The Gizmodo Guide to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

The Gizmodo Guide to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
Illustration: Benjamin Currie

He-Man was the most powerful man in the action figure universe during the ‘80s, a pioneer in kid’s cartoons that made the toy company Mattel $513 million in 1986 alone during the height of his popularity. But after that, he and the other Masters of the Universe fell from grace to near total obscurity, minus the franchise’s die-hard fans. Now that He-Man is getting a chance to wield the power of Grayskull once more thanks to a new animated Netflix series from Kevin Smith (with yet another series on the way), it’s time to brush up on all things Eternia. Here’s everything you need to know about Masters of the Universe.

Welcome back to the Gizmodo Guide series, where we take an introductory but comprehensive look at the most important universes of science fiction and fantasy. These guides are aimed at lay-people in search of a quick refresher, as well as seasoned fans who want to debate the meaning and essential knowledge of a subject.

What Is Masters of the Universe About?

Masters of the Universe, often referred to simply as “He-Man” after its star, is a sword, sorcery, and sci-fi franchise that came to the forefront of pop culture in the early and mid-‘80s through a massively successful toyline and its accompanying animated series. In it, He-Man (a noble, Conan the Barbarian-esque hero) and his friends fight the evil Skeletor (an evil, blue-skinned sorcerer) and his minions to prevent them from stealing the massive, mysterious powers residing inside Castle Grayskull and conquering the planet of Eternia, along with thwarting other assorted evils, rescuing people, and just generally saving the day.

The combination of the toyline and the cartoon was part of the reason for Masters of the Universe’s immense popularity, but that wouldn’t have mattered if the franchise hadn’t had something special: everyone. There were warriors and wizards, gunfighters and sorcerers, anthropomorphic beasts and bugs and more. There was a firefighter who had a robot elephant’s head, a glow-in-the-dark ghost, ninjas, and more. Giant green tigers ran alongside cars that smashed boulders on people but also looked vaguely like a brontosaurus. Masters of the Universe had something for just about anybody, but the fact that it seemingly had everything was what made the franchise so compelling and unique.

Who are the heroes in Masters of the Universe?

He-Man — The most powerful man in the universe. Unfortunately, He-Man has a secret: in reality, he’s Prince Adam, a younger, scrawnier teen who must hold aloft his magical sword and yell, “By the power of Grayskull… I have the power!” to transform into He-Man. Additionally, he must keep his identity as He-Man secret from his royal parents, his best friend Teela, and everyone else to keep them safe; only Man-at-Arms, the Sorceress, and the bumbling sorcerer Orko know. As a result, most people think Adam is a lazy, cowardly kid who disappears whenever there’s trouble — just before He-Man steps on the scene.

Teela — The adopted daughter of Man-at-Arms, and the captain of the Royal Guard. Even back in the ‘80s cartoon, Teela has been shown to be just as capable and brave as He-Man, she’s just unable to lift mountains with her bare hands. However, she has a massive secret even she doesn’t know — she’s the daughter of the Sorceress, guardian of Castle Grayskull, and will one day have to take up her mother’s mantle.

Man-at-Arms — The mustachioed leader of the Royal Guard, a father to Teela, and a foster father to Adam as he’s one of the few who know the secret of He-Man.

Orko — An elfin, blue, hovering, bumbling wizard from the dimension of Trolla. He means well, but he’s generally terrible at magic. Sometimes his wizardry just futzes out, but many times it causes problems so huge and dangerous that He-Man has to step in to fix them.

Other “Masters of the Universe”: Stratos, Mekaneck, Ram Man, Man-E-Faces, Buzz-Off, Fisto, Sy-Klone, Roboto, Clamp Champ, Rio Blast, Snout Spout, and more.

A classic poster from the 1980s Masters of the Universe toyline showcasing the figures (Image: Mattel) A classic poster from the 1980s Masters of the Universe toyline showcasing the figures (Image: Mattel)

Who are the villains in Masters of the Universe?

Skeletor — The skull-faced lord of evil, determined to defeat He-Man, seize the power of Grayskull for himself, and rule all of Eternia. He’s a powerful sorcerer who has more than once endangered himself and the entire planet in his quest for dominance. Although this was only hinted at in the original 1980s cartoon, Skeletor used to be Keldor, the brother of King Randor, and uncle to Prince Adam. He injured his face with acid during an attempt to usurp the throne, used his dark magic to become Skeletor, and vowed revenge.

