Like many my age, I grew up watching He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. I had no desire for it to fall prey to our current obsession with reboots, reimaginings, and decades later prequels. Then Kevin Smith announced his intention to make a 2021 show that was not for children, unlike the original or the 2002 remake (which was actually quite good). He wanted to make a direct sequel to the ’80s cartoon for himself and for fans who grew up watching it. I assumed he meant the kind of fans who fantasized about being the muscle-bound hero while thinking inappropriate thoughts about Teela and Evil-Lyn. The kind of fans who are angry that the new She-ra: Princesses of Power has ruined their childhood by giving their show away to the new generation. The kind of fans who don’t want to share their toys.
I was wrong.
Masters of the Universe: Revelation
Season 1, Episodes 1-5
Kevin Smith (writer, executive producer), Bear McCreary (composer), David Howe and Lauren Aptekar (editors)
Liam Cunningham, Susan Eisenberg, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mark Hamill, Lena Headey, Henry Rollins, Tiffany Smith, Chris Wood (cast)
Based on Masters of the Universe by Mattel
July 23, 2021
The new Masters of the Universe series is indeed meant for me. It is meant for all of us who watched the cheesy cartoon created to sell Mattel toys in our childhood and teen years but are now adults with lived experiences in this century. But a certain subset of fandom doesn’t see it that way. Instead, they see what Smith has done as a betrayal. So much so that they are busy with childish review bombs expressing their discontent, much to Smith’s surprise. (Really? You learned nothing from the new Star Wars trilogy and believed you were immune to the wrath of the manbabies?)
I am grateful to the dudebros for this, for without their cries, I might have ignored the new series. Instead, I feast on their tears and enjoy an adult cartoon that is everything I — and my teen who joined me — need it to be. (Note: my 15-year old straddles the line of new viewer and child whose parents made him watch all their nostalgia cartoons, vaguely recalling some of the characters.)
Smith promised that this would be a direct sequel to the 1985 final battle for Eternia. It is, but it’s a very deliberate choice that, unfortunately, alienates new viewers who have no history of the events and no connections to the characters. A Dark Horse comic written by Smith serves as a prequel, but fails to offer much insight for new viewers and, as a comic, it isn’t necessarily accessible to the average Netflix viewer.
The comic story focuses on Adam, his father, and the creation of He-Man’s sword as he fights off the Lorax — er, Orlax — to save the king. He-Man travels to the past and meets the first champion to wield his iconic weapon, while, in other flashbacks, Adam learns what it means to be the leader — the scepter — that guides a kingdom as its champion protects it. This first issue is just the beginning of a story that really is not necessary reading for the average viewer and doesn’t add much save for the tidbits of lore Smith is building. Though the artwork is bright and cleanly rendered, the story itself moves at a jaunty pace that leaps back and forth and is a confusing read, even with guided reading in use.
Summary: skip the comic, or wait till all the issues are out to get the full story if lore matters to you.
As for the series, the first episode of Masters of the Universe: Revelation gives a basic recount of the original series’ great battle, moving straight into a kingdom in celebration of the victory brought by He-Man, Man-at-Arms, and Teela and the forces of Castle Eternos. The champion himself is not at the celebration. He’s busy delivering prisoners of war to Castle Grayskull. But *gasp* no! This isn’t He-Man! This is the dastardly Skeletor and the Sorceress has yet again fallen for a pretty obvious trick! In desperation, the Sorceress summons her champion, stealing the spotlight from Teela who has just been named the royal Man-at-Arms, taking her adoptive father’s place. Teela is not upset by this. Her duty is to protect the prince and the kingdom and she has never shirked that responsibility, earning her great respect within the kingdom.
When the coast is clear, Prince Adam calls down the power, introducing us to He-Man’s new magical girl-like transformation sequence where he dons his fuzzy britches, boots, and chest plate.
The face off between He-Man and Skeletor goes as anticipated — until it doesn’t. Our ’80s cartoons were all about our heroes thwarting the bad guys easily and the bad guys surviving to try again tomorrow because good guys don’t kill. We’re older now. That kind of storytelling shouldn’t be enough for mature adults, so when Smith turns the tables, effectively wiping Skeletor and He-Man off the board, it is a welcome and meaningful twist that sets the tone of the series. We now understand from the first episode that there are real consequences, right up to and including death (probably), and no one is necessarily safe.
Frankly, it makes sense. The champion we knew was simply too powerful to remain the centre of a modern story. Unlike Superman, He-Man has no real weaknesses, unless in his Adam form — and who needs more of those stories where the hero has to survive an episode without the brute strength and invulnerability of their alter ego?
