Masters of the Universe, often referred to as “He-Man” or abbreviated “MOTU”, is a toy series created by the American toy manufacturing company Mattel in early 1981. The franchise has since generated a variety of products including, but not limited to, eight lines of action figures, six animated TV-series, one feature live-action film, and one animated feature film, as well as several comic series.
The original action figures were in most cases sold separately and packed individually with a transparent, plastic blister on a cardboard back. Each figure came with a mini-comic as well as one or more accessories, such as weapons, staffs, and shields. Many of them also came with removable plastic armor. The back of the card had pictures and names of other Masters of the Universe figures available at the time. In some cases, certain figures were packed and sold together as a gift set or versus set.
Released alongside the action figures were also many vehicles, creatures, play sets, and a number of accessory packs. Some of these were battery operated. All figures, beasts, vehicles and play sets were available in the United States, with a few exceptions. Certain figures, such as the 12 inch Megator and Tytus, were produced in Italy and distributed in Europe only.
The standard action figures are 5½ inches tall and are, with a few exceptions, made of hard vinyl rubber and plastic. The majority of the action figures have articulation in the neck, shoulders, hips and waist. Many of them also have an action feature, the “battle-action waist”. As the figure was twisted at the waist it would, with the help of a spring, allow the figure to spin back with a “punch”. Over the years, more action features were introduced with new figure releases, such as Ram Man’s battering ram feature and Kobra Khan’s water spraying feature.
The early series action figures consisted of only two differently molded chests, one pair of shorts, and three sets of arms and legs. The action figures’ parts were subsequently mixed-and-matched in different colors for new figures. As the toy series progressed, more new molds were created and integrated into the toy line, but both body parts and accessories were often used multiple times for different figures.
Mattel not only re-used action figure parts to create new figures for the series, but they also used figure molds from previous toy lines to make creatures like He-Man’s trusted companion, the tiger Battle Cat and the falcon Zoar.
The play sets, vehicles, and creatures came in various sizes and price ranges, and many of them had one or more action features. The largest and most expensive play set was the “Eternia”, which is today the most sought-after play set in the Masters of the Universe toy line. The vehicles also varied in size and complexity, from the small Roton with its rotating saw blade, to the large, battery operated, walking Spydor.
In the mid-to-late 1980s, the interest for Masters of the Universe had started to wane, and the last wave of toys was released in 1987 in the United States (1988 in certain parts of Europe). Inspired and motivated by the overall success of the series, the He-Man franchise was revived by Mattel only two years later, with the 1989 release of a new toy series called “He-Man” (known by fans as “The New Adventures”, based on the tagline of the associated cartoon). This line would prove short-lived, but the brand was again revived in 1999 as the first wave of 1980s-toy nostaligia prompted the creation of Commemorative Series re-issues of original figures, and a new stylized line known to fans as “200x”, which ran from 2002-2004.
As 80s toy revivalism continued, Mattel produced a highly detailed line of 6-inch scale figures aimed at adult collectors known as MOTU Classics (abbreviated MOTUC), followed on by a Super7-produced series of similar caliber, but a heavier focus on Filmation cartoon aesthetics. 2019 brought MOTU: Origins, a mass-retail toyline that recreated the look of the original figures but with modern joint articulation instead of spring action features and rubber hip joints. Origins aimed at bringing adults who enjoyed the original series together with kids getting into the line for the first time, with lower costs and high play value making the line a more feasible entry point than the waning MOTUC and Super7 lines. Additionally, all of the Origins figures, vehicles, and accessories are compatible to the originals due to the identical scaling and proportions. 2021 would see two more new animated and toy series debut: Revelations, an adult-targeted series depicting the aftermath of the original series, and a CGI-animated series aimed at a younger audience with where He-Man and his allies all have the ability to draw on the Power of Grayskull to change forms and unleash new abilities. The toys for Revelations were branded as “Masterverse”, a toyline which eventually branched out to include new designs not featured in the animation, including homages to earlier figures, as well as a subline called New Eternia, which itself could be interpreted as portraying the aftermath of Revelations, by depicting older or evolved versions of the characters in a similar visual style.
While MOTU was one of the most popular action figure toys of the 1980s, with an outsized influence on toy culture and the collector hobby, its largest historical influence may actually be the first pairing of cartoons and toylines as an explicit co-marketing tactic. The wild success Mattel enjoyed is linked to this first step into the then-recent deregulation of children's television programming allowing toy companies to market to kids outside the bounds of 30-second commercial spots wedged into Saturday morning cartoons. After Mattel's successful rollout not incurring any government intervention, it set the stage for all of the great 1980s action figure toy brands to follow suit. While this is now taken for granted, it was not a given when Mattel decided to adapt MOTU to the small screen, and all previous toylines had to rely on other forms of marketing for their sales success.