Two years ago, visitors to Licensing Expo in Las Vegas were greeted by an unexpected surprise: a grey poster emblazoned with a shimmering, silver Masters of the Universe (MOTU) logo that was ingrained in the pop culture psyche more than three decades prior. Below it was a bold message: “The Power Returns: March 2021.”
Behind closed doors, Mattel detailed a multiyear plan to resurrect its legendary brand in a big way. This multipronged approach included multiple toy lines for all ages, a live-action feature film from Sony Pictures, a global licensing program, and an animated series for Netflix led by filmmaker Kevin Smith. Following Comic-Con International: San Diego (SDCC) and the MOTU-focused Power-Con that summer, the plans were made public and the rollout was underway. During an earnings call at the time, Mattel Chairman and CEO Ynon Kreiz hailed the relaunch plans by stating that MOTU “has not been properly monetized in 35 years.”
FIVE YEARS OF GLORY
The initial success of MOTU was massive, as ‘80s kids quickly embraced a fantasy world of heroic warriors and evil villains with elements of science fiction and magic. The toys — anchored by a distinctive, muscular, 5.5-inch action figure scale that was often accented by unique textures and smells — launched at retail in 1982 and were supported by an animated series produced by Filmation. Mattel sold more than 70 million MOTU action figures in the first 2.5 years of the brand, according to a 1984 article from The New York Times. In his book, Mastering the Universe, MOTU designer Roger Sweet says that the brand peaked with $400 million in sales in 1986 before crashing to just $7 million the following year — alongside a theatrical film release that had little to do with the toy line that inspired it.
“We were making it up as we went along a little bit back in the ‘80s,” says PlayMonster President Tim Kilpin, whose entry into the toy industry was naming MOTU characters and writing stories for the mini-comics that came with each action figure. Eventually, he became the marketing manager for the line. “The brand exploded in popularity, and we raced to keep up. New characters, new mini-comic stories, and new episodes for the TV series — it was all happening real-time, with very little advance planning.”
As MOTU grew, the toy and animation teams often scuffled over the complexities of character development and ownership of ideas.
“Mattel’s sense of story was far from coherent early on. … Filmation gave it cohesion, but that led to issues when Mattel wanted new toys featured,” says Robert McCallum, director of Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. “[Executive Producer] Lou Scheimer, in particular, didn’t want the show to be a new, 22-minute toy commercial every day. Clearly, the entire action figure line was on display, but you never saw the many different toy versions of He-Man and Skeletor that were released; often villains that Filmation created never got a toy; and there were many inconsistencies between the characters, vehicles, and playsets that both appeared in the show and as a toy.”
Despite the rift between the TV and toy teams, the latter continued to innovate quickly to produce new products that were consistently bigger and better.
“We introduced new figures with more articulation and personality, and the vehicles were in a class of their own,” says Mike McKittrick, who designed and engineered Thunder Punch He-Man, Spydor, and the legendary Eternia playset. “And the bad guys always ended up with the best vehicles.”
By the middle of its five-year run, MOTU’s audience expanded with a spin-off toy line and a second animated series, She-Ra: Princess of Power. “We found that girls really enjoyed playing with MOTU, so the introduction of the She-Ra line was a big hit,” McKittrick says.
The Princess of Power line introduced doll-like features to the play pattern with 5.5-inch, female action figures that had rooted hair and soft goods accessories. While Prince Adam/He-Man fought Skeletor on Eternia, his twin sister Princess Adora/She-Ra battled The Evil Horde on Etheria. The male villains, led by Hordak, were added to the core Masters of the Universe line.
Of course, success brought imitation and competition, and the action aisles of toy stores everywhere were soon loaded with similar lines in competitive scales. “The entire market became stuffed with brands vying for attention,” Kilpin says.
“I think if we had known then what we know now about driving longevity — storyline extensions, thoughtful toy category expansions, and careful attention to not ‘flood the market’ — the MOTU brand could have lasted many more years,” Kilpin adds. “There’s no reason that we couldn’t have brought new kids into the brand over time.”
In 1989, Mattel tried to hit the reset button with a new line of toys branded simply as “He-Man,” but by the time the animated The New Adventures of He-Man premiered on TV in 1990, the line was already sputtering. Overall, it did not perform well at retail and was canceled in 1991.
