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Movies that were supposed to launch franchises (but didn’t): Masters of the Universe

It’s not unusual for movies to inspire toys.  But up until recently, it was pretty rare for a movie to be based on a toyline.  The 1987 sci-fi saga, Masters of the Universe, was one of the first attempts to launch a movie franchise based on plastic action figures.  But due to bad timing, budgetary constraints and a host of other factors, He-Man did not have the power to conquer the box office.  Instead, the planned sequel was scrapped and the sets were re-purposed for a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.  It’s another tale of epic failure from Cannon Films.

One frequent complaint about Masters of the Universe is that it is seen as a Star Wars rip-off.  The truth is, ripping off George Lucas was nothing new for He-Man.  The origin of the toy-line the movie is based on goes back to Mattel’s fateful decision not to make Star Wars toys.  Like just about every other major toy maker, Mattel passed on the Star Wars license which eventually went to an upstart company based in Cincinnati.  The Kenner line of Star Wars action figures redefined movie tie-ins and dominated the boy’s toy market for years.

Mattel is known as the home of Barbie.  When it came to toys for boys, the company struggled.  Their Big Jim line couldn’t compete with Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, so Mattel decided to take a chance on some licensed properties they hoped would be the next Star Wars.  Unfortunately, they ended up paying too much for the rights to make toys based on movies like Flash Gordon and Clash of the Titans.  After a few costly misfires, the guys at Mattel decided to come up with their own Star Wars-killer.

Mattel hired researchers who surveyed 5-year old boys to determine what type of character would appeal to them the most.  A common theme emerged in which the boys wanted to wield more power in their lives.  Based on their research, Mattel determined that their new toy line would be based on a barbarian character like Conan – only different enough to win the inevitable law suit.  The character was named He-Man to reinforce his strength and his hair was changed to blond to make him look less like Robert E. Howard’s creation.

The initial toy line was a hit right from the start.  He-Man action figures were larger and more impressive than the puny Kenner dolls.  In the years that followed, George Lucas decided to give the Star Wars brand a break and the Masters of the Universe were there to fill the void.  With the help of a syndicated cartoon, sales for He-Man toys surged.  Thus the toy line that had been designed to compete with a movie tie-in became popular enough to make the jump to the big screen.

The studio that bought up the rights to He-Man was Cannon Films.  Through most of the decade, Cannon had been very successful churning out cheap action movies.  The budgets were kept low enough that the hits more than made up for the misses.  But in the mid-eighties, Cannon started to get ambitious.  They wanted to expand their business model to compete with the mainstream Hollywood movie studios.  To that end, they made movies like Masters of the Universe and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

Unfortunately, Cannon’s ambitions exceeded their reach.  After securing $36 million dollars from Warner Brothers to make Superman IV, Cannon slashed the budget of that film to just $17 million dollars.  The rest of Warner Brothers’ money was applied to making Masters of the Universe instead.  But even that proved insufficient.  In order to make Masters of the Universe on a Cannon-sized budget, the majority of the movie was set on Earth instead of He-Man’s home world, Eternia.

The idea was to do a kind of Wizard of Oz in reverse.  Like if the Scarecrow and Tin Man came to Dorothy instead of the other way around.  The movie opens with the villain Skeletor (Frank Langella) defeating the heroes who protect Castle Greyskull.  He-Man and his allies escape to Earth using a portal opened by a Cosmic Key which is found by two unassuming teenagers one of which is played by future Friend, Courtney Cox.  Skeletor and his army follow He-Man to earth in order to retrieve the Key.

Fans were naturally disappointed that the movie wasn’t set in the fantasy world of Eternia.  They were equally upset that many of their favorite characters from the cartoon and toy line didn’t make it into the movie.  Originally, characters like Beastman had larger parts in the script.  But Mattel objected to having their characterized killed off on-screen, so the film-makers came up with their own bad guys that they could vaporize as they saw fit.  According to director Gary Goddard:

New characters were necessary as we wanted to have the flexibility to wound them, or as in the case of Saurod, even destroy them. With the “regulars” Mattel had strong feelings about keeping them pretty “as is” from their toy line, although we did convince them that if we were going to use a character like Beastman (which Mattel definitely wanted) that would we want to make him more believable – less cartoon like. So, I created the new characters Karg, Blade, and Saurod. Mattel loved them all and immediately added them to the toyline.

Goddard found himself stuck between the daily demand from the toy company and budget cuts from a studio that was close to filing Chapter 11.  Mattel was increasingly desperate for the movie to be a success.  In 1986, sales for He-Man toys fell off a cliff.  Partially, this was attributed to watering down the line with too many ancillary characters.  And yet, Mattel couldn’t resist incorporating the new characters from the movie (characters that wouldn’t need to exist at all if they had been more flexible) into the toy line.  The end result was that the He-Man movie lacked familiar faces that fans wanted to see and the toyline was expanded using characters from a movie that disappointed its fans.

Mattel also insisted that He-Man could not kill any of his adversaries.  This resulted in Skeletor’s army being changed into armored robots reminiscent of Stormtroopers.  “The reason we came up with the robot-like sentry guards, and reason we never saw them underneath the masks, was NOT because we were emulating Star Wars (as some critics positioned), it was because the compromise I reached with Mattel was ‘so long as it does not look like He-Man is killing PEOPLE, then he can blast away’.”

By the time the movie was released in 1987, the heat had faded from He-Man.  The cartoon ended two years prior and the toys were in a sales slump.  Any hopes that the movie would revive the toyline were quickly dashed.  The movie opened in third place at the box office and quickly fell out of theaters.  But Cannon had been so confident of the film’s success that they had already started production on a sequel, Masters of the Universe 2: Cyborg.  Although he appears to die in the movie’s final battle, the movie’s end credits revealed that Skeletor survived to battle He-Man again in the sequel.

Dolph Lundgren, who never liked the character, would have been replaced by pro surfer Laird Hamilton.  Langella most likely would have returned as he says he loved playing Skeletor.  But the plug got pulled on the sequel because Cannon failed to pay Mattel for the rights.  There is also speculation that Mattel walked away from the project after seeing the first movie and reading the script for the sequel.  Something similar was going on with Cannon’s proposed Spider-Man movie.  Both Spider-Man and the Masters of the Universe sequel would have been directed by Albert Pyun.  Realizing that he was about to be unemployed, Pyun came up with the money-saving idea to reuse the costumes and sets designed for the cancelled movies to make the sci-fi movie Cyborg instead.

While Masters of the Universe failed to launch a franchise, He-Man is still a part of pop culture.  Mattel has made several mostly unsuccessful attempts to restart the toyline.  These efforts have included a new cartoon and licensed comic books.  For several years, there have been rumors of a new He-Man movie.  Most recently, writer-director David Goyer was attached with a possible release date set for 2019.

More Movies that were supposed to…

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Posted on December 29, 2017, in Movies, movies that were supposed to... and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Masters of the Universe was all over certain cable channels at the end of the 1980s; I saw it, at least partly, a few times when there was nothing else on. It wasn’t terribly good, but it might have done better financially if it had come out when the cartoon series was at its most popular.

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    • At least Frank Langella was fun to watch as he tried to chew Castle Greyskull to the ground. 🙂

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      • According to Langella, his grandson was a fan of the show and the character. He was really excited to take the part because Skeletor has no limits. You can go as big as you want, and go big he did. Clearly he had more fun than Lundgren who was not happy to be there.

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  2. Did you guys watch the documentary series ‘The Toys That Made Us’ on Netflix yet? There’s a great episode on He-man.

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    • I did watch it. I had been kicking around the idea of writing this article for a while. The background on Mattel’s history with the toy line is part of what inspired me to go ahead and get this one in before year end. I really enjoyed all four episodes of that series. I hope they make more.

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    • I just saw the trailer a couple of days ago. I will be watching that soon.

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  3. I remember going with my dad to see Master Of The Universe a few weeks before school started in 1987. I also remember watching it on TV a few years later. It seems to have something of a cult following among people my age.

