Saturday, October 3, 2015

He-Man Watch: Masters of the Universe (1987)

Friday night we had our first organized Live Tweet event with The Signal Watch when we got together on Twitter and partook of Master of the Universe, the toyline/ cartoon turned into a feature film and probably Burger King glass ware.

I want to thank everyone who came out online and made the event so much fun!  That was pretty great.  I think we had a good time, had our say and I think nothing got broken we can't fix.

We'll do it again at some point, as soon as we find something on Netflix we all want to watch.  So, send your candidates our way.

Down to business:

I wasn't a He-Man kid.  The only one of the figures I spent my own allowance on was Mer-Man.  For some reason, I really liked the sculpt on ol' Mer-Man.  No idea why.

I confess, I just really identified with this guy

But I really liked underwater adventure toys as a kid, so that probably had something to do with it.  Who knows?

In the summer of '87, when the movie was released, I would have already been 12, and, as recently discussed with pals JuanD and PaulT, just past the age where you didn't really know how to play with an action figure anymore.  I might still watch the He-Man cartoon after school, but it was kind of that or stare at a wall until my mom got home from work (lord knows I wasn't going to read, do my homework, or get exercise).

But, again, I wasn't much of a He-Man and the Masters of the Universe toy-line sort of dude even after getting a He-Man and Wind Raider toy for Christmas one year and "Mech-a-Neck" a year or so later for my birthday.  Frankly, I thought the He-Man toy was kind of gross to look at.  He had all these veins and looked like he was really pissed all the time.

enjoy your 'roid freak toy, kids

The movie came and went from theaters and I never saw it, and, frankly, never really thought about seeing it.  One thing that was true for me then and is true for me now is that I appreciate continuity in both narrative and look & feel between my source material and my movie adaptation.  And when I was 12, I really, really did not care about someone else's artistic vision or money-grab attempt by creating original characters.  One look at the Gwildor character in the trailer, and I knew everything I needed to know about the thinking behind the movie.

People give nerds a hard time for caring about the differences, but nothing takes you out of a story more than wondering why a character's story was changed, why their look was totally different, or why they're acting out of character (see: Man of Steel).  Sometimes those differences work and provide an improvement, but in the case of Masters of the Universe (1987), it just feels like they couldn't be bothered to learn the back story of either the toyline (which delivered its story in mini-comics that came with the toys) or the Filmation cartoon.  Which were the dual reasons the movie existed at all.

You know, if you want to sell tickets to an audience, don't change everything about something they already like.  Hot tip, Hollywood.

A few things are spot on from the cartoon and movie:  He-Man looks like He-Man, Skeletor was a great movie Skeletor and Evil-Lyn, as played by Meg Foster, looks like Evil-Lyn (and, has the bonus feature of being super foxy).  And, actually, Man-at-Arms was probably as close as he needed to be for the purposes of the movie, but got turned into someone's fortune-cookie-wisdom spewing fun uncle at some point during the writing and casting process.

I don't think these guys are even Masters of Their Living Room, but whatever

Teela, however, was wearing some flat-colored weird body-stocking with tubing, Orko was nowhere and replaced with a "comedic" troll character that was clearly Budget Orko, and then a whole bunch of made-up villains filled out the ranks behind Evil-Lyn.  Which was weird, because if He-Man had one thing, it was a wide and recognizable supporting cast with unique properties we'd already bought into.

The He-Man toyline, cartoon and comics had been a weird ensemble thing all of us were familiar with from cartoon/ toy synergy (GI Joe, Transformers, etc...), and the joy of the thing was seeing this wide array of characters as toys and as something on screen.  When you just make-up characters, it's pretty clear you've got a creative team that's saying "this is just a kid's show.  It doesn't matter." which, really translates to "kids are dumb, we hate this thing we're working on, how do I cash the check?".  Even when I was in elementary school I got that, and it's absolutely astounding how hard this is for Hollywood to get.

Throw in the fact that none of the mythology of the cartoon or toys was present - the split swords of the He-Man line, the Prince Adam/ He-Man dual identity business, or a whole lot more around Grayskull that I've mostly forgotten (but which was easily attainable), and that they made up a bunch of business around a MacGuffin called The Cosmic Key that should have just been an excuse to get the characters off world, and you could just feel the script getting away from them.

Meg Foster poses with The Cosmic Plot Device

So, yes, this still bothers me quite a bit.  It gets back to the idea that if you can't adapt it correctly, well, you just came up with a New Idea.  So, go put a new name on it, call it whatever you want, and now you own it!

For what I assume were budget reasons, Skeletor actor Frank Langella - popular then and now - only appears in a few scenes, and our He-Man has almost no dialog and appears in, maybe 1/4th of the movie.  It'd be like going to see Thor and you get mostly Stellan Skarsgard.*  Apparently this was done so we wouldn't notice that He-Man has an accent, which was seen as a major issue for a Hollywood actor and something audiences couldn't buy and would just ruin a movie and the actor's career.

I should mention that our heroes basically have zero chemistry together and seem more like folks from a conference doing a group exercise together than bosom companions.  Really, the bad guys seem more in tune than whatever is going on with the good guys, and if screentime is any indication, the creatives found the bad guys and the Courteney Cox storyline the most exciting things to work with, which...  maybe does a little disservice to poor ol' Dolph, who just wants to be the best He-Man he can be.

So, in the end, it's really up to Meg Foster as Evil-Lyn to carry the movie.  In a really weird way, she's the only character with an arc, and NONE of it is played out in her dialog. She clearly made character choices that made it to screen in the movie as she more or less realizes Skeletor is a dope and she needs to abandon this whole "evil" business she's gotten wrapped up in.

sorry, Evil-Lyn.  He's just not that into you.

If you abandon the ties to the toys, the comics, the cartoon...  I'd actually argue that Masters of the Universe is a pretty fun, weird, hacky 80's action sci-fi flick you could watch with your kids if Beast  Master is going to be too intense for them.  In an era when Hollywood was just way, way better at understanding what "all-ages" and "PG" action meant, this wasn't, by far, the worst entry in the genre.  Most of the characters are likable in a sort of Saturday Afternoon Matinee kind of way.  There are some neat visuals.  It's harmless, joyful fun with oddball characters, clear lines of good guys and bad guys even if it's utterly unclear what anyone is fighting over.  And we get to give our nerd musician friends a hero who saves the day thanks to his knowledge of how to play a Yamaha synth.

Kids media always has some dopey POV characters you really need to just get out of the way (in our case, Courteney Cox in her first film role), and some comedic troll character, who always seems like someone our heroes would have been better ditching when they went off on their grand adventure.  Why Hollywood thinks we need these characters is a point I'll never entirely understand, or why these characters are always written as totally annoying, I'll truly never get.

But, you know, better than a poke in the eye, and I have absolutely seen many, many worse movies.

And, with that, Evil-Lyn bids you adieu.

*this is a terrible example as they actually did this in Thor, but you hardly notice thanks to Natalie Portman.  Let's assume I used Captain America as an example and you get mostly Haley Atwell instead, which is something I think we can all agree I'd pay a lot of money to see.  Watch Agent Carter, this winter on ABC!

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