May 27, 2020 — Animated television series. The mid-eighties to early nineties was quite the time to be alive for young boys. There were plenty of iconic cartoons like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, G.I. Joe and Transformers feeding our need for action. Before all of those iconic shows, though, there was one that kicked off the craze and remained popular even 30 years later. Of course, we’re talking about the one and only He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. To this day, anyone who was a kid in the early 80s will tell you how they look back at He-Man with fondness. To understand why this show about an alien bodybuilder fighting a living Skeleton was so popular, you must first know a bit about it.
The best place to start is the beginning, and for He-Man, that almost didn’t evolve into a cartoon. The character originated in the pages of DC comics, where he can still be found today on occasion. In the early ‘80s, the toy company Mattel was producing He-Man action figures and looking for a way to boost their sales. Someone came up with the idea to make a cartoon series featuring the character, effectively creating a half-hour commercial for the toys each week. Eventually, the pendulum swung the other way, and the cartoon produced some popular characters that were turned into action figures.
The cartoon centered around the titular character and his alter ego, Prince Adam. Adam was supposed to be a wimpy teenager who enjoyed the simple life of royalty on an alien planet called Eternia. Little does everyone around him know, Adam has a secret. When he harnesses the power of Castle Grayskull using his power sword, he is transformed into He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe.
Even the most powerful man in the universe needs friends, and He-Man has a lot of them. His most famous companion is probably Battle Cat, a massive armor-clad tiger. Much like He-man, Battle Cat maintains the alter ego of Cringer, loyal sidekick to Prince Adam. He-Man’s regular battle crew is rounded out by Man-at-Arms (AKA Duncan) and The Sorceress of Castle Grayskull.
Though the show is arguably just half-hour episodes revolving around He-man beating up a bunch of bad guys, there is also a lot of heart to the story. At the center of most episodes are the characters of Eternia and their role in He-Man’s struggles. Characters like King Randor and Duncan’s adopted daughter Teela play a part in most episodes. One character that stands out as comic relief in a show that was often considered too violent for kids was Orko. Orko was a jester of sorts and often caused as much trouble as he fixed thanks to the magic powers he possessed. A fair number of issues that weren’t started by Skeletor came about from Orko’s bumbling.
Heroes don’t have much to do without villains, and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe had some of the best ever invented. He-Man’s main villain was a skull-faced tyrant aptly named Skeletor. Preferring not to do the dirty work himself, Skeletor had several henchmen that ranged from one-off henchmen like the Jitsu to series regulars like Evil-Lyn. A few others that anyone who watched and loved the show will remember are Beastman, Man-E-Faces, Two Bad, and Trap-Jaw.
All of these characters combined to create a show that stuck in the minds of kids of that era, although it only ran for a total of two seasons over three years. Though every episode is different, they all follow the same basic storyline. The evil Skeletor cooks up plans to take over Castle Grayskull to rule Eternia and possibly the rest of the Universe. It is up to He-Man and his friends to fight off Skeletor and his goons to protect the royal family and the castle they call home. This formula does get stale quick, so they sprinkle in other bad guys here and there to prevent you from checking out. Each episode ends with one of the characters doing a mini-recap of the episode and sharing a moral that was learned in the course of the episode.
Everyone has their favorite episodes, the ones that they can still describe all these years later. The first one that comes to mind is “The Dragon Invasion,” when Skeletor and Beastman steal dragon eggs and have the baby dragons attack He-Man. This one stood out to me as a kid because Skeletor captures the sorceress. Then there is the “Quest for He-Man” episode where Skeletor erases He-man’s memory and sends him to another planet. Lastly, probably my favorite episode, was “Daimar the Demon,” when Orko got bored and summoned a demon out a book for fun. Though the show only ran for two seasons, there are plenty of episodes to choose from, and they all probably hit each kid differently.
Surprisingly, He-Man only spawned one spin-off called She-Ra that was an attempt at a female-driven action show to appeal to girls. She-Ra was He-Man’s twin sister that was sent to another planet when they were babies. Though there is mention of She-Ra in He-Man, the two don’t meet on screen in Masters of the Universe. She-Ra isn’t part of the actual Masters of the Universe, but she is in a crossover Christmas movie with He-Man that fans will remember. The film is hilariously bad, but it still gets a play at my house once a year.
Even after the show ended, the legend of He-Man lived on. In 1987, Dolph Lungren played the role in the live-action Masters of the Universe. DC also revived the character in the comics in their New 52 run. There is excellent news for fans of the original show who probably have kids around the same age as they were when they first experienced He-Man. Two separate He-Man shows are in development right now, so the muscle-bound hero will be back on the screen with new episodes soon.
Looking back at the show, it’s easy to say that it was corny and over the top, but at the time, it was the coolest show around. Its goal of promoting the toys worked because a lot of kids, including myself, had a stable of He-Man toys that we pitted against each other on our bedroom floors. If you go back and watch the show, you will probably question why you ever thought it was cool, but you will also remember the Saturday afternoons creating epic battles between He-Man and Man-E-Faces on your bed while Man-at-Arms looked on ready to join the fray.