Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
The lifeless script for Masters of the Universe has some real potential, but it threatens to make a flying leap into the dustbin of history — or in this case, the dustbin of bad fantasy movies.
SPOILERS! MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
Despite a story that unearths some of the oldest He-Man mythology to good effect, Justin Marks’ script for Masters of the Universe (MOTU) borrows from several classic fantasy and science-fiction sources without taking the time or effort to energize those borrowed elements with a fresh perspective. There’s nothing wrong with ripping off ideas from old stories, but if you’re going to do that, you must assiduously avoid cliché.
Marks’ script, officially titled Grayskull: The Masters of the Universe, avoids the main problem that sank the 1987 live-action movie — going to earth. Marks’ script is set entirely on Eternia and makes use of most of the familiar elements from the 80s cartoon series — He-Man and his alter-ego, Prince Adam, Skeletor, Teela, Evil-Lyn, and others.
But serious, die-hard, borderline-insane fans of the original line of toys will remember that the mythology for He-Man goes a little deeper than the cartoon series. The original action figures came with mini-comics that laid down the earliest plot points, including the name of the planet, Man-At-Arms’ adopted fathership of Teela and the role of two magic swords.
And if you remember the original toys, you’ll remember that He-Man and Skeletor both came with one half of a larger, more powerful sword. (I feel like one of the halves even glowed in the dark, but don’t quote me on that.) If memory serves, in those original comics, you needed both halves of the sword to gain entrance to Castle Grayskull. Hell, I think the Castle Grayskull toy even had a keyhole next to the drawbridge that you could open using the sword.
The cartoon series never used this idea. He-Man had his magic sword, while Skeletor used a magic staff — deliciously called his “Havoc Staff” — but I always liked the two-sided sword idea. If I had to guess why the He-Man cartoon series never used this idea, I’d blame it on Blackstar. OK, I’m revealing how old I am here, but at the far reaches of my earliest memories, I can remember a toy line and animated series called Blackstar that also had a two-sided sword. Here’s the opening sequence:
I’m about to offer you more information than you ever wanted to know about this, but the animation company Filmation — purveyors of such limited-animation garbage as He-Man, The Archies and the Ghostbusters knock-off — produced Blackstar before the MOTU series. (A toy line for Blackstar wouldn’t emerge until well after the cartoon’s cancellation.)
Marks wisely starts his script with the swords. In an opening that invokes imagery from Lord of the Rings and Conan the Barbarian, we watch an ancient smithy named Eternus forge the two swords, which become the key weapons in a legendary battle between two opposing armies of good and evil. We come to know the two swords as the Sword of Light and the Sword of Darkness. A king named Grayskull leads the forces of good in the legendary battle. After good triumphs, Grayskull entrusts six wise warriors to hide the two swords. These warriors are the original Masters of the Universe.
The plot kicks into gear when Evil-Lyn and a warrior named Keldor discover the Sword of Darkness. Keldor takes hold of the Sword of Darkness, and it endows him with great power while eating away at his flesh — he’s now Skeletor. Nice.
Let’s pause a moment. Marks’ script starts off fine. The origin story for the swords works well, and the magical explanation for Skeletor’s appearance is satisfying.
But one detail from the opening sequence bothers me. In the flashback to the legendary battle, Marks’ wisely identifies the commander of the forces of good as King Grayskull, but he devotes no time to identifying the commander of the evil army, merely referring to him as “the other leader” during his battle with King Grayskull. At the same time, Marks does take the time to offer a compelling description of the rest of the scene. He equips Grayskull’s good army in high-tech battle gear that he says should look like something out of feudal Japan “with a hint of alien texture.” Furthermore, he populates the evil army with “monstrous, snarling beasts” that are augmented with nanotechnology.
So don’t get me wrong — I know that I’m being nit-picky to give Marks grief for speeding past the establishment of a minor character in an opening flashback, but it’s symptomatic of the problems to come in his script.
