Can the Masters of the Universe reboot finally have the power?

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Sep 17, 2020, 12:50 PM EDT (Updated)

Considering Hollywood’s contemporary culture fixated on wanton reboots of remakes of reboots, one would think that a hugely popular franchise from the perpetually pilfered decade of the 1980s in Masters of the Universe would already have a big-screen reboot effort pondering cash-craving sequels by now. However, recent news indicates that the inertia-plagued He-Man reboot project has been seemingly sent back to the drawing board, with Sony Pictures hiring a new scribe in Christopher Yost to (yet again) rewrite the already-rewritten script.

It’s difficult to determine what kind of behind-the-scenes, not-so-fabulous secrets might be the exact cause for this He-Man movie’s apparent performance anxiety. However, it is likely that this latest writer turnover could again delay the momentum the project seemed to enjoy with its recent reveals, such as the Twitter-based reveals of a script cover page and a look at He-Man’s steed, Battle Cat.

With that in mind, we have decided to take a look at the past (and possible future) trials and tribulations of this long-gestating revival movie that’s trying to bring back the blond-locked, loincloth-sporting sword-swinger dubbed “The Most Powerful Man in the Universe.”

A Masterful Mythos Mixture

The Masters of the Universe toy line arrived in 1982 as the culmination of years of Mattel’s conceptual marketing ideas that integrated the desire for a sword-swinging, musclebound Conan the Barbarian archetype with the science fiction elements that were contemporaneously successful for the Star Wars films. As is often the case when marketing teams sightlessly spitball trendy concepts mandated from the top down, the result is an encompassing amalgam of familiar elements that was almost akin to Jack Kirby’s New Gods comic series from the 1970s. Yet this particular story’s otherworld setting of Eternia is depicted as a feudal planet filled with various savage exotic creatures, permeated with both magic and mysticism, while simultaneously embracing the anachronistic addition of outer-space elements with futuristic weapons and vehicles. The result was a tremendously successful line that cemented itself as a global phenomenon solidly until it began to fizzle after five years.

The story Mattel attributed to the action figure line was first told through miniature comic books included with each figure, which first depicted He-Man as a tribal barbarian who wanders the mystical land of Eternia after being endowed with super powers from magical armor and weapons given to him by a Goddess. However, the eventually evolved, more acknowledged lore established by a briefly-run DC comic-book series and later in the popular 1983-1984 Masters of the Universe animated series, depicts He-Man as the alter ego of Eternia’s royal slacker son, Prince Adam, who secretly transforms into the hero Eternia needs when the Sorceress of the ominous emerald Castle Grayskull pairs him with the ancient “Power Sword.”

After holding up the sword and saying the words “By the Power of Grayskull. I have the power!”, Adam is imbued with the power of He-Man and his cowardly talking green pet tiger, Cringer, is also transformed into his fearsome, armored steed Battle Cat, on whom he rides toward trouble. He was regularly joined by an evolving array of companions such as Man-At-Arms, Stratos, Ram Man, Man-E-Faces, miniature floating wizard Orko and his would-be love interest, Teela. With them, He-Man battled Eternia’s primary threat in the blue-skinned, yellow-skull-faced fiend, Skeletor, and his vast lineup of henchmen like Beast Man, Mer-Man, Trap-Jaw, Tri-Klops, etc.

He-Man Goes Hollywood

Pictured left to right: Dolph Lundgren, Chelsea Field and Jon Cypher in Masters of the Universe (1987).

As a result of the ever-expanding variety of characters and fantastical atmosphere, the success of the MOTU franchise inevitably expanded into a spinoff series/toy line aimed at girls, She-Ra: Princess of Power, focusing on Prince Adam’s twin sister, named Adora, who, as an infant, was separated across another dimension. She similarly becomes endowed with mystical-based sword powers, transforming into the heroic She-Ra. That series’ storyline teams her with a band of colorful rebels to liberate the land of Etheria from an evil occupation from the militaristic forces of the fanged, bone-faced Hordak. However, She-Ra would be first heralded into the pop-culture ether not on toy shelves or on television, but rather on the big screen in a 1985 animated feature called He-Man and She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword. The film, a glorified pilot for the She-Ra cartoon series, was released domestically, grossing $7.6 million; respectable, considering its $2 million budget. With multiple irons in the fire proverbial fire, the time seemed ripe to make the transition to a live-action iteration.

