Masters of the Universe, or Why My Childhood Was Batshit Insane
By Dan Toland
18 August 2011 — Mattel was one of several toy companies which had turned down the opportunity to make toys based on George Lucas' Star Wars property in 1977, and then by 1981 found itself staring up out of a deep, dark hole as rival toy company Kenner turned that opportunity into a license to print money and hold weekly "money parties" where employees were invited to swim, Scrooge McDuck-style, in the gigantic pile of cash held within their gold bank vault. Mattel, which never seemed to get invited to these parties, spent several years trying and failing to come up with a toy line that could make any kind of a dent in the rabid action figure market Lucas' property had created. They weren't hurting for money, mind — Barbie had seen to that — but the lucrative boy's market eluded them.
According to urban legend, there was a movement to get the merchandizing rights to a then-upcoming film called Conan the Barbarian. Conan was, at this time, a popular comic book and magazine character, and the film adaptation was expected to be a big hit. According to this legend, Mattel bought these rights, then backed off when it turned out that the very R-rated film, which depicted Arnold Schwarzenegger slaughtering and fucking his way across prehistoric Earth, was not likely to inspire the moms of America to shell out for their children. In actuality, designer Roger Sweet (who will tell his story to anyone who will sit still long enough to listen) came up with a toy that was designed to be anything you wanted it to be, depending on which version you bought and what accessories you used with it. Theoretically, it could be an astronaut, a soldier, or whatever. However, the prototype he knocked together was one of a barbarian warrior, and Mattel executives reportedly said, "Yeah, whatever. Let's make that one."
And so, with a mighty shrug of the shoulders and a resounding "meh," Masters of the Universe was born.
Masters of the Universe, first released in 1982, was almost immediately a huge hit with young boys. There are several reasons for this: they were huge (5" compared to the 3.75" Star Wars line), they were colorful, they were electrifying to look at, they came with mini-comics that told the story of an exciting fantasy universe in which the toys were based, and, as this article will hopefully explain, they were completely insane.
That initial wave introduced us to He-Man, a rather embarrassingly named barbarian who had so many muscles his figure couldn't stand up straight; Man-At-Arms, the "heroic master of weapons" in bright orange armor; Stratos, a somewhat goofy flying bird-man; Teela, a goddess in snake armor; and Battle Cat, the bright green tiger He-Man rode around on like a horse. Yeah, really. These were the good guys, who went up against the imaginatively named Beast Man (god-awful character names are a running theme for this line), who was lumbered with the thrilling character blurb of "Savage Henchman;" Mer-Man, an aquatic warlord with a permanent "I-just-crapped-myself" expression on his face; and Skeletor, who justified the existence of the entire line all by his lonesome. A blue-skinned, muscle-bound sorcerer with a skull for a face, Skeletor is 12 pounds of awesome in a 10 pound bag. This is a statement of fact, and I will brook no argument. According to the mini-comics, He-Man and Skeletor each held half of The Power Sword, and if ever Skeletor managed to get his mitts on He-Man's half, this would be enough to take over the universe. Or something. That was the gist. Didn't matter. The toys were awesome. Throw in the Wind Raider vehicle and the Castle Grayskull playset and you were fucking golden.
Around this time, however, the Executive Vice President in Charge of Giving a Shit left Mattel, apparently, and they started to release more dubious figures. The bad guys were okay. There was the sorceress Evil-Lyn; Tri-Klops, who had, as the name suggests, three eyes; and Trap-Jaw, whose bionic arm could be switched out for different weapons. But the good guy figures got goofier and goofier. We had Mekaneck (he had a telescoping neck, which I assume was an effort to build an entire character around Inspector Gadget's least-impressive ability), Man-E-Faces (a "master of disguise" whose disguises consisted of swapping out his human face for robot and monster faces), and Ram Man (who had precisely zero points of articulation, unless you count his ability to shove his legs into his chest cavity). Other figures that would come out as time went on included Fisto (he had a big fist and was allowed to leave the factory being called "Fisto" because the horrors of the Internet had yet to be unleashed on young children), Buzz-Off (an anthropomorphic bee, which wasn't a bad figure but had an inexcusably stupid name; he was called "Buzz-Off" because "Fuck-You" was already trademarked by Hasbro), and Stinkor (a skunk-man whose major selling point was, in all seriousness, that the figure smelled bad). That didn't matter, however, as the toys just got more popular, and would absolutely explode the following year.
