Despite his ridiculous haircut, He-Man became a pop-culture icon of the '80s. Every kid raced around screaming, "I have the power!" and the toys sold out quicker than Nickelback did with "How You Remind Me." These Mattel action figures truly did become the Masters of the Universe, while the animated series took the TV world by storm. Speaking to Animation World Network before he passed away, Filmation's co-founder Lou Scheimer described his time working on He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. "Happy times," he said. "I mean, I had no idea; it was the nicest period of my life."
That said, the power of Grayskull waned in the late '80s, with children choosing pizza-eating Ninja Turtles as their new heroes of choice. This didn't stop Mattel from trying different things, though – like a live-action film starring Dolph Lundgren as the titular hero and a weird new animated series set in space. The initiatives might not have been as successful as the company envisioned, but the fact is this: He-Man remains an important part of popular culture to this day. Considering he's been around for over three decades now, there are many secrets and stories about the character. Take these, for example...
You can't deny that He-Man looks strikingly like something out of Conan the Barbarian's world. According to a lawsuit brought forward by Conan Properties International (CPI), it was blatant copyright infringement. The story goes as follows: In 1980, CPI entered negotiations with Mattel regarding the possible licensing of Conan toys. During the time, Mattel received a lot of material from CPI and a licensing agreement was signed in 1981.
The following year, Mattel requested a termination of the license, which was granted. In 1983, Mattel released the Masters of the Universe toyline, featuring He-Man – and a lawsuit soon followed. Mattel denied any wrongdoing and said the designs for He-Man had started years before the agreement with CPI. In summary, Mattel won the lawsuit and retained the rights to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
If you think about it, kids were ripped off in the '80s. A lot of toys were cheap knockoffs of others and the amount of effort put into making them was on the low end of the spectrum. Seriously, did any of your G.I. Joe action figures have any thumbs after a week of playing with them? Thus, it should come as no surprise that Mattel didn't go out of its way to reinvent action figures with He-Man.
Roger Sweet, one of Mattel's lead designers, revealed how he sold the concept of He-Man to CEO, Ray Wagner. He knew that he'd need to show him a proof of concept, so he took a Big Jim action figure, put it into a battle pose, added a lot of clay to the body, and then had plaster casts made. The rest, as they say, is history.
You have to feel sorry for the people involved in 1987's Masters of the Universe. While it's developed cult status in the years after its release, it's evident that no one really knew what was going on (ah, the good ol' days of Cannon Films). Frank Langella has spoken fondly of his time as Skeletor, but Dolph Lundgren isn't a big fan of the film.
In fact, he seemed quite happy that he couldn't return for the sequel even if it had actually happened. Speaking about the potential sequel to French publication Impact, Lundgren said, "At the time I was proposed it, I was shooting Red Scorpion. Masters of the Universe was a nightmare. Five months of filming, two by night." In a separate interview, he's also mentioned how it was the lowest point of his career.
If you've ever worked for a corporate company, you'll be aware of how responsibility is a grey area. When something goes wrong, it's no one's fault and the blame is shifted to the mystical entity known as "the business." If something goes right, though, then suddenly everyone wants to take credit for it. It turns out that Mattel worked in the same manner.
Both Roger Sweet and Mark Taylor lay claim to having created He-Man, while others have also said it was their input that resulted in the creation of Masters of the Universe. Heck, you only need to check out the "He-Man" episode of Netflix's The Toys That Made Us to see this is still a point of contention to this day. In short, the correct answer is: Mattel created He-Man.
When the Masters of the Universe toyline was initially released, it was beyond successful. It made Mattel more money than it could ever imagine and became a firm favorite for Christmas and birthday gifts. Realizing the iron was still hot, the company produced more new characters and wave after wave of releases to expand the world of Eternia. So, why did the toyline suddenly flop?
The answer is simple: the lack of He-Man and Skeletor action figures. While Mattel was producing an endless supply of figures like Moss Man, it forgot the fact that its most popular characters were missing from stores. For the young kids trying to get into the franchise, they'd have to settle for the lesser-known characters. Naturally, their interest drifted elsewhere.
As cool as He-Man is, he had a really bad haircut. It's almost as bad as Justin Bieber's pot cut when he first appeared on the block. In fact, we don't blame Dolph Lundgren for going with a different style for Masters of the Universe, because no money in the world is worth looking that uncool for.
That said, He-Man had a much different look when designs started on the character. Initially, he had longer hair that was covered by a Viking helmet. When it was finally time for production, Mattel considered giving him "real" hair (like Barbie had), but came to the conclusion that it was too expensive. Hence the company decided to go with the cheaper hairdo that made every '80s mom squeal with delight.
Nowadays, whenever you meet someone named Adam, you immediately wonder if they're hiding the secrets of Grayskull. Jokes aside, you simply cannot separate Prince Adam and He-Man. It's an important part of the lore, but that wasn't the original case. When the character was first created by Mattel, He-Man was just He-Man, with no alter ego to speak of.
It wasn't until the story "From Eternia – With Death!" was published by DC Comics that we finally met Prince Adam. Filmation then expanded and refined his origin in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, explaining that Prince Adam was half-Eternian and half-Terran. So, you can thank the other mediums of this franchise for expanding the story; otherwise, He-Man would've just been a strong dude with a sword.