The proper live-action Masters of the Universe film arrived in 1987 to a collective “meh” from both casual moviegoers and even the legions of hardcore He-Man fans, whose enthusiasm were already starting to wane with time. While sporting a script from an untested director in Gary Goddard and a writer in David Odell, who was just coming off the notoriously campy 1984 Supergirl film (and, to his credit, 1982’s classic The Dark Crystal), who may not have seemed like an auspicious team, the now-defunct studio Canon Films seemed to think they had struck gold when filling the role of He-Man with a burgeoning blond musclebound leading man in Dolph Lundgren. Fresh from his successful stint as the juiced Soviet propaganda-pushing pugilist Ivan Drago in 1985’s Rocky IV, Lundgren was, as far as practical purposes were concerned, the perfect live-action He-Man available at the time.

Lundgren, an actor still new to novel concepts such as lines, was paired opposite a respected and compelling actor in Frank Langella, who played the villainous Skeletor, famously influenced by his young son, who was a fan of the character. Yet Langella’s Skeletor may not have been immediately recognizable to his son, as he sported a bizarre papier-mache-looking white skull face, with his eyes visible within the orbital sockets. While the film has since garnered its own cult status among a segment of the audience, it was noticeably bereft of the feudal and savage elements that captured imaginations, instead leaning more toward a dark, futuristic aesthetic. Additionally, the arrived plot point of having He-Man and his companions bring their battle to an American suburb on Earth and team with teenage siblings grieving for their parents seemed more like cheap sentiment and a cost-saving cop-out. Plus, many of the more iconic characters from the lore, specifically in the villains department, were noticeably absent.

Masters of the Universe grossed a meager $17.3 million off its $22 million budget, rendering the film a certified flop that was partly attributed to the collapse of Canon Films. Attempts to revive the MOTU franchise continued for decades, with an underperforming outer-space-set 1989 toy line and early 1990s animated series revival and even a nostalgia-filled, highly regarded 2002 revival animated series. Yet, to this day, He-Man still has his fanbase, scattered as they might be at this point. Mattel has been selling a long-running premium line of retro MOTU “Classics” figures sold exclusively on its website, and DC Comics recently rebooted and updated the comic-book series, which even enjoyed a big crossover event last year with DC superheroes. However, the much-needed cinematic tentpole to revive the franchise back into A-list status in the same way that Hollywood has done for properties like Transformers and even, to some extent, G.I. Joe still has yet to manifest.

Too Many Cooks In The Castle Grayskull Kitchen

While the years have seen plenty of rumblings about a big-screen reboot of Masters of the Universe, they typically subsided quickly. However, the particular effort that grabs current headlines first came to life in 2010 when the MOTU property first came into Sony’s hands after Warner Bros. were unable to capitalize on their acquisition with a viable approach. Initially written by Predators scribes Mike Finch and Alex Livtak, the first form of the script was intended to be paired with the rather unconventional directorial choice of Kung-Fu Panda helmer, John Stevenson. It seemed to be an intriguing team-up that may have indicated a desire from Sony to see a hard action script put through a filter of lightheartedness and levity. Yet, that curious creative coalition never ended up coming to fruition and MOTU went back to the depths of project purgatory.

However, in early 2012, the gears seemed to be moving on the MOTU movie project with the appointment of Jon M. Chu to the director’s chair. A young helmer (he was 32 at the time) known primarily for choreography-heavy dance films such as sequels in the Step Up franchise, as well as fluff such as the pop-star documentary Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, Chu would have seemed like a perplexingly absurd choice had he not just landed the directorial gig for another huge toy tent-pole sequel in the year-long delayed 2013 release G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Adapting the drastically different He-Man property still sounded like a tall order, but was starting to sound a bit more feasible. Likewise, his ambition for the project seemed to match the expectations of the adult fans who grew up following the exploits of He-Man in the 1980’s.

