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Masters of the Universe: Revelation (Part 1)

If you’re into nostalgia then you’re probably familiar with how bad a relaunch, reboot, or long overdue sequel can go when it comes to fanbase reception. It’s essentially a form of gatekeeping, the time honored tradition of true fanatics who take ownership of an intellectual property they didn’t create and react in explosive, irrational, ways when something doesn’t go the way they wanted it to. The worst of it manifests in the form of harassment directed towards the actor, writer, etc. that the fanbase has decided has wounded them and it’s pretty gross. I think we saw the worst of this with The Last Jedi when angry fanboys decided to harass actress Kelly Marie Tron for playing a role they apparently didn’t like, never mind that the actor rarely has much input in how a character is presented and is just following a script and director. Like I said, it’s largely the reaction of the irrational and unfortunately it colors all individuals interested in these subjects as big man-babies, since this is largely the reaction of a male audience.

When tackling such a project, it seems the artists involved can either try to placate this segment of a fanbase or ignore it. With the new Netflix series Masters of the Universe: Revelation, writer and executive producer Kevin Smith seemed to try to have it both ways. The series was billed as a sequel to the Filmation series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe which ran from 1983-1985 and spanned 130 episodes. Rather than make the new show the same in style and tone as the original, Smith opted to write a sequel of a show intended for six-year-olds in the 80s for the same fanbase which is now approaching 40. It turns out this is a bad approach for Masters of the Universe if the most vocal portion of the fanbase is concerned. The show has received positive critical reviews, but has also been review bombed at outlets like Rotten Tomatoes with audience scores in the “rotten” range.

Teela assumes the spotlight for these episodes, and considering the MOTU fanbase is largely male, you can imagine how that has gone over.

What is the source of this fan outrage? As is often the case with these things, it’s hard to pinpoint. Some clearly went in expecting to hate the show and got what they wanted. They rage about “wokeness” or other abstract concepts they struggle to get specific with. And then there is the always prevalent “they ruined my childhood” cries if a character behaves differently than expected or is killed off, never mind that those 130 episodes Filmation made are never going anywhere. In the case of Masters of the Universe: Revelation, the complaints definitely span some of those topics, but one complaint I saw a lot of was that there isn’t enough He-Man. In hindsight, perhaps fans should have expected a more ensemble approach since the show purposefully dropped He-Man from its title. And the trailer Netflix released presented an honest look at the show. It’s also important to note, this is part 1 of a planned 2 part event and is only 5 roughly 24 minute episodes. It strikes me as a very Poochie response to complain about there not being enough He-Man, while ignoring that there’s a pretty obvious story in play here, but some fans are far more interested in feeling aggrieved over cries of a classic bait and switch.

Despite cries alleging the opposite, He-Man is still a part of this show.

I’ve already paid far too much lip-service to the arguments of a set of individuals who were going to hate the product no matter what. Is the show actually good though? It’s important to remember how this all originated. The original show was a glorified toy commercial. The animation was limited even compared with Hanna-Barbera properties of the era and the plots paper thin. There were some fun character designs, but clearly not a lot of thought was put into the creation of the series and characters as everyone has some generic name. Even He-Man himself, the title character, has an absurdly stupid name that we’ve just all grown to accept overtime. And it’s fine. That old show worked for what it was, but it’s certainly not the type of cartoon you can hand an adult who has never seen it and expect them to enjoy it. It’s not going to happen. Like many shows of that era, you need nostalgia goggles to have a good time. If Revelation had been designed as a sequel in both spirit and tone, it would have been terrible. It may have succeeded as a fun novelty, but nothing more.

Instead, we have a series that wants to treat the original premise with respect. There will still be the relics of the past that can’t be changed, like a character named Stinko, that pull the viewer out of it a bit, but I certainly don’t blame Smith for keeping that stuff in place. This series is given a TV-PG rating, but it’s definitely aiming beyond that in tone. It’s not overly violent, but characters do strike each other and we even get an impalement in one episode complete with a blade covered in blood emerging from the victim’s chest. Powerhouse Animation Studios was contracted to handle the animation and viewers may know them as the company behind Netflix’s well-received Castlevania series. Masters of the Universe has a similar look to that series, but with a brighter color palette befitting the show. The characters are large and the scenery detailed. The animation can be a bit jumpy at times, but I’m always delighted to see a series choose a 2D aesthetic over a 3D CG one. The series is scored by Bear McCreary and its mature tone matches the visuals well. It’s appropriately triumphant when it needs to be, and McCreary is able to add a dash of some of the familiar stings from yesterday that should please anyone familiar with the property.

Mark Hamill crushes it as Skeletor, which should surprise no one.

The setup for the series is a confrontation between He-Man (Chris Wood) and Skeletor (Mark Hamill, who is so good in the role) leads to the destruction of all magic in Eternia. In order to save the world, magic needs to be brought back and hero and villain will need to work together in order to make that happen. The heroine Teela (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is the focal point for these five episodes as she is turned into a reluctant hero entrusted with bringing back magic. She has a cast of allies at her side, but notably no He-Man for both he and Skeletor are essentially removed from the picture alongside magic. Their presence still looms large over the show, because how could it not, so even though they aren’t always there physically, they’re certainly there spiritually.

The only people who should be mad about screen time are Fisto fans. There’s just not enough Fisto.