Evil-Lyn — Skeletor’s partner in evil and a mighty magician in her own right. She schemes with Skeletor in his bid for power, but often has her own agenda — which has led to her betraying him on several occasions. However, Evil-Lyn is less monomaniacal than Skeletor, and far more rational and level-headed, to the point that she’s willing to work with the good guys if a true need arises.

Skeletor’s minions — Beast Man, Mer-Man, Trap Jaw, Tri-Klops, Clawful, Jitsu, Two Bad, Whiplash, Ninjor, and Scare Glow, among others.

The Horde and the Snake Men — There are two other big factions of bad guys who didn’t really factor into the original animated He-Man series, even though they received action figures and have since been adopted into the overall MotU canon. The first is the Horde, commanded by the aptly named Hordak, who briefly came to Eternia for a special movie event (and starred in She-Ra). The second is the Snake Men, led by King Hiss (although they were a major part of the 2002 series). Right now, none of them have appeared in any Masters of the Universe: Revelation footage, so whether they’ll show up is anybody’s guess.

How was the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe franchise created?

The toy company Mattel brought He-Man and the Masters of the Universe into existence as a competitor to Kenner’s best-selling Star Wars figures (which Mattel had passed on making). The goal was to make a line focused on fantasy rather than Star Wars’ sci-fi angle as a sort of counterprogramming. Lead toy designer Roger Sweet, packaging director Mark Taylor, and other Mattel personnel created figures that would stand five inches tall to tower over Star Wars and G.I. Joe toys, be rippling with muscles, and have a name that epitomized boys’ adolescent power fantasies: Masters of the Universe. When the first wave of MotU figures, vehicles, and playsets came out in 1982, they were quickly best-sellers… and that’s before Lou Scheimer’s animation studio Filmation debuted the also widely successful He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon in 1983, which pushed sales even higher.

In a way, President Ronald Reagan helped create He-Man. In 1969, the Federal Communications Commission made a statement that TV programs could not be “program-length commercials” — i.e., shows centered on products kids could purchase or buy — hoping the TV networks would regulate themselves. But when the Republican Reagan took office, children’s programming was one of the things he wanted to deregulate. The president put Mark S. Fowler in charge of the FCC in 1981, and Fowler quickly allowed networks and companies to do pretty much whatever they wanted. To wit, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe became the first syndicated series to be based on a toyline ever.

The combination proved very successful for Mattel and Filmation. Dozens more figures, vehicles, monsters, and playsets were sold, the show racked up 130 episodes, and He-Man was spun-off into a literal sister series when the two companies introduced She-Ra: Princess of Power series and toyline in 1985. However, in 1987, excitement in He-Man had diminished thanks in part to an unrecognizable and quite terrible live-action movie the same year, starring Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella as He-Man and Skeletor. Mattel and Filmation had to scrap plans for a new series set in the world of He-Man, titled The Powers of Grayskull, that same year and the entire toyline was discontinued in 1988.

Mattel has made several attempts to revive the once-popular franchise since then, almost always with an accompanying cartoon. The first was in 1990, where He-Man and Skeletor went to the stars in the more sci-fi-targeted New Adventures of He-Man; it only lasted until 1991. The next attempt was in 2002, when it was revamped and rebooted for a new audience on Cartoon Network. While some older Masters of the Universe fans enjoyed it, the target audience of younger kids was not interested and the show was cancelled. Mattel also mismanaged the toyline, flooding the market with He-Mans and Skeletors but practically no other characters were made available.

There has only been one successful Masters of the Universe relaunch, and it wasn’t an animated series. It’s the Masters of the Universe Classics toyline, which was geared specifically to those die-hard fans who had grown up watching and loving the franchise in the ‘80s. These figures had much improved sculpts and articulation compared to the original toys, but perhaps the real reason for its success is how it pulled from all eras of He-Man. Mattel finally made figures of countless characters that had never been manufactured — from the old mini-comics, the 2002 cartoon, and Powers of Grayskull. It even recreated the cast of She-Ra in the same style and managed to make the New Adventures iterations of the characters look cool. At the same time, the “bios” on the characters’ packaging tried to create one unified storyline using all these wildly different, and sometimes outright contradictory, parts of the franchise. Between 2008 and 2020, more than 200 figures, vehicles, and playsets were released to collectors’ delight.

