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Who Has the Power?
Kevin Smith's continuation of the 1980s "He-Man" cartoon series aims to appeal to adult fans but lacks the time and the intelligence to pull off its ambitions.
For many kids growing up in the 1980s, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was their first exposure to sword-and-sorcery fantasy. It certainly was for me when I watched the 1983-1985 Filmation series in reruns a couple of years after it ended its first run. I’m 40 now, and I came to He-Man at the tail end of the popularity of the series and the toy line it promoted. Although the poorly animated, simplistic cartoon wasn’t high art, its striking visual images and its kid-appropriate distillation of themes and tropes from the works of Robert E. Howard and his emulators made a lasting impression on me. For the life of me, though, I couldn’t tell you any of the stories from that series. I remember the storybooks and the comics better, probably because I read them so many times when I was six, seven, or eight. I still have them. My brother, just two years younger than me, has no memory of it at all.
My first memory of going to a movie is seeing the disastrous 1987 Masters of the Universe film at the Fingerlakes Mall, and since I was six at the time, that probably wasn’t the best decision my parents made. It was also my first memory of being disappointed in a movie. Although I don’t remember exactly what my thoughts were—I was six after all—I remember having no idea what I was watching. It’s probably the reason that to this day, I think most movies are a waste of money to see in a theater.
My parents were thrilled at the time that I like the Masters of the Universe toys right when the original bubble burst because they could pick up the glut of used toys at garage sales for pennies. To hear them tell it, it saved them a fortune. Somewhere in their attic is a huge box stuffed with Masters action figures and the Castle Greyskull playset they keep threatening to unearth and send to me to “make space.” One of these days, the toys will end up in my house, but I’m not going to be the one to clean their whole overstuffed attic to find the right box!
When I started collecting animation cels—the painted celluloid images used to create cartoons before computers automated the process—He-Man cels were inexpensive and plentiful, so I have a wall of them, featuring He-Man, Skeletor, Mer-Man, etc. The prices have spiked since then.
Kevin Smith’s new Masters of the Universe: Revelation series should have been the kind of thing that appealed effectively to my nostalgia. For part of its run time it does. But in trying to deconstruct the wheel, Smith delivered a show that pushes a little too hard toward the postmodern tendency to tear everything apart, without really building up anything new.
Chances are, if you’re reading this you’ve either already watched the show or read reviews of it, but I will warn you that mild spoilers follow.
In the first of the new series’ first five episodes, Smith seemingly kills off both He-Man and Skeletor, leaving the remainder of the first half of the first season to revolve around Teela, the warrior woman who was mostly set decoration in the original series. Here, she is outraged to discover that everyone in her life has been lying to her and hiding Prince Adam’s secret identity as He-Man. The majority of the news series finds the embittered Teela questing with Skeletor’s second in command, Evil-Lyn, for some magical McGuffins en route to restoring the status quo ante. Finally, the fifth episode sets up a new story for the second half of the season which will likely hew closer to the original.
The new series packs serious star power, with Mark Hamill as Skeletor, Sarah Michelle Gellar as Teela, Chris Wood as He-Man, Lana Hadley as Evil-Lyn, and Stephen Root as Cringer, alongside many more. Netflix has a lot of money. Gellar is the weakest of the voice actors, not always able to carry the character just through tone and inflection, and Hamill more or less phones it in by doing his Joker voice and calling it Skeletor. Wood and Hadley are standouts, though, with some impressive vocal performances.
Online reaction to the Revelation was harsh. The Rotten Tomatoes audience score hovered at 25% fresh for a time, largely on the backs of conservative white men from two camps: anti-feminists angry that a toy line originally targeted to boys had embraced a female protagonist and super-fans of the original series upset that the new version lacked the original’s hero and its most charismatic villain. Naturally, liberals took the opportunity to rejoice in the outrage, celebrating what they framed as a feminist triumph over toxic masculinity.
