I have the power

Live-action Masters of the Universe flick still entertains

Quick try to design the two most generic “good” and “evil” action figures you can think of.

If you pictured a blond muscle man with a sword and his snarling skull-faced nemesis then congratulations! You win! Also you just created He-Man and his arch-enemy Skeletor the primary figures in the Masters of the Universe toy line.

For years there was a popular urban legend that the He-Man character was originally intended to be an Arnold Schwarzenegger toy tied in with the Conan the Barbarian (1982) film. When the film turned out to be too gory and R-rated to merchandise towards children Mattel cleverly just swapped the heads on all the dolls and created “He-Man” instead. While it’s true that He-Man is a Conan ripoff (just as any heroic shirtless swordsman since 1932 is a Conan ripoff) the story of the last-minute head-swap isn’t true. Conan the Barbarian was always intended to be bloody and R-rated and He-Man was always intended to be an unrelated and crushingly generic toy line.

The cartoon series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983-85) was a blatant toy commercial and everybody knew it. After that series wrapped up and the action figures started to seriously dip in popularity Cannon films got a chance to play around with the franchise by making their own live-action Masters of the Universe (1987) film. And they went nuts.

Right after the title flashes across the screen we see the words “Starring Billy Barty.” And sure enough there he is as “Gwildor the locksmith” albeit hidden in the centre of a rubbery troll costume. You can sort of see the little guy’s eyes but that’s it. Gwildor is a completely new character intended to replace Orko from the cartoon series since having a legless faceless character who levitates was hard to do in live-action back in the ’80s. The tiny locksmith has invented the “cosmic key” and thus unwittingly allowed evil despot Skeletor (Academy Award nominee Frank Langella in a skull mask) to take over the planet of Eternia.

Is there no one brave enough to stand up to this skull-faced tyrant and his army of robots and monsters? But wait… here comes a muscle-bound blond guy wearing shoulder pads and a Speedo! He’ll save us!

Dolph Lundgren barely spoke English at all when he got cast as He-Man but was determined to be fluent enough to post-dub his own voice in time for the film’s release. (He succeeded.) This was his first starring role and he does a decent enough job of thrusting his oily pecs at the camera and saying his ridiculous lines without laughing. The film seems to be aware of the fact that He-Man is the least interesting character in the franchise and surrounds him with appealing supporting characters who keep things relatable. During battle scenes He-Man stomps right into the fray with his broadsword while fellow Eternian warriors Man-at-Arms (Jon Cypher) and Teela (Chelsea Field) hang back and shoot their laser guns from cover which is more sensible. Actually He-Man has a laser gun as well and does a lot more shooting than hacking. Why does he have a sword at all? Well there is one scene where he casually deflects a laser blast with it. Oh and during the final battle Skeletor achieves supreme power (or something) by stealing the sword and He-Man “unplugs” Skeletor’s power by stealing it back.

Did I mention Courtney Cox is in this movie? Because she totally is and it’s amusing to imagine that this feature and Misfits of Science (1985-86) could have typecast her into goofy superhero stories if they had been more successful.

Cannon was all set to make a sequel when they lost the rights to the Masters of the Universe characters so they used the costumes and sets to make a quickie post-apocalyptic action flick called Cyborg (1989) starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. So there you have it: Masters of the Universe kicked off the careers of two cast members of The Expendables 2 (2012).