Christmas, 1982. Up until that point all of my toys consisted of trucks, stuffed animals and tricycles – fun but fairly pedestrian and bland stuff, mainly inherited from older siblings. Then, all at once, everything changed when He-Man, Skeletor, Man-At-Arms, and Beast Man emerged from under the Christmas tree like colorful, muscle-bound invaders from an alternate dimension.
I hadn’t even heard of these figures before opening them up, but the experience of opening and playing with these toys for the first time is permanently etched in my brain. In this article I’d like to explore what made Masters of the Universe so magical, why it was such a hit in 1980s, and whether its latest “Origins” incarnation can capture the magic again.
The most powerful man in the universe! Equal parts Conan, Tarzan, Luke Skywalker, Flash Gordon and Prince Valiant, He-Man was derivative of dozens of disparate but iconic characters. I wasn’t really aware of most of those influences of course. All I knew was the impact of the figure in front of me, and he looked like the ultimate hero. You didn’t need to know anything about his mythology to understand that he could take on any enemy and win. He was ridiculously muscular, to begin with. Beyond that, he had such a fierce, determined expression, you knew from looking at him that he would never back down, no matter how stacked the odds were against him. And of course his spartan costume and his edged weapons let you know he meant business.
Skeletor was visually the most striking of the four figures my brother and I opened on Christmas morning. If He-Man is the embodiment of life and vitality, Skeletor is the embodiment of death and decay. Of course I never would have described it in those terms at the age of 5, but the primordial and archetypal look of these characters gets the message across without using language. Because he was intended for younger children, he’s still quite colorful, but a blue-skinned evil warlord with a skull for a head is a pretty strong visual statement. I spent a lot of time studying the details of his hood, paint, and accessories.
Man-At-Arms stood out in many ways from the other four figures. While he still had a somewhat “barbarian” look and used a blunt mace as a weapon, his costume was festooned with all kinds of high-tech gadgets, and something that looked almost like a breathing apparatus. Man-At-Arms was something of a wild card, and I had to flip through the minicomics (most notably, He-Man and the Power Sword) to understand what he was really about. As an observant kid, I took note that He-Man’s arms were much bigger than Skeletor’s or Beast Man’s arms, but I was a little annoyed when I realized that Man-At-Arms had the same build as He-Man. I thought only He-Man should look that strong.
Beast Man actually belonged to my brother, but right away I was drawn to his vivid color scheme and beastly appearance, particularly his face with the big fangs and blue and white coloring (whether it was meant to be face paint or his natural coloring, I wasn’t sure). But what he represented was clear. His mouth was brimming with fangs I recall having a lot of fun taking his armor on and off, and he was a great villain for He-Man to clobber.
I clearly remember playing with Teela as a child. I don’t know if that means I owned her, or if she belonged to a sibling, but her gold and white costume and mysterious deep red snake armor were etched into my brain from an early age. To me her iconic look will always be her with the red snake armor, which had that mysterious and magical quality that permeated the first wave of Masters figures.
After we got the first four figures in our house in 1982, I was eagerly looking for what other figures were available in the line. The one that caught my eye the most was Mer-Man. And while the figure itself was significantly different compared to its cross sell artwork, I loved the figure from the moment I got it, and it remains probably my all-time favorite to this day. Why is that? It’s hard to quantify, but it has a lot to do with his coloring and his head sculpt. I want to say I got him around the same time as Zoar, but of course childhood memories are always a bit fuzzy.
I remember encountering Stratos for the first time at a friend’s house. A quirky looking figure with a jetpack and wings, he straddled the line between fantasy and science fiction, just like Man-At-Arms. I thought his goggles made him look futuristic.
Zodac was the most enigmatic of the original Masters crew. He had the most unabashed science-fiction feel, with his helmet and blaster. He has alien-looking arms and feet, but he didn’t look exactly villainous. He was always the dark horse of the original first wave of figures.
Battle Cat is one of the most iconic steeds from any 1980s fantasy property, toy-based or otherwise. Simultaneously familiar and alien, he was a fierce giant tiger with green fur and a highly ornate saddle and helmet. Who would dare ride such beast? Only the most powerful man in the universe.
Castle Grayskull really told its own story, in a way that unfolded gradually as you played with it. On the exterior, it’s a creepy and mysterious castle with a skull face at the front. It’s unclear if the skull was hewn out of the rock or if somehow it was once a living thing. Inside it’s not what you’d expect from the look of the exterior. There are computer monitors with complex buttons and wires, an elevator, and a futuristic space suit. There are weapons running the gamut from medieval to sci-fi. A two-sided flag, one clearly good, and one clearly evil. A dungeon with creepy monsters. And of course, a trap door. Where did it come from? Who does it belong to? It’s a story you can explore again and again using your figures as heroes and villains.
Why was I immediately hooked by Masters of the Universe? Well, I wasn’t alone. Even before the advent of the Filmation He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon, Masters figures were flying off the shelves faster than Mattel could replenish them. According to Mark Taylor, the designer behind all those early figures, Mattel was very cautious about the line to begin with, and its runaway success took everyone by surprise. In the first 10 months of its retail existence, the Masters of the Universe line sold five million figures and accounted for 19% of the male action figure market—all this during the height of Star Wars.
In an interview with former Mattel Marketing Director Mark Ellis (conducted by Danielle Gelehrter in 2013), Ellis mentioned that part of the psychology behind Masters had to do with power fantasy:
What became clear was that for a five year old, power was a central issue because seemingly they were always being bossed around. Psychologically, they wanted to be the boss. They wanted the power. This then was manifested in the figure by making him “the strongest man in the universe.” The idea is, if you are in charge of the most powerful man in the universe, then this feeds directly into the “why” of their play. As the line developed, the phrase “I have the power” was born to emphasis that point.
That concept is mentioned in a February 1983 article about fantasy and power themes in boy’s action figures. Power Lords, MOTU, Star Wars, and GI Joe toys are all covered.
Certainly that power fantasy was a draw for most kids. We all wanted to have more power, but as children, we have very little control over our own lives. Beyond that I think there is another factors that explains why He-Man and his world captured the imagination of our generation: visual design.
Masters of the Universe, at its best, taps into a visual design language that bypasses speech and goes right to the heart of storytelling. The best designs aren’t too simplistic, but not overbaked. Colorful but grounded in realism. The look of each character tells you what they can do and what side they’re on. One look at He-Man and Skeletor tells you what these characters are about. The minicomics that came each figure gave kids a rough outline of what kinds of adventures the toys could take them on, but they were often contradictory and light on plot. It didn’t matter though – the characters really spoke for themselves. The artwork that came with the toys give you stories without any words.
Man-E-Faces is the classic shapeshifter who wears many disguises and can switch from ally to enemy and back again. Zodac fills the role of the herald, a mysterious outsider who delivers the message that changes things for the heroes and villains. Man-At-Arms is the faithful ally, or sometimes mentor character – you can see it in the lines of his face. The potential for endless stories is all there, and you don’t even need to know anything about the various official mythologies to get started.
The characters were for the most part produced in bright primary and secondary colors. These are the colors the appeal most to children, as opposed to pastels or neutral colors. Conan characters certainly had an influence on MOTU, but the Hyperborean world was rather drab in comparison to Eternia. The combination of striking character designs, bright colors and classic archetypes all came together to create a line that was truly greater than the sum of its parts.
The Magic Continues?
Adult fans of Masters of the Universe have often speculated whether the property could enjoy the same success it had in the 1980. The 1989 sci-fi reboot, while appreciated by me, was not wildly successful. The 2002 reboot met a premature end after only a couple of years. Collector only lines have been successful since then, but Mattel hasn’t put out a line of He-Man figures at retail in nearly twenty years. That changes of course with the new MOTU Origins line.
The Origins line will be supported by not one but two Netflix He-Man cartoons, coming out in 2021. Mattel has already put out figures in Walmart stores, and reportedly they’ve sold very well even without support from a cartoon. Unlike previous retail reboots, this line not only adds more articulation, but it maintains the bold colors of the original line, and, for the most part, the original looks of the characters.
It seems to be aimed at a younger audience too, which I think may play a role in it catching on better with kids this time, while their interests are still being developed. My own son loved Masters of the Universe when he was four and five years old, but he only played it with me. His friends didn’t know anything about it, so he grew out of it fairly quickly. If there had been a contemporary show associated with it, and if some of his friends had been fans, I think it would have been a different story.
Will MOTU Origins capture the magic of the original? Only time will tell. But as a lifelong fan, I have to say I’m thrilled to see the familiar red and blue Masters logo in toy stores again. Here’s hoping that lightning will strike twice for Masters of the Universe.
Look for this article in Spanish in the next issue of Mundo Masters.
Post script: I contributed to the upcoming Dark Horse book, The Toys of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. It’s available to pre-order now!
Buying the exclusive combo pack (which includes a supplemental character guide) supports me and all the other contributors to these books: http://toyguide.thepower-con.com