In a move that seemed to mirror Sony’s initial creative intentions with their pairing of Finch/Livtak and Stevenson, the dance movie maestro in Chu was tasked to work off a version of the script that fell into the explosive, action-minded bloody hands of The Expendables 2 and The Equalizer writer, Richard Wenk. In an interview with Topless Robot in March 2013, Chu expressed his desire to delve deep into the MOTU mythology, focusing on the languages and culture of its setting in the planet Eternia. From the perspective of tone, he planned for a mix of darkness while not allowing it to become overwhelming. According to Chu:

"We're going for slightly more serious, and I wouldn't say "serious" as a dark tone you don't necessarily want He-Man to be in, but it's not campy. We're not going campy. It's sort of an origin story of how He-Man came to be, and to me that gives you a lot of opportunity to create real culture in this world."

Chu was attached to the project for about 14 months in total until the announcement came in October 2013 that he had mysteriously moved on from the film. Not long afterwards, it was revealed that Chu had jumped onboard to direct another “truly, truly outrageous” 1980’s toy property adaptation in this October’s Jem and the Holograms. Additionally, the literary tenure of Richard Wenk had also come to an end with Sony handing this potent plunder of a property over to perennial Pirates of the Caribbean franchise scribe, Terry Rossio.

Wadlow Embraces Depth and Breadth

Much like the promise of a pirate, Rossio’s run on the MOTU script was fleeting and by April 2014, it was announced that Kick-Ass 2, Never Back Down and Cry­_Wolf director Jeff Wadlow, who was actually in contention to direct the Rossio-written version, was tapped to “re-re-rewrite” the script. For Wadlow, the gig (in spite of the divisive Kick-Ass 2,) represented some serious career momentum, arriving not long after having been tasked to write the script for Fox’s X-Men franchise spinoff, X-Force; a gig that could still potentially land him in the director’s chair for that film.

Filling the authorial (and possibly the directorial) vacancy of MOTU represented a life-long dream to Wadlow, a self-confessed childhood obsessive of the franchise. While the trades and blogs brandished his burgeoning film resume, Wadlow went into far more intimate details of his personal connection to the property in a podcast for fan site called “Roast Gooble Dinner.” In Episode 127, recorded on August 22, 2014 and premiering the following December 31, Wadlow described walking into a meeting with executives from Sony Pictures and its brand subsidiary, Columbia Pictures and flying his fanboy flag in the most effective way possible by bringing his actual childhood MOTU toys, laying them on the conference table, and declaring them as the reason he became a filmmaker.

The rather grand genre pastiche of the property makes MOTU a rather problematic creative process. Yet, Wadlow's initial mandate was to use his skills as a storyteller to make sense to mainstream audiences of what he calls, "a crazy world." Seemingly acknowledging that notion, Wadlow also identified a noteworthy narrative issue when it comes to finding the right depiction of He-Man that may be the source for much of the ambivalence behind the adaptation effort. According to Wadlow on the challenges of the MOTU script:

"I’ve read a lot of different drafts that other people have done and all outstanding scripts, but they sort of struggled with that because. I think of it as sort of this Superman trap where you have a character, he’s all-powerful, then there’s not a lot of drama, right? Because how can he fail if he’s all-powerful?"

For Wadlow, that narrative dilemma seemed to be a challenge he desperately wanted to tackle. In fact, when commenting on the intrinsically derivative nature of the MOTU property, Wadlow admits that, “It’s so derivative of so many different things, that it’s actually utterly unique as a result.” While not wanting to delve into a Christopher Nolan-esque brooding bonanza of bleakness, he did seem to want an introspective character approach. Wadlow’s passion was palpable and the panel of podcast hosts seemed to be convinced of his qualifications and were excited about what he was potentially bringing to the film. His intention to avoid the mistakes of the 1987 film was also evident with his expressed desire to focus more on the quintessence of the classic mythology; specifically as it relates to the pathos and transformation process of the Prince Adam/He-Man character. Additionally, he felt it was important that Masters of the Universe lives up to its billing by adequately presenting an actual universe of intriguing characters, which was so vital to the franchise popularity. As Wadlow explained:

“The depth of the world and the breadth of the characters, I think is really important. I know a lot of comic book movies, like the first movie, it’s the hero and they only sort of pull one other character from the bench because they’re scared of alienating the audience. But, I think with Masters you just got to own it. they have all these incredible characters. If you don’t try to populate the movie with as many of them as possible you’re not leaning into the strength of the brand.”

Indeed, the passion and vision apparently demonstrated in Wadlow’s draft of the MOTU script was also shared by Columbia Pictures executive DeVon Franklin, who took to Twitter this past January to post a cover picture of the completed composition. A few months later, further fueled by excitement over the Wadlow version, Franklin tweeted a photo of what was presumably pre-production concept art for He-Man’s steed Battle Cat. It certainly seemed that, after years of lollygagging, that the MOTU project was finally on its way to production, working off the words of Wadlow, who was also campaigning to direct the picture. (Which, for all we know, could still happen.) However, his emotional, powerfully promising tenure on the script would eventually not come to pass.

Yost to the Rescue?

Seemingly indicating that Sony Pictures and partner, Escape Artists had a lingering issue with what seemed to be an auspicious outing with the MOTU script revision turned in just last December 24 by Jeff Wadlow, a recent report from Variety revealed the literary acquisition of screenwriter Christopher Yost for yet ANOTHER rewrite. At the moment of this writing, nothing has been revealed in regards to why this step was necessary, or if Jeff Wadlow is still attached to the MOTU film in any way other than being a name on the attribution graveyard gracing the cover of the next script iteration. Likewise, all parties are remaining mum.

New scribe Yost’s work was primarily seen in the animated field with comic book adaptation efforts like the current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated revival series, The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and Wolverine and the X-Men. However, the highly publicized creative quandaries that plagued 2013 Marvel movie sequel, Thor: The Dark World yielded him an opportunity to tweak that film’s script. Apparently satisfied with his work, Marvel brought Yost back again to work on the script for 2017’s Asgardian apocalypse threequel, Thor: Ragnarok. With Yost also having written the script to the upcoming Max Steel; a movie adaptation of a toy line also under the same Mattel umbrella as MOTU, could Sony (and Mattel) have finally settled on its storyteller?

Yost’s burgeoning resume as a relief pitcher of sorts for worn, weary scripts could indicate that a good deal of Wadlow’s possibly pathos-filled, character-brewing version could still survive this revision process. However, there is clearly something about Wadlow’s version that was perceived as not being accessible enough to become tent-pole material to either the studio or Mattel, with whom he had previously cited (in the aforementioned podcast) a rather harmonious collaboration. Yost’s work on Thor: The Dark World, a rather uneven effort that is not exactly the most celebrated Marvel Cinematic Universe effort, may have nevertheless proved his ability to properly curate the creative concoctions of several diverse creative forces and transform it into something with a more workable flow. Thor: The Dark Word may not have set the world on fire, but there’s a good chance that Yost’s work on the script may be seen amongst insiders as a salvaging saving grace, going into the third chapter.

Whether or not such a skill would make Yost the prospective savior of the cinematic Eternia remains to be seen. However, if there is a silver lining behind this inexplicable shuffle of scribes, then it would be the notion that, unlike with the hastily rebooted, rights-anchoring The Amazing Spider-Man series, Sony/Columbia seems to be taking a more mindful approach to the MOTU property; not wanting to squander it with a hastily cobbled cash-in. With all the behind-the-scenes dirty laundry that was recently aired between director Josh Trank and 20th Century Fox over the fumbled feckless flop of a Fantastic Four reboot film, the public now knows better than ever about the ways that clashes between a visionary and the studio can poison a picture.

While Fantastic Four will likely get more chances down the road (hopefully over at Marvel,) Masters of the Universe has different variables to consider; especially when it comes to directly aligning its aesthetics with the toy-making input of property owners Mattel, who clearly see this as an opportunity to relaunch He-Man back into the mainstream with a toy line that resonates lucratively with post-millennial groups of children previously unfamiliar with the brand. However, as a number of creative talents are learning, this property has always been a tough nut to crack. Hopefully, Sony is bringing the right weapons to this brutal box-office battlefield.

What do you think this latest writer turnover means for Masters of the Universe? Will it ever get on track? Head down to the comments section and let your voice be heard thoughout all of Eternia!