In 1987, Cannon Films — the great, long-defunct schlock factory responsible for some of the best bad movies of the 1980s — released a live-action version of the wildly popular cartoon TV series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Starring Swedish adonis Dolph Lundgren (The Expendables, Universal Soldier, Rocky IV) as the virtuous and heroic He-Man and genuinely respected actor Frank Langella (Robot & Frank, Frost/Nixon, Dave) as the villainous and power-mad Skeletor, the film did resemble the cartoon series in the basic details. It was still set on Eternia and still centered around Castle Greyskull, which was still overseen by the Sorceress — and Skeletor and his right-hand woman Evil-Lyn did still covet conquering it. He-Man did still fight alongside trusted warrior compatriots Man-at-Arms and his daughter Teela, and he did still wield the famed “Sword of Greyskull.” Skeletor did still have a skull for a face, and He-Man did still wear virtually nothing other than leather briefs, a small chest plate, and a red cape.
But otherwise, for many He-Man fans, this film was a bizarre abomination. Whereas the cartoon was essentially a feudal fantasia, the live action version — re-dubbed simply Masters of the Universe — turned things into a futuristic sci-fi action-fest with laser guns and dimensional keys and soldiers in black-plastic armor that screamed Star Wars ripoff. Well over half the film was set on Earth, revolving around a lovey-dovey teenage couple (played by future Star Trek: Voyager star Robert Duncan McNeill and future Friends superstar Courteney Cox) way too old to serve as a proxy for the pre-pubescent kids who would want to see the movie. He-Man’s alter-ego as Prince Adam was totally ignored, and many beloved characters from the cartoon — Orko, Cringer/Battle-Cat, Man-E-Faces, Mekaneck, Trap Jaw, Clawful — were nowhere to be seen.
The film felt so not like the He-Man cartoon series, in fact, that most fans of the cartoon today kind of pretend Masters of the Universe doesn’t exist, and haven’t seen it since they were kids (if at all).
I wasn’t one of those kids — apparently, I enjoyed the movie’s junky charms, and watched it several times on video while on family car trips. But I still hadn’t seen Masters of the Universe in over a decade when I happened upon it on pay cable recently, and I have to say, it was a revelation. Because it turns out that watching Masters of the Universe with adult eyes revealed the film to be a tragic unrequited romance between He-Man and Skeletor. I’m not kidding. Let me prove it to you.
3. The movie opens with Skeletor having already conquered Castle Greyskull, but as he skulks into the throne room, he only has one thing — or, rather, one man — on his mind.
Ah, yes. He-Man.
4. It seems that even though Skeletor is on the verge of total domination — if all goes according to plan, by the end of the day, he will be imbued with all the “powers of the universe” — there is one goal not yet within his grasp.
Well, that is a potent image, Skeletor. Seems like maybe you’re a little…obsessed with He-Man?
5. So who is this He-Man fellow, whom Skeletor seems determined to bring to his knees?
Oh. OK then.
6. In case the point of He-Man’s he-manliness wasn’t already clear, this is an actual shot from his first fight scene.
I repeat: Not a still from a gay porn film.
7. Eventually, He-Man makes it to the throne room in Castle Greyskull, and confronts Skeletor for imprisoning the Sorceress. He-Man, it seems, already knows what is truly on Skeletor’s mind.
He-Man, you see, is totally at peace with his sexuality. (Why else would he walk around in that outfit?) What’s more, he clearly knows Skeletor has the hots for him. If only Skeletor could finally admit that to himself, rather than go through all this hullaballoo just to get He-Man’s attention, then maybe they could actually be happy together.
8. Think I’m reading into things too much? Well, at no point through the entire film does He-Man pay any heed to the two incredibly attractive women around him.
Not his fellow Eternian, Teela (Chelsea Field), and not Julie, the Earth girl He-Man saves from Skeletor’s minions (that would be Courteney Cox).
9. Nooooot interested.
10. At least He-Man isn’t leading them on. Poor Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster) remains steadfastly at Skeletor’s side, making all of his evil schemes possible, just for the fleeting moments when he will caress her face.
But the moment she mentions He-Man…
11. Skeletor ceases those sweet, sweet caresses.
12. And shoves her with the hoi polloi to lead a mission back to Earth to get He-Man.
Even Evil-Lyn’s close-cropped hair, over-the-top make-up, and richly deep voice isn’t enough to entice Skeletor. He just wants to use her like he’s always used her.
13. Even when Evil-Lyn scores a key victory on that mission, Skeletor isn’t interested.
Sweetie, take a hint. It ain’t gonna happen with Skeletor.
15. There is only one person in the world for Skeletor.
Probably worth letting He-Man fight a bit, just to see him in action, huh Skelsy? I mean, did you see that high kick? He-Man was showing a lot of leg there, huh?
16. With all of He-Man’s friends in Skeletor’s clutches, Eternia’s villain offers Eternia’s hero a devil’s bargain.
I mean, Skeletor, “return as my slave”? “Surrender your sword”? Can you even hear yourself?
17. He-Man agrees to Skeletor’s terms. He still knows what this is all about.
Oh, He-Man. He’s still so heroic, he’s holding out hope that Skeletor can fight his internalized homophobia. It’s sweet, really.
18. When they get back to Eternia, Skeletor strips He-Man down to just his skivvies, brandishes He-Man’s, er, “sword”…
19. …chains He-Man up…
20. …annnnnnd has He-Man whipped in front of him.
Subtle you are not, Skeletor.
21. To underline the tragedy of Skeletor’s totally warped obsession with He-Man, we cut briefly back to the teenagers on Earth, tenderly holding each other while quietly, sweetly declaring their love.
22. The very next shot — THE VERY NEXT SHOT — is this:
23. He-Man, writhing in pain, while Skeletor clutches his staff and quivers.
24. Eventually, Skeletor is imbued with the powers of the cosmos, making him a Master of the Universe, as you do. And this is what he looks like when the process is over.
25. That is one elaborate golden headdress, Skeletor. Ahem.
26. But even though Skeletor keeps announcing to everyone who can hear him that he wants He-Man dead, the moment when Skeletor finally tries to kill He-Man, instead, somehow, he “misses” and sets He-Man free.
27. Inevitably, Skeletor cannot help but reveal his true feelings.
28. At which point, Evil-Lyn finally — FINALLY — sees the light, and ditches Skeletor. (For now, anyway.)
29. At long last, He-Man fights his way to the throne, and retrieves his sword, which shines so big and so bright that it temporarily blinds Skeletor.
The power, indeed.
30. Skeletor cannot take it anymore. Even as He-Man keeps telling him what is really going on, Skeletor cannot help but pour all his self-hatred into one final confrontation with the object of his everlasting obsession.
31. And when He-Man’s sword finally does cross Skeletor’s staff, this is what happens:
32. At first the battle is electric, with the chemistry between Skeletor and He-Man radiating sparks and energy between them both.
33. But He-Man’s sword is ultimately more powerful than Skeletor’s staff, and it shatters the elaborate and ornate armor Skeletor had built around himself.
Skeletor is back to his old, sad, unfabulous self.