Sunday, November 22, 2020

Watch Party Watch: Masters of the Universe (1987)

Watched: 11/20/2020
Format:  Amazon Watch Party
Viewing:  Unknown
Decade:  1980's
Director:  Gary Goddard

I should start by saying:  I didn't ever really like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe as toyline, cartoon, what-have-you.  Maybe because a lot of the material behind the franchise is simply bad.  The Filmation cartoon was goofily animated and the voice actors always sounded like they were recording out of context and in a well-tiled bathroom.  It featured a handful of wildly annoying characters and artists who really wanted to work in a few rotoscoped shots as often as possible.  (I will say - it DID blend American comic book style art very well, and should have shown Marvel how to do this instead of what they did in the 1990's.)  But mostly, He-Man was a lot of nonsense to sell toys, and that's great.  I support that idea.  I just wasn't into their particular gumbo of elements that made up their cartoon and toys (and found the original line of toys frankly grotesque, and not in a fun way).

The capper for He-Man badness was the feature film,  Masters of the Universe (1987), which is one of those movies that's almost a physical challenge to finish (now streaming on Prime).  Of course among the comic-nerd-world the film has its supporters who are always thrilled by any ol' garbage that has something they liked when they were eight years old.  But, really it's a wildly incompetent movie that barely qualifies as either movie OR toy promotion.  Technically, I'm not sure it's so much a story as an anecdote, and it has no idea what the toys were or are and does not care.

By 1987, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe had been airing as a cartoon for four years.  The toy line had been around slightly longer.  For a lot of us born in the mid-70's, four years was like, more than a third of our lifetime, and when you watch something week in and week out, airing almost every weekday after school, you have some ideas about it.  This is your personal mythology.  And like all mythologies, it had its inconsistencies.  He-Man was already confusing enough as the mini-comic books that were included with each figure - intended to give you some back story and context before there was a cartoon, and because the characters were from one of the first waves that started with a toy and *became* a cartoon - did not match the cartoon.  But we figured it out/ didn't care that much.

Anyway, back in 1987, actually making a faithful adaptation of whatever the comic, cartoon or toy was when asked to make a movie, was considered embarrassing for filmmakers.  This meant pretty much everyone until Tim Burton,* instead, found new ways to embarrass themselves by putting their own flourish and touches on the film, thereby misunderstanding the material and missing the mark as to why the cartoon, comic or toy line was a thing to begin with.  And Masters of the Universe was no exception.  

Produced by Cannon as their attempt to jump from doing bound-for-VHS actioners to becoming a player in the summer blockbuster film market, something went awry along the way.  They didn't use most of the main characters from the cartoon (where the @#$% was Ram-Man and Orko?).  They made up characters (Karg?  Gwildor? ).  And moved the action for 2/3rds of the movie to our Earth - focusing not on the characters everyone paid to see, but on Courtney Cox and the guy who played @#$%ing Tom Paris on Voyager (who was always the most boring Star Trek character and here looks like Benedict Cumberbatch's dopey younger brother).  And, it's not a good sign when your second billed actor is Billy Bartly, who plays one of those "the kids will love it!" shitty-ass "funny" characters that littered 1980's children's movies and cartoons.

The plot is roughly about He-Man and friends making good an escape from Skeletor and landing in Anytown, USA.  They need to get their hands on a "cosmic key" they literally dropped that also seems to be one-part synth, one-part planetarium equipment.  But Cox and Tom Paris come across it first.  Skeletor and friends, who have one of these things, follow.  They fight.  Courtney Cox gets caught in the middle and misses her flight to leave Anytown, USA.  They all wind up back in Eternia.  A fight happens.  Skeletor is defeated.

But, He-Man is off-screen for roughly half the movie as they focus on teen antics, the principal from BTTF playing a cop, and whatever is going on with the bad-guys.  And when he is there, he just stands around, really.  Meanwhile, fucking Gwildor does goofy shit, and Teela and Man-at-Arms sort of do--- nothing.  I dunno.  They're not incompetent, but their part seems to be: find the key and protect it - and they do.  There's no tension in the movie, because no one wants anything other than "we should really go home".  And because the movie is so full of characters and wacky moments, nothing ever really demands your attention.

Like, I flat out don't get how a He-Man movie relegates not just He-Man, but Teela and Man-At-Arms to background player status.  To have a story, someone needs to have an arc - and the only character with anything resembling an arc is Courtney Cox, who is part of a depressing story we meet in media res as her parents recently died and now she's leaving town.  So we spend a LOT of time not just with her, but with Tom Paris.  In a movie about a transdimensional/ intraplanetary magic/sci-fi space battle. 

But, yeah, I understand Dolph Lundgren probably wasn't the best actor in the world yet in 1987, but I don't get at all the decision to not make the movie about HIM.  And if his acting was that bad - don't go with THAT guy (I know getting anyone qualified to run around in a cape and leather diaper is a tough sell, and I'm not kidding).  

But, yeah, as a kid I actively avoided the film because I knew *then* that the movie was made by someone who didn't like anything about the thing in which I had almost no investment.  So - what was the sales pitch?  And had I shown up - why would I care about Courtney Cox's personal issues when I wanted to see Lockjaw fighting Mekanek?  But someone, somewhere in the film needed a story - and spending 20 minutes watching Tom Paris try to figure out a synth is not what anyone signed up for.

I get that that budget was low, but the BIGGEST star of the film is Frank Langella - who they covered in Skeletor make-up - and Langella wasn't exactly blowing up in 1987.  The single set for what I think is supposed to be the inside of Castle Grayskull looks great!  And then the rest of the film takes place in a suburban strip-mall with almost zero extras.  
Anyway, one of the greatest achievements of the post Sam Raimi Spider-Man era of superhero movies has been a basic fidelity to and respect for the material, even when changing it up for a movie.  It's not like the comics a lot of this stuff is based on was winning literary awards, but I'm a firm believer in "there are no bad ideas, just bad execution". And insisting on changing everything to chase an imaginary audience of teens (which is what I assume this film was doing) while not caring if you alienate the lifelong fans - well, that's just a recipe for no one liking the final product.  

But, even at that - you know, at least make the movie mostly about the thing in the title.  And do not, under any circumstances, proceed with making your movie if your concept relies heavily on "comedic relief from disgusting looking troll man".  If you can't use the movie to celebrate the thing you're making the movie about (does not apply to biopics and history films), don't do it.  If you want to make the characters unrecognizable and throw them in the background to tell some other story no one wants to see - do not.  Just... don't.  

On the other hand, this movie features a lot of close-ups of Meg Foster as Evil-Lyn, which means it has lots of Meg Foster eyes.  

So, 4 stars.

*Burton absolutely did not care what Batman was or had been in the comics, and while his 1989 movie borrows heavily from the mythology and iconography it is clearly, absolutely, its own thing.  His Batman is not a muscle-bound detective leaping from buildings on a batarang line - but a gadget wielding super cop in a still suit.  As someone who loooooves movie hardware, his Batman is super fun.  Plus, you know, all the rest of it is great, too.  And, hey, he made Bruce Wayne as interesting as Batman, and my decades of comics reading tells me that's hard to do.

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