannon’s initial success came from exploiting trends with quickie, low-budget exploitation films. A numbers game, their business model required only one movie in a dozen to hit big at the box office, thereby ensuring Cannon the solvency to wheel and deal its way onto the next raft of schlock.
It’s when Cannon sought to compete with the big studios that it imploded in a cloud of too-big ideas, and multimillion-dollar gambles. They paid Sylvester Stallone a then-unthinkable $12 million to appear in a Rocky-style movie about arm-wrestling in 1987’s Over the Top. They bought the rights to the already-shriveling Superman franchise for $5 million, lured back reluctant star Christopher Reeve with a payout of $6 million, and produced the critical and commercial disaster that was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Cannon, admirably, gave director Tobe Hooper free rein to make the muddled but ambitious space vampire movie Lifeforce, only to watch their much-hyped “cinematic sci-fi event of the ‘80s” return less than half its extravagant budget.
But it was the studio’s insistence that a live-action sci-fi/fantasy spectacle based on a line of children’s toys was Cannon’s ticket to the big time that truly tolled the beginning of the end. 1987’s Masters of the Universe, inspired by Mattel’s line of muscle-bound action figures, was another massive gamble by Cannon — and another massive flop, with only $17 million in tickets being sold to offset a $22 million budget. Cannon’s plans to launch a big-budget Spider-Man franchise (Marvel not being the canny movie powerhouse it would become) were immediately scuttled, and Cannon itself dribbled out in a morass of bankruptcies and abandoned projects before debts finally drove it under.
In retrospect, could Masters of the Universe have saved Cannon or, indeed, even been a presentable film? That’s a tough one, with myriad factors in Cannon’s thought process working against the project from the start. There’s the whole “based on a toy line” idea, which may have been financially (if by no means critically) redeemed with Michael Bay’s cacophonous Transformers series, but is still trailing behind even “based on a video game” genre in respectability. There was the choice to cast Dolph Lundgren in his first English-language lead as Conan-like hero He-Man, despite the Swedish muscleman’s then-tenuous grasp of the English language. (And, here, it should be noted that, if entertainment were an intellectual and physical meritocracy, the highly educated, Olympic-level martial artist and athlete would be a shoo-in. However, the 30-year-old Lundgren was not fluent in English and only escaped the indignity of being dubbed because Cannon ran out of money.)
As for the He-Man property, while the toys had been turned into a goofy but successful children’s animated series several years before, the film plunges its otherworldly hero (from the monster-strewn world of Eternia) into a decidedly humdrum and earthbound adventure, thanks to some sci-fi portal devices and Cannon’s decision that shooting on present-day Earth would be more cost-effective. That He-Man and his meager cadre of recognizable sidekicks (including Jon Cypher as Man-at-Arms and Chelsea Field as Teela) effectively take a back-seat to a small-town love story between a pre-Friends Courteney Cox and a pre-Voyager Robert Duncan McNeill shows a similar disconnect from the big-screen dreams of young moviegoers excited at the prospect of seeing their bulging blond idol in the flesh.
Watch the Trailer for 'Masters of the Universe'
On the creative side, Cannon’s choices were similarly suspect, as they picked director Gary Goddard to helm this make-or-break production, despite a complete lack of directing experience and the stain of having co-written John Derek’s laughed-out-of-cinemas Tarzan the Ape Man six years earlier. (Goddard would later be drummed out of business on the back of multiple sexual assault allegations by, among others, actor Anthony Edwards.) Screenwriter David Odell had a more promising pedigree, having written for the Muppets and penned the screenplay for Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, but he was hemmed in by Cannon’s financial constraints, Mattel’s product-protecting prohibitions (He-Man couldn’t kill anyone, leaving him to mow down an army of villain Skeletor’s identical robot troops) and a muddled creative process. Rewritten by Goddard and an uncredited Stephen Tolkin, Odell’s script was, according to the screenwriter, intended to be a stealth adaptation of comic creator Jack Kirby’s Fourth World universe, although you have to squint pretty hard to find any hint of Kirby’s masterful world-building here.
There were a few causes for hope. Meg Foster, with her pale eyes and compelling presence, makes for a coolly menacing Evil-Lyn, and acclaimed actor Frank Langella surprisingly jumped at the chance to play He-Man’ nemesis Skeletor, citing his 4-year-old son’s enthusiasm for the Saturday-morning cartoons. And, indeed, the absurdly overqualified Langella (who happily cites Skeletor as one of his favorite roles) has a ball, making the would-be master of the universe’s imperious monologues and asides sound just about menacing, even as the actor has to emote through a truly wretched, cheap-looking set of prosthetics. (The nose-holes in Skeletor’s waxy-looking mask are achieved with black fabric, painted bone-white down the middle.) Langella, taking to his villainous nonsense with hammy aplomb, quotes Richard III, bellows like King Lear and even contributed a few lines himself that outclass much of what he’s given. (Confronting a captive He-Man, Langella somehow finds a moment of connection with his scene partner, purring, “Tell me about the loneliness of good, He-Man. Is it equal to the loneliness of evil?”)
The inevitable opening narration lays out the good vs. evil of its playset universe over an intriguingly Heavy Metal-style illustration of Castle Grayskull before we’re dropped into a dispiritingly low-rent and derivative world of laser blaster effects and barely mobile rubber masks. (Poor Billy Barty provides comic relief as wizard and inventor Gwildor, his goblin’s visage wobbling indifferently along with his groaningly unfunny lines.) Even Bill Conti’s score sounds shamelessly secondhand, with the opening theme (and 3-D moving titles) aping Superman’s and Skeletor’s drawing more than a little from John Williams’ "Imperial March."
The idea of crafting a live-action adaptation as a stylized visualization of comics source material can work (1980’s clunky Flash Gordon at least commits to its vision), but Masters of the Universe emerges in an indifferent wash of matte paintings, gravel pits and blue-screen flying effects, with the stolidly jacked Lundgren looking lost amid his crisscrossing leathers and flowing cape. (Not to belabor the point, but Electric Boogaloo cites Stallone’s shock that Cannon was planning to give actual spoken lines to his Rocky IV costar, an appraisal borne out in the atonal mishmash of syllables that is He-Man’s would-be defiant, “This is our fight. I don’t want innocent people to die!”)
Goddard’s pacing is glacial, with Cox and McNeill’s squabbling couple’s story taking up far too much screen time, and James Tolkan’s comically disbelieving cop pulling us away from the purported main figures of the story for interminable stretches. Goddard also can’t shoot an action scene to save his life, with He-Man’s infrequent sword duels (he prefers his blaster, sidelining the magical Power Sword that’s traditionally his trademark) chopped into incomprehensible chunks, with only Lundgren’s bulging pecs holding the camera’s focus. Even the kids who were Cannon’s target market were disappointed, with fan-favorite characters largely being jettisoned in favor of more thrifty alternatives. (Don’t expect Cannon to pony up for He-Man’s steed Battle Cat on this budget.)
As it turned out to virtually no one’s surprise, Masters of the Universe tanked. Hard. Lundgren’s profile, on the rise since his impressively physical, largely wordless turn as Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago, collapsed, just as the aspiring actor feared. A proposed sequel (Langella’s supposedly dead Skeletor rises to promise “I’ll be back!” after the credits) evaporated thanks to the film’s meager box office and critics’ waves of scoffing laughter. And Cannon Films, erstwhile purveyor of rough, cheap and often quite entertaining genre fare, collapsed under the weight of its hubris, Golan and Globus’ dreams of Star Wars-esque mega-success lost in a sea of financial and creative bankruptcy.