He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was at first a toy line (for it’s time, the most popular and profitable toy line in existence), then it was a cartoon (which was basically a 24 minute commercial for said toys) and eventually… a movie. 1987 live-action He-Man movie Masters of the Universe has a reputation for being notoriously bad. So very, very bad. The silver lining? Frank Langella as Skeletor. 

It is exceedingly difficult to make convincing live-action versions of cult cartoons , and this big-screen version of the momentarily popular TV series is one of the least successful attempts.

Synopsis: After seizing control of Planet Eterernia’s coveted Castle Grayskull, evildoer Skeletor (Frank Langella) prepares to vanquish his heroic, larger-than-life arch-nemesis: He-Man (Dolph Lundgren). But moments before delivering the fatal blow, a cosmic key unexpectedly transports He-Man and his valiant cronies to Earth, where a larger battle with galactic consequences ensues. Oh, and somewhere in that mix… a subplot featuring a post-bereavement fantasy in which (a young) Courtney Cox gets a chance to resurrect her dead parents killed in an air crash one year previously.

It’s got all the trappings of an ’80s junker flick. A campy movie about our world colliding. Swords, sorcery, Stormtroopers (because hey, Star Wars) and dudes in loincloths – and a gnome wearing a Haiwain shirt eating fried chicken for good measure.

Loosely adapted from the cartoon and felt nothing like it.  It’s undeniably a movie made on the cheap by bargain counter producer team Golan and Globus and distributed by their equally disreputable Canon Films with a history of producing nothing memorable. Gary Goddard, the director, who at the time was better known for his work on Broadway and making theme park rides and Disney. The budget was so tight that they actually ran out of money and production had been shut down before they could finish. Goddard was forced to cobble together the film’s final battle sequence between He-Man and Skeletor on an empty stage with a single light source and on the fly choreography. Then there’s Dolph Lundgren, who followed up his breakout role in Rocky IV with this movie and for all his baby oiled muscles and bleach blonde hair, had the emotional range of an avocado. In early rough cuts, his voice was so bad, they gave him 3 chances to get dialogue right or threatened to dub over him.  Eventually, his voice became intelligible—but it didn’t do the movie much good.

This is the kind of movie that can almost only be enjoyed in the context of when it came out.  While it was so incredibly bathed in 80’s cheese, it does have its good points. Namely one and only one….

Exhibiting a master class in acting, acclaimed actor Frank Langella  – who only did this out of love for his son and as result became of one of his most favorite parts  – is simply brilliant; his bigger-then-life portrayal of Skeletor is intensely different from what they did in the animated series, but it works great. He commands every scene he is in, and his performance is powerful yet subtle at certain moments. Which was really hard to do considering Langella had to emote through that static glorified Halloween mask. The full-face prosthetic is one of the most difficult acting challenges an actor can face. But through it, Langella effortlessly delivered the defining moment in the whole movie. That scene when Skeletor asks He-Man, “Tell me about the loneliness of good, He-Man. Is it equal to the loneliness of evil?” (video above). Chilling. Intense as it is entrancing.

If not for the superb villainy of Frank Langella, Masters of the Universe would have been inadequate generic sci-fi movie that wanted to be Star Wars but wasn’t.

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