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.