    Like the Transformers movie from the previous year (and like Super Mario Bros in 1993), it suffered form being released after the toys/cartoon had peaked in terms of popularity. At the time it was released, it had been a while since I’d seen a He-Man cartoon on TV.,

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    • I was too old for He-Man. I would have been 11 when the toys hit the shelves in 1982 and I remember thinking they looked kind of cool, but I was getting out of toys by that time. I had friends who were a little younger than me who got the first wave of He-Man toys. Before the TV show, they seemed like they were aimed at older kids. The comic books that came with them were a bit more Conan-ish. There was no Orko or Prince Adama. He-Man was just a barbarian who fought a guy with a skull for a head. That all seemed cool enough. Then the cartoon started in 1983 and it was clearly aimed at little kids. I was immediately turned off of He-Man, but the kid I babysat loved it!

      The story of how the cartoon came to be is kind of interesting. The guys at Mattel met with the second biggest toy store chain in America and they were asked “How will kids know who your characters are if there isn’t a movie tie-in like Star Wars?” One of the Mattel guys on the fly answered that all of the action figures would come packed with comic books. That answer pleased Kid’s World enough to place an order, so they had to find guys to come up with the mini-comics. Then they met with Toys R Us. The Toys R Us representative said “Wait a minute! I thought you said these toys were for 5 year olds. Five year olds don’t read!” So the Mattel guys said, “Oh yeah, did we forget to mention we are going to make a series of animated TV movies?” With the promise of TV support, Toys R Us got on board. Of course there were no TV movies planned.

      So, Mattel contacted Filmation who had done a Saturday morning cartoon about a barbarian named Blackstar. Filmation said, “Yeah we can do that, but for about the same price we could make an entire series.” So, Mattel upped their order to a full show. The show greatly changed the backstory of all the characters to bring them in line with what you could do on a kid’s show. At the time, there were pretty strict rules about using animation to advertise toys so they had to be careful. The He-Man cartoon sparked some controversy that it was basically a half-hour long toy commercial. They couldn’t have added a ton of violence on top of that.

      The cartoon ended in 1985 and toy sales collapsed in 1986. Some of the guys at Mattel blame that on the introduction of She-Ra in 1985. They claim that when little boys saw their sisters playing with She-Ra it made He-Man uncool. You get the sense there was some rivalry between the men and women at Mattel. Mattel was founded primarily on Barbie which was created by Ruth Handler. The Barbie line was mostly run by women. When men stepped in, sales usually suffered. My impression was that Masters of the Universe was the guys at Mattel getting together to assert themselves and it worked for a time. In fact, it was so successful that the women running the Barbie line wanted a piece of that action. And thus, She-Ra was born.

      By the time Masters of the Universe was released in 1987, the cartoon had been off the air for two years and the toy sales had crashed. Mattel hoped the movie would revive their flagging toyline, but that would have required a movie a lot better than the one they made. On Cannon’s budget, it would have taken a miracle.

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      • I was 4 in 1982 so that means I fell right into that audience.

        I had a few action figures and I watched the cartoon. But I was never a fanatic.

        The She-Ra reference reminds me of the animated film Secret Of The Sword which teamed up He-Man and She-Ra. I saw that one in theaters when it was released. Today, it seems to have been pretty much forgotten. Not surprising as it was basically a toy commercial if I remember correctly.

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        • I don’t know if I was ever aware of Secret of the Sword. If I was, I forgot all about it. It was released theatrically??

          Edit: Oh yeah, I Googled it and the poster looks familiar.

          Any opinions from any He-Man fans regarding the impact of She-Ra on the main toyline’s popularity?

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      • You must have watched The Toys That Made Us. I watched all 4 episodes today. Loved it.

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  4. David S. Goyer, “Batman Superman” scribe and “Blade Trinity” director, is in talks to direct “He-Man and The Masters of the Universe” for Sony Pictures.
    This does seem like scraping the barrel, couldn’t Sony have found someone more suitable to be in talks with about directing He-Man?

    In this video, @AndreEinherjar will cover Goyer’s past output as both a writer and director, and discuss how the issue of expiring rights as well as release date worries may be forcing Sony’s hand.

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