We then meet a 14-year-old Prince Adam at a party in Eternia’s royal palace with King Randor. We meet Man-At-Arms, and then Skeletor storms the castle and kills Randor, who by the way is his brother. During all this, Skeletor says something about how “the bloodline ends tonight,” referring to Adam, presumably. Adam, meanwhile, escapes the castle unharmed and goes into exile. Man-At-Arms stays behind to fight Skeletor.
Got that? All of that happens in the first 10 pages of the script. I have nothing wrong with brisk opening action, but in this opening sequence, we see one of Marks’ first missteps. In the space of two lines, we meet King Randor and discover that Adam is having a hard time living up to his father’s example. Randor then dies.
This imagery calls to mind two seminal literary works: Dune and The Godfather. In both cases, we meet enormous father figures who die early on and cast a shadow over the balance of the story. Marks feints in that direction, but he only gives Randor about a minute of screen time before dispatching him. His influence on Adam’s life is never really felt.
After going on the run, Adam has his first run-in with the Sorceress of Grayskull, who speaks to him through the wind or something, and then Marks inserts this howler: The Sorceress uses the wind to create speech using the rustling of leaves. These leaves then fall off a tree and swirl together to form the image of Castle Grayskull. I’m not quite sure how to put this, but that is a shitty image. Computer-generated imagery has progressed far, but as we’ve seen in the recent Mummy movies using nature to paint pictures in this fashion often looks cheesy.
Moving on. Adam meets up with Zodak, who spends the next seven years training him in the ways of warfare and spirit. I have two beefs with the training sequence, one of them geeky, the other more serious.
• Geeky beef. Justin Marks pressed Zodak into duty as the Yoda/Morpheus character, but why Zodak? The original Zodak character, as we can see in his alarmingly comprehensive Wikipedia entry, acted as a neutral cosmic enforcer who would intervene on the behalf of good or evil to maintain balance in the cosmos. I didn’t understand why Marks chose this character for this role — though to be fair, Marks reportedly has a trilogy in mind, and maybe he has bigger plans in mind for the future of this character.
• More serious beef. The training sequence is one of the great staples of warrior and hero legends throughout the worlds of fantasy and science fiction. Its alumni include Luke Skywalker, Conan the Barbarian, Neo, Batman, Green Lantern and even dumb old Harry Potter. By deciding to include a training sequence, Marks has the chance to add He-Man to this grand pantheon. He fails.
Or at least in the draft I read, he fails. Some sample dialogue:
I understand you were known for
causing trouble back in the
No king inspires his people by
fighting for himself.
OK, I see what Marks is getting at here. As a kid, Adam was known for getting into fights, and Zodak is telling him not to do that, but he slips into fortune-cookie moralizing. Most geeks recognize fortune-cookie moralizing. It happens when writers try to conjure a pithy moral lesson for their hero and fuck up. George Lucas gave us the memorable fortune-cookie head-scratcher “Only Sith speak in absolutes,” and Marks keeps ’em coming at a steady clip in his script. To wit:
Think outside of your own anger.
A true leader understands all the
problems of his people. He knows
both the light and the darkness.
In the annals of the great training sequences, Marks needs to realize how high the bar has been set. Consider Zodak’s uninspiring dialogue when compared to, say, some of Morpheus’ lines from his training battle with Neo in The Matrix:
How did I beat you?
You … you’re too fast.
Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place? Do you think that’s air you’re breathing now?
Or Yoda’s, from The Empire Strikes Back:
Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.
Remember earlier when I gave Marks grief for shrugging off a minor detail? In this case, he shrugged off a major body of details. I think Marks arbitrarily chose a plot point that he knew would appeal to sci-fi and fantasy fans, and he rushed through his execution of it.
On the plus side of the training sequence, Marks does hint at Adam’s destiny to wield the two halves of the magic sword, but we never get an idea of what that means — Zodak just says that Adam “isn’t ready” for that part of his training. What’s the solution? Well, at this point of the script, we’ve already met other Masters of the Universe — perhaps Zodak, as a cosmic, otherworldly being, could teach Adam about what he’ll have to know and be ready for in order to wield such power.
