[simple jokes for kids]Netflix’s Masters of the Universe： Revelation radically re-imagines He-Man’s 1980s world
When Netflix’s Masters of the Universe: Revelation was first announced, showrunner Kevin Smith touted it as a direct sequel to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, which ran from 1983 to 1985. As Smith promised, the new series picks up after the events of the original, though that doesn’t mean much in terms of story. Smith does use the same characters, similar designs, and a familiar status quo, but there’s no storyline to pick up and continue. The ’80s cartoon was an episodic series reverse-engineered from a line of toys, and there was little discernible difference between its first and last episode.
The new series is much more in line with the streaming era — the first five episodes of Revelation’s first season tell a continuous story, fit for watching over a single afternoon. (Part 2 of the series, consisting of the next five episodes, will release at a later date.) The show is surprising as a decades-later IP revival, leaning on childhood nostalgia to a far lesser degree than the concept and visuals suggest. Also, it’s pretty damn good.
For those unfamiliar: Mattel’s original 1980s He-Man show follows Prince Adam of Eternia — the HEYYEYAAEYAAAEYAEYAA meme guy — whose slickly designed Power Sword allows him to transform into the heroic protector He-Man, a secret identity known only to a few, even though the only difference in their appearance is that He-Man is tanner and wears skimpier clothing. The show was goofy, charming, and meant for little kids, but for those who were young enough to appreciate it during its original run (or who found it when it was popular in the ’90s), it was the most metal thing in the world. The toys were a delight, including and especially Castle Grayskull, with its drawbridges and trap doors. This was the fortress He-Man protected against the evil Skeletor, a beefy skull-goblin who’s also lingered in the public consciousness due to internet memes.
Practically every character in He-Man is a broad cutout with a toy-friendly name and a colorful design. Every episode ends with a morality PSA, to make it slightly more palatable to parents that the show was mostly designed to sell action figures. Revelation has a toy line too, but the major difference is that even though the new show is also aimed at children, Kevin Smith’s sequel series cares deeply about its characters, and puts them through the wringer. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, one that adds a significant amount of retroactive meaning to the original show’s flimsy dynamics.
That said, middle-aged adults searching purely for nostalgia hits are unlikely to find them beyond the first episode. This initial chapter offers hints of familiar music and establishing shots that are practically photocopied from the toy packaging. It drops viewers smack-dab in the middle of what feels like a classic He-Man entry, now with more expensive animation, and a sense of gravitas surrounding Prince Adam (Chris Wood) and his proclamation of “I. Have. The power!” as he magically transforms into He-Man, in order to stop Skeletor (Mark Hamill) from usurping the Grayskull throne.
But once that nostalgia is dispensed with, the show takes an unexpected turn that sidelines He-Man and Skeletor for most of Part 1. In fact, Revelation does what the original series could not, since the episodes often aired out of order: It significantly upends Eternia’s status quo, and places it in lasting danger. This allows for a story focused not on He-Man and Skeletor, but on supporting characters like He-Man’s love interest Teela (Sarah Michelle Gellar), the interdimensional mage Orko (Griffin Newman), and Skeletor’s second-in-command, Evil-Lyn (Lena Headey).
Teela, the Captain of the Royal Guard, is ostensibly the show’s protagonist, and the fact that several secrets were kept from her in the original show — between He-Man’s identity and the truth of her own parentage — is a key part of what drives her. The plot, by and large, concerns the realm of Eternia being robbed of magic, which is not only the lifeblood of protectors like Orko and The Sorceress (Susan Eisenberg), but a valuable natural resource for Eternia’s citizens. With He-Man out of the picture for much of the first half, Teela is one of the only warriors capable of saving the kingdom, a task that requires tracking down two mythical swords from the realms of Preternia and Subternia, the show’s version of Heaven and Hell.
It’s an enormous undertaking, but Teela being deceived and lied to by her own allies has left her not only feeling betrayed, but disillusioned with the idea of magic itself. As far as simple heroes’ journeys in children’s animation are concerned, it’s a fantastic place to start, and these themes radiate outward in fun and interesting ways.
Without magic, and without the usual He-Man-vs.-Skeletor setting, other classic characters have been forced into amusing new roles. For instance, the cyborg villain Tri-Klops (Henry Rollins), one of Skeletor’s former minions, now leads a cult that, in the absence of magic, has begun worshipping machines. Meanwhile, several Skeletor allies like Evil-Lyn and Beast Man (Kevin Michael Richardson) have been forced into uneasy alliances with heroes like Teela and her estranged surrogate father, Duncan/Man-At-Arms (Liam Cunningham).
The “good guys” aren’t the only ones trying to restore magic to Eternia, since magic was the villains’ lifeblood, too. In a metatextual sense, the story is about how these characters react to the toy line’s black-and-white status quo finally being upended. Some of them work together to restore it, while others finally seem to thrive without it.
