By Mariko McDonald | August 9, 2012

Chances are, if you were a kid in the 1980s, you had at least one He-Man and the Masters of the Universe toy. If you didn’t, then you certainly had a friend down the block who did. They were everywhere. There were cartoon shows and live appearances, coloring books and even an ill-fated live action film. And yet, despite growing into a billion dollar empire, no one had ever sat down to chronicle He-Man’s rise and fall from action figure royalty. Until now.

In Toy Masters, filmmakers and self-avowed He-Man superfans, Roger Lay Jr. and Corey Landis set out to trace the origins of one of the most successful toy franchises of all time and end up uncovering a debate over creation that still rages 30 years later. More than one former Mattel employee claims to have created the iconic muscle-clad characters, including preliminary designer Roger Sweet (who has even written a book detailing his claim), visual designer Mark Taylor and marketing executive Paul Cleveland. Wisely choosing not to take sides, the filmmakers let each man tell his story in his own words, even going so far as to play conflicting interviews for subjects so they can debate each other’s claims.

While some evidence is more compelling than others (Sweet’s obsession with the character’s not so “average physique” quickly becomes a catch-phrase) the film also attempts to answer the question of why proper credit is so important to these men, in an industry that is built on collaboration and overall corporate ownership. And while this is clearly the heart of the film, the examination of the brand itself, from its origin as an attempt to compete with Star Wars, to its iteration as a cartoon show and later as a film, is no less compelling.

The caliber of the interviewees, from people at all levels of Mattel, to J. Michael Straczyski to Filmation co-founder Lou Scheimer, is matched only by the astounding frankness of many of those interviewed. There isn’t an angle to the story that isn’t covered, from the controversy surrounding the cartoon show over everything from violence to occultism, to the official mascots’ stories of Make a Wish hospital visits, to the numerous interruptions to the making of the film.

The filmmakers’ passion for the subject is evident throughout, making their decision to unobjectively include themselves in the narrative a strength rather than a weakness. Their repeated attempts to get Sweet to admit anyone else could even have a right to creative credit do become depressing after a while, but also help to humanize him and the other subjects.

While on the surface tackling a niche subject, Toy Masters goes a long way to show how something spawned, and later killed by, corporate greed can affect the lives of the many for years to come.

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