Not Guilty: Masters of the Universe, 30 years later

Contributed by
Jul 6, 2017

In Not Guilty, we look at movies that the general consensus tells us we should feel bad for liking, but that our hearts tell us we should embrace -- "guilty pleasures" we don't feel guilty about. This time we take on the ridiculous commercial disappointment Masters of the Universe.

By the power of Grayskull, can you believe it's been 30 years since the release of Masters of the Universe?

The film premiered in theaters on Aug. 7, 1987, and despite the fact that I wasn't able to see the film on the big screen (I was only a few months old at the time), it was a staple of my childhood. I grew up with siblings who were fans of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and She-Ra: Princess of Power, so I was familiar with the world of Eternia, and the movie was one we regularly watched on weekends along with Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

Directed by Gary Goddard, Masters of the Universe was an attempt to bring that action figure and cartoon franchise to life in live action, with a budget that meant not spending too much time in Eternia and bringing the characters to Earth. Unfortunately, it was a failure at making money and at successfully adapting the franchise, for the most part. It's honestly not a great movie, and if there's one word that comes to mind when I think of it, it's "ridiculous."

Yet I still love it.

Sure, it's probably the nostalgia, but as I watch this movie now, amid my occasional cringing I just can't stop smiling the whole way through. I mean, I'm watching Dolph Lundgren as He-Man running around Earth with two high school seniors played by Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill, the latter of whom would later play Tom Paris on Star Trek: Voyager! Plus, am I the only one that kind of loves the tones that apparently can open a portal to Eternia?

Masters of the Universe is worth revisiting at this milestone anniversary for quite a few reasons. Here's why you should take another look at the film!

The humor

The intentional and unintentional moments of comedy in Masters of the Universe are priceless. For example, the fighting is ridiculous, with its '80s effects, extreme close-ups and multiple shots of He-Man effortlessly grabbing one of Skeletor's minions' laser-guns and toting it along with his sword so that he's shooting things and using his sword to deflect enemy fire.

Then there's the occasional banter between characters that's trying too hard ... and yet is also kind of perfect for them. Take the fight in the music shop where He-Man and Man-at-Arms are defending the others with the key. Whether it's at the beginning when He-Man asks his friend how he feels and Man-at-Arms replies "a little hungry," or when He-Man says "Think they don't like us?" as they're being shot at and Man-at-Arms states, "Nah, they're just lonely. They miss us," the back-and-forth is cheesy but somehow works for a guy in heavy armor and a guy wearing barely any armor fighting lots of evil soldiers in a store exploding around them!

Then there's Teela heading out to help, stating, "Sounded like you need a woman's touch out here," which is so cheesy, yet cool enough for the time that I remember loving seeing a woman in action like that as a kid. Why they thought it was a good idea to immediately follow Teela shooting bad guys with her looking directly into the camera to say dramatically, "Woman-at-Arms," I'll never understand, but hey, why not?

Then there's Gwildor, who was brought on board mostly for comic relief, since they didn't include characters like Orko or Cringer (aka Battle Cat) in the movie. Actually, the main points of conflict come from Gwildor's work, as the eccentric locksmith and inventor created the Cosmic Key that allowed Skeletor and his forces to enter Grayskull and take control. His prototype is the only thing that can help He-Man and the others in turn get back into the castle as well as Eternia after it sends them to Earth.

Gwildor can be annoying to some, but I always liked his character for the most part. Scenes like the one where he steals some food or, one of my personal favorites, tries to talk to a random cow are strange but fun! Whenever the film felt like it was about to take itself too seriously, Gwildor would appear to lighten the mood or offer a life lesson to a human that actually made the moment somehow less cheesy. When Kevin gets all moody about just being a high school keyboard player — which he basically is — and not a song master, Gwildor offers some odd yet encouraging bits of wisdom and inspiration.

Of course, there's also the fantastic amount of overacting among the heroes and villains that will keep you laughing. For example, Cox and McNeill are way too excited when they first discover the Cosmic Key; they have no idea what it is, but they think it's awesome. The Eternians really get into synchronizing their personal locators when they arrive on Earth, and Skeletor has a flair for the dramatic in every scene. For Skeletor it works on a certain level, though, which leads to the second thing I love about this film ...

