Once upon a time, there was a tiny little company called Mattel who made toys. You may have heard of them. Back in the 80s, they wanted to launch a new line of toys based around a barbarian character they’d created called He-Man. Since obviously no one had ever heard of He-Man, to advertise it, they took the radical move of getting US animation house Filmation to develop a cartoon series based on the toys.
Filmation, having been around for a while doing things like Space Sentinels, took their job seriously and really went to town. Although there was already a range of mini-comics that accompanied the toys, Filmation got in proper writers who developed series bibles, rewrote the comics, picked which characters to include in the show and more. Before you knew it, an entire background had been developed for all the characters and the planet on which they lived.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was born. Here’s its title sequence:
Set on the planet Eternia, it depicted the fight between the good He-Man – in real-life, Prince Adam until he held his sword aloft and said “By the Power of Greyskull” – and Skeletor, a skull-faced, ripped wizard, and their motley collections of henchmen and women to control the planet. Setting a trend others would follow, the show had both magic and technology, with lasers and swordfights getting equal prominence.
Each episode would typically involve Skeletor coming up with a cunning plan to:
- take power on Eternia
- break into Castle Greyskull, the source of He-Man’s power
- get some shiny trinket that would make him powerful enough to do either 1) or 2).
And He-Man and co would defeat him, using a combination of intellect – and a fist to the face.
Now, this was clearly a show aimed at selling stuff to kids but enough thought and care was put into it that – like later cartoons such as Centurions (which went into some very odd hard sci-fi concepts) but unlike things such as Thundercats and Visionaries – the stories stood up well on their own terms. Indeed, with the likes on-team of Babylon 5 creator and author of award-winning Angelina Jolie movie The Changeling, J Michael Straczynski, how could it not? So characters were explored and developed (a little) and plots would often have a knowing humour that adults would appreciate
Being created in the early 80s, the show also had an endearingly Reaganite philosophy: might is right when used by good people; masculinity is cool; behave and live up to your responsibilities; and good will always triumph over evil. Every episode ended with a direct-to-“camera” moral told by one of the cast and based on the episode’s plot. Or sometimes not:
As you may have noticed from that clip, He-Man soon proved popular enough that a show intended for girls was launched: She-Ra: Princess of Power. This was almost identical to He-Man, and embodied many of the same characteristics of that show (fights, evil villain, magic sword), even existing in the same universe: Adora, who becomes She-Ra, is Adam’s twin sister but was carried away to another planet Etheria, when she was just a baby and becomes She-Ra by holding her sword aloft and saying “For the honour of Greyskull”.
The slight flip is that evil runs Etheria and Adora/She-Ra runs the resistance against Hordak and his Evil Horde; Hordak favours technology over magic, unlike Skeletor, his former pupil; and there’s less of an emphasis on aggression, more of an emphasis on relationships – He-Man and best girlfriend Teela never consider a relationship, whereas the Aurora and the mustachioed Beau have the same kind of relationship as Nancy Drew and her boyfriend. She-Ra’s sword, unlike He-Man’s, can change into different things (space helmets, shields, parachutes, et al) and she also has a flying unicorn rather than a battlecat. Go figure.
Here’s its title sequence.
There were plenty of crossovers between the two shows, with He-Man coming over to Etheria, never vice versa (can’t have girls on He-Man’s show and most boys were annoyed by the obvious rip-off quality of the show), to help out, but She-Ra was never truly popular with girls in the same way as He-Man was with boys. Go figure.
Eventually, both He-Man and She-Ra ended. There was a 1987 movie starring Dolph Lundgren as He-Man and Courtney Cox of all people, that was a big lump of rubbish:
A second cartoon series to re-launch the He-Man toy line was developed during the 90s, called The New Adventures of He-Man. It wasn’t very good either.
And in 2002, another cartoon remake was created. This – as well as trying to relaunch the action figures again – tried to grab both children and adults who had watched the original while growing up. Incorporating an anime sensibility, the show went back to the original series’ bible to create its Eternia while giving it more of an adult sensibility: so Adam is clearly different from He-Man, Teela has a crush on He-Man but thinks Adam is an idiot, Adam has to keep on pretending to be a twat in real-life so no one knows he’s really a hero, and so on.
While leagues better than The New Adventures of He-Man, it only managed to last two seasons before the Cartoon Network called time on it.
There’s rumours of another movie, but let’s face it: He-Man was a product of a simpler time and it probably belongs there. Revel in the nostalgia and enjoy it for what it was.