The plot zips forward quickly in each 25-minute episode, but it rarely loses the focus on its characters. Each new realm they enter presents a unique emotional challenge. One locale in particular, designed as something of a cross between The Lord of the Rings’ Mines of Moria and its haunted caverns of Dwimorberg, evokes their darkest fears, which the show makes all the more intense when it cross-cuts between three of these spooky visions in a climactic scene. However, at every stage of the journey, they’re also allowed just enough downtime to interact and learn from each other in unexpected ways. Several of the locations Teela visits are sites where she had previous adventures alongside He-Man, which play out in flashbacks. As much as the journey is an adventure quest for Teela, it’s also a reminder of her fractured relationship with He-Man, an emotional wound she has no time to tend.
The all-star voice cast often takes varied approaches to the material, but they provide a fair amount of nuance, in spite of the show’s broad emotional goals. Griffin Newman is perhaps the season’s standout, as he imbues his impression of the original Orko — a high-pitched floating mascot — with a genuine sweetness, in a moving tale of Orko learning to stake his claim among a roster of more powerful and more capable heroes. Orko’s face is hidden beneath a hat and a scarf, so the onus of expressing his story falls mostly on Newman. Everything from the shudder in his voice to his drawn-out affects and enunciations, à la Dora the Explorer or Blue’s Clues (Newman is acutely aware of the target audience), makes him a perfect fit for this kind of series.
Sarah Michelle Gellar as Teela is a slightly different story. She takes a much more naturalistic route, which isn’t inherently a problem — in fact, Teela’s disillusionment lends itself to Gellar’s more snarky, self-aware disposition. But an issue tends to arise whenever Teela is around her compatriot Andra (Tiffany Smith), a minor character from the comics, now bumped up to the supporting cast. The Eternia in Revelations is more diverse than its ’80s counterpart, and Andra has been re-imagined as Black, though the extent of her character thus far involves matching Teela’s energy and providing similarly self-aware jokes and commentary without much unique motivation or outlook.
Together, their more conversational dialogue fits awkwardly with the show’s other human characters, who are generally brought to life with a more genre-appropriate gravitas. Cunningham’s Man-At-Arms, for instance, feels especially regal and operatic without sacrificing honest emotions.
This clash of performance styles is a stark departure from the original, in which every voice actor was totally committed to the bit. For a show that seems to revere the original He-Man, Revelation occasionally tips in the direction of telegraphing a sense of embarrassment about its affection, which it lampshades using Teela and Andra’s quips. That ironic distance fades as the story wears on, and as Gellar is allowed to dig into more story-centric material and interact with characters who feel more in-tune with the setting. (Although Teela and Andra being on the same wavelength is complemented by them also having a sense of physical intimacy, which sends a few signals the show doesn’t explicitly follow up on just yet. But the season’s second half is yet to come.)
In contrast to Gellar’s naturalism, Lena Headey’s take on Evil-Lyn blends a venomous, Shakespearean villainy with moments of introspection, now that the character has some time away from Skeletor. Mark Hamill’s Skeletor, meanwhile, isn’t so much the original’s nasally, cackling imp as he is a psychotic schemer on par with Hamill’s Joker. But Hamill also has oodles of infectious fun with the character’s brand-new power set. Chris Wood brings a straightforward sincerity to Prince Adam and He-Man, setting the tone for sillier characters like Roboto (Justin Long), an A.I. based on Duncan, and Cringer (Steven Root), Adam’s cowardly pet tiger, who each get warm and fuzzy moments in service of helping or inspiring other heroes. These scenes are often enhanced by Bear McCreary’s weighty score, which blends seamlessly into the background, but provides a subtle sense of wistfulness to the proceedings.
Most of the original costume and design elements carry over to the sequel. The vehicles, for instance, still have faces! The show isn’t pretending it isn’t based on a toy line, but the characters are no longer drawn like homogenous action figures, with one bodybuilder shape for men and one model-thin shape for women. Teela, Andra and Evil-Lyn, being warriors, are appropriately muscular, and Teela even has a new undercut hairstyle as shorthand for her new tough, walled-off exterior, which the season slowly chips away at.
Moss-Man (Alan Oppenheimer), who made for one of the worst-smelling toys in history, is no longer just He-Man painted green, but a Miyazakian forest creature. The show even differentiates He-Man from Prince Adam by giving them different body types. While this change may not be “necessary” — kids have no trouble suspending disbelief when people fail to realize Clark Kent is Superman — it ends up forming the basis for a small but meaningful subplot concerning Adam’s self-image and his place in Eternia’s long lineage of hulking champions.
Masters of the Universe: Revelation is simple, fun and efficiently told. Its action is slightly more violent than that of its predecessor, though it’s never unpleasant, so younger viewers will have a blast. He-Man and Skeletor’s scant presence may be disappointing to some fans, but the focus afforded to otherwise minor players ends up feeling right at home in the He-Man mythos. Where the season’s first half ends is just as surprising as where it begins, and along the way, it allows characters to have meaningful entries and exits from the main story, because it makes each of their decisions matter.
The first five episodes of Masters of the Universe: Revelation launch on Netflix July 23.