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Frank Langella’s Skeletor Set a Standard For Big Villain Energy

Google thinks I’m a big He-Man fan.

I think this is mostly because I look up a lot of Skeletor stuff, and my Gmail is on the mailing list for Mattel’s Matty Collector stuff. (Those DC Universe Classics figures were perfect.) Now I’m all kinds of Masters of the Universe on a regular basis.

So my phone buzzed, and I was greeted with He-Man news I actually wanted: Kevin Smith is showrunning a new anime series, titled Masters of the Universe: Revelation, for Netflix that will continue the stories from the 1980s cartoon.

Cool. Really.

Now, I don’t have any great fandom for Kevin Smith, but he’s fine. I liked Clerks and Dogma when they first came out, and a bunch of his other movies have been fine for what they are. (Though I bet Chasing Amy from 1997 really doesn’t hold up in our much more queer-oriented 2019. I went from knowing zero out queer women to knowing, like, 47 today.) I think he’s a bit of a one-trick pony with dialog and all, but what he does works for him, and his corner geek world feels a lot less toxic to me than many.

However, I think there’s no way to tamp down expectations for this new He-Man series for one, true reason: It’s a chance for Masters of the Universe itself, in all its enduring Conan the Barbarian-meets-Star Wars weirdness, to have actually good writing!

She-Ra, an MOTU-adjacent property, has had good writers in both its 1980s Filmation and 2010s Netflix forms thanks to J. Michael Straczynski and Noelle Stevenson, respectively. Good for the Princess of Power!

He-Man, on the other hand? The best writing for anything with He-Man in it remains the monologue from the 1987 live-action movie, in just one scene: when Skeletor is endowed with cosmic power and transforms into a god.

Frank Langella tears into these lines with a grand, Shakespearean fury. Like, he meant this. He enjoyed every minute of this.

As he should, because just try even reading these lines without booming your voice and bugging your eyes out:

People of Eternia! I stand before the Great Eye of the galaxy. Chosen by destiny to receive the powers of Greyskull. This inevitable moment will transpire before your eyes, even as He-Man himself bears witness to it. Now, I, Skeletor, am Master of the Universe! Yes! Yes … I feel it, the power … fills me. Yes, I feel the universe within me! I am … I am a part of the cosmos! Its energy flows … flows through me. Of what consequence are you now? This planet, these people, they are nothing to me! The universe is power! Pure, unstoppable power! And I am that force, I am that power! Kneel before your master! Fool! You are no longer my equal. I am more than man, more than life! I am a god!

There’s so much batshit glee in those lines, and how Langella performs them! He may as well be opening a rock concert at Wembley in 1982!

The mania, the shift in Langella’s body language and posing, as he ramps up to full speed, beginning with “Of what consequence are you now?” His voice crackles like lightning as he exclaims, “The universe is POWER! Pure, unstoppable, POWER!” and whips his head back and forth. It’s as if he’s leapt off a comic book page!

I don’t want some sad-sack supervillain in my comic book movies. Critics and Hollywood fixtures are falling over themselves about this Joker movie, and so far every trailer is selling this like a love letter to mass shooters and hateful incels, a Taxi Driver in which Travis Bickle is the hero, or a spiritual sequel to the hideous Falling Down. Society’s falling apart, and this mediocre white man driven mad is coming to the rescue with violence and mayhem to fight fire with fire.

These are the same stunted chuds who hold up Heath Ledger’s take on the Clown Prince of Crime as some kind of “he had a point” social commentator delivering the hard truths. Why? Because Ledger gave such a good performance? Why so serious, guys?

Sadly, Ledger’s untimely death before The Dark Knight was released led to the subsequent Oscar campaign built around the story that Ledger “fell into the darkness” by Method-acting his way through the role. This story then bloomed into the idea that playing the Joker is this grand challenge of a role, like you’re playing Hamlet, Willy Loman, Troy Maxson.

Look at the pre-release, Oscar-buzz hype around the thrice Oscar-nominated Joaquin Phoenix and his approach to and experience of playing the Joker. It’s like Oscar winner Jared Leto’s run-up to Suicide Squad, except the Hollywood machine likes Phoenix – the same fascination and “acting is hard” lore building, but without the disgust.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed both Ledger and Leto. Ledger’s performance is an apex of concept and execution in a big, very good film. Leto’s turn was a concept I liked in a movie whose ideas are better than the execution. Leto’s “you don’t want no beef” line reading to Common gets me every time in the same way Ledger’s “and it’s gone” does. I just don’t think the role has to be regarded as world-beating deep!

The Dark Knight gets the Joker right in the basic concept, and then doesn’t need more. He gives different versions of how he got those scars because the origin story doesn’t matter. He is chaos, death and ruin in a worldview that sees life as a joke and death the punchline, and crime as high art. He does this because he has a good time!

When I think of Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill and Cesar Romero’s performances as the Joker, that really shines through. Ah, the glee of crime.

I want menace. I want conviction. I want that crazed look in the eye, like Dave Grohl when he’s rocking out too hard in Foo Fighters. I like a resolute pursuit of evil for the sake of evil, too, that high villain form that is Aaron the Moor from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. I deeply appreciate a villain who knows what they are, knows their purpose, and sees themselves as a priest of evil.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe gave us a very good villain in Thanos, with his uncompromising grimness in Infinity War to kill off half the universe in order to preserve it, only to nearly kill himself and live a broken existence at the start of Endgame. But I can’t lie and say I wasn’t disappointed that we never got the comic book Thanos who hoped to make Death itself his lover. Guess that was one too far, eh?

Remember Treat Williams in The Phantom as Xander Drax? I want holding-magic-skulls-shooting-laser-beams levels of nutso villainy. I mean, he and Catherine Zeta-Jones (who’s basically Catwoman in this movie) had to pick up the slack from a charisma-less Billy Zane.

Give me Geoffrey Rush as disco supervillain Casanova Frankenstein in Mystery Men. The clothes, the flair, the menace in his voice despite that rrrrridiculous accent. All that evil, and he still liked to get down and boogie.

For Thor: Love and Thunder, I sincerely hope Taika Waititi can pick up another actor with a skill for high camp and glam the way he did with Cate Blanchett as Hela in Ragnarok. If you’re going to evil, you’d better do it in style. It worked so well for Tom Hiddleston playing Loki, after all.

The MCU did give us Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue, a total delight in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Black Panther. Michael Keaton’s turn as the Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming was effective and, at times, chilling, and Captain America: The First Avenger knew it had to come out swinging when they got Hugo Weaving to play Red Skull.

Patrick Wilson gave us the business in Aquaman, a film that required such over-the-top nonsense in order for it to float at all. You can’t be anything but bonkers wearing a chrome manta ray helmet and saying, “Call me Ocean Master.” And that screaming! Oh, the screaming!

I’m hopeful that Wonder Woman 1984 will embrace that bazooka villain energy by casting Kristen Wiig as Cheetah. Wiig is known for how well she plays the reasonably unhinged. If they decide to do the whole dual personality bit between Barbara Ann Minerva and her feline counterpart, we could get something really special.

And, I swear to Lord Darkseid himself, Marvel had better finally give us the full Doctor Doom experience whenever they bring the Fantastic Four to the MCU.

Frank Langella gave us the Doom blueprint 32 years ago. We didn’t know it at the time, but he set a standard for big villain energy.

Heed him.

 

 

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