Can lightning strike twice? Perhaps if that lightning is called down by an enchanted sword. Mattel struck gold by mixing an iconic toyline with smart commentary on gender politics with Barbie — does that mean He-Man can do the same thing if given the similar treatment?
Like Barbie, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe haven’t had the easiest ride when it comes to movies, if we can all agree to overlook the 1987 Dolph Lundgren vehicle. (Please let’s all agree to overlook that, unless it’s to unpick its connections to Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Saga.) (There are more than you’d think.) Most recently, an in-development attempt to bring the iconic property back to the screens collapsed at Netflix after more than a decade of development and somewhere in the region of $30 million had been spent in development costs alone. Mattel is reportedly looking for a new home for the project, in the hopes that all that work — and money — won’t go to waste.
It’s unclear just what angle Mattel and Netflix were planning to take with the movie, although the attached directors Adam and Aaron Nee had previously said that the property “wasn’t silly or absurd to us, it had a depth and a meaning to it,” but that they were trying to “hold onto something that has a core human empathy to it and yet isn’t afraid to have fun and get crazy and have wild things happen and have wild characters.” That’s somewhat of a Rorschach test of a tease, but the comments about it not being absurd suggests that the movie wasn’t necessarily moving in the same kind of direction as Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, a movie that’s deeply aware of the absurdity of its source material.
If nothing else, Masters of the Universe is admittedly perfectly placed to go the Barbie route. It is, after all, a property where the overly-macho lead is actually called He-Man, and the unrealistically muscular characters he surrounds himself with are collectively known as the Masters of the Universe — a term stolen from ego-driven financial executives who would use the term “alpha male” unironically. Those elements alone offer the roots of an unpicking of genderized expectations and toxic masculinity that could, if done well, offer audiences something akin to the Barbie experience. It's literally all right there.
(Barbie offers a more broad wealth of material to draw from, thanks to the toy’s celebrated history as succeeding in almost every possible career despite societal expectations, resulting in all manner of variant dolls and outfits; on the other hand, one quick look at this year’s underrated Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves should make clear that the fantasy setting of Masters of the Universe is entirely ripe for parody and subtextual poking and prodding. There’s comedy gold in those hills.)
The real question is, of course, would it work? There are very real arguments against it, not least of which is the inevitable deluge of toy movies that want to be the next Barbie. There’s also the fact that, honestly, it might be too obvious to go this route with Masters of the Universe — after all, the idea of using one of the great pop culture himbos to make a statement about masculinity might have seemed like too-low hanging fruit even before Barbie brought metatext and gender discussion back into the pop culture conversation. One of the reasons that Barbie had the impact that it did is that it was genuinely unexpected; no-one saw Barbie coming in the way that it arrived. Could a He-Man movie asking whether masculinity is broken really say the same?
Ultimately, the key to the success or failure of any Masters of the Universe movie, Barbie-influenced or otherwise, comes down to the talent of those involved, of course; the worst ideas in the world can be salvaged in the execution, just as seemingly foolproof concepts can be sunk by careless handling. If there’s one thing that Mattel should take from Barbie when it comes to trying to make Masters of the Universe work, it shouldn’t be an attempt to make the property relevant in the wider world through broadening its message or appeal - it should be letting someone with a vision run free in making the movie that they feel passionately driven to unleash upon the world. Don't look for the next Barbie; look for the next Greta Gerwig and let them do what they want.
After all, there’s almost no way that anything could be worse than that 1987 abomination, surely. (Well... unless they brought Dolph back for an unexpected sequel. But no-one would be that misguided, right? Right?)
Kevin Smith is, of course, remaking Masters of the Universe for the small screen on Netflix right now… even if he’s convinced that you don’t like it.