Launched in conjunction with Mattel’s best-selling toy line, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was one of the most popular animated children’s shows of the 1980s and has retained a big following to this day – and then it made the move to the big screen.
Despite the negative critical response at the time, Masters of the Universe has gained something of a cult following in the years since. Here’s what you never knew about the movie.
20. The script spent more time on Eternia – but the film couldn’t afford it
The main criticism just about everyone has made of Masters of the Universe is that it spends far too much time on modern-day Earth.
The story’s central MacGuffin, Gwildor’s Cosmic Key, sends our heroes hurtling through space and time to small-town USA only a few scenes into the film.
Because of this, we barely get to see He-Man’s home world of Eternia at all, with just a handful of sequences set inside Castle Grayskull and only a couple taking place outside.
This is because shooting in everyday locations was far cheaper than shooting on otherworldly sets, and budgetary restraints demanded the filmmakers cut some corners.
An earlier draft of the Masters of the Universe script spent far more time on Eternia, with scenes at Skeletor’s base of Snake Mountain, as well as a speaking role for Beast Man. In addition, the original script also revealed that He-Man’s mother was originally from Earth, as was the case in the cartoon series.
Still, things could have been worse: at one point the filmmakers were considering leaving Eternia out of the film completely, instead setting it entirely on Earth.
19. The film’s director had previously only directed live theme park attractions
It wasn’t just some of the people in front of the camera, like star Dolph Lundgren, who were lacking in film experience.
Masters of the Universe was also the film debut of director Gary Goddard, whose background was in a slightly different field of entertainment.
Goddard had worked extensively in theatre, but got his big break in Hollywood directing live attractions at theme parks.
He was hired for Masters of the Universe on the strength of his live show The Adventure of Conan: A Sword and Sorcery Spectacular at Universal Studios.
Goddard never directed another film after Masters of the Universe, and returned to working on movie-based theme park attractions afterwards, including Jurassic Park: The Ride. He also co-created the infamous short-lived TV series Captain Power.
However, Goddard’s career came to an ignominious end in 2018, when he resigned from his company in light of multiple disturbing allegations of assault.
18. The director wanted to hire the legendary Jack Kirby as a concept artist, but got overruled
It has been noted that, while Masters of the Universe is based on the Mattel toy line and Filmation cartoon series, it also owes a lot to a celebrated comic book series.
As the film sees super-powered aliens bringing their battle to Earth, it’s close in tone and content to The New Gods, a DC series written and illustrated by comics legend Jack Kirby in the 1970s.
Director Gary Goddard (who also made some uncredited rewrites on the script) has acknowledged this debt, admitting that he “was greatly inspired by the classic Fantastic Four/Doctor Doom epics, The New Gods and a bit of Thor.”
Initially, Goddard wanted to hire Jack Kirby as a conceptual artist on the movie, but producers Golan and Globus wouldn’t allow this.
Later, Goddard wanted to add a dedication to the end credits declaring the film was in honour of Kirby, but this was also overruled.
However, another notable comics figure did have a hand in the film, as some early conceptual art was provided by famed artist Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud.
17. She-Ra was originally going to feature
Originally, Masters of the Universe was going to feature another key character from the toy line and cartoon universe: She-Ra.
He-Man’s sister She-Ra was introduced in 1985 as a female-oriented spin-off of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
The character attracted some controversy, with claims that she didn’t fit in a boy-oriented story world; some even blamed the character for He-Man’s declining ratings and toy sales.
Nonetheless, She-Ra was originally intended to appear alongside her brother in the Masters of the Universe live-action movie.
However, director Gary Goddard decided that it would be best to concentrate on He-Man for the first film.
The plan was to leave room for She-Ra to appear in the Masters of the Universe sequel – but of course, this never happened.
16. They tried out 20 possible He-Man costumes before settling on the right one
It wasn’t just the amount of time spent on Earth and the absence of many beloved characters: Masters of the Universe also upset some fans by significantly redesigning the characters.
However, we can surely excuse the filmmakers taking a bit of artistic licence – as, if they hadn’t, they would have had to cast a bodybuilder as Skeletor as well as He-Man, and both characters would have been practically naked!
