For American children growing up in the 1980s, He-Man was like no action figure they’d ever seen — a muscle-bound hero truly ready for battle. With knees bent and arms flexed, He-Man and his cohorts in the Masters of the Universe (MOTU) stood poised to defend himself against the evil minions of his archenemy, Skeletor. For a while, He-Man really was the master of the toy universe, eclipsing even Barbie, Mattel’s perennial favorite, in sales. But business missteps caused MOTU’s sales to plummet from $400 million in 1986 to $7 million the following year. What Skeletor failed to do, corporate mismanagement accomplished in months. He-Man was effectively dead.
He-Man has been waiting for a proper send-off ever since, despite his profound influence on the popular culture of today. Much as Barbie came to define an impossible ideal of female beauty, the bulked-up action figure has come to represent a similar caricature of the masculinity. In the early 80s, most actors had the bodies of your typical homeroom teacher and only Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone sported the massive physique of a body builder. Fast-forward 20 years and stars like Tobey Maguire and Tom Cruise who have bulked up to He-Man proportions dominate the A-list. Even the Star Wars figures have received a steroid infusion, where once they were puny, stiff and ready for a nap. If Barbie’s responsible for Pam Anderson and Victoria’s Secret models, then He-Man deserves at least some of the credit — or blame — for Brad Pitt in Troy.
Mastering the Universe: He-Man and the Rise and Fall of a Billion-Dollar Idea, written by Roger Sweet and David Wecker, should have been He-Man’s long overdue obituary. Sweet, a former designer at Mattel, would seem to be the perfect candidate to tell this toy story. Not only did he preside over the MOTU line during its sudden rise and even more abrupt fall, he invented the brawny warrior.
Or so he claims. At least two others, Mark Taylor and Jill Barad, have taken credit for the superhero, which prompted Sweet to write Mastering the Universe in the first place. Even in the cutthroat corporate world, Mattel was known for its toxic internal politics and, as he makes clear throughout the book, Sweet was no politician. He made few friends along the way and only one former coworker goes on record supporting him. Since Sweet tossed most of it into the dustbin years ago, he is left with a few internal Mattel documents to bolster his claim.
Questions of ownership didn’t matter while He-Man was enjoying his initial success. MOTU was born out of Mattel’s great failure — the decision to pass on the rights to Star Wars action figures. Ever since that fateful day when CEO Ray Wagner balked at George Lucas’s $750,000 asking price in 1976, Mattel had been playing catch up, launching failed line after failed line, none of which captured the public’s imagination or made a significant dent in the toy market.
Enter Mr. Sweet.
In the race to design the next hit action figure, Sweet realized simplicity was the key to success. While others at Mattel aimed for high concept — Kid Gallant, a medieval knight; a sci-fi figure with the groan inducing name Robin and the Space Hoods; the daredevil Kenny Dewitt, pronounced “Can He Do It,” — Sweet knew that if he gave marketing something they could sell, he’d won 90% of the battle. “I simply explained that this was a powerful figure that could be taken anywhere and dropped into any context because he had a generic name: He-Man!”
With Sweet leading the MOTU design team, Mattel consistently released innovative and popular new action figures each year. A good part of He-Man’s success was due to the popularity of an afternoon cartoon based on the character. Before Masters of the Universe, TV shows and movies had spun off toys, but no one had ever thought to market a toy by creating a cartoon. Mattel contracted Filmation to do just that and the show was a smash hit with the after-school crowd. The uproar was immediate. Parents protested and congress investigated but little was accomplished. Today, cross marketing is a part of any business plan and its almost impossible to identify which comes first — the show, the toy or the McDonald’s tie-in, but in 1983, it was revolutionary.
And then 1987 hit. He-Man’s sales declined 98% in one year and went from being Mattel’s top-seller to out of the top 20. Sweet blames He-Man’s catastrophic failure on poor marketing decisions. Mattel simply hadn’t foreseen MOTU’s success and tried to catch up, forcing a glut product into the market. Unsold action figures littered the shelves, retailers rebelled, and that was the end of the line. It didn’t help that 1987 was the year of the Masters of the Universe motion picture, a critically panned disaster. Sweet hung on at Mattel for another four years; he was fired in 1991, the scapegoat for the massive failure of the Mattel’s $350 Barbie Magical Mansion.
Locked somewhere inside Mastering the Universe is an epic tale of corporate machinations and backstabbing, of an action figure succeeding beyond his creator’s wildest imaginings, presaging cultural shifts that would manifest during the following decades. Instead, Sweet seems more concerned with settling grudges and taking credit where credit is due. He tells the story of He-Man’s creation three or four times and includes an appendix describing the origins of many figures in the MOTU line.
Mastering the Universe has the feel of a magazine article bulked up to book size — one interminable chapter describes the history of action figures from their birth as toy soldiers through their present incarnation, even elucidating the fates of the companies and inventors behind them. Ultimately, Sweet probably did invent He-Man, but this book will do little to convince anyone of it. As for He-Man — he’s still waiting for that going away party.