Directors Randall Lobb and Robert McCullum’s 2017 documentary about He-Man, The Power of Grayskull, has a subtitle – The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. The depth and richness of the 95-minute documentary justifies its claim of being a comprehensive account of the evolution of a toy into comic books, an animated series, and finally a movie.
For lifelong fans and just about anyone who has watched the He-Man animated series, The Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is an engaging documentary about the creation of a sustaining a billion-dollar enterprise. The film is currently available for streaming on Netflix.
The franchise was born out of market research, the documentary reveals. Toymakers Mattel were running into losses in the late 1970s after creating short-lived memorabilia licensed from television series, comic books, literature, and films. The company was saddled with an inventory that did not last beyond the buzz created by the parent media’s release.
As a result, Mattel refused to create toys based on the then-upcoming Star Wars (1977). To everyone’s surprise, the film became a blockbuster and spawned a trillion-dollar franchise. The suits at Mattel, furious about the loss, went hard at creating an original group of toys from scratch.
Research showed that children were drawn to themes of power and masculinity. An unreasonably muscular physique was in vogue in the ’80s, which was reflected in the popularity of brawny actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. The brains at Mattel also drew from Big Jim, an earlier line of toys, and the evocative artwork of Frank Frazetta. The generic macho name “He-Man” was seen as being able to fit into just about any storyline.
When the toys to be sold were in place, comic book writers were brought in to create a mythos around the character. What would He-Man and arch-villain Skeletor be fighting for? Castle Grayskull was born. Even this was a random name based on Gray, the name of one of the wives of the creators, the documentary reveals. He-Man’s pet- and ally, the tiger Battle Cat, was born because the makers had run out the budget to give He-Man an impressive vehicle. Key elements, such as the history of Eternia, He-Man’s relation to his sword, the creation of Skeletor’s cronies, and He-Man’s sister She-Ra, who spun off an alternate line of toys and cartoons, were created to support the animated series, which in turn would sell the toys.
Cobb and McCullum interview a host of former and present-day Mattel employees who were closely involved with the conception of He-Man. Among them are writers, illustrators, engineers, filmmakers from Filmation, who created the cartoon series in the mid-’80s, as well as the voice artists. Also featured in the documentary are He-Man historians and experts. Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella, who played He-Man and Skeletor respectively in the the disastrous 1987 live-action adaptation, Masters of the Universe, also share their memories.
While a franchise created out of necessity connected with generations, attempts to mint more money through a movie spin-off and other uninspired creative decisions caused He-Man to lose his powers by the ’90s. Nonetheless, when the interviewees look back on the pop culture phenomenon that was He-Man, it is hard not to get nostalgic.