In 1983, the FCC relaxed longstanding rules about advertising to kids on television. For the first time in many years (there had been a Hot Wheels show in the 1960s), toy companies were allowed to produce entire programs based on their products, provided no commercials for the products themselves aired during the program. Mattel immediately jumped at this opportunity, and struck a deal with American animation studio Filmation to create a season of cartoons based on the Masters of the Universe line.
Filmation was about to break new ground out of sheer necessity. They were limping toward the end of their long career as an animation studio, and were having a very difficult time getting shows on Saturday mornings because the networks were, quite frankly, fed up with them. They had been responsible for such shows as the Superman, Aquaman, and Batman cartoons of the 1960s, the Star Trek animated series of the 1970s, several iterations of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and the first season of 1979's Flash Gordon was a tightly concentrated ball of shimmering asskickery. However, those successes tended to be few and far between, and Filmation was largely known for cheap-looking, barely animated shows marked by stock footage and spectacularly unfunny comedy. They were coming off a string of failed series, and both NBC and ABC refused to put any more of their cartoons on their Saturday morning schedules; CBS was making similar noises. Therefore, when Mattel gave them the opportunity to go forward with this project, the decision was made to syndicate this new series directly. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, as the show came to be known, became the very first original syndicated program, running five new shows a week. Of course, in order to syndicate, you needed 65 episodes right out of the gate, so Filmation got very busy. They were the last studio to keep all their animation work in the United States (every other studio sent their work to Asia), so the show was actually fairly expensive to produce. You wouldn't know it to look at it, though; it was rife with stock footage and constantly recycled shots, and there were precisely four voice artists filling every role in every episode — one of whom was producer and chief Filmation executive Lou Scheimer under an assumed name.
However, none of that mattered to the youth of America. When He-Man and the Masters of the Universe premiered in September of 1983, it exploded. For at least the following year, He-Man was, unarguably, the most popular kids' show on television. And the fact is, it definitely had its good qualities. The animation was nothing to write home about, but the actual art, the character designs, and backgrounds — the actual world being built — was gorgeous. The scripts tended to be pretty damn good, too; young writers on this show included J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, along with many Marvel comics), Paul Dini (Batman: The Animated Series), Larry DiTillio (Beast Wars), and David Wise (Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). The voice acting was, by and large, excellent. A notable exception was Scheimer himself; he was enthusiastic, but really not that great. The other three actors, however, were extremely talented. John Erwin was born to play He-Man. Alan Oppenheimer was an absolute blast as Skeletor, chewing the scenery for all it was worth. And Linda Gary performed each and every female character very well. The world itself was an interesting meld of high fantasy, science fiction, and superheroics; jettisoning most of the mini-comics' backstory and borrowing liberally from Captain Marvel, He-Man was now the alter ego of Prince Adam of Eternia, son of King Randor (who mostly hung out in his throne room and waited for things to happen to him) and Queen Marlena (an Earth astronaut who crashed on Eternia; remember that, it'll be important later). When Skeletor tried to A) take over Eternia, B) enter Castle Grayskull to find out what the hell was in there, or C) both, Adam would use the Power Sword (he had the whole thing now) to transform into He-Man, who looked exactly like Adam, except Adam wore a big pink vest and He-Man didn't. His cowardly green tiger Cringer became the very brave green tiger Battle Cat. This cagey disguise fooled everyone. Why? Because Eternians are catastrophically stupid.
I am Adam, prince of Eternia and defender of the secrets of Castle Grayskull. This is Cringer, my "fearless" friend. Fabulous secret powers were revealed to me the day I held aloft my magic sword and said, "By the Power of Grayskull! I have the power!" Cringer became the mighty Battle Cat, and I became He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe! Only three others share this secret: our friends The Sorceress, Man-At-Arms, and Orko. Together we defend Castle Grayskull from the evil forces of Skeletor!
