Sunday, October 14, 2012

Nostalgia Theater: The (Brief) Return of Masters of the Universe

This past Friday marked thirty years since Mattel's mighty Masters of the Universe debuted in toy aisles across the country. And while I looked at the short-lived The New Adventures of He-Man iteration of the brand a scant two months ago, we now examine an even shorter-lived try at breathing life back into the dormant powers of Grayskull. In 2002, after a sudden rush of nostalgic interest by aging '80s kids in dormant properties like G.I. Joe and Transformers, and more than ten years after Prince Adam's spray-tanned alter ego last haunted toy store pegs, Mattel followed suit and relaunched Masters of the Universe (with snazzy new anime-inspired designs and minus one pageboy haircut). Here's the first TV spot promoting the line:

Given the multi-platform behemoth Masters of the Universe had been in its original incarnation, it's no surprise that Mattel had a whole array of tie-ins ready to go. School supplies, bath supplies, the whole shebang. But of course, most prominent on the toymaker's agenda to connect with an audience that missed the original Masters era by ten-plus years -- was a spiffy new TV show on Cartoon Network, which utilized the new designs and spun the mythology from the ground up, deepening it where necessary, but retaining the spirit of fun and innocence that made it so appealing the first time around. Here's the first part of the first episode, which gives us the secret origin of He-Man's main baddie Skeletor:

(By the way, that's Cam Clarke, a.k.a. Katana-wielding Leonardo in the '80s incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as the voice of Prince Adam, and Gary Chalk, who voiced He-Man in New Adventures, as Man-at-Arms.)

Terrific toys, a quality TV show, and a rich mythology to continually pull from. It sure seemed like the relaunched Masters of the Universe had everything going for it. So what happened? What else, that omnipresent intersection between art and commerce. The needs of marketing a toyline naturally took precedence, and the needs of maintaining a toyline meant that its lead hero and villain needed to be front-and-center with every wave of action figures. What this ended up doing, however, was to put so much of the onus on variations of He-Man and Skeletor in different kinds of drag (Spin-Blade He-Man, Fire Armor Skeletor, etc.) that those were the only figures you could find.

This was right around the time I first moved to Cali, and I was working at Target to pay the bills. Since I was somewhat doing the completist thing at the time, I'd swing by the toy aisle everyday. EVERY. DAY. And it was a pretty fair bet whenever you passed through that you weren't going to find many of the side characters, like Beast Man or Mer-Man or even Orko, but you'd find more than enough He-Mans and Skeletors to feed your need. Well, with kids competing with collectors, those secondary characters became even harder to find, and rather than try to track them down, kids (and adults) eventually just lose interest, which is exactly what happened.

Meanwhile, the new TV show from Mike Young Productions, which launched in August of '02 to good reviews and solid ratings, shifted its focus in year two to new baddies King Hiss and his Snake Men, reflecting a change in the toyline. But by then the damage was done. Shelves were clogged with unsold High-kicking He-Mans and Sudoku-playing Skeletors, and stores were understandably wary of ordering another batch that would remain unsold. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, Mattel jammed the line with He-Man/Skeletor variants to keep it alive, and that's what killed it. With sales not warranting its continuation, the toyline was discontinued in '04, and without toys to promote, the TV show followed, ending its run in January of that year.

While its thirty-nine episode total is a far cry from the 130 episodes its 1980s namesake managed, I'd give the edge in storytelling and depth of vision to the latter version. Today, Masters of the Universe continues as a web-only collector toyline, and although every once in awhile there's talk of a fancy-schmancy new movie, nothing has solidified as of yet (despite, I'm sure, the very best efforts of Mattel, who are no doubt having Pavlovian reactions to the bounty rival toymaker Hasbro has reaped from the Transformers and G.I. Joe big screen franchises). In the meantime, though it's been forgotten by all but diehards, the '02 Masters of the Universe is available in its entirety on DVD for a price that makes it an easy recommendation.


James Greenlee said...

I thought I'd stop by your blog, since you stopped by mine. Nice!

The He-Man (and She-Ra)) thing was a little bit late for me, though my eight-years younger sister loved them. For me, my only knowledge of them (other than a glance at what sis was watching) was when DC Comics tried to shoehorn He-Man into their universe. Pageboy haircut intact!
See here:

Thanks for visiting my blog, and good luck with yours!

Zaki said...

Yep, I know that quite well! As a matter of fact, I even had that book bound into a custom collection I put together of '80s He-Man comics: