In 1977, Star Wars hit the silver screen for the first time. With the release of A New Hope, George Lucas managed not just to revolutionise filmmaking, but to also have a long-lasting influence upon the business of merchandising. For the first time, the tie-in products became a multi-million dollar enterprise in their own right, and particularly in terms of action figures.
The rights to making toys of the various characters and ships went to Kenner (or Palitoy of Coalville here in the UK). It was an unknown quantity, and a number of toy companies passed up on the chance to pick up the product licence, one of which was Mattel. It was a decision which they – along with many others – came to regret, and resulted in many years of scrabbling around, desperately trying to search out the next big property, resulting in many film and TV show licences being picked up, and hundreds of thousands spent on development and production, only to find the costs failing to be recouped, or sales failing to match Star Wars‘ stratospheric success.
Mattel looked for original creations, after having produced toys for big genre titles such as Battlestar Galactica and Clash Of The Titans, only to have them falling short of expectations. Brainstorming led to a series of barbarian-themed figures, initially dubbed ‘The Lords Of Power’; an eleventh-hour change resulted in the line being titled Masters Of The Universe, and the denizens of Eternia became a staple of a generation’s childhoods during the mid-1980s. Unlike Star Wars, the toys actually begat the visual entertainment, with the merchandise leading to a spin-off cartoon series, and then later a film.
Since its heyday, Masters Of The Universe and He-Man have been a part of popular culture, managing to endure in a way that most similar properties haven’t achieved. Just look at the popular parody account on Twitter, Grumpy Skeletor, or the ads for MoneySuperMarket featuring He-Man and Skeletor. With Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding sites, fans have been able to bring to life projects celebrating things from their childhood which need to have a reappraisal, or to bring them back into the spotlight – recent examples include Lisa Downs’ Life After Flash, as well as her forthcoming project Life After The Navigator.
Back in 2015, filmmakers Randall Lobb and Rob McCallum announced plans to make a documentary called Power Of Grayskull: The Definitive History Of He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe, funded through Kickstarter. After years of graft and persistence, they’ve managed to create a feature-length release, telling the story of He-Man, from inception as rival toy line to Star Wars, to cartoon series, to motion picture, then the decline and fall as trends changed, and the attempts made to revive the property since then. It does exactly what it set out to do, and you can’t fault their vision or ambition.
However, it seems nostalgia’s become big business over the last few years, and one thing which unfortunately stole a march on the whole project was recent Netflix original series The Toys That Made Us. Over two seasons to date, they’ve looked back at some of the toy brands which had captivated thirty and forty (and possibly even fifty)-somethings, and one episode almost inevitably focused on the Masters Of The Universe range. As such, anybody who’s seen that show won’t find some of the content in Power Of Grayskull to be quite as original as it otherwise would’ve been, purely by dint of timing.
The Toys That Made Us took a somewhat more irreverent, expletive-laced approach when telling the He-Man story, yet it also managed to throw in facts which aren’t in Power Of Grayskull. It’s disappointing to see that something which is openly billing itself as ‘definitive’ seems to have missed a few tricks, and a rival project has ended up finding and using exclusive material in an episode which runs for half the length of this documentary feature. Both of these tell essentially the same story, but they do end up taking somewhat different routes to get there, so at least there’s some actual variety, and one doesn’t turn out feeling like a total retread of the other.
Where Power Of Grayskull wins out is in its length, giving it the breathing room to go into much greater depth on the source material, with more focus given to things like the spin-off She-Ra range, including the cartoon series, which gives a chance to bring in J. Michael Straczynski, he of Babylon 5 fame. Straczynski submitted a spec script for He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe, and ended up working as a story editor on She-Ra: Princess Of Power. Having him on board is a bonus, as he wasn’t included in The Toys That Made Us, and he helps give perspective on what it was like making a show that had to fight against the TV censors, as well as needing to stand up in its own right as something more than just a commercial for toys.
It’s also fascinating to hear all about the various struggles involved in bringing a strong female character into being at that period in time, due to the chauvinistic attitudes which were prevalent – we get an account of the sexist responses which were made by male Mattel employees to the female-led She-Ra development team. The past sometimes isn’t quite as foreign a country as we’d like to think. In addition, we get a real insight into just how much input Lou Scheimer’s Filmation company had into creating so much of the He-Man mythos we know nowadays, after putting together the animated series.
Perhaps the real highlight is the segment on the Masters Of The Universe movie, as we get to hear from Dolph Lundgren and – most surprisingly – Frank Langella. This is the part of the documentary which feels closest to Life After Flash, and you end up feeling as though this could easily be expanded into a worthy ‘making-of’ in its own right. It’s fascinating to hear just how much Langella loves the movie, and he speaks passionately and eloquently in his defence of it. This is a real eye-opener, and you get to understand just how much of the finished article was a compromise, as it’s clear that it could have been better than what we ultimately got.
This documentary isn’t just something for hardcore nostalgia freaks, or children of a certain age, as it’s a compelling look into how something can happen to become a genuine phenomenon, even when it ends up having been created by committee. As far as storytelling goes, Randall Lobb and Rob McCallum definitely have the power.
Power Of Grayskull: The Definitive History Of He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe is out now on DVD and Digital.