Moving on. We return back to Skeletor, who has been ruling Eternia from the royal palace for the last seven years, but unfortunately, because he’s been using the Dark Sword to enforce his rule, the land is dying from the lack of sunlight. Evil-Lyn advises Skeletor that he better find Randor’s son, because Adam is the only one who can find the Light Sword and Castle Grayskull and all the rest. This plot point is at once hilarious and fascinating. Let me explain:
Thinking back to The Lord of the Rings, have you ever wondered what exactly Sauron would have done with Middle-earth if he had conquered it? Mordor looked like a ultra-polluted demilitarized zone. Are there any farms there? What do his orc armies eat? Other animals? If so, what do those animals eat? Marks’ script touches on the absurdity of an evil force ruling the world in his script. The Sword of Darkness exudes black, evil energy that blocks out the sun and withers the land. Evil-Lyn and Skeletor know this, and that’s why they want the Sword of Light — so they can rule the land properly. It’s an interesting twist, but even though we get a sense of a rivalry between Skeletor and Randor, we don’t get an idea of why Skeletor wants to rule the land.
Also, Marks’ portrayal of Skeletor is surprisingly ineffectual. He kills Randor, but for most of the story, he moons about the royal palace waiting for Evil-Lyn to tell him what to do. That’s an interesting choice, but I’m not sure how well an emasculated arch-villain will play in what is probably going to be a big summer movie.
Anyway, Skeletor and Evil-Lyn dispatch two of their henchmen to find Adam — Trap-Jaw and Tri-Klops, and here we see another nice detail: The Sword of Darkness gives Skeletor the power to fuel all of his henchmen, weapons and military vehicles with murky, dark energy. If executed well, these characters should look great.
The henchmen bring Adam back to the main city, where Adam rallies some citizens by revealing that he’s the lost heir of King Randor. Some shenanigans happen, and Adam hooks up with Man-At-Arms, Teela and the rest of an underground resistance.
OK, let’s pause a minute to talk about this take on the He-Man story. I like it. In the cartoon series, He-Man and the good guys were always in total control. Skeletor and his retinue stirred up trouble, but you never really worried that anyone was in danger.
But do you remember Mattel’s other action-figure line? She-Ra? Yeah, yeah, yeah — I watched some She-Ra when I was a kid. My sister liked it. Shut up.
One thing I liked about the She-Ra cartoon was that She-Ra and her friends were rebels. The villain on that show, Hordak, was in control of whatever planet she lived on, and even though she was just as strong as He-Man (and I think she could talk to animals or something), they were always underground fighters. That’s pretty cool, and I like that Marks builds his script around this idea. He compares the main Eternian city to Mogadishu, and I for one would love to see He-Man lead a guerilla resistance movement.
Unfortunately, this is also where the script really goes off the rails. The next 30 pages or so borrow from standard quest mythology as well as the Indiana Jones/Allan Quatermain tradition as Adam, Man-At-Arms, Teela, et al., flee the main city and head into the wilderness to find Castle Grayskull. There’s some nonsense with secret caves and magic amulets, but my feelings about this section of the story echo my feelings about the training sequence: Marks packs his script with familiar plot points and material without really making them fresh. No less than Steven Spielberg fell into the same trap in the latest Indiana Jones movie.
But once again — there’s some good stuff in here. Adam and his team run into an army of wild beasts led by good old Beast Man, and I applaud the choice to make Beast Man into a badass instead of Skeletor’s flunky. In fact, all of the villains acquit themselves well in this movie, as opposed to the cartoon, where they spoke with ridiculous voices and generally fell on their asses all the time.
Side note: Seriously, what the hell was up with the voice talent on that show? Case in point, here’s the original opening to the He-Man cartoon series. Skip to the end to hear some of the voice talent for the villains, especially Mer-Man:
What the hell are they supposed to sound like? Bouncers speaking through tracheotomy mikes? Over at 80s pop-culture emporium X-Entertainment, the chief reviewer pointed out that He-Man’s buddy Fisto (like Mer-Man in the clip above) sounds like he’s “gargling into the microphone.” Oh, yes, that reminds me: Fisto. Marks works this character into his script fairly well. We first meet him as one of the resistance fighters, and his name is merely Logan. When Man-At-Arms decides to follow Adam on his quest to find Castle Grayskull, Logan reluctantly agrees, but as they lose more and more men, Logan openly breaks with Man-At-Arms and joins forces with Skeletor, who equips him with his trademark oversized mechanical fist.
