Cannoncember #9 Masters of the Universe (1987)
When I am bored, I often find myself surfing down Wiki-holes involving obscure and semi-obscure comic book characters and worlds from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. I don’t actually read comic books. Why would I? They’re just funny animal stories for kids! They’re not for grown-ups, like Merchant-Ivory movies. That’s why I subsist on a strict diet of the M and the I. Howard’s End for breakfast! Remains of the Day for lunch! Surviving Picasso for teatime and a motherfucking Golden Bowl before I go to sleep, if you catch my drift.
All I do is watch Merchant-Ivory movies and listen to the music of Insane Clown Posse and that’s why I’m smart as fuck.
During my wiki-surfing, I discovered that the 1987 Cannon Masters of the Universe adaptation starring Dolph Lundgren is semi-covertly a Fourth World movie. They even tried to get Jack Kirby, creator of the Fourth World, Forever People and New Gods, to do the production design but the studio was all, “He sounds like some manner of comics genius who isn’t Stan Lee, so a matter of principle, we’re going to have to fuck him over.”
The studio wouldn’t even let the movie be dedicated to Kirby. Those bastards! After he died, I heard they desecrated his grave. In its embryonic stages in particular the movie may have been designed as an homage to the trippy cosmic worlds Kirby created in the early 1970s, but in its earliest scenes in particular, it plays like a very clumsy, very shameless Star Wars knockoff.
Director Gary Goddard borrows the Leni Rieftenstahl-lite camera angles of George Lucas’ 1977 blockbuster and as played by a scenery-chewing, pig-nosed Frank Langella, Skeleton cuts an unmistakably Darth Vader-like figure of infinite darkness. He-Man (Dolph Lundrgren, clearly trying to will himself out of the movie and into a happier place) becomes a Luke Skywalker-like blonde hunk of destiny fated to rebel against an evil, vaguely intergalactic Fascist regime and the freakish menagerie of mercenaries Skeletor dispatches to do his bidding, (Beast Man, Blade, Saurod and Karg), wouldn’t look out of place listening to the house band jam down at the Cantina.
Watching the opening credits inspired a surge of excitement and anticipation within me. The credits are full of heavy hitters. Legendary cutter Anne V. Coates, Oscar-winner for Lawrence of Arabia, as editor! Visual effects from Richard Edlund, veteran of Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi! Music from Bill Conti! Can’t do much better than Frank Langella as Skeletor.
I got excited, dear reader. I genuinely did. Maybe this would be different! How deliciously naive I remain even after all these years! Masters of the Universe aspires to be Star Wars by way of Thor but as is often the case with this particular group of filmmakers, they seem to have figured out pretty early on that they didn’t have the money, or the time, or the resources, or the ability to do things the right way so they reconciled themselves to doing things the Cannon way. And that is glorious and ridiculous and terrible in its own right.
On paper, it might have looked like Cannon heads Golan and Globus were chasing Star Wars and Jack Kirby. Onscreen, the results felt a lot more like Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time. They had blockbuster ambitions and a Cannon budget. Consequently, no short cut was spared! No corner was left un-cut, beginning with making a cosmic fantasy epic take place largely in Earth New Jersey to a pair of high school student, tragic orphan Julie Winston (Courtney Cox, during the “Dancing in the Dark” stage of her career) and her boyfriend Kevin Corrigan (Robert Duncan McNeill, who is so bland that he's upstaged by his character's name).
Ah, but before the action in Masters of the Universe can be inexpensively, if anti-climactically, relocated to New Jersey, we open in the fantastical land of Eternia, where villainous Skeletor has captured He-Man’s home, Castle Greyskull, along with its Sorceress (Christina Pickles) thanks to the “Cosmic Key”, invented by Gwildor, a red-haired inventor Billy Barty plays as an even shorter, even more ogre-like version of Harry Knowles or Bruce Vilanch.
He-Man, Gwildor and He-Man’s exceedingly lame sidekicks Man-At-Arms(John Cypher) and his daughter Teela (Chelsea Field) somehow wind up in New Jersey, where somber teenager Julie and her technology-obsessed boyfriend have stumbled upon the Cosmic Key, which they mistake for a very sophisticated Japanese synthesizer.
In his bid to capture arch-nemesis He-Man, Skeletor dispatches the “curious quartet” Beast Man, Blade, Saurod and Karg. Blade looks like an evil, punk-rock, blade-slinging version of French comic book icon Asterik. Beast Man looks like a werewolf who has seen some things. Karg, meanwhile, looks like a Ghoulie with a giant snow white bouffant while Saurod, he’s just a weird-ass looking motherfucker.
Together, these four characters are like an intergalactic Village People and when they prove predictably incapable of capturing He-Man, Skeletor dispatches his second-in-command Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster). You can’’t spell “Evil-Lyn” without first spelling “Evil.” Sure enough, Evil-Lyn is one evil lady.
Nothing good is ever to come of a movie like Masters of the Universe very ostentatiously murdering off a mom and dad. We’re not going to find ourselves surprised at the sensitivity with which this Cannon production handles grief. This is not The Sweet Hereafter. As far as I know, Beast Man doesn’t appear in any of Atom Egoyan’s films.
No, Masters of the Universe is only going to introduce a dramatic parental death its heroine clearly hasn’t processed adequately so that it can horribly exploit it in the creepiest, least merited way. In this case poor, poor Julie spies her dead mom off in the distance while protecting the Cosmic Key.
