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The Appeal of Masters of the Universe

motu classicsWe are almost a full year into the release of Masters of the Universe Classics and Faithful Fwoosh Staffer Ibentmyman-thing has taken a moment to reflect on just why this is one of the coolest action figure lines to come along in a long time.

The Appeal

What is the appeal of this strange line with weird designs, literal names and garish colors?

Those who didn’t collect it as a kid, who don’t have the warm glow of nostalgia, or have only a surface knowledge of Masters of the Universe may not get quite why it resonates with so many of us. Trying to condense the appeal of Masters of the Universe to those who may be unfamiliar with the line is difficult. It’s a “kitchen sink” line, with a little bit of everything: barbarians, sword and sorcery, futuristic technology, robots, cyborgs, aliens, monsters, demons, cosmic powers, pirates, bounty hunters, cowboys, evil overlords, powerful underdogs, ninjas, anthromorphs…even superheroes, in a sense. And I’m sure I’m leaving out a lot. But mostly it’s a property where imagination is the main ingredient. And imagination begins with one phrase:

“Why not?”

And if there was any line where “why not” worked, it’s this one.

Want a guy who seems to only have one skill, and that skill is slamming his noggin into things? Why not? Want a guy who Looks like a robotic elephant who puts out fires? Why not? How about a guy whose only power is stinking? A guy whose only power is having giant spikes protruding from his body?

Why not?

From a surface view, it’s easy to see how the property could be unappealing. As previously stated, it has corny names, weird designs, it lacks the character of comic properties, or the mass appeal of Star Wars. Plus it’s just a silly toyline. It’s not a work of great literature. There couldn’t be any depth in something like that. The main character’s name is “He-man”. He rides a big cat. Just silly.

Plus there’s Orko!!!!!

It would be easy to draw parallels between Masters of the Universe and other properties in order to explain the appeal. Conan, maybe. Or even Star Wars. Lord of the Rings. There’s even Shakespearean elements. Gasp! I can hear you saying. But what else would you call the brother of the King becoming the biggest threat to the royal kingdom, whose traitorous ambition sets him against the King’s son, his own nephew, but Shakespearean in nature? Strip the elements down to their components and take an overview, and there’s nothing silly about the line except the prejudices brought to it because of the toyline origins.

But lofty parallels aside, MotU’s mythology takes it from “just a toyline” into a richer concept than the original designers probably ever considered. “Let’s make a figure with real smell and name him Stinkor” seems like such a low concept on the surface, but when it gets folded into the blitzkrieg assault on the senses that the forces of evil represent, and it’s not so silly after all.

And then there’s Orko…

It’s easy to dismiss Orko. I’ve done it plenty of times. I just never got into him. He was The Jar Jar Binks of the line. The running joke. The useless floating guy that filmation scooted into the cartoon to give the kids somebody to identify with, because tv executives seemed to never have been kids themselves. The bungler. The lame one. The blight on the line.


Maybe that “screw up” routine was just that…a routine. An act. Maybe there was a reason for Orko all along. Maybe the Sorceress or Goddess wanted the protector to have a protector. Maybe Orko was there to quietly assist the most powerful man in the universe just in case he ever got into scrapes bigger than he could deal with. Magic is shifty and tricky after all. Who would suspect the bungling floating towel with the big “O” and floppy hat of being anything but comic relief?

Why not?

That works for me. Something different may work for you.

Discovering the line

Toys not only facilitate stories, they have stories of their own. Everybody passionate about MotU has a story of how they got into the line. Mine starts way way back at the genesis in 1981. I got my first figure of the line, He-man, not for He-man himself, but as a generic, buff, axe-wielding dude that my Die Cast Mego Hulk could fight. I knew nothing about the property, it would be later when I was exposed to the DC limited series, and there was no cartoon. But I bought the figure, and I read the little mini-comic that came with him. And something about the character, the story, the world, struck me. Suddenly He-man wasn’t “generic buff dude” but a powerful barbarian-type hero that fought a guy with a Skull for a face! When you’re in single digits…that’s just cool.

One of the more brilliant marketing decisions that toys ever came up with was the mini-comic, with original stories you could only read if you bought the figure. Sure, they weren’t the greatest stories, a handful of pages that were only produced to make you want to buy other figures with the sparsest of story elements to hold it together. But it was a great way to introduce you to the world the toys lived in, and it’s a shame that idea seems to be lost to time.

So through this little mini-comic (that I still have along with all the others) I learned about Skeletor, Teela, Man-At-Arms, Stratos, Mer-Man…this whole world of brand new characters I had never seen in a movie or read in a comic. And I saw the fully painted art of toys that were available at a store near me…and I had to have more. And I had to have somebody in his own continuity to fight, and people to fight with him. I knew right away I had to have the mace wielding, tech-covered guy with the armor next.

And back then when you could actually find toys in stores, it only took one trip to find him: Man-At-Arms. So now I had this new, wholly original figure to accompany He-Man. Their bodies were exactly the same, but back then as kids we didn’t fret over re-use, or want to get our money’s worth with individually sculpted muscles or whatever we find to worry about now…it was a new toy. A brand new, virtually untapped character. And with little to no story on him…he was orange and green potential. He could be whatever and whomever I wanted him to be. Why not?

So now I had two good guys…I needed someone for them to fight. And so it spiraled. I was hooked. My interests shifted over few years that MotU was around, but I never gave up on the line. Even if the appeal dwindled in the face of GI Joe or Transformers, someone refreshing new concept like the Evil Horde popped up, and a character like Modulok would come along, and I’d be hooked all over again.