For this reason, Masters of the Universe team spent a lot of time figuring out just how He-Man was going to look in their PG-rated movie.
He-Man’s costume went through around 15 to 20 variations, with Dolph Lundgren himself also having some input into the character’s look.
Eventually, they settled on the version that made it to screens, with a long cape and straps across his bulging chest.
Lundgren had reportedly pushed for He-Man to wear shoes similar to those worn by kickboxers, but this was overruled in favour of the knee-high boots he wound up wearing.
15. Gwildor was created as a cheaper alternative to Orko
Because the Masters of the Universe filmmakers didn’t have that big a budget, a lot of the more lavish aspects of the He-Man cartoon and toy line could not be translated to live-action.
Key characters notable by their absence are He-Man’s steed Battle Cat, and his magician friend Orko.
Orko was originally intended to be part of the movie, but the character presented too great a challenge.
In the cartoons, the small character is constantly in flight, and this would have necessitated expensive special effects work.
For this reason, Orko was ditched in favour of an all-new character named Gwildor, played by Billy Barty.
Rather than flying, Gwildor walks on two feet; and instead of being a magician, he’s an inventor. All of this made the character far easier to bring to life on film.
14. The plug was almost pulled on the film before it finished filming
The box office failure of Masters of the Universe ultimately contributed to the collapse of Cannon Films, but things were already going downhill for the company during the film’s production.
Financial difficulties at the studio forced them to make cutbacks on their movies, hence the fact that most of Masters of the Universe is set on Earth.
Things got so bad that, when the film was only three days shy of completing principal photography, Cannon Films shut the production down.
Producers Golan and Globus simply didn’t have the money to finish making the film, even though they were so close to the finish line.
Ultimately, director Gary Goddard was able to negotiate with his producers and get the green light to shoot the last bits of footage needed.
That last footage was the final battle between Dolph Lundgren’s He-Man and Frank Langella’s Skeletor, which viewers may notice has a very different, darker look to the rest of the film – because they were shooting on a shoestring!
13. Meg Foster’s Evil-Lyn costume weighed 45 lbs
As is perhaps to be expected in a world-hopping space opera like Masters of the Universe, many of the film’s cast members had to endure some unwieldy costumes.
Meg Foster, who appears as Skeletor’s right-hand-woman Evil-Lyn, was placed in a costume which weighed a whopping 45 lbs.
The costume, in particular its mighty fibreglass breastplate, severely restricted the actress’ movements.
Ultimately Foster felt this was to the benefit of her performance, as it necessitated the slinky, unnatural movements she adopted.
It also explains why we only ever see Evil-Lyn standing up, as it simply wasn’t possible for Foster to sit down.
Wearing the costume took its toll on Foster physically, leaving her with bruises on her groin.
12. Blade actor Anthony De Longis also doubled for Skeletor and taught Dolph Lundgren how to use a sword
One of the most memorable new villains introduced in the Masters of the Universe movie is Blade, played by Anthony De Longis.
As well as being the most human-looking of Skeletor’s mercenaries, Blade is also – as befits his name – a master of swordsmanship.
It should come as little surprise, then, that De Longis was hired specifically because of his skill with swords.
On top of playing Blade, De Longis also handled most of the movie’s swordfight choreography, and doubled for Frank Langella in the climactic battle between He-Man and Skeletor.
Lundgren hadn’t worked with swords before, and De Longis recalls, “Dolph took to the training really well, no surprise. But we did not get much time to rehearse. A lot of the choreography was done virtually on the spot.”
This proved particularly challenging, as He-Man’s mighty sword was “very tough to manoeuvre. Anybody with less strength and athleticism than Dolph would not have been able to manipulate it with such apparent ease.”
11. “Good journey” was an on-set ad-lib
Masters of the Universe tells us that the people of planet Eternia say “good journey” instead of goodbye.
Man-at-Arms (Jon Cypher) tells us this is rooted in an old Eternian saying – but the truth is rather different. (Well, that should be obvious considering Eternia doesn’t actually exist.)
In fact, the phrase “good journey” and all dialogue pertaining to it were added to the film as on-set improvisations.
When it came time to shoot the big farewell scene, director Gary Goddard felt it seemed too “American” for He-Man and friends to say goodbye to their new friends from Earth.