While She-Ra: Princess of Power was a successful spinoff of He-Man, there was almost another one. Now, please brace yourself for this name, because it's one of the stupidest things you'll read today: He-Ro. No, we're not trolling. There was a proposed animated series about He-Man's adopted son called He-Ro Son of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
Realizing that the Masters of the Universe gravy train had come to a halt, Lou Scheimer came up with the idea of He-Ro and pitched it to DIC Entertainment in 1996. The series would've been set in the same universe as the original animated series, but with Prince Adam ascending to the throne and becoming King Adam. He and Queen Tee-La would adopt a boy and name him Dare. However, when Dare wields the sword, he has the power and becomes He-Ro. Honestly, we're not kidding about this.
When Masters of the Universe was created, no one at Mattel expected the level of success that the toyline achieved. It dominated the toy stores and the world couldn't get enough of the action figures, prompting a demand for more. However, Mattel didn't stop and aggressively pushed the line. Year after year, the sales increased, with Mattel making roughly $400 million in 1986.
Then, it all crashed down to Earth in 1987, with the company only making $7 million. It was a 98% decrease in sales. Naturally, Mattel panicked and it proved to be the beginning of the end for the franchise. So, what killed MOTU's momentum? It was a combination of issues involving stock demand, the financial crash, and new toys such as Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arriving in the market.
Without Filmation's He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, it's unlikely the franchise would've reached the levels of success it did. The series became a favorite of '80s kids everywhere and no one can ever forget Alan Oppenheimer's Skeletor performance. Even so, it's hard to watch it today and not cringe.
It's not because of the quality of storytelling, but because of the studio's re-using of the same animated sequences repeatedly to cut costs (look at Prince Adam's laugh animation as a perfect example). Also, to appreciate just how cheap Filmation was, remember that Orko was originally meant to be Gorpo, but the studio decided on the former because of the prospect of putting a giant "O" on his chest. This way, they could flip the animation and have twice the footage for the character.
It's not unusual to find out that parents weren't fans of what their children were watching in the '80s. It's a concern as old as time and resurfaces every time a new franchise becomes popular. So, it should come as no surprise that He-Man and the Masters of the Universe suffered the same fate as the others before and after it.
In the mid '80s, 12 parents sat down at a "He-Man Workshop" at the Christ Church Day School and aired concerns about the state of children's TV. Most of the issues revolved around the fact that force was used to resolve conflicts and the characters were too aggressive. Mattel fought back, with Senior VP Paul Cleveland saying the criticism about He-Man was unfair and pointed the finger elsewhere. "Look at Road Runner. Can anything be more violent than that?" Um.
When the Masters of the Universe discussions took place, a pressing question from Mattel's powers-that-be was: how will kids know who these characters are? So, the creators said that a comic book would accompany each toy – it was an on-the-spot response since there had been no plans to do that in the first place.
When the comic book was presented, it was pointed out that the target demographic for MOTU might not be of the age to read comics yet. Once again, the creators thought on their feet and said an animated series would be released. Obviously, nothing had been planned, so it required some quick thinking and negotiating to make it happen. Filmation managed to make it happen and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was a huge contributing factor to the toyline's success.
If you feel you've ever made the wrong choice in life, just remember that Mattel CEO Ray Wagner declined a request to produce a Star Wars toyline in 1976. While no one could've predicted the juggernaut that the franchise would become, it was a bitter blow for the popular toy company. It had to sit back and watch as Star Wars decimated everything in its path including Mattel's products.
With its pride and future at stake, Mattel went back to basics and developed He-Man and his Eternian friends. At the time, no one knew if it could topple the Star Wars machine, but by the mid '80s it did. Mind you, it probably also helped that George Lucas ended the Star Wars trilogy in 1983.
For those who think Filmation was cheap, Cannon Films made the production company look like a baller in comparison. After some less-than-sound financial decisions, the studio thought it would be a wise idea to film Spider-Man and the Masters of the Universe sequel at the same time in 1987, with Albert Pyun shooting both movies. Unfortunately, the company was in serious financial trouble and forced to cancel deals with both Marvel and Mattel.
Having already spent $2 million on costumes and sets, Cannon decided to push forward with a project to try and recoup the costs. Pyun wrote the script for Cyborg over a weekend and filming took 23 days to complete. While not well-received by the critics, the film did make money and spared Cannon its fate for a few more years.
It's been 30 years since a Masters of the Universe film has been released. People have tried to get a project into production, but nothing has come to fruition just yet. That said, Sony confirmed last year that a new film will be released in December 2019, with David S. Goyer writing the script (and reportedly taking over the directing duties as well).
In 2007, though, screenwriter Justin Marks penned a script for the proposed Grayskull: The Masters of the Universe movie. Film journalist Umberto Gonzalez claimed to have read the script, saying it was a hard and edgy PG-13 film teetering on the edge of an R-rating. Additionally, the story was described as "The Lord of the Rings meets The Matrix meets Batman Begins". Sounds like the He-Man movie we always dreamed of, so over to you, Mr. Goyer…