I don’t know of many men around my age who don’t know the opening words to He-Man: “By the power of Grayskull…I have the power!” It appealed to every kind of kid the world over. Whomever holds the sword, holds the power. And what kid doesn’t wish for power? The power to eat unlimited popsicles, stay up past bedtime, and rot your brain with comic books and candy. They were humble asks, really, but the very promise was intoxicating. Adam could, with the use of his sword, turn into the most powerful man in the universe. He-Man’s muscles were popping! His scaredy cat sidekick Cringer turned into a mighty Battle Cat who fearlessly leapt into battle, fangs first, with He-Man saddled to his back.
Mattel was struggling as a toy company. They had the successful Barbie line as well as Hot Wheels but wanted to get a great line of action figures for boys, a brand they could rely on. They were buying up movie licenses to release tie-in merchandise, but they always missed the mark. In the 70s, there still hadn’t really been a movie that spawned a successful toy, and Mattel’s Clash of the Titans line was another huge miss. The movie came and went in theatres, and the demand for toys immediately dried up (there weren’t home videos back then to keep the steam going). They had the opportunity to grab Star Wars licensing and passed. D’oh! So they went with the next big thing: Conan. Which might have been a good idea had the movie not turned out to be rated R with nudity and violence – not exactly toy-friendly. Shit. So instead of chasing after licences, they decided to just invent their own brand, which is where He-Man comes from – inside some Mattel guy’s brain. To sell the toys (and the vehicles, accessories, sidekicks, villains, etc etc etc), they came up with a back story to illustrate on the packaging, hopefully sparking the imagination of children. It worked. Little boys loved the toys, especially since Mattel released mini comic-books in the packaging to further flesh out the mythology.
In 1981, rules around children’s programming changed, and while before they would not have been able to create a show about a toy (essentially a 30 minute commercial), suddenly they could, and so of course they did. And heck yes the kids ate it up. The show had a whole cast of characters and cool locations that inspired toys constantly, which turned the Masters of the Universe into a billion dollar empire. The show and toy line were so successful that they thought: why not chase the girls too? So a twin sister was invented out of thin air: Adora, who of course turns into She-Ra, Princess of Power.
These stories were manufactured ass-backward to serve a need to sell bits of coloured plastic. It’s actually kind of fascinating to see how it comes together, and ultimately inspires a live-action movie starring Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella. He-Man is remembered ever so fondly by fanboys of a certain age, who also embraced She-Ra, it probably goes without saying (her story lines were more sophisticated, her animation bolder, and she rides a goddamn horse with wings).
She-Ra was definitely my jam, although having little sisters usually meant that I was Swift Wind, the talking unicorn, more often than the princess of power herself (who wears the coolest head piece ever invented). So I really ate up every bit of this documentary which seeks out all the dusty corners of its creation. I love learning the practical ways in which creative ideas were born. It’s a call behind the scenes opportunity to pick the brains of those involved, and what a fabulous collection of creators!