What luck! How often do you see your beloved parent alive after they die in a plane crash? Not very often, if you’re most people. So Julie is understandably excited until she gives the Cosmic Key to “mom” who at that point is revealed to be Evil-Lyn. She’s evil!
There’s a bit of a Nightmare on Elm Street quality to Evil-Lyn’s deception. Meg Foster is the perfect actress for the role, an otherworldly stunner whose arctic blue eyes made her easier to buy as an outer-space villainess than, say, a high school Biology teacher.
So, anywho, Evil-Lyn pretends to be Julie’s dead mom (which is so not cool) and then Skeletor uses the Cosmic Key to enter the fantastical realm I believe you Earth people know as “New Jersey” and He-Man starts surfing on some crazy air surfboard while squaring against Eternia’s most dastardly villain in the Garden State.
The streets of New Jersey are suspiciously empty in Masters of the Universe. Apparently, no one other than Julie and Kevin Corrigan, He-Man and his sidekicks and Skeletor and his sinister minions dares venture outside.
Also, for a Masters of the Universe motion picture, this seems perversely disinterested in He-Man. At least some of the blame can be laid at Lundgren’s feet. When conceptualizing this series, I saw the box set I would be writing about as containing one documentary about Cannon, five vehicles for Chuck Norris, one of its biggest stars, two vehicles for Sylvester Stallone, a huge star whose services Cannon bought for a very steep fee, a star-making Jean-Claude Van-Damme vehicle and a Masters of the Universe movie starring Dolph Lundgren.
It’s telling that I did not think of Masters of the Universe as a Lundgren vehicle, even though he’s the star. Lundgren seems mortified to be strutting about in a loincloth with a bleached blonde mullet playing a dude named He-Man. That’s understandable but Lundgren’s palpable discomfort robs his performance of fun. Lundgren doesn’t doesn’t even start using his sword until seventy-five minutes in, instead preferring the kind of space blasters you see all the time in swords and sandals epics.
Barty and Langella, both much better actors than Lundgren, are delighted to be over-acting egregiously under layer upon layer of freaky alien make-up. Not surprisingly, they’re a lot more enjoyable to watch than its clearly embarrassed star. When Skeletor refers to Earth as a “primitive and tasteless planet” he’s espousing the viewpoint of a sneering bad guy, but he’s also talking about a Cannon production that takes place largely inn New Jersey, so he’s not exactly wrong.
In the film’s third act, He-Man becomes Skeletor’s slave for an extended sequence that plays like someone’s psychosexual power fantasy just barely sublimated into ostensibly family-friendly fantasy adventure. To make things even more ragingly homoerotic, the nearly naked He-Man is then ordered to kneel before Skeletor and when he refuses to yield to this particular kink of the film’s big baddie, he’s whipped mercilessly with a laser whip by Blade.
It is at this point that Langella’s operatic performance as Skeletor reaches its delirious peak. Langella plays this skeletal weirdo as Shakespeare by way of Mattel, a master of gloomy melodrama whose every line has row upon row of bolded exclamation points. When Skeletor becomes a true Master of the Universe, there’s no stopping Langella or his exquisite hamminess.
“I am a God!” Langellla’s Skeletor thunders climactically, and for a moment the crazy dream of Jack Kirby’s New Gods somehow hitting the screen in a goddamn Masters of the Universe movie becomes a crazy reality. While He-Man was a career low for Lundgren, Langella lists it among his favorite roles and performances for a very good reason: he fucking commits to playing Skeletor with 110 percent of his body and soul in a way that makes you question his sanity and judgment even as he's most of what makes this a guilty pleasure.
Eventually, however, Skeletor tires of whipping He-Man’s unclothed, muscle-bound flesh, and He-Man’s compatriots enter the scene and help him triumph over Skeletor. The Cosmic Key has the ability to send Julie back to Earth at any time she’d like, past or present, so she’s sent back in time just before her parents are scheduled to embark on that fatal plane ride.
It turns out that, with a little help from her otherworldly friends, Julie is able to save her parents’ lives and disrupt the time-space continuum in an ending that’s cheap, sure, but also unexpectedly powerful in a way that recalls Donnie Darko, another film about nostalgia, plane crashes and the curious nature of destiny.
Masters of the Universe has a post-credit “sting” where Skeletor’s bone-white skull pops up in Pepto-Bismol pink waters to vow, “I’ll be back!”
It was not to be, however. A sequel: Masters of the Universe: Cyborg was green-lit, with surfer Laird Hamilton taking over the role of He-Man from Lundgren in a scenario that would have found He-Man returning to Earth and going undercover as a football quarterback, a scenario that anticipated Point Break and sounds so wonderfully idiotic that I'm genuinely bummed this movie was never made, or was made, in a vastly different form.
Alas, Cannon didn’t want to pay Mattel’s fee so Cyborg ended up getting made not as a sequel to Masters of the Universe but rather a vehicle for Lundgren’s future Universal Soldier co-star Jean Claude Van Damme, who, not coincidentally is the star of the 10th and final feature in Cannontober/Vember/Cember, Bloodsport.
It feels good to be nearly done with this project, but I’m also nowhere near done with this subject. I may be almost done with the Cannon box set, but it feels like my days of writing about Cannon movies for this website are far from over.
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