Skeletor and Evil-Lyn

The villains, specifically Skeletor and Evil-Lyn, are a highlight of the movie. I was shocked to discover as an adult that Skeletor was played by Frank Langella ... and played rather well. Skeletor is menacing and the perfect amount of dramatic for an evil character. He can often be over the top, but it works here. He also has some memorable lines that aren't unforgettable just for being ridiculous, like toward the end, when he gains the power and even his armor gets an upgrade, and he speaks to the captured He-Man, asking where his friends are and to tell him about the loneliness of good, saying, "Is it equal to the loneliness of evil?" He makes some of this terrible dialogue work!

What makes it even better is knowing that Langella actually liked the role. He's called it "one of my very favorite parts" and took it because his son was a fan. It actually makes me kind of disappointed that we didn't get a good or just-as-cheesy sequel with more of Langella, considering the movie had a rare (for the time) post-credits scene revealing that Skeletor survived his dramatic fall into a pit.

Then there's Evil-Lyn, Skeletor's second-in-command, played by Meg Foster. She's smart and relatively competent and will do what she has to in order to get the job done, even if Skeletor never really offers to share power in return. I loved seeing a woman take charge even as a bad guy -- and to top it all off in the end, when it's clear Skeletor can be defeated, she doesn't just wait around for her boss. She takes the opportunity to call a retreat and leave him behind. While there are definitely things that could be improved about the role, Evil-Lyn was always one of my favorite characters!

The randomness of it all

To truly enjoy your rewatch of this film, you really need to just embrace the extreme randomness of it all, kind of like how most of the characters just embrace things without question. Cox's character Julie, after being chased by bad guys who look like monsters and then running into a guy with basically no clothes and a sword, doesn't really protest when he picks her up to take her to a hiding spot. Nor does she seem to think his story is crazy when he explains what's going on. She just accepts it and the adventure continues! McNeill's character Kevin gets appropriately freaked out, but after Julie explains and insists they help their otherwordly new friends, he's also basically on board.

The only one who has a more adverse reaction is the cop Lubic, played by James Tolkan, or "Back to the Future principal guy" as I would refer to him, who basically assembles a meddlesome police force. However, even he sees the light after accidentally being transported to Eternia ... and deciding to stay there! He somehow gets a seat next to the Sorceress and has some other woman at his side. Was he that impressive? How much time has passed? Where did this woman come from? The whole thing makes no sense whatsoever!

Even when other characters do comment on something they think is crazy, they quickly forget about it. When the Eternians first arrive on Earth, clearly Man-at-Arms and Teela think He-Man's plan to just drop in on thousands of Skeletor's forces is ridiculous. Yet He-Man's basically like "Yup! That's what we're going to do when we find the Key!" and ultimately they both just go along with it without protesting ever again.

There's also the fact that Gwildor often disappears and no one knows where he is until he pops up again. Gwildor knows about the Key's importance, but he takes the time to get a car and upgrade it for some reason as well as stop to grab some food ... though I can't fault him for that last one too much, especially since Man-at-Arms does the same thing.

Then there's the ending, where Julie at the last moment thinks of asking Gwildor to send them back in time so she can save her parents, doesn't get the chance, and yet they end up back on that day anyway. It wasn't all a dream, as confirmed by Kevin, but there's no real explanation of how they were sent back. Good for Julie, though!

There's also a bunch of Star Wars nods that I never really noticed as a kid, but there they are ... and they can be distracting if you focus on them too much. From Skeletor sending the mercenaries all lined up to go after He-Man like Darth Vader talking to the bounty hunters in The Empire Strikes Back to Skeletor's falling into the pit in the same way the Emperor falls in Return of the Jedi, it’s amazing seeing all of these rip-offs, er, references.

By suspending wanting anything to make logical sense, reveling in the villainy of Skeletor and Evil-Lyn and allowing yourself to laugh at everything in the movie that amuses you, whether or not you're supposed to, Masters of the Universe becomes a film worth watching in all its ridiculous '80s glory. It'll help if you have some nostalgia for it, like I do, but even if you don't I recommend giving this ridiculous adventure a try.

Good journey!

Do you think Masters of the Universe is fun despite its flaws, or is it just a flop? Tell us in the comments!