Because the director liked the phrase ‘Life’s a journey, not a destination,’ he suggested they try saying “good journey” instead.
Together with Teela actress Chelsea Field, they also came up with the ‘fingers-to-lips-to-heart’ gesture which accompanies the phrase.
10. It was the feature film debut of Courteney Cox
Masters of the Universe is one of those movies that always warrants a mention when listing the most embarrassing first movies of future superstars.
In this instance, it was the film debut of Courteney Cox, who appears in the movie as orphaned small-town teenager Julie.
Cox got her big break dancing on stage with Bruce Springsteen in the video for his 1984 hit Dancing in the Dark.
She then clocked up a few credits on television before taking her first steps into the movies with Masters of the Universe.
Cox was suggested to director Gary Goddard by his casting director purely on the strength of her fame resulting from the Springsteen video.
While this didn’t prove too auspicious a big screen debut, Cox would find worldwide fame several years later on beloved 90s sitcom Friends.
9. Dolph Lundgren ended up doing his own stunts because it was impossible to find a convincing double
At 6’5″ with platinum blonde hair and a striking physique, Dolph Lundgren was physically the best match for He-Man the filmmakers could have hoped for.
However, casting someone of near-superhuman proportions did pose some unexpected problems on Masters of the Universe.
Because Lundgren was so tall and muscular, and set to be so scantily-clad throughout the film, it proved impossible to find any stunt doubles who could convincingly pass for him.
The only viable option – particularly given the limited time and money available – was for Lundgren to perform pretty much all the action himself.
The problem there, as director Gary Goddard explains, is that “there was no time for training on this film. This was a Cannon film.”
As a result, a lot of Lundgren’s big action scenes wound up a bit clunky-looking, as the filmmakers didn’t have time to get everything perfect.
8. The film was so unsuccessful it led to the collapse of Cannon Films
Masters of the Universe was a production of one of the most infamous film studios of the 1980s, Cannon Films.
The company, run by larger-than-life producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, started life as purveyors of low-budget exploitation.
However, the ambitious Golan and Globus strived to make Cannon a major player, pumping ever more money into more ambitious projects.
Where most studios produced a handful of films a year, Cannon churned out dozens – and, as not all of these were big moneymakers, the company were spending more than they were earning.
1987 proved be a make-or-break year for Cannon as they released two of their most expensive, high profile productions (on top of the many more smaller productions they had in the works at the same time).
In the same year as Masters of the Universe, Cannon also made Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and hopes were high that both films would be massive blockbusters.
Unfortunately, these turned out to be a double whammy of embarrassing flops for Cannon, and from there the writing was on the wall for the studio.
7. Dolph Lundgren’s voice was almost dubbed over by another actor
The role of He-Man represented only the third screen credit of Swedish karate champion and former bodyguard Dolph Lundgren.
Lundgren had made his acting debut two years earlier with a minor role in Bond movie A View to a Kill.
However, it was his appearance as Russian boxer Ivan Drago opposite Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV which really brought him to widespread attention.
Still, while Lundgren clearly had the right hair and physique for He-Man, his then-inexperience as an actor and as an English-speaker presented a challenge.
Because of his thick Swedish accent and difficulty with dialogue, Masters of the Universe director Gary Goddard originally wanted all Lundgren’s lines to be dubbed over by another actor.
However, due to the budget restraints and the fact they were running behind schedule, the production ended up having to stick with Lundgren’s voice.
6. Mattel inexplicably didn’t bother to release any official Masters of the Universe movie toys
It wasn’t only studio Cannon Films who were in trouble when the Masters of the Universe movie came out; the same was true of Mattel’s toy line.
After being hugely successful in the early 80s, sales of Masters of the Universe toys had dipped drastically by 1987.
Because of this, Mattel were really banking on the movie being a huge hit and helping to promote their next wave of action figures, vehicles and play sets.
This makes it all the more surprising that Mattel never actually released any official movie-based Masters of the Universe toys.
No figures were ever released modelled on Dolph Lundgren’s He-Man, Frank Langella’s Skeletor, Chelsea Field’s Teela and so on, despite these movie counterparts looking very different from the original toys.