Soon I was able to have a bee man fight a man whose body was comprised of snakes while a gun-laden cowboy was shooting at a cyborg with a swappable arm. While a guy with a huge metal fist was punching a big monsterous creature with a rubbery tail. And it all made perfect sense.

Speaking of people’s introductions to the line, Mattel’s Associate Brand Manager Scott Neitlich, who is more than a little integral to the revival of MotU, also has a story of his inauguration into MotU:

On my 5th or 6th birthday I was incredibly sick and my parents had to cancel my party. Now for a 5 year old that is devastating! To cheer me up, my parents bought me a treasure trove of Masters figures, He-Man, Skeletor, Man-At-Arms, Stratos and Castle Grayskull. Needless to say it was love at first sight and these new toys really got me through some difficult times. I used to lug that Castle around everywhere I went.

When I finally had my party a few weeks later, friends and relatives added Ram-Man, Teela and Zoar, Trap Jaw and Tri Klops to my ongoing army.

I went on to collect Masters for years and this birthday became the heart of my childhood collection. Some personal favorites as the line expanded included Buzz Off, Roboto, Spikor, Scare Glow and Battle Armor Skeletor/He-Man. I loved all the flying characters and since I never had Mer-Man, Zodac or Beastman, I always scooped those up first to play with at my friend Shaun’s house (he had a lot of figs I never got- lucky!) To help bring these characters back today into the Classics line is more then a dream come true!

That level of enthusiasm and fond memories has led Mattel, in association with the Four Horsemen, to produce some kick-ass, fully articulated versions of the squat little guys from the 80’s.

Spinning off

To extend the shelf-life of the property, and broaden the appeal to girls, He-man was given a sister, who was given her own cartoon and toyline. She-ra and her supporting characters suffer from a “girl’s toys” stigma, with the real rooted hair and fluffy names. I can understand the stigma, having passed on She-ra due to those exact aspects. Stylistically, her toy didn’t fit in. But I always wished there had been a version of her produced that fit more aesthetically in with the regular line. Luckily it looks like I’ll be getting my wish with the new line.

But is She-ra a “girl’s property”? With no comic, the mythology only has the cartoon to draw its backstory from, but it’s not a bad backstory, if a little derivative of a certain galaxy far far away: twins split up, one serving the forces of evil until forming a rebellion…heir to a great power. Hm. A little derivative…but that’s ok, because that’s where the similarities begin and end. it’s easy to have prejudices about She-ra, but it’s also easy to see how full the property is also, with the same level of great characters and great designs.

Plus it has one more thing going to it: on Etheria…the bad guys won. It’s not like Skeletor trying to rule Eternia with one scheme after another. Hordak won. She-ra and her fellow warriors are in the minority, fighting somebody who was smart enough, capable enough and powerful enough to acquire his goals. Plus with so many female characters, the diversity it adds to the MotU universe helps to flesh out a musclebound property with some more curves, which never hurts.

Then there’s the New Adventures of He-man, with the two main characters, He-man and Skeletor, displaced from Eternia and taking up their war on a distant planet. I only have the most basic knowledge of this version of He-man, having never watched the cartoon and never having gotten into the toyline…and I can see purists rejecting it, but it’s a valid enough continuation of the concept…why not? That is what’s great about taking properties into the future, because it can exist while not devaluing what came before, and can only add to this huge timeline that grows with each version.

With each version of He-man, the property gets a little thicker, the characters get a little richer. The Horsemen are finding ways to draw from each version of the storyline, like including Zodak and Zodac in the same line while not kicking either aside. There’s room for both. There’s room for a lot. That’s what is so great about it.

I even like the live action movie. A bit. It has appeal. Blade would make a great figure.

The Characters, the toys, the fascination

I’ve drawn some parallels, I’ve tried to dig into the sense of wonder, the myth, but none of this really peels back why the property has so many rabid, fervent, eager fans who are hanging on the end of the Horsemen’s wax pens to see what new figure they’re going to produce. Because let’s face it: we already know what they’re going to look like. We’ve seen the basic body, (the dreaded “reuse” many complain about) we know the designs, we know the characters, so we can guess what the new MotU classics figures are going to roughly look like.


If that’s so, why was I so eager to see Trap Jaw, who is was and will always be my favorite character? I could probably predict what he was going to look like. And in some ways, he fit what I had in my head…but it’s something more than that. Part of it is nostalgia, of course. But moreso is that toynology nowadays means there are no concessions. He looks like I want…but I know he’ll move like I want also. I’ll be able to pull off poses I was never able to put my original figure in. Just seeing it, knowing that there’s people that love the characters as much as I do, knowing that they are doing a great job translating this decades old property into something new and fresh and current…that’s very satisfying. Outside of customs, it’s rare that toys are produced exactly how you’d want them, and so far the MotUC line has been delivering.

So I start wondering how Whiplash is going to look. And Clawful. And Fisto and Jitsu (who went to the same manicurist, obviously) and Mantennae and Modulok…and all these characters that have such great, unique, weird, bizarre distinctive looks, and I can’t wait to see even the hint of preview pictures. The 4H are doing a fantastic job on this latest revival of the property, somehow making the recognizable fresh and new even as they’re being faithful to a core collection of designs.

Way back at the beginning of the article, I asked what the appeal of these toys was. I don’t think there’s any one perfect answer. Whether it’s the designs, the surprising depth of the story, the multifaceted play value, the pure imagination behind the characters, or just the nostalgic value, the appeal is different for everyone. For me it’s summed up in those two simple words I mentioned at the beginning of the article, that explain everything I need to know about the Masters of the Universe, and, in my opinion, why they could appeal to anybody who gives them more than a cursory glance.

Why not?


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