You remember He-Man, right? Of course you do. If you were anywhere between the ages of 3-14 during the 80s then you couldn’t spit without hitting (buy) He-Man (stuff). That steroid driven bastard was everywhere. You could find He-Man in toy stores, on TV, on T-shirts. Lunchboxes. Shorts. Shoes. Socks. Underwear. I even remember my cousin had a talking He-Man toothbrush holder. I can still hear its creepy, mechanical voice to this day. “I’m He-Man! I’m strong as can be! And I brush my teeth! With reg-u-larity!”
He-Man was, to the best of my knowledge, the first Grand Success of toy-maker capitalism, though I’m sure Howdy Duty’s fanbase might fight me on that one. But the fact remains that, in this case at least, crass commercialism came before creativity. And, as with so much else, we have Ronald Reagan to blame. Thanks to the wave of anti-government sentiment generated by the collective bummer that was the 1970s, Regan rode into office assuring all of us that “government is the problem.” Particularly those “Washington buerocrats” at the Federal Trade Commission. In response to the rampant corporatism of the 60s, the Nixon-Ford FTC spent the 1970s with an increased scope of operations, inspecting mergers and calling corporate raiders to account for false advertising, monopoly building, and various other shady activities.
This led to the inevitable backlash, with cereal and toy manufactures united with well-placed members of Congress to pass the FTC Improvement Act of 1980. This Orwellian-Trojan horse severely curtailed the FTC’s powers to regulate business, a first step in allowing Greed to become America’s new state religion. Along with a whole host of anti-trust powers, the FTC also lost its ability to regulation advertising to children, something it had considered banning outright in late-70s.
Reagan completed Act One of America’s hostile takeover by big business on February 17, 1981, when he signed Executive Order 12291. This took reform of regulatory commissions out of Congress’ hands, giving the president power to run the damn things like his own private fiefdoms (a power the Executive Branch still retains). It also placed all regulatory agencies under the tyranny of “benefit-cost analysis.” Before enacting a regulation, agencies were now required to run a BCA on it. In the future, if the cost of enforcing a potential regulation outweighed the potential harm to consumers (each measured in almighty, American dollars), that regulation would not be enforced, or even written down in the books.
What’s the problem with that, you say (you mean, greedy, Reagan Democrat, you)? Well, for one thing, it allowed toy companies to colonize our Saturday mornings with shamless commericals, thinly-disguised as shitty cartoon shows. With the FTC barred from worrying about things like “fairness,” or whether or not it’s “right” to spend billions (annually) pumping kids full of commercials, toy and junk food companies (from Mars to McDonalds) seized the initiative. Weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings became the wastelands we know today, and the imaginations of an entire generation were warped by the passive radiation of the glass teat.
All thanks to a line of Conan toys that fell through, for some reason, leaving Mattel (makers of fine Barbie products) holding the bag, scrambling for a way to make money off toys already designed for boys who turned their nose up at all that “doll” crap. Thankfully, Reagan’s love of the “free” market delivered the perfect marketing strategy into Mattel’s collective hands. What better way to sell toys than with a thirty-minute commercial airing weekly on whichever national network is most popular at the moment? Hell, it’s easy as one, two, three.
Step One: Turn your main toy into a muscle bound, invincible symbol of all that is good. The kid’s’ll love him because, after all, they all want to be muscle bound steroid-sniffers when they grow up, members of what Jello Biafra rightly called, “the Marky Mark master race.” Step Two: Turn one of your secondary toys into the incarnation of all that is evil. Evenly split the rest of your toys between the two extremes, giving the hero some Odious Comic Relief for sidekicks and the villain some Odious Comic Relief for henchmen. Be sure to dumb down that humor as much as possible. They are children watching, after all. Let’s not waist good sophistication on America’s brats. And besides, if we get too smart about this, Tipper Gore’s sure to notice, which’ll totally fuck up Step Three: Profit!