The only new characters from the movie who wound up appearing in the toy line were Gwildor and the villains Blade and Saurod. The original Masters of the Universe range ceased production soon thereafter.
5. A sequel set on a post-apocalyptic Earth was planned
Despite their financial woes and the box office failure of Masters of the Universe, the ever-ambitious Cannon Films already had plans for a follow-up film in place before the film was released.
This desire to continue the story is hinted at in the film’s post-credits scene (a feature that wasn’t too common in those days, long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe):
This climactic moment reveals that Skeletor – assumed dead after his final battle with He-Man – has in fact survived.
Frank Langella’s bony head emerges from the water and, staring straight to the camera, growls “I’ll be back!” and traumatises most of the kids watching in the process.
The plan had been that Skeletor would indeed return to battle He-Man once again in a film provisionally entitled Masters of the Universe 2: Cyborg.
This second film would have seen He-Man go back to Earth to find that Skeletor has conquered the planet and turned it into a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
The plan was that this sequel would introduce She-Ra, as well as one of Skeletor’s most popular henchmen from the cartoons, Trap Jaw.
4. The sequel would have seen Dolph Lundgren replaced by a professional surfer
Frank Langella may have loudly declared his love for the role of Skeletor, but sadly Dolph Lundgren has never felt the same way about He-Man.
The actor has long since admitted that he didn’t particularly enjoy playing the role, stating in the documentary Electric Boogaloo, “I felt pretty stupid doing it.”
The Cannon Films team were aware of this, and Lundgren made it clear immediately that he didn’t want to return for a sequel.
Because of this, producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus had to look further afield for someone who would be able to fill Lundgren’s hefty boots.
The man they found to fill the vacant codpiece was Laird Hamilton, who, like Lundgren, was more experienced as a sportsman than an actor, having been a professional surfer.
However, Cannon’s money problems soon proved so insurmountable that the project had to be abandoned completely.
3. Sets and costumes made for the sequel were used in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Cyborg instead
Masters of the Universe 2: Cyborg was originally set to see director Albert Pyun take over from Gary Goddard behind the camera.
Clearly Cannon Films hadn’t learned their lesson from the Masters of the Universe/Superman IV debacle, as they planned to again shoot this sequel back-to-back with another major movie.
Originally, the company intended to make a Spider-Man movie at the same time as Masters of the Universe 2, and things got far enough along that sets and costumes had been prepared for both films.
However, very late in the day the funding for both films fell through – leaving Cannon with a bunch of sets and costumes that were going to waste, and crew members without a film to work on.
At very short notice, Albert Pyun rewrote the Masters of the Universe sequel as the low budget action thriller Cyborg, which wound up being a modest box office success for then-burgeoning action star Jean-Claude Van Damme in 1989.
2. Skeletor is one of Frank Langella’s favourite ever roles
Frank Langella, a Tony award winner and Oscar nominee, has been a highly respected star of stage and screen for many years.
Because of this, one might assume he looks back on Masters of the Universe with more than a hint of embarrassment.
However, quite the opposite is true: Langella has stated on many occasions that Skeletor was one of his favourite roles to play.
The actor immediately said yes to the part as his young son was a huge fan of the He-Man cartoons.
Langella was also given a lot of creative input into the film, and was allowed to write some of his own dialogue.
One famous line which Langella improvised: “Tell me about the loneliness of good, He-Man. Is it equal to the loneliness of evil?”
1. Noah Centineo is set to play He-Man in a reboot
Since 1987 there have been plenty of Masters of the Universe toys, comics and cartoons (including the upcoming Netflix series), but a new movie has been trapped in development hell since 2007.
Meanwhile, the role of He-Man has been linked to such stars as Kellan Lutz, wrestler Triple H and the late Paul Walker.
However, it looks like a new Masters of the Universe is now finally getting off the ground at studio Sony.
Actor and model Noah Centineo (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) is set to play He-Man, with directorial duo Aaron and Adam Nee (Band of Robbers) calling the shots. On its announcement in 2019, the film was set to open in March 2021.
Unfortunately, Masters of the Universe is one among the many film productions thrown into turmoil by the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time of writing the reboot has no confirmed start date for production, and it has since been deleted from Sony’s release schedule.