The remainder of the script follows Adam and his posse as they eventually discover Castle Grayskull. They actually have to drain a lake to get to it, which promises to be a pretty cool image, but unfortunately, Marks’ script often lacks this level of invention. Let me explain:
As goofy as it is, the MOTU world presents a writer with a host of opportunities to let their imaginations go wild. Marks isn’t without a vivid imagination. Memorable new additions to the MOTU world include his use of the Sword of Darkness’ dark magic and much of Skeletor’s fearsome arsenal. To wit, Marks equips Skeletor’s troops with giant, walking fortresses — think AT-AT cities.
But Marks’ script lacks something. A spark. I’m no expert on screenwriting, but I’ve read some great ones, and they simply have an extra oomph. For example, I once read a J.J. Abrams script for a buddy cop movie, and despite the hackneyed genre territory he was exploring, Abrams poured passion into his story, even stepping out of the narrative voice to include an insane author’s note about how the director should shoot his climax.
I’m not saying that all screenwriters should break the fourth wall with their readers, but Marks’ script ambles from one familiar plot point to another without the addition of wonder, dread or any real sense of scope. If the movie gets made with this script, I’m afraid we’ll have another meatless fantasy movie — something on the order of Legend, not Lord of the Rings.
And that’s a damn shame, because the stupid Transformers movie worked. Not all of it, mind you, but a lot of it. For my money, Bay’s movie worked when it treated the Transformers story like high myth. There’s no reason why He-Man couldn’t pull it off, too, as we can see in this surprisingly effective fan movie:
Part of me suspects that Marks is just another hired Hollywood gun, but an interview he gave about He-Man to ISEB belies that notion. Marks sounds legitimately excited about the script, and I suspect that I just got ahold of an early draft.
But in any event, it’s still a weak effort. To wit:
• Tired one-liners pepper the story, such as:
• “You’re late.”
• “It’s been an honor serving with you.”
• “Don’t get all sappy on me now.”
• Skeletor introduces himself by saying “Call me Skeletor.” So does Zodak. Can we have a moratorium on this cliché?
• During a battle, arrows collide mid-air. The history of movies where projectiles collide mid-air includes such clunkers as The Shadow and Wanted. This is not a good pedigree.
• When we finally meet the Sorceress of Grayskull, there’s a high probability for unintentional laughter when she emerges in all of her feathery hotness and asks Adam, “Are you ready to finish your training?”
• After Adam discovers the Sword of Light, he confronts Skeletor, who is holding the Sword of Darkness to Teela’s throat. Adam throws his sword into the air to disract Skeletor, who drops the Sword of Darkness. In case that doesn’t ring a bell, the same kind of trick happens at the climax of The DaVinci Code.
There are other problems, but again — this script isn’t without merit, and it’s not beyond saving. In fact, I may have been too harsh on Marks. If you’re interested in reading a different opinion, check out Latino Review’s positive review of Marks’ script.
But I don’t have high hopes for this one. A good Masters of the Universe movie would have the potential to be another Transformers, another Krull or another Willow — all fun, entertaining romps that pump fresh energy into fantasy and science fiction. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that Marks’ script has the makings of one of the great Hollywood turkeys.
On a completely unrelated note, I wanted to raise one objection with Marks’ script that has nothing to do with his writing or the Masters of the Universe mythology.
At the beginning of his script, Marks shows us the birth of the cosmos, adding that the legendary swordsmith forges the two magic sword at the beginning of time.
But here’s the weird part: Marks’ script specifically places this time at “four thousand years ago.” It’s even in bold-face. In fact, it’s the only bold-face text in the entire script.
The universe is approximately 13 or 14 billion years old, according to the latest scientific research. A cosmos that’s only four thousand years old conforms to the beliefs of the most hardline creationist fundamentalists.
I’m sure I’m jumping at shadows here. But it was in bold.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.