20TH ANNIVERSARY NOSTALGIA
In the early 2000s, the Masters were about to come out of retirement after a hiatus. Ned Ward was senior product manager of boys’ toys at Mattel during that time and worked with a team that led the “200x” relaunch. According to Ward, the company identified a big hole in the toy department for a major toy line tied to a show.
“We did focus group testing and discovered that kids liked the old show, the clear lines between good and evil, and the jokes, but they felt the pacing was slow,” Ward says. “For kids, MOTU delivered on some important need states, including feeling strong, being in control, and a feeling of empowerment. After all, it’s built into He-Man’s signature battle cry: ‘I have the power!’”
Mattel enlisted The Four Horsemen — Jim Preziosi, Eric Treadaway, H. Eric “Cornboy” Mayse, and Christopher Dahlberg — to sculpt redesigned versions of the MOTU characters as production began on a new animated series. At the same time, Mattel issued a MOTU Commemorative Series of figures that were inspired by the original molds from the ‘80s.
“Masters was a big bet, and as we were tooling up figures for the reissue line, sculpting all of the new figures, vehicles, Castle Grayskull, and a Power Sword for the new line, we knew we needed the TV show to support it,” Ward says. “For an investment of that size, we were definitely looking at this as a long term-brand and relaunching it the right way, and based on projections, it seemed really doable. We believed in the line. I think we were disappointed when the show ended up on Adult Swim as we were trying to reach kids. It was on too late to really reach them.”
The 200x series soon ended, but it created a robust collector market that has continued ever since. Mattel launched MOTU Classics in 2008, selling direct-to-consumer via Matty Collector, before flipping the line to Super7, where it continued until last year. Hundreds of collector-focused action figures, vehicles, and playsets were produced, but as the 200x relaunch proved, the future of the MOTU brand hinges on welcoming kids into its world.
THE POWER RETURNS
From Fisher-Price Little People and Imaginext figures to Mega Construx Sets, Hot Wheels vehicles, an UNO deck, licensed apparel, chocolate bars, hot sauces, Masterverse action figures, and an extensive range of vintage-inspired MOTU Origins toys, the warring factions of Eternia now have their biggest presence at retail since the ‘80s and the “return” is just getting started.
“MOTU’s universal themes and focus on self-empowerment are ones that are especially relevant to both adults and children today. That’s why we are launching two series tied to Masters of the Universe this year,” says Mattel’s Rob David, executive producer on both shows. “The first, for which Kevin Smith is serving as showrunner, is called Masters of the Universe: Revelation and picks up where the story in the ‘80s left off, speaking to the original fans of the franchise. The second is He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, a new kids’ series which will bring the world of He-Man, Teela, and Skeletor to a new generation of fans.”
Revelation premieres July 23 on Netflix with a five-part first season that follows the aftermath of a cataclysmic battle between He-Man and Skeletor that leaves Eternia fractured and finds the Guardians of Grayskull scattered.
The series will also get a four-issue comic book prequel miniseries from Dark Horse that will launch in early July. The comics’ storyline is written by Smith, David, and TV series writer Tim Sheridan.
As the brand approaches its 40th anniversary next year, all of the core elements that made it great the first time around are coming back into focus as kids and parents play together.
“Masters of the Universe represents probably the clearest example of good versus evil storytelling and play ever in the action figure arena,” Kilpin says. “The characters and set pieces were iconic and distinctive — once a kid had lived in that world, they were always excited about coming back to it — even as adults.”
David agrees, and notes that Mattel is leaning into the multigenerational appeal and crafting a future that is teeming with opportunities and the potential to grow even bigger in the years ahead.
“At its core, MOTU is all about becoming the best version of yourself,” David says. “The biggest opportunity we have is that we can take MOTU’s diverse universe of characters, with its signature mashup of science fiction and fantasy, and apply modern storytelling. Both shows tell an epic serialized saga where every episode is a chapter in a larger story arc, where our characters can grow and discover the one thing they are born to be. Kids, parents, and adult fans will all have the chance to dive in and invest in these characters and their journeys — and together we all have the power!”
This article was originally published in the June 2021 edition of the Toy Book. Click here to read the full issue!