Why was He-Man so crap?

he-man

Today I am tackling an issue that has been playing on my mind for many years. Several attempts were made in the 1970s and 1980s to fuse fantasy with science-fiction in movies. This is not a new trend, and is generally called “Science Fantasy”. For instance, Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter novels are science-fantasy. CS Lewis (of Narnia fame) even wrote a religious allegory sci-fi series known as the “Space” trilogy.  In movies we have 1983’s “Krull”, the notorious flop “John Carter”, and the lilttle-known but half-decent movie “Pathfinder”.

But what does these have in common? Well, they are crap.

That’s not to say we can’t love them. “Krull” has a particular place in my heart, not least for the amazing Freddie Jones and the use of actual British character actors. The CS Lewis novels are great flights of fancy (although totally scientifically incorrect).

But for some reason critical success has mostly eluded these works. There is something about the melding of high fantasy (magic, swords and sandals) with science-fiction (high tech, high concept) that creates works of daftness rather than genius.

Take He-Man.

He-Man has his roots firmly in Robert E Howard’s “Conan” stories. With a technological twist. His home planet Eternia contains magic but also machines and flying vehicles, cyborgs and laser-guns. You would think that such a world would provide great images and great storylines. Instead, it always manged to be childish and rather stupid. Like GI Joe on Magic Mushrooms.

Jitsu - one of Skeletor's less memorable henchmen.

Jitsu – one of Skeletor’s less memorable henchmen.

The animated series was designed to promote Mattell’s line of action figures, whish was apparently created to cash in 1982’s “Conan” movie, but which had to be redesigned when said Arnie movie featured so much nudity and gore that it was rated “R”. However this may be apocryphal.

For He-Man newbies, He-Man was in fact Prince Adam of Eternia. A fact that nobody could discern despite being identical and never wearing a mask. He rode a cowardly beast that transformed into a fiercer version whenever Adam became He-Man (nobody bothered to explain why in a planet where everybody could use flying vehicles Adam settled for riding on the back of his pet cat).

Nothing too unusual there. If we can buy Superman, why not Prince Adam? But unlike other cartoon characters, there was something udneniably dorky about He-Man. Possibly it was his very name. The far more successful cartoon TV show “Dungeons and Dragons” had some genuinely unsettling moments. But He-Man’s greatest foe was… Skeletor.

Ah, Skeletor. Far more likeable than He-Man with your silly plotting and villanous laugh. But the unfortunate bad guy only ever managed to surround himself with complete morons who alway fouled up his schemes. He may have had more success working with the Three Stooges than the likes of Beast-Man, Mer-Man and Lockjaw.

Skeletor - the villain everyone loves to hate... almost.

Skeletor – the villain everyone loves to hate… almost.

Which brings us to the 1987 live-action movie.

In fact, it’s not that bad when watched today through the tinted lenses of nostalgia. Meg Foster is eerie as Evil-Lyn, the plot (albeit a bit silly) is so perfectly “Eighties” that it’s watchable. Frank Langella provides a suitably grave Skeletor. However the plot suffers from two things – cliche and a lack of credible worldbuilding. Lines like “It’s too quiet” grate. Gone is the backdrop of Eternia (struck out for budgetary reasons). And the characters are all pretty stock and one-dimensional.

Perhaps part of the problem is the inherent silliness of the science-fantasy genre, a genre that exists only to draw attention to itself. Science-fantasy stories scream out, “Look how clever I am!”. But in fact they only use cliches from both genres, creating storylines with few surprises  but which also strain our credibility.

Consider “John Carter”. Not only are we supposed to believe  in aliens, life on Mars, teleportation, a second set of aliens, and magic… but a third set of competely different aliens as well. Phew!

So there you have it. He-Man’s crapness is inherent. It both endears us to him and repells us, as it does with many other high-bidget flops. On reflection, I think it’s because using two genres (some may say opposing genres) weakens the depth of storytelling. We are so concerned with the language and imagery of the story, that there is no room left for what audiences desire most… plot twists and great characters.

So my advice is.. avoid the science-fantasy genre altogether. Unless you want to produce a very expensive white elephant.

And I bet you thought I would never get any writing tips out of this post! 😉

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