Where and when was She-Ra introduced?

I’m so glad you asked! She-Ra was created by Mattel when it discovered how many girls were watching the show it had assumed would only be watched by boys. The toyline debuted in 1984 as actual action figures, very different from dolls like Barbie (even though they still had hair you could comb, pretty horses to ride, and an abundance of pink). However, the accompanying animated series, She-Ra: Princess of Power was nothing like the girl-targeted cartoons of the time, such as Rainbow Brite and Strawberry Shortcake.

She-Ra was introduced in the first animated He-Man movie in March 1985, titled the Secret of the Sword. Like Prince Adam, She-Ra was the alter ego of Adam’s twin sister Adora, except the evil Hordak had kidnapped her as an infant, spirited her away to the planet Etheria, and raised her to be part of his army. Obviously, she eventually sees the truth but decides to stay on Etheria and fight Hordak alongside the Great Rebellion — because unlike on Eternia, the bad guys had won, and only a few heroes were left to stand against it. In fact, She-Ra was arguably richer and more dramatic than He-Man.

She-Ra never made it to The New Adventures of He-Man or the 2002 series, and there’s no sign of her being in Revelation, either. Happily, Lumberjanes creator Noelle Stevenson rebooted the story for Netflix in 2018 with She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which focused solely on her story along with the other Princesses of Power as they fought to free Etheria from Hordak’s forces. (This time, He-Man sat the series out.) The show ran for five seasons throughout 2020, racking up several awards along the way for its multidimensional characters, diversity, and LGBTQ inclusivity.

Where can I watch Masters of the Universe?

The 1980s He-Man and She-Ra cartoons ran a massive 130 and 93 episodes, respectively. Even The New Adventures managed to rack up a decent 65, compared to the 2002 He-Man reboot’s 39 and the recent She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’s 53. So there’s a lot of MotU content out there to watch, and weirdly, it’s completely spread out over the internet. While Netflix has the 2018 She-Ra cartoon and Kevin Smith’s upcoming Revelation miniseries, it has neither of the classic ‘80s shows. For those, you’ll either need a Starz subscription or be willing to buy them on Amazon or Apple TV. The New Adventures of He-Man is inexplicably streaming on Peacock, while the 2002 He-Man and the Masters of the Universe series is on Vudu. It’s really weird.

But assuming you’re here because you want to see what the fuss is about, or want a bit of background before Netflix premieres Revelation on July 23, all you need to watch is a handful of the episodes from the 1980s cartoon (which Revelation is a “continuation” of, anyway). I suggest these three:

The Diamond Ray of Disappearance” (s1, ep4)

  • While there’s nothing amazing about this early episode, it’s worth watching because it’s quintessential He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Skeletor gets a magical item, power, or ally and raises havoc with it/them until He-Man figures out a way to save the day. This time, it’s a gem that sends people into another dimension.

Teela’s Quest” (s1, ep6)

  • When her adoptive father Man-at-Arms refuses to tell her who her mother is, Teela sets out to find the Oracle of the Crystal Sea to get the answers for herself. This episode contains Teela kicking arse, a great deal of backstory (which rarely came up later), and a good look at the scope of Masters of the Universe’s fantasy world.

The Problem With Power” (s2, ep45)

  • Here’s the classic cartoon at its most dramatic. Skeletor tricks He-Man into believing he’s accidentally killed someone, leaving him emotionally devastated and unwilling to use his powers lest someone else get hurt. Meanwhile, Skeletor uses the opportunity to capture Teela and summon a goblin army to invade Castle Grayskull.

However. If you have an extra 40 minutes to kill, I’d like to personally recommend you check out The Secret of the Sword movie. Even though it technically makes up the first five episodes of She-Ra: Princess of Power, it’s also the entire 1980s He-Man and the classic Masters of the Universe cartoon at its most epic and most watchable, in my opinion. It’s certainly got the highest emotional stakes as He-Man learns he has a long-lost sister who was indoctrinated into the evil Horde. However, I may be extremely biased.

Hey, what is a Master of the Universe, exactly?

That’s a great question that doesn’t truly have an answer. The original toyline and cartoon never specified who was and was not a Master of the Universe, let alone what the title entailed. The 2002 cartoon called its collective heroes the Masters of the Universe for no canonical reason. Maybe this will be the titular revelation in the upcoming Netflix series?