Masters of the Universe


If you want proof that boys shouldn’t play with dolls, you need only look at the movies based on those dolls. “Transformers” was a debacle, and I’m pretty sure I know the upcoming live-action “G.I. Joe” film is going to suck, and knowing is half the battle.

By comparison, “Masters of the Universe,” the 1987 film based on the He-Man toys and cartoon series, is almost benign. It’s laughably bad, yes, but at least it’s never boring. Well, except for the parts where it’s just scene after scene of people running around firing laser guns at each other. That’s pretty boring. Otherwise, though, it’s a bad movie that can really hold a person’s interest. That’s more than I can say for “Meet Dave.”

In case you are not familiar with He-Man lore, I will fill you in on the pertinent details. He-Man lives on a planet called Eternia, where he has the superpowers of being very strong and owning a sword. His powers emanate from Castle Grayskull, which, with a name like that, you would think was an evil place, but no, it’s good. It’s home to the Sorceress, who governs all of Eternia’s good magic in an unspecified way. I gather she is something of a figurehead, like the Queen of England, rather than a hands-on, day-to-day leader, like Jack Bauer.

He-Man’s mortal enemy is Skeletor, who is kind of a skeleton wearing a hoodie but also kind of a regular guy who is just wearing a skeleton mask and a hoodie. On Halloween, it would be very hard to tell the real Skeletor from someone who was merely dressed up as Skeletor, is my point. As mentioned, you would think that Castle Grayskull would be the home of evil Skeletor, especially with the skull/Skeletor connection, but again, no, that is not the case. Skeletor’s home is called Castle Goodhappy.

No, I made that up. I’m sorry. I am not taking this very seriously. Skeletor’s home is Snake Mountain, although “Masters of the Universe” does not mention this. When the movie begins, Skeletor (Frank Langella) has already seized Castle Grayskull and imprisoned the Sorceress, who evidently wasn’t as powerful as we thought. I guess somebody had better change her Wikipedia entry. (“Can easily be imprisoned by outlandishly costumed supervillains.”) Now Skeletor only has to kill He-Man and he will fully control Eternia!

So now we’re all up to speed, and the movie can really start! He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) is out fighting Skeletor’s armies with his platonic lady friend Teela (Chelsea Field) and her father, the Cliff-Clavin-mustached Man-at-Arms (Jon Cypher). These three apparently comprise Eternia’s entire defense system. While trying to figure out how to get into Castle Grayskull and fight Skeletor, they run into a weird little troll named Gwildor, who is played by Billy Barty in what must be about the 500th weird-little-troll performance of his career. Gwildor, whose face mask does not move when Barty speaks, has invented a Cosmic Key that enables the user to jump to any location in time or space. He uses this Key to open a dimensional door, and he, Teela, Man-at-Arms, and He-Man all fall through it and wind up on Earth, wouldn’t you know it. What’s more, they lose the Cosmic Key, don’t ask me how. I mean, it’s not like it came in on a separate flight.

While the Eternians wander around the strange planet Earth, the Key is found by a couple of teenagers. Julie, played by a pre-“Friends” Courteney Cox, is a high school student whose parents recently died in a plane crash, resulting in her decision to move to New Jersey. (I don’t see the logic either.) She’s not even waiting until the school year ends in a couple weeks; she’s leaving for Jersey TOMORROW. Her boyfriend, Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill), who apparently was not sufficiently there for her when the rain started to pour, is a wimpy guy whose band is playing at the senior prom tonight. He thinks the Cosmic Key is a musical instrument, a misunderstanding aided by the melodic tones the Key makes when you press its buttons, and by Kevin being an idiot.

Back on Eternia, Skeletor is insistent upon retrieving the other Key. “He-Man lives and possesses that Key!” he declares. “I must possess all, or I possess nothing!” Skeletor’s fondness for melodramatic overstatement is lost on his brutish lackeys and thugs, but not on me. I would gladly serve a master who spoke with such grandiloquence, whether he was master of the universe or merely of the thesaurus.

Skeletor is assisted by an allegedly beautiful woman, Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster), whose name suggests her parents may have mapped out her life’s course right around the time of her christening. Evil-Lyn recommends that Skeletor send his four best mercenaries after He-Man, retrieve him and the Key, and kill everyone else. So the mercenaries use their GPS (I guess) to trace the Cosmic Key to Julie’s high school, where she’s waiting for Kevin to get back from running an errand or something. The bad guys kill a janitor, no questions asked, then take Julie alive because “she might know where the Key is.” What, and the janitor might not have? Unfair.

Julie does know where the Key is — Kevin has it — but she takes off running and eludes the four monstrous villains, who you’ll recall are Skeletor’s best mercenaries. As she flees up one alley and down another (this town’s infrastructure consists primarily of alleys), she runs into He-Man, who helps her scare off Skeletor’s four best mercenaries by engaging in fisticuffs with them. Skeletor’s four best mercenaries, ladies and gentlemen. No wonder Eternia can get away with having a defense system composed of a middle-aged man, a girl, and a bodybuilder. They probably don’t even need the bodybuilder.

By the time Kevin gets back to the school, it’s on fire and Julie is nowhere to be found. A cop named Lubic (James Tolkan) considers Julie a suspect in the arson, so he tags along as Kevin goes looking for her. Eventually Lubic loses interest in the arson, however, and confiscates the Cosmic Key from Kevin on the grounds that Kevin and Julie found it at the cemetery and thus it might be “stolen property,” which is a bit of a stretch even for a Los Angeles police officer. Frankly, I would rather live under Skeletor’s system of government.

What follows is a lot of nonsense: abundant laser-gun firing; Evil-Lyn appearing as Julie’s dead mother and convincing her to hand over the Cosmic Key; He-Man and his friends grappling with Skeletor’s minions; and the eventual capture of He-Man. Skeletor tells him, “I shall wreak unforgettable harm upon you,” which is noteworthy because a guy like He-Man gets his butt kicked all the time and probably forgets most of the harm wreaked upon him. Not this time, though! This time it’ll stick.

But of course He-Man escapes and Skeletor is vanquished, leading to the restoration of peace throughout all Eternia. I’m pretty sure this is no more exciting in the film than it is when you enact it yourself with your He-Man and Skeletor dolls at home.

He-Man is played by Dolph Lundgren. In 1987, Dolph Lundgren was the kind of person you could put in a movie: foreign, muscular, vaguely dumb, and mostly incoherent. Today, of course, a person like that could only get work as a nightclub bouncer or governor of California. But in the freewheeling ’80s, he could play an evil Russian boxer in “Rocky IV,” then turn around and play an extraterrestrial superhero, all without changing his costume or learning English.

The film’s credits indicate that Lundgren, who is from Sweden, worked with an acting coach and a dialect coach. This evidently didn’t do any good, though, because they eventually decided to just not let He-Man say very many things. This was a wise choice. Leave the speechifying to Skeletor, who talks like an embittered English lit major. He-Man just needs to swing a sword around and look muscular, and Dolph Lundgren is pretty good at that. Or at least he was in 1987. I don’t know if time has been any kinder to him than it has been to this movie.