So it’s time for a new hero to step forward; one who has been with us all along. Except Teela doesn’t want the mantle of hero or protector of the castle, because she has lived her whole life doing that only to discover that she’s been lied to by everyone she trusted. Her role was to protect Adam, but she has now failed to do that one job because she had no idea Adam and He-Man were one and the same. The betrayal is too much for her and she separates herself from her father, the kingdom, and from magic.
When Eternia’s champion sacrificed himself to save the world, he unwittingly destroyed magic and now the planet is dying. Teela doesn’t seem to care. When we see her again, she is a mercenary for hire, working with her partner, Andra, and sporting a new haircut. A mission pits her against a technology worshipping cult led by Tri-klops, one of Skeletor’s former lackeys. This sets up some of the background plots which will presumably roll through the series, though it feels cornier and more ham-fisted than the rest of the writing. Not that the whole series takes itself too seriously, but there’s a general sense that we should not easily dismiss Skeletor’s minions this time. Tri-klops and his Motherboard-worshipping acolytes lean into more of the buffoonery we knew, but the insidious and malicious nature of their nanites and their religious zealotry mean we should keep all of our eyes on them.
Notably, this is where I thought my teen would tap out, but this seems to instead have been where he committed, possibly because of the introduction of Teela’s classic lesbian haircut and her relationship with Andra. He subsequently became quite invested, then later flounced out in a fit of pique over the fate of certain characters he’d grown to adore, then returning moments later to check in on them again.
He-Man/Adam isn’t completely excised from the series. In these first five episodes of the season, he appears in every one of them in various forms, but this is Teela’s hero’s journey now and He-Man is there only for support. Not far in, she is forced, against her new beliefs, to take up the cause of returning magic to Eternia, gathering up some unlikely allies to do so. Here the series becomes an episodic journey as the hero goes about her quest, moving quickly to reach the goal.
One of my complaints, echoed by my teen, falls with the voice acting. Many of the voice actors’ voices don’t feel well-matched to their character. This is either a result of my own familiarity with the actors’ previous works, or with the character voices from the original show. Sometimes, the voices just don’t quite fit the physical characteristics of the character. Given time, we’ll probably get used to them, but for now…
Chris Wood’s Adam is passable, but his He-Man lacks the sonorous tones of the hero I’m used to, with seemingly little effort to differentiate between the two. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s voice forever reminds me of the diminutive Buffy Summers. My 15-year-old, who didn’t watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, agreed that the voice didn’t suit Teela’s svelte, muscular form. That said, when the emotions and stakes of a scene rise, Gellar rises with them, delivering lines with the weight and power they deserve. Mark Hamill’s Skeletor is my biggest disappointment — not because his voice acting is bad, but because it is too similar to his iconic Joker. Even Skeletor’s quips lean more into Clown Prince of Crime instead of evil sorcerer.
Where we do get a beautiful match is with Lena Headey’s Evil-Lyn. Headey’s sultry vocals easily switch over to deadly force as needed. The actor is skilled at owning any character she plays and making them distinct. The animators seem to love her too, with the art moulding smoothly around her subtle sensuality and expressive features. Aside from Teela, Evil-Lyn gets some serious character work that has significant implications for the future.
Regarding the animation, Smith indicates in an interview that the show had originally been part of Netflix’s anime division plans. Looking at the lush lines, smooth transitions, and dynamic, fast-paced fighting scenes in shows like Castlevania, one can easily see how Masters of the Universe: Revelation could have benefited from that style. But given how strongly Smith wanted the show to connect to its past, the decision to go with a style more reminiscent of the old cartoons is a sound one. This style feels like the natural progression following the 2002 He-Man cartoon, while still paying homage to the classic, jaunty animation.
Knowing that there are still more episodes in this season and potentially more seasons, it’s definitely too early to complain about where things are going. What seemed like a quest goal that would take an entire season — like marching a ring to a volcano — is achieved very quickly, so obviously there will be something more to come. Smith’s focus on Teela — and the title of the series itself — implies that He-Man will remain to the side while Teela continues her heroic journey. Yet there have already been some unexpected twists and turns that make it difficult to predict what Smith might have up his sleeve. If it brings the fanboys to more angry tears, I’m here for it.
And, for those who know, there are still many secrets that have been kept from Teela, many of which are firmly connected to magic. How happy will she be about some of those revelations still to come…?