There were two other major changes to the storyline: Teela was no longer a goddess, lost the snake armor, and became the Captain of the Royal Guard (the mystical properties were transferred to the new character of the Sorceress of Grayskull, a falcon-themed character who was actually, as the nine-year-old version of Dan would tell you, pretty damn hot), and then there was Orko.
Conventional wisdom of the time dictated that every cartoon, especially adventure cartoons, had to have a character that could serve as either comedy relief, or as a child-identification character, or both, because what cartoon-makers truly believed was that what kids wanted more than anything was to hang out with the heroes, not actually be the heroes themselves. Therefore they needed a kid (or kid-like) character to identify with. It was this kind of thinking that gave the world Scrappy-Doo, Spike Witwicky, Slimer, and Wendy, Marvin, and Wonder Dog. Now, usually, like most right-thinking people, I hated these characters with a burning passion. Though, some of them less than others (Spike wasn't too bad). But I have to admit, Orko was one of those characters that didn't drive me too terribly crazy. Oh, I wouldn't have minded to see him go, but as these "kid characters" (even though he was a magic blue alien, Orko was most decidedly a kid, always in trouble for not cleaning his room, getting into mischief, or what have you) or "comedy relief characters" (again, Orko's sole purpose in life was to have his tricks go wrong and blow up in Man-At-Arms' face) go, he really wasn't that bad. In fact, he was popular enough that Mattel eventually came out with his own figure (along with the Sorceress, which netted Filmation some much-needed cash; unlike other, later deals between savvier toy companies and animation studios, Lou Scheimer was bright enough to ensure that any original characters the show created belonged to Filmation, not to Mattel).
The episodes were mostly interchangeable: Skeletor got his hands on a magical artifact / scientific invention that he used to unleash Hell on Eternia, He-Man and the other good guys would stop him, the end. As the first season went on, the writers clearly became frustrated with this routine, and started introducing new villains and situations in an attempt to keep themselves from getting too bored — a few of which would go on to be immortalized in toy form.
I'm not going to go into every episode, but the first, "The Diamond Ray of Disappearance," serves as a good template for most everything that followed. (And yes, there's loads of homoerotic subtext. Tee-hee. Let's move on.) In it, Skeletor announces to Beast Man that he's found "the lost Diamond Ray of Disappearance!"
"The Diamond Ray," slobbers Beast Man. "But that makes those who see it —"
He's quickly interrupted by Skeletor, who doesn't want what the Diamond Ray does spoiled for the audience, apparently, who can't work out for themselves what the Diamond Ray of Disappearance could possibly do. Skeletor summons his Evil Warriors to his lair inside Snake Mountain (which is awesome, by the way) in a scene which introduces each of the Evil Warriors to the audience at home: "Mer-Man! Warlord of Water! Master of Fish, Lakes, and Streams!" (If I'm Mer-Man and I'm building a résumé, I'm probably leaving that entirely unimpressive last sentence off of it. However, in his first appearance, he's wrestling an alligator for absolutely no reason, which is pretty amazing.) "Evil-Lyn! Sorceress of Night!" (Evil-Lyn is making lightning. Why? 'Cause she can.) "Tri-Klops! Master of Vision! I need your Gamma-Vision which can see around solid objects!" (Cut to a scene where Tri-Klops looks at a piece of machinery through a small rock via the aforementioned vision, cutting out all that pesky "stepping a foot or two to his left and just looking at the machine normally.") "Trap-Jaw! Wizard of Weapons!" (Here we get a scene of Trap-Jaw attaching a bionic laser to his shoulder and disintegrating rocks for the sheer hell of it. So awesome. Unfortunately, they had to balance him out by making him dumber than a sack of doorknobs.)
Evil-Lyn demands to know what the hell Skeletor wants, and Tri-Klops is wholly unimpressed by the Diamond Ray. That is, until Skeletor demonstrates the power of the Diamond Ray of Disappearance by making a pink lizard — wait for it — disappear.
"It's gone," exclaims Tri-Klops, for the benefit of viewers who weren't paying attention to what happened precisely three seconds earlier. "The creature vanished!"
