Monday, December 8, 2014

The Way We Weren't: Masters of the Universe

Ah, Masters of the Universe.  Starting with action figures and cartoons, into the first movie I ever saw in a theater, He-Man, Skeletor and their supporting casts have long been a part of my pop culture upbringing.  Starting it's syndicated run in 1983, I was too young to have seen the show in it's original broadcast.  New episodes ran through 1985 and it remained in syndicated reruns until 1988.  It must have been sometime in those years that I got to see the after school adventures of super tan and yoked Eternian hero He-Man and his allies fighting the evil forces of ultra buff, blue skinned wizard Skeletor.  I remember having several of the action figures, vehicles and even inherited Castle Grayskull from a neighbor.  One of my earliest memories was watching the He-Man & She-Ra Christmas Special in 1985 followed by my mom taking me to see the Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella starring big-screen adaptation in 1987.  That film, one of Cannon's last major efforts, was beset by financial issues, pressure from the studio and toymaker Mattel and received a less than stellar reaction from critics and moviegoers alike.  While it's enjoyed a cult following for years as a guilty pleasure, I've always openly loved the film's mix of sci-fi, fantasy and action with it's big sets, larger than life characters and the simple message that there's only one of you in the universe. 

Cut to 2014 where every movie has to be based on an existing intellectual property; be it a news article, comic book, toy line, video game, novel, television show or film.  Unlike Hasbro's fellow 80's cartoon/toylines turned hit movies Transformers and G.I. Joe, MOTU has somehow not made the journey back to the big screen following decades worth of cartoons, comic books, video games, toys and the like.  A new, well regarded animated series hit Cartoon Network in 2002 and by 2004, there were rumblings that Hong Kong action maestro John Woo would be bringing He-Man back to the theater with a script from writer/director Adam Rifkin (Small Soldiers, Mouse Hunt) and studio Fox 2000.  Details were mum and by 2008, rumors swirled that Woo had lost enthusiasm, rights reverted back to Mattel who took it to Warner Brothers where super producer Joel Silver and fresh writer Justin Marks were looking to create a Star Wars meets Lord of the Rings trilogy utilizing 300 style CGI backgrounds (barf, f*cking hated 300's look).  I read a draft last week by Marks, a prolific young scribe who has been hired to adapt Masters, fellow 80's cartoon Voltron, DC Comics' Arrow and many more but none have come to fruition besides an awkward update of Street Fighter in 2009.  It's said that Warner Brothers gave Marks' script to several A-List directors, all of whom passed.  Randomly, Kung-Fu Panda co-director John Stevenson became attached, looking to make the jump from animation to live action. The project went away when Silver, Warner Brothers and Mattel didn't see eye to eye on the creative direction.  After reading the draft, I can't say I was too surprised.  The problem with trying to turn everything into a franchise is that it seems no one is focused on making ONE solid film.  Instead, everything has to be stretched out and milked so of course, shit gets boring.

The script I read, if indeed authentic, starts with a cosmic blacksmith crafting two special swords, one of good and one of evil.  Cut to years later and ruler of Eternia King Randor has the good half, his evil brother Keldor has the bad and they battle for control of the land.  Randor hides the sword and when Keldor takes over, the evil power in his blade begins to suck the life out of him.  The land starts to die, people suffer, an underground resistance is formed, blah blah blah.  Randor's teenage son, Adam, goes into hiding and after meeting with a descendent of the ancient Eternian council, The Masters of the Universe, then trains to reclaim the throne.  Teaming up with the resistance made up of former familiar supporters, Adam treks to find Castle Grayskull and the Sorceress, who can help him fulfill the prophecy.  We get franchise friendly faces like Man-At-Arms and Teela then villains Trap-Jaw, Tri-Klops, Beast-Man and Evil-Lyn working for Skeletor.  There's machines, swords, laser guns and the like but it all unfolds in a very ho-hum fashion.  I think the story reached a little wide in it's origin roots so we get hungry villagers revolting, Skeletor being killed by the item that gave him power, Adam walking around the wasteland, etc.  The large scale battle scenes aren't particularly inspiring as Adam doesn't become He-Man until the final pages of the post-Batman Begins, we have to explain EVERYTHING script.  At least in Begins, Batman showed up halfway through.  If you're embarrassed or unsure of how to use your title character, things really have nowhere to go, do they?  It was a fun and corny cartoon about muscle bound warriors and wizards who use technology and magic simultaneously, methinks "reality" shouldn't be the end goal.

In 2009, Columbia Pictures picked up the rights from Mattel and previous drafts were dropped.  Predators screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch come on board and like others before them, cast off the charm of the original series and want to go "gritty" with no Adam to He-Man transformation, no muscles and actually, no He-Man?!  Uh, ok...because I'm sure every kid wanted a Prince Adam action figure and threw away their He-Man...The project picked up steam as Expendables 2 co-writer Richard Wenk was brought in to do a rewrite and G.I. Joe: Retaliation director John M. Chu was set to direct.  After working on the designs and script in 2013, Chu departed due to scheduling conflicts.  In a bit of coincidental cinematic "coming full circle", Small Soldiers co-writer Terry Rossio (Zorro, Pirates of the Caribbean) is now re-writing the script and another short list of directors is being sought.  Will this film ever be made?  I kind of doubt it.  Seems like everyone is embarrassed by the source material and its simplicity but just want to cash in on the franchises former glory. 

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