Smith hadn’t intended either reaction, but somehow didn’t see it coming despite everything that happened over the past decade. Smith was in damage control mode only a day later. “You really fucking think Mattel Television, who hired me and paid me money, wants to do a fucking ‘Masters of the Universe’ show without He-Man? Grow the fuck up, man,” he told Variety (reprinted at Yahoo! News). He and his stars had to give interviews discussing plans to give Adam a new hero’s journey in forthcoming episodes. Smith accused those who disliked his approach of not correctly remembering the original series, which featured some episodes without He-Man. He forgets that the old show was four decades ago, memories fade into impressions, and nobody remembers or wants to relive the boring parts of old media.
I think it’s possible to not like the first episodes of the new show without being accused of crimes against feminism, even if too many men hate them just because of the focus on female characters. There’s nothing wrong with centering a new character for a while, though I don’t find Teela, in the old version or new, particularly compelling. As its own story, Revelation part 1 starts strong and ends strong, but the middle sags under the weight of its own deconstruction. I’m over postmodernism. I don’t need every show to be its own critic, and it’s exhausting that every story—even one based on a kiddie cartoon—has to add in a feel-bad narrative about power and privilege. The world is miserable enough without needing to litigate its injustice everywhere all the time.
In terms of storytelling, Revelation covers much less ground than the 2002 He-Man revival series, and it tells its story in a way that stands outside of its own story, intentionally critiquing and tearing it apart instead of embracing the only parts of a silly ’80s cartoon that actually held power—the borrowed mythological grandeur of Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft. The 2002 series knew enough to give that aspect first position, framing the story of He-Man’s quest to defeat his uncle Skeletor as a kind of Hamlet in a Lovecraftian universe. Smith’s version quite literally drains all of the magic from its world and with it much of the joy. It makes a few pushes toward envisioning a kind of cartoon Game of Thrones where the former warlords under Skeletor’s thumb vie for the throne of Snake Mountain as the old order collapses. I could see a version of this story working well by using each episode to explore a different character and how the condominium of He-Man and Skeletor had warped their lives, but Smith is so concerned with telling a story about Teela that he narrows a potentially fascinating epic into a personal vendetta about a woman who was wronged.
To that end, Revelation wears its politics on its sleeve. This show doesn’t just empower women. It actively declares its men, even the “good” ones, to be toxic, violent, patronizing, and horrible. At times, it became uncomfortable because the political elements are both prominent and unsubtle, too blunt to serve as thoughtful allegory and too simplistic to be valuable beyond polemic. In Smith’s telling, Skeletor became a villain because his face meant that he couldn’t get laid. Skeletor literally monologues that no one would “have me as a man,” so the apparent incel spent a lifetime on a quest to “be a god” because he couldn’t attract a mate. Evil-Lyn and Teela bond over the loss of the domineering men in their lives, which they say frees them from subservience. This seems like a point that should fall under the “show, don’t tell” umbrella, to demonstrate the point rather than assert it in didactic speechifying. The show’s approach to gender dynamics is old-school Freudian, and it seems to actively dislike men, not just the culture of toxic masculinity that gave birth to He-Man in the first place. If you’re going to critique the many, many problems with the original conception of He-Man (a narrative that can be read as racist, sexist, imperialist, etc.) you need to be smarter about it, more incisive, and less didactic.
The main problem in terms of storytelling is that the viewer doesn’t know where the story is going, and as a result, it feels for much of the five-episode like the viewer is being sold a different show that only happens to take place in the same setting as the original. This would have been easy enough to fix. With each episode’s short 25-minute run time, bringing them up to 30 minutes with a cross-cut B-story about Prince Adam’s concurrent adventures would have made the fifth episode stronger and would have given more emotional weight to the sagging, mostly irrelevant middle 90 minutes. It would also have shut up the anti-feminist idiots who can’t handle a woman being the center of attention.
If I seem to be of two minds about Masters of the Universe: Revelation, I suppose I am. It was … fine. It wasn’t the masterpiece Smith promised, nor is it the disaster online detractors depict. (He is more or less recreating parts of the 2002 series without knowing it.) At only two hours total, the five episodes aren’t really enough to judge beyond first impressions. The final moments suggest that the path forward might be a bit more conventional than the opening hours. But ultimately, I was left wondering who, exactly, Smith made this show for. Smith said it was made for fans of the original—which I guess is men over 40. If it doesn’t really appeal to me, and I’m just about exactly who you would expect such a show to want to reach, then what was the point?