"Yes," says Skeletor gleefully, waving his arms, chewing the scenery, and just generally being crazier than a shithouse rat. "Exiled to another dimension! The same fate awaits all who stand in my way! Especially... He-Man!"
Dun dun duuuuuuuun!
Meanwhile, the good guys are hanging out at the palace, watching Orko be entirely hopeless at magic. However, things are quickly disturbed when Trap-Jaw, giggling, flies around the palace blasting everything that's sitting still long enough to be blasted. Teela goes after him, and Trap-Jaw straight up eats Teela's sword. Adam changes into He-Man, because why would the Captain of the Guard possibly be expected to be able to handle things herself, and he makes a few quips while picking up Trap-Jaw and throwing him so far away he appears as a dot in the distance. So, um, he's dead, I guess. He-Man's not allowed to punch anyone, but he can throw them into orbit, apparently. (Filmation could conceivably have gotten away with a lot because there were no censors for syndicated shows, but Scheimer was very squeamish about violence anyway. He-Man couldn't punch or use his sword on any living thing, and he resolved a lot of issues by throwing bad guys into nearby lakes, at which point the bad guy would shake his fist and swear revenge, rather than, you know, getting out of the lake.)
He-Man and Teela realize too late that this whole thing was a diversion, and Skeletor has zapped the King and Queen, along with Man-at-Arms and the Sorceress, with the Diamond Ray. Now, with the King out of the way, Skeletor can rule Eternia unchallenged and... oh, no. Wait. He goes home instead.
So, He-Man goes to Grayskull because there's a mirror that can get a hold of the Sorceress, and she tells him to crush the Diamond and everyone will be fine. Crush a diamond? No sweat. He-Man was precisely as powerful as any script needed him to be. He put out the same amount of effort no matter what task was in front of him. Whether he had to lift a mountain and throw it into orbit, or carry a basket of laundry up a flight of stairs, he made the exact same effort-filled grunting noises.
Skeletor and his warriors (including Trap-Jaw, who must have gotten better) show up at Castle Grayskull and pry open the door (or "jawbridge," which almost 30 years later is still really funny to me), only to find He-Man inside waiting for them, even though Skeletor has already boasted that there was no He-Man to stop them. What? Where the hell did that come from? Why in the world would he think that? Apparently Skeletor has already gone over this whole scenario in his head, and in this world he's constructed for himself he didn't forget to get rid of He-Man. So anyway, Teela, Stratos, and Ram Man (and Orko, but... you know) suddenly show up, and there's a fight that involves little to no actual fighting. Skeletor loses the Diamond, He-Man grabs it, disappears, comes back (because Teela and Orko believe or something), crushes it, everyone comes back, and Skeletor swears vengeance before running away. Finally, Adam crashes a flying chariot through the wall of the throne room, because you have to end on an uproarious laugh. Or, perhaps, not.
Then, of course, we had the moral. He-Man was not the first show to close out every episode with a moral, but it, along with GI Joe, is the one everyone remembers. And unlike GI Joe, whose morals generally had nothing to do with the episode at hand (and were usually pretty straightforward safety tips, like don't talk to strangers, don't take medicine that's not yours, don't burn your house down making pork chop sandwiches), an average episode of He-Man would bludgeon the viewer to death with its message of, for example, "be yourself." We would get lecture after lecture of why Orko was being a dumbass for not being himself, and then at the end Teela would come out, look into the camera, and say, "You know, Orko would have saved himself a lot of trouble if he knew how important it is just to be yourself." Thanks, Teela. I didn't pick up on that the other dozen times I was told that in the story.
So the first episode lays the groundwork for everything that followed. A fairly bland hero with a constant barrage of quips at the ready, an utterly useless but still very likable supporting cast, an incredibly fun bad guy, an imaginative world, and an undeniable air of goofiness permeating everything. This series immediately became an enormous hit, and would go on to last two full seasons of 65 episodes each. That's remarkable, because second seasons of syndicated shows almost never had the same or similar episode counts of their first seasons. But demand for He-Man was incredibly high. It could easily have gone on longer, had Mattel and Filmation not made the decision to concentrate on She-Ra: Princess of Power instead.
