Junkfood Cinema: Masters of the Universe

By  · Published on June 25th, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; official sponsor of the World Cup… of competitive eating. Yes I’m sorry to say you have just stumbled upon the secret to Roger Ebert’s stunning physique. Every week I occupy your time with some of the trashiest, cheesiest, crappiest, or sleaziest (I’m writing a Junkfood Cinema theme song) films from my personal collection. These are not the films you brag about owning, unless you are me, but they still offer some measure of guilty entertainment value. Much like comfort food, you know they are bad but you enjoy them anyway. That is why I pair each week’s film with a delectable junkfood item designed to do just as much damage to your waistline as the films inflict upon your brain cells.

This week we travel to a parallel dimension where monsters and he-men rule. Well, technically just one He-Man rules. You might say he’s one of the Masters of the Universe. He’s about to leave the fantasy haven of Eternia and cross into our world! Will our universe survive? Will he also therefore become the de facto master of it? Why is Skeletor played by Richard Nixon?

What Makes It Bad

I will have to contain myself this week lest this particular section of the article be eleventy billion miles long. There is no shortage of problems with Masters of the Universe so I will have to limit myself to a few of my favorites. I’ll start with the cast.

Our hero, He-Man, is played by none other than Dolph Lundgren. Say what you will about the utterly absent acting talent of Lundgren, if ever there were a better piece of casting during the 80’s, I haven’t seen it. It’s like some brilliant studio exec thought, “He-Man is an enormous, muscle-headed dope whose only real power is his ability to swing heavy objects around…Dolph Lundgren!” The rest is history. I love Dolph to death, but this decision may not have been the sure-fire ticket to box office staying power that he thought it would be. He is stiff, flat, and almost completely unintelligible throughout the whole film. Though if not for Masters of the Universe, we may never have known what Dolph would have looked like had he decided to quit acting and become the new lead singer of White Snake.

If the evil Skeletor looks familiar to you, it’s probably because you desperately miss Strom Thurmond. Or perhaps it’s because Skeletor is played by Frank “far-better-than-this-film” Langella. He plays the part well, but behind less-than-stellar makeup so as to inhibit his facial expressions. The film also features Billy Barty as Gwildor. Oh Gwildor; a goofier sidekick in a Sci-Fi film there never was. Every time this furry little twit opens his mouth, I want to punt him across the room. Gwildor was specifically designed to replace Orko from the cartoon series. So in other words, they replaced an annoying, but lovable wizard with an infinitely more annoying, certifiably unlikable dwarf. Nice.

This is one of the dopier movies I have ever seen. I know it sounds ridiculous to judge a film whose source material is a series of toys (yup, the writer began crafting the script before the cartoon ever existed based solely on the toys), but there is a concerted effort here to make the cheesy exponentially cheesier. It was not enough to make a flimsy fantasy film set in a magical world composed mostly of whatever large stretch of desert they were able to film without a permit, they had to crossover into the “real world” as well. Apparently the screenwriter believed the only way to ground the fantastical world of Masters of the Universe was to bring it into our world…in the 80’s? Suddenly we have all of these subplots about Man-at-Arms learning to eat Earth food and a cosmic key to other dimensions that gets mistaken for a synthesizer (and therefore more sought after?). Seriously?!

My problem with this is that the combination of swords, laser guns, and interstellar war would have made for an interesting enough fantasy epic. I could have done without high schools being trashed, bad 80’s fashion, and a spoiled rich girl’s failure to deal with her parents’ deaths in a recreational accident. Not to mention that the horrendous special effects featuring Dolph gliding around on a hover board looked all the more bogus against a suburban backdrop as did the strobe light portal to Eternia. And when Skeletor is riding his chariot down Main Street, it looks like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from 1988.

Why I Love It!

I have to admit that much of my love for this film has to do with some great names attached to it. First of all, this was a Cannon Films release. If you aren’t familiar with Cannon, I don’t know how you call yourself alive. They put together a catalog of the ultimate schlocky goodness. Here are just a few of their many titles: Schizoid, New Year’s Evil, Missing in Action, The Delta Force, American Ninja, Hard Rock Zombies, Cobra, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and Bloodsport. There was nothing quite like Cannon nor will there ever be again; that level of commitment to crap now mirrored only by studios who don’t know they are so so committed. As part of the Cannon family, Masters of the Universe was produced by the amazing one-two punch of Golan and Globus who are responsible for pretty much all the awesomeness I previously mentioned.

You may recall from our foray into 90’s, lesser-known superhero films that I always rejoice in watching well-established actresses cut their teeth on crappy films. Luckily for me, Masters of the Universe is not only irreversibly bad but also the first starring role for one Ms. Courtney Cox. She plays the spoiled girl in our dimension who deals remarkably well with monsters and roided-up, loincloth-wearing Swedes invading her life. She is cute as can be but it’s clear her acting chops were less than honed. This movie is so terrible as to make me wonder if Courtney Cox, upon auditioning for Friends, paid her publicist more money to bury this or her God-awful dancing in the Springsteen video.

There is something sinfully entertaining about this turd casserole. It just keeps getting worse as it progresses, but with no real effort to correct the shame spiral. One of my favorite things about this film is the completely absurd hit squad sent to collect the magic key. We get some familiar Masters of the Universe characters, and by characters I of course mean toys, such as the Beast Man. But we also get a almost assuredly gay man named Blade with a metallic cowlick and an assassin named Karg who looks strikingly like Tina Turner except with…no, exactly like Tina Turner. The fight scenes are a shit ton of fun to watch if only for their amazing ineptness and I get no small thrill out of listening to Dolph Lundgren mumble-shout orders to his comrades that no one could possibly understand. Also, I love that there are sound effects used in this directly lifted from Back to the Future.

This movie was so bad that it may very well have bankrupted Cannon. There are some really amazing stories about how the director and the producing team of Golan and Globus wanted to make a big budget Spiderman film in the late 80’s. They got the money together to make it but then thought it would be a good idea to first invest it into two other films in order to pool the collective box office jackpots of those films into a mega-budget for the Spiderman films. Unfortunately, those two films were Superman IV and Masters of the Universe. I love titanic missteps like this.

Junkfood Pairing: Ribs

Buckets o’ food are a recurring theme in Masters of the Universe. Throughout the entire film, people are gorging themselves on greasy vittles from cardboard vessels. At first, you may think it is merely chicken, as it would appear, but upon closer inspection you will notice what these folks are enjoying are buckets of spare ribs. Watching Gwildor stuff his face with these meaty delights and drink an entire container of sauce like he was shooting Whiskey makes me hungrier than I’ve ever been in my life. So do yourself a favor and suck down some delicious ribs as you watch several meat puppets travel across multiple universes and master none of them.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.