The “Masters of the Universe” line of toys was one of the biggest line of of products targeting boys back in the 80’s, and with brawny hero He-Man, toymaker Mattel had a cultural hit on their hands, spawning an animated series and a feature film best left forgotten. But who, exactly, created He-Man? Filmmakers Corey Landis and Roger Lay Jr.–both avid He-Man fans from childhood–wanted to find out who was responsible for the character, interviewing numerous Mattel designers, artists, and executives, creating an almost “Rashamon”-like narrative about the creation of Eternia’s shirtless hero in “Toy Masters.”
During Power-Con 2013, I got a chance to see about half an hour of footage from the documentary (which is still in the editing process) presented by Lay and Landis who attempt to navigate the personalities, prickly egos, fights, and conflicting stories behind He-Man’s creation.
At the center of “Toy Masters” are two figures: Mattel designer Roger Sweet and artist Mark Taylor, now both elderly men with varying degrees of venom for one another. The early footage from the documentary we saw cast the two men in a battle of escalating “he said”/”he said” with Sweet portrayed by Taylor and others as a thief and Taylor being seen by some of his colleagues as opinionated with a broad view on what work belonged to him during his time at Mattel.
The documentary presents Mattel as a company desperate for a hit after rival Kenner picked up the “Star Wars” license and following a series of misfires including a line of toys based on “Battlestar Galactica.” He-Man would be a bigger, badder figure than anything on the shelves, with a physical profile vastly different from other 9″ toys on the market.
Pictured: “Toy Masters” directors Roger Lay Jr. and Corey Landis
The crux of this first half hour of footage sees the duo answering one another’s accusations about who snatched credit from whom, compelling, low-stakes stuff. Neither of these men will get a cut of the “He-Man” profits–Mattel owns all of that. But both men, who are getting up in years, want to leave a legacy.
I’m a little less certain about a sequence later in the doc where Landis and Lay show Taylor footage of Sweet calling him out (and vice versa). It packs the doc with more vitriol than necessary, culminating in a scene where Sweet says that he’d never meet Taylor in person without the aid of security. “I hope you guys don’t put anything in the documentary that I say about that makes him look bad,” Sweet says of Taylor to Landis and Lay. Sweet did want to edit the film (he was rebuffed); both men wanted control of their image in the final film. Sweet has said that he would prefer not to see the final cut.
“This has been a three year journey,” “Toy Masters” co-director Roger Lay Jr. told the assembled audience. The feature-length documentary, whose last cut was almost four hours long, is still in the process of being whittled down for audiences, with Lay and Landis making “tough decisions” as to what will stay and what will go.
One element that had to be excised was an entire section about “She-Ra.” Lay explains that “The film feels like it’s moving and then we have this 20-minute detour about She-Ra,” necessitating the cut. Depending on what format the film takes (DVD, Blu-ray, VOD), fans could expect to see it as a standalone featurette.
According to Landis, tracking the credit led them down a path that was full of twists and turns but ultimately culminated in an answer that wasn’t “flashy” as they’d hoped. The directors say that each time they’d encounter someone associated with the “MOTU” line, they’d see drawings, documentation, and more which would push them towards one more person who seemed responsible for the creation of He-Man the character. Men like Paul Cleveland and Joe Morrison, designers and artists at Mattel at the time, are “more retiring” about their stake in the characters in public, but would tend be more assertive about their credit on the work.
You can find out more about Toy Masters on the film’s official site.