Monday 24 October 2022

Masters of the Universe at 40

40 years ago, He-Man and Skeletor were unleashed on toy aisles! I was off school sick when my late mum surprised me with these amazing action figures that had seemingly stepped off the pages of Fighting Fantasy…

Fast forward to 2022. Mattel Creations' Masters of the Universe Origins Eternia Playset is already successfully crowdfunded ahead of November's deadline. Early bird backers got King Grayskull as an exclusive bonus action figure. Moaty, the moat monster tier 2 unlock, has become a social media sensation with fans (myself included) calling for Mattel to release the figure separately in the future.

To celebrate He-Man's 40th birthday, Nick Smith, our US-based pop culture philosopher, examines the enduring appeal of Masters of the Universe.

Guest post by Nick Smith

Even He-Man can’t fight the ravages of time. The muscle-bound hero turns 40 this year. He’s yet to get a middle-aged spread and his blonde locks show no sign of pattern baldness but he’s not prevalent on toy shelves the way he used to be.

Hope is not lost for this champion of Eternia. My local Walmart has a toy Battle Cat and a Masters of the Universe Origins Castle Grayskull Playset that can be purchased from Mattel Creations for $80.

To understand why collectors are willing to pay such a mighty price for a plastic diorama, we have to go back to the ‘80s, and a world that forged the sword and sorcery of Conan the Barbarian with the pew! pew! pew! sci-fi of Star Wars to make He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

After Mattel turned down the option to make Star Wars figures and watched Kenner print oodles of money, the company created its own concept, hiring Roger Sweet, Star Wars novelist Donald F. Glut and others to build a brand with a brand-new world to go along with it. Although the toy line was created in 1981, it didn’t hit stores until 1982. Filmation developed an animated series, syndicated in 1983.

Prince Adam (voiced by John Erwin) was the hunky alter ego of He-Man, who materialized up to save the day and fight the evil Skeletor (Alan Oppenheimer, who also voiced the cat and other characters). He-Man and Skelly both had a crew of strong warriors ripe for action-figure poses.

The protagonists included Man-At-Arms, Man-E-Faces, Orko, Fisto, Ram-Man, Teela and She-Ra, Princess of Power; the antagonists were legion, including Beast Man, Evil-Lyn, Faker, Tri-Klops, Trap Jaw and Hordak. Many of the characters had either animal or mechanical characteristics and they were all ready for grappling matches on a kid’s living room floor.

It’s no coincidence that these toy people bore similarities to the wrestling figures that followed in later years, making Mattel millions.

He-Man had a big sword but he didn’t use it often. At the time, violence was rarely condoned on American children’s television; He-Man was allowed to punch the bad guys and he tossed them around a lot. Shows would end with a moral, giving the action an ethical perspective and making it more than a half-hour ad for the toys.

130 episodes of classic He-man were produced, running for two years on its original release. Despite all his efforts to conquer Eternia, Skeletor never succeeded, and the pathos did not escape him; he admitted to his poor batting average in episodes like The Arena. No wonder he cheated to try to get the upper hand.

The animation was limited – some shots are reused, especially during skirmishes – and the storylines were simple. In 1987, the plot of He-Man’s live-action movie pulled out all the stops to compete with Star Wars on the big screen; Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV) had the Power of Grayskull, Frank Langella was a far-from-pathetic Skeletor and James Tolkan, the cranky principal from Back to the Future, played the even more cranky Detective Lubric.

The movie cleverly brings He-Man to our world, one year after Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home showed a similar culture clash. Unfortunately, it earned less than it cost to make and a sequel, Cyborg, morphed into a non-He-Man B-movie.

As the toys dwindled, attempts were made to revive the television series, most recently on Netflix. Sympathetic loser Skeletor may have lost his battles with He-Man but he won the meme war on social media, his face popping up to taunt us as we doomscroll.

The cartoons, a live-action movie and toys all have a place in many hearts, a sign of a more innocent age where conflicts could be won with a well-aimed fist and the power of a brightly wrapped parable.

What are your memories of Masters of the Universe? Who is your favourite action figure? Are you still collecting? Let me know in the comments below.

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