J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Power of Grayskull: The History of He-Man


These toys can kick Woody and Buzz Lightyear’s butts without working up a sweat. Yet, they also have a much more sophisticated backstory. You could even call it a progressive franchise, since both seasons of its animated series were directed by women. Children of the 1980s can look forward to a heap of nostalgia while everyone else will get a masterclass in toy marketing from Randall Lobb & Robert McCallum’s Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, which is now available on VOD platforms.

Mattel passed on the chance to do licensed Star Wars action figures—and deeply regretted it later. Hoping to develop a property that could rival the legendary franchise, Mattel started designing Conan the Barbarian figures until it became clear the movie would be R-rated (generally a no-no when it comes to children’s toys). Instead, they built an original barbarian themed line around the “just-for-fun” sketches of an in-house designer. That property became known as Masters of the Universe. He-Man was the unambiguous hero and Skeletor was unrepentant villain.

Of course, it caught on in a big way. The toy line exploded and the Filmation cartoon (one of the first produced for expressly for weekday afternoon syndication) took it to a higher level. It is probably one of the few franchises that were licensed by both Marvel and DC Comics. Eventually, He-Man’s sister She-Ra would get her own spin-off, co-created by J. Michael Sttraczynski. And then there was the 1987 movie starring Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella, both of whom are quite happy to talk about it on-camera. It wasn’t exactly a hit, but it remains fondly remembered by a lot of people, including its principal stars.

Unfortunately, Mattel basically killed the golden egg-laying goose through over distribution, over-saturation, and veering too far off-brand. This might be frustrating for fans to revisit, but it is fascinating stuff. Frankly, the Masters of the Universe franchise would make an instructive MBA case-study. Lobb & Marshall get the full story from at least half a dozen former Mattel executives, numerous designers, and most of the creative team at Filmation.

Lobb & Marshall deserve a great deal of credit for never dumbing down the film. In all honesty, Power of Grayskull is more about business and media studies than it is about fandom. Still, if you are a fan, you will want to know this stuff. Conversely, those who never watched MOTA in any format, will also likely become curious enough to dip into it a little bit, probably starting with the Gary Goddard’s live action film, because who doesn’t dig Dolph Lundgren? Highly recommended for anyone intrigued by the rich history of 1980s pop culture, Power of Grayskull is now available on VOD platforms.

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