She-Ra (which I'm not really going to get into in any great detail here) was Mattel's effort to combine the Masters of the Universe line with Barbie. In March of 1985, as the final episodes of He-Man were wrapping up, He-Man and She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword made its appearance in theaters (the first toy-based cartoon movie to do so). An edited compilation of the first five episodes of the upcoming She-Ra series (which would premiere the following September), The Secret of the Sword introduced the audience to Adora, Adam's long-lost twin sister, who also had a magic sword that turned her into She-Ra. While her cast of characters was even more pointless than He-Man's (Loo-kee? Come the fuck on!), her bad guys, especially Hordak, were pretty cool. And there was He-Man up on the big screen. How cool was that? And it supplies us with what may be Skeletor's best moment. Upon getting his ass soundly kicked by She-Ra, he proclaims, "A female He-Man. Aww! Aww! This is the worst day of my life!"
One more quick thing, then we'll move on. December of that year saw He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special. This may be, in all honesty, the greatest thing in the history of things. In this hour-long special, we see Queen Marlena (remember, she's originally from Earth) explain to King Randor exactly what this Earth Christmas is of which she speaks, an entire roomful of grown-ups coloring signs to decorate for a birthday party, an evil creature imaginatively named the Beast Monster, Orko fucks up so royally he lands on Earth and kidnaps a couple of kids back to Eternia with him, the whole idea of Christmas sweeps across Eternia like Beatlefuckingmania, Hordak realizes that the Christmas spirit is the only thing that could stop his otherwise inevitable rise to power, Skeletor so overcome with the spirit of the holidays that he makes some positive life choices, Prince Adam dressed as Santa Claus, and a moral in which Adam explains that the meaning of Christmas is about sharing and goodwill, while Orko essentially says, "Fuck that noise! I want presents." If you watch this and do not find it the most entertaining thing you've seen all year, there is officially no hope for you.
This show was utterly mad.
Fads inevitably end, and by 1987, two full years after the show went into reruns — a lifetime to a kid — the Masters of the Universe line was no longer the draw it had been. This did not deter Mattel from deciding to shop the property around Hollywood in an effort to have a feature film made. The studio they went with was Cannon Films, a notorious low-budget company renowned for pumping out fairly crappy products. Some of their best-known films include the Delta Force series, the infamous rubber-eared Captain America, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. So, you know, great hands.
There's really not a lot to say about the Masters of the Universe movie. It was wretched. It was mind-bogglingly awful in every possible way. Even as a kid — and I was not the world's most critical child by any stretch of the imagination — I could see this movie sucked and sucked hard. It featured a lot of people running around (on fucking suburban Earth) with familiar names, but they bore no resemblance to any characters I had grown up with. If you've ever thought to yourself, "Man, Dolph Lundgren's talent was wasted in that movie," then you have just watched a very bad movie. I have visions of producer Menahem Golan flying around the set on a chimera, yelling into a megaphone, "You're not sucking enough. Suck more!" That may or may not have actually happened, but this comforts me and makes a lot of sense. In addition to Lundgren, the film features a pre-Friends Courtney Cox and a pre-Star Trek: Voyager Robert Duncan McNeill, with Frank "I was fucking Dracula, for God's sake" Langella as Skeletor. So, there's this magic key, or something, and... no. You know what? Fuck this movie. I'm done. No more. You may be tempted to watch it to see if it's as bad as I'm saying. It is. I promise you, it is. This is not "Bad Movie Night" bad, this is "a complete and total waste of your time" bad. There's no fun to be had, it's just dull. Moving on.
After the complete train wreck of the theatrical release, Mattel quietly left the Masters of the Universe franchise alone for a few years. They decided to bring it back in 1989, two years later. Drastically redesigning everything and essentially throwing the old line completely out and starting from scratch, the story now was that Skeletor gave up trying to conquer Eternia and set his sights on the planet Primus. He-Man followed him there, and now that's where they fight. That's pretty much it. The sword and sorcery / fantasy element was jettisoned completely, and everything was wrapped up in layers of science fiction, with space battles and such. Now that he was expected to do his fighting in outer space, he was given blue spandex pants, I assume to keep him warm. (Still no shirt, though.) The accompanying cartoon, titled The New Adventures of He-Man and produced by French animation studio DIC, premiered in September of 1990, displayed a stunning lack of understanding as to what He-Man was all about, and really isn't very good. It's not awful, but it's not great.
Fans of the old series stayed away in droves, partly because the new series was such a departure that it didn't feel the same, but also because the old fans had grown up; I was in 4th grade when the old series started, but a junior in high school when this new one came out. Worse yet, new fans failed to materialize, and the show only lasted one season of 65 episodes. To give you an idea of how unpopular this thing is, I was recently in a used DVD store and happened to come across boxed sets of some now out-of-print He-Man and the Masters of the Universe series, each containing roughly 30-35 episodes. The Filmation series went for about $50 each. The DIC series? Four bucks. That's not a typo. Four bucks. And even at that price, it was not worth picking up. The toys weren't anything to write home about either, and weren't all that popular. With this, He-Man died a quick death and stayed dead for 11 years.
In 2002, Mattel went to Four Horsemen Studios, a group of designers who had broken away from Todd McFarlane's toy company, and asked them to redesign the Masters of the Universe line for a modern audience. For the most part, they wound up sticking pretty closely to the original character designs, but updated things to appeal to the kids of the early 21st century. I gotta tell you, by this point I was married with a kid and a job — I was a fully fledged grown-up — and I seriously considered buying as many of these toys as I could get my hands on. (The prospect of having to explain to the wife where all our money went stayed my hand.) They looked damned cool. They were similar enough to the originals to blunt my reactionary fanboy tendencies, but modern enough that I could see they really were, for the most part, an improvement. And on top of this, there was going to be a new cartoon.
In August of 2002, Cartoon Network premiered the three-part opener of the new He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon. A month later, the show began airing weekly. The character redesigns made it to the new show virtually intact, and the show's creators went about their business of doing virtually everything right. Voice acting was (mostly) great, the art was gorgeous, and the writing was awesome. They finally did something that, in nearly 20 years up to that point, had never occurred to anyone to do: they took He-Man's supporting cast and made them a constant barrage of kickass. In the opening three-part adventure (in which the origins of He-Man and Skeletor are finally told), we see the future King Randor — then a captain of the Eternian army, a warrior, and not some schlump who sits on his throne all day idly wondering when someone will come along to feed him — lead the Masters of the Universe (the name of the good guys in this series; it was always kind of vague exactly who they Masters were supposed to be before) against the forces of the wizard Keldor, and that opening scene is relentless. It's just a nonstop fight that goes on for 10 minutes, and it's revealed that people like Man-At-Arms, Stratos, and, in fact, Randor himself, are really, really, really good at fighting. The only reason He-Man is needed at all is because when Keldor becomes Skeletor (due to Randor deflecting the acid bomb Keldor threw at him back into Keldor's face), he's simply too powerful to be handled by anyone else and could easily take over Eternia in an afternoon if left to his own devices.
There are really only two missteps. One, Adam (who finally looks nothing like He-Man and can therefore be accepted as a valid secret identity) and Teela are de-aged to 16, and it makes zero sense that this young girl is still the Captain of the Royal Guard. Two, Orko has gone from being a mildly irritating comic character to a swirling vortex of unrelenting superhuman dipshittery. I want to stab him in the face. Twice.
Despite being excellent, the ratings just weren't there, and in January of 2004, this new iteration of He-Man was cancelled after a season and a half, totaling 39 episodes. (Again, it was a weekly show, so the episode order was far lower than that of either of its daily syndicated predecessors.) The new toy line limped along until later that same year, and then it was quietly discontinued.
Finally, in 2008, Mattel launched (to date) the most recent variation of the toy line, called Masters of the Universe Classics. This line is probably best described as a blending of the 1980s and 2000s lines, and is marked by cleaner sculpts, with more points of articulation than the line had ever seen before. (They have elbows! And knees!) As I write this, the toys are still going strong, with several 2011 releases.
And it remains as batshit crazy as ever. Optikk has a big-ass eyeball on his shield, for fuck's sake.