The Japanese, thanks to their own historical circumstances, are grand masters of this particular kind of capitalism. They perfected it way back in the 60s (go, go, Ultraman!) and jumped on this bandwagon faster than teenage girls with a boy band tied up and at their mercies. Thus G.I. Joe, The Transformers, the Silver Hawks, the Thunder Cats, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…and tonight’s subject, the grand daddy of ’em all, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
A live-action adaption was inevitable given He-Man’s built-in success. When I first heard about it, I was not terribly excited. I never liked He-Man, and I liked my dumb, jock cousin even less. If you graphed my level of excitement as this film progressed a picture emerges very much like the precipitous drop-off into the Marianas Trench. Masters of the Universe is the third stinker in a row for writer David Odell (the other two being 1984’s Supergirl and 1983’s Tommy Lee Jones pirate-stinker, Nate and Hayes), who should’ve quit while he was ahead back in ’82, when he penned The Dark Crystal. The first (and, it looks like, only) theatrical release to director Gary Goddart’s credit, Masters is little more than an experiment in inciting hatred, loathing, and boredom. Enough to drive the audience out of their skulls.
Speaking of which, it’s time to meet Skeletor (Frank “Dracula” Langella, scraping the bottom of some personal barrel), an Evil warlock obsessed with destroying All That is Good. Why? Fuck your “why”: like Godzilla, Skeletor just is, a force of natural evil all his own. And as the film begins it looks as if Evil has finally triumphed over Good (the most realistic plot twist in the entire movie). Sorta. Skeletor’s Forces of Evil have taken Castle Grayskull, a stronghold of Good, situated on the border between Light and Darkness in the mystical land of Eternia. With the Sorceress of Greyskull (Christina Pickles), keeper of He-Man’s fabled Power, captive and shackled, Skeletor plans to leech Power out of her until the stars align just right and the Power of Greyskull is transferred unto him. (Cue Evil Laughter, something Langella does well.)
But not all is lost. Outside Castle Greyskull, He-Man (Dolph “GR-13” Lundgren), his occasional love interest, Teela (Chelsea Field), and the unambiguously-named Man-at-Arms (Jon Cypher) are leading a three-person resistance against Skeletor’s evil. After all, He-Man HAS THE POWER…whatever that might be. In any case, Our three Heroes are kicking bad guy ass (doesn’t look so hard, really) when they come across an annoying little troll creature named Gwildor (Billy Barty), who will be our Odious Comic Relief for the remainder. In his own warped way, Gwildor is a bit of a genius. He’s managed to invent a device he calls the Cosmic Key. The Key, as its name suggests, can open little wormholes to anywhere in Existence provided you play the correct tones on the Key’s little synthesizer board. (Jesus Christ, we must be in the 80s!)
Can you guess how Skeletor got into Castle Grayskull? I knew you could. Now the Whole of Existence stands to be remade by a mad wizard and it’s all Gwildor’s fault. Does anyone suggest ripping the little bastard’s head off for imperelling the Fabric of Reality? No. Teela comes close, and by God I’m behind her all the way (though not as physically as I’d like to be). Too bad He-Man overrules her. Instead, Our Heroes use Gwildor’s Key to enter the Castle and end up in a big laser fight with Skeletor’s troops. Panicing in the most Odious tradition, Gwildor drills an escape hole in reality into which Our Heroes blindly leap, falling from the mystical heights of Eternia into budget conscience environs of Southern California, circa 1986, where all Bad Movies go after they’ve spent their entire budget on ray gun battles and elaborate set pieces. And remember, everything here is an elaborate set piece, especially Dolph Lundgren’s chest. After all, he is the hero.
