Anyone who has watched the popular Netflix show, The Toys That Made Us, would know that the history of He-Man: Masters of the Universe is complicated. The toys that Made Us dedicated an entire episode to He-Man and despite watching it numerous times, I walked away still not knowing the entire story behind what is considered one of the most successful toy lines ever produced.
Directors Randall Lobb and Robert McCallum look to remedy this problem with their attempt to go even deeper into the He-Man universe with their new documentary titled, Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man. The documentary which will be available on digital and DVD for the first time this September chronicles the beginnings and blockbuster-success of the toy sensation featuring interviews with Dolph Lundgren, Frank Langella, Richard Edlund, J. Michael Straczynski, and Alan Oppenheimer, to name just a few. The Toys That Made Us may have come first, but this 95-minute documentary truly lives up to its title as the definitive history of He-Man — and while it may not be as lively and entertaining as the Netflix series, it does offer an exhausting look at the 40 plus years of development of Mattel’s hottest toy.
He-Man and the accompanying Masters of the Universe franchise would make their debut in 1982 with Mattel’s release of the original 5.5-inch hyper-muscular action figures. Masters of the Universe, often abbreviated as MOTU, was a radical departure from the smaller and lean 3/4-inch heroes of say, G.I. Joe. Here was a thickset swordsman whose story—defending Eternia from the evil Skeletor— began its’ mythos through the minicomics that came packed with the toys throughout the 1980s. Whereas, The Toys That Made Us ripped through the origins of He-Man with humour and speed, The Power of Grayskull gives us a detailed breakdown of just what happened with the brand during those early years when the action figure market was exploding. Designed under the shadow of Star Wars, He-Man’s surprising popularity spawned a multi-billion-dollar empire that included toys, comic books, cartoons, live-action movies, and a sister spinoff show, She-Ra: Princess of Power. There’s a lot of ground to cover and a lot of creatives to interview but somehow Lobb and McCallum manage to cram four decades of He-Man history into an entertaining romp packed with interesting nuggets of information that will have you digging through your childhood toy box.
When He-Man arrived on the scene, it caught the world by storm and made a whopping $38 million for Mattel in its first year alone. Many creative individuals were partly responsible for its success and The Power of Grayskull gathers an impressive roster of artists, creators, and collaborators to explore the mindset behind the unusual toy line. Much like The Toys that Made Us, most of the fun comes from watching these creatives tell stories (and sometimes disagree on the facts) about the surprising success of an unlikely, unparalleled, pop culture phenomenon. He-Man was a huge gamble in 1982 and somehow became a blockbuster sensation, earning well over a billion dollars by 1984. In his prime, He-Man was outselling Mattel’s original superstar, Barbie.
Perhaps the best story told in the doc centers on how Mattel passed on the chance to partner with George Lucas and develop a Star Wars toy line. As Mattel watched Kenner turn Star Wars into a toy giant, the manufacturing giant was desperate for a hit and looked to pick up the pieces by developing their own unique brand. In order to make up for their huge loss and stay competitive in the market, designer Roger Sweet and production artist Mark Taylor (who worked on Barbie) had ideas about a chiseled warrior who wielded a sword much like the heroes seen in the Frank Frazetta’s sci-fi/fantasy comics. In preparing for a meeting with Mattel executives, Sweet applied clay muscles to an existing line of boy’s action figures and created three different He-Man characters in military, fantasy, and space settings. Despite the success of space operas such as Flash Gordon and Star Wars, Mattel opted to go in a different direction and settled for a barbarian look. And thus, He-Man, was born.
The Power of Grayskull doesn’t break new ground but it’s still fascinating to hear the creators reminisce about the early days working for Mattel and how the action figures, the comic and even the Saturday-morning cartoon were invented on the fly. Through a combination of ingenuity, luck and a lot of improvisation, the employees at Mattel created one of the biggest toy success stories of all time. The rest, as they say, is history.
As a documentary, The Power of Grayskull consists mostly of talking-head interviews. It lacks the polish, graphics, and fun animation of The Toys That Made Us but with a longer running time it also spans the entire breadth of the franchise’s history from its initial beginnings through to the development of the 1987 Canon film (Masters of the Universe) and on to the creation of She-Ra and into a breakdown of the recent reboot.
Unfortunately, the last 20 minutes rush through recent iterations of the toy line and its lasting appeal with collectors making me wish the documentary was just a tad bit longer. That aside, The Power of Grayskull offers fans a chance to learn more about the toys they grew up with and how they evolved over the years all while walking a tightrope between fan service and investigative journalism. It’s guaranteed to bring back fond memories for fans of the franchise as they witness He-Man go from a throwaway idea to a toy that was once flying off store shelves. Regardless of how many He-Man documentaries you’ve seen, you’re guaranteed to walk away with a newfound appreciation for what is now a staple in American pop culture.
The Power of Grayskull has the power September 3 on DVD and Digital from High Octane Pictures. Watch the trailer here.
- Ricky D