Which begs the question: If he’s the Hero, then why does so much of the script focus on the two idiotic teenagers Our Heroes hook up with on Earth? The fact that those two are played by Courtney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot. Both now-semi-famous actors are languishing in the Hell that is Brainless Crap Movies, and it shows in the minimal enthusiasm they bring to their roles. (For the uninitiated, Cox and McNeill are better know as Monica E. Geller Bing of New York and Ensign/Lieutenant (J.G.) Tom Paris of the Federation Starship Voyager, respectively). It’s as if they both know that appearing in this movie will haunt them for the rest of their careers, a Skeletor in their closets. I’m sure they both scratched this one of their resumes before applying to the jobs that made them famous.
As for Dolph, well…he is what he is (he said, lapsing into Wayism): a big, blond brick with a head. A head that sometimes speaks, but never seems to speak with any emotion. He stands around and looks impressive and says his lines and walks off screen. It’s all nice and text-book neat; as mechanical as the reanimated dead soldier he would go on to play 5 years later. Half the time he sounds dead asleep. The other half of the time, Dolph sounds as if he’s chased a bottle of Valium with a carton of Orange Juice-flavored Voldka.
Then there’s Frank Langella. Yes, Dracula himself. Because a stop-motion or animatronic skull head would have sunk another cool mil into the SPFX budget, Langella sweats out the entire picture in several pounds of Skeletor make-up, giving ol’ Skull Face the look of a desiccated, walking corpse. All well and good, though it certainly lowers Skeletor’s creepiness factor a bit. At least Langella can act. Somewhat. Not that melodramatic despots are all that hard to play. And as melodramatic despots go, Langella’s Skeletor is no Darth Vader. And he’s certainly no Emperor Palpatine. But then again, who is, right? Not everyone has his luck with make-up artists.
So. You have a cast of has-beens and will-bees acting out a script taylor made to showcase as many new toys as possible. Effects galore, of course. But big freakin’ deal. There are no people in this movie, only action figures and mannequins. And (despite/because of the less than stellar effort they put forth) the mannequin’s efforts to look and act like real humans only serves to highlight how…well…plastic everyone really is here.
And where the hell is She-Ra? I like She-Ra. She, after all, had boobies. And she pranced around in a metal bikini before Xena made it cool. Who wouldn’t have paid to see…Helen Slater, say…light up the screen in one of those numbers?
Instead, we’re forced to content ourselves with Teela’s Lara Croft outfit, and Meg Foster as Skeletor’s Number Two, Evil-Lyn. We can count the number of Star Wars rip-offs until we’re blue in the face. Let’s see: armored, evil henchmen who can’t hit the broad side of Dolph Lundgren? Check. Swords that reflect laser blasts? Yep. Magic lightning from Skeltor’s fingers? Totally. Sword fights with lightsaber sound effects? Someone falling into a bottomless pit? Ponderous, expository conversations? Oh yeah. It’s enough to make you wish for a pod race, or pause to consider how Star Wars really has ruined movies forever.
These things, and pondering how anyone in their right mind could let David Odell write a script, are the only bright lights of an otherwise onerous experience. That, and Jimi Hendrix. I’m not opposed to He-Man and his friends crossing over into our world. I’m more against He-Man as a concept. His storyline is the stuff of Tutonic legends, Norman poetry, and (yes) Saturday morning cartoons. A flat plane, lacking even The Transformers or Dino-Riders distinctiveness, I can only speculate on the true source of He-Man’s popularity. I can only hope the Marky Mark master race (like my cousin) grew up and out of this steroidal phase…though something about the state of our nation, culture, and world tells me they really haven’t. It must be the blind worship of power for its own sake, at the expense of everything else, and the constant, greedy striving to either possess or protect whatever the hell power is. In our culture’s case, money is powers most-accessible representative.
During a key scene in John Carpenter’s They Live a blind preacher asks, “Why do we worship greed?” One look at He-Man and his Masters of the Universe should be all you’d need. It may not be the whole answer, but it is a key part in the great puzzle that is our strange, new world. So its not a total waste of your time. Just be prepared to hammer something through your cerebral cortex. It’s the only way to survive with your childhood delusions intact.