Now, light spoilers ahead, but it’s hard to frame the series without revealing a little bit of the plot and nothing I say here isn’t already covered in the official trailer for the show. When He-Man is removed from the picture is when his identity as Prince Adam is revealed to Teela. Prior to the confrontation, Teela was made the Man-At-Arms for the kingdom as a promotion in a ceremony at the castle that is quickly adjourned when Skeletor strikes Grayskull. Upon finding out Prince Adam’s secret and that it was a secret also kept by her father, Man-At-Arms (Liam Cunningham), she reacts with anger. She feels like she has given her all to a kingdom and to a man, Prince Adam, who did not even deem her worthy of knowing what’s really going. Feeling betrayed, she abandons her post as a result of both that and at seeing how her father is “rewarded” for his year’s of service when the king finds out his son’s secret, and that sets the wheels in motion. A lot of criticism levied at the show that I’ve seen points to this moment as being unrealistic, poorly written, etc. It’s really none of those things. The audience does not need to feel it would react in the same manner, but that doesn’t make Teela’s actions unjustified or unearned. And the story will come back to that moment and explain it even better in the following episodes, maybe not as explicitly as some of the audience apparently needed, but it’s there for anyone willing to pay attention.

Heroes and villains on the same side?! Kevin Smith, what madness have you unleashed?!

The story takes on a quest-like feel as Teela gets pulled back into her old role as a Master of the Universe and will round up allies along the way. Each character they encounter is dealing with a new personal crisis resulting from the climax of the first episode. Where the show succeeds very well is in giving each character a clear arc that allows them to grow along the way. Some arcs will end in death, at least for now, which is always controversial. It’s important to remember this is only the first grouping of episodes and a lot can change in the next batch. While I suspect some deaths are permanent (and should be as they’re satisfying) it also would not surprise me in the least if the story finds a way to undo all of them, but I won’t prematurely criticize the show for something it may not even do. The show ends, as virtually all Netflix shows seem to do, with a cliffhanger and it’s one Kevin Smith likened to The Empire Strikes Back. Our heroes are going to get knocked down again before they can rise up, and we have to wait for the next batch of episodes (which presently have no release date, but Smith has indicated they’re nearly finished) to see that rise take place. And I’m pretty sure it’s going to happen, so fans crying about the end really need to chill.

Tri-Klops as a creepy techno-evangelist is a turn I didn’t see coming, but am very much here for.

Beyond the plotting, the show finds time for humor so it’s not all doom and gloom. There are some interesting developments for the world post magic, and the villain Tri-Klops (Henry Rollins) takes an entertaining turn. There’s a lot of humor and genuine chemistry found in the pairing of Orko (Griffin Newman) and the sorceress Evil-Lyn (Lena Headey) that may have been my favorite part of the whole thing. I actually wish there had been more time allotted for quieter moments between characters, but the short running time means this show moves at a brisk pace and it’s a pretty easy binge. I watched it with my kids on a rainy afternoon and it was short enough that I wasn’t feeling fatigued come episode 5. Mostly though, the cast should be praised for their work on this one. Netflix appears to have spent good money attracting talent, while the show probably also saved a few bucks by casting some Smith regulars (including his daughter) in a few minor roles. If you’re a fan of Kevin Smith’s work, you’ll probably find added enjoyment in trying to pick out actors like Jason Mewes and Justin Long from the cast of characters present.

Masters of the Universe: Revelation is the spiritual sequel to the original show from Kevin Smith that apparently many fans didn’t want. Despite that though, it’s well-written and the production values are about as good as it gets for an animated television series in 2021. The show is not prestige TV by any means, but fans of Masters of the Universe looking to see how the characters could behave in a mature setting should at least find it engaging. It is a fairly predictable show, especially if you’re familiar with Kevin Smith and the type of story-telling that intrigues him. Predictable does not equal unenjoyable though, and even though I could foresee a lot of the plot beats a mile away I still found them satisfying as they made sense for the story being told. I suspect the remaining five episodes will unfold in a similar fashion, and fans bemoaning the fact that they didn’t get to see tidy, little, plots where He-Man foils Skeletor at the end of every episode will eventually get the resolution they want. Part of the show’s premise, after all, is to showcase the final confrontation between He-Man and Skeletor. I’m guessing the people who don’t like this show aren’t wrestling fans because this thing is scripted like a classic wrestling angle where the hero needs to go away, because the return “pop” is always the biggest. This show is a fairly easy recommend from me since it’s quite digestible and it’s entertaining. If you’re someone who is very specific about what you want from your toy commercial turned show, then maybe it’s not for you. And if you’re someone who finds the whole concept of Masters of the Universe dumb to begin with, then yeah, it’s probably not going to win you over either. And if you just want to see Prince Adam wave his sword in the air and become bathed in light, well you can always go watch the old cartoon. Or wait for the more kid-friendly show coming out later. That one actually has He-Man in the title, so if he’s not in every episode you’re free to get mad.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie

Angry Video Game Nerd:  The Movie (2014)

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

For over ten years, James Rolfe’s Angry Video Game Nerd character has been entertaining viewers with humor-laden rants on “classic” video games and movies via that amazing thing known as the internet. The videos first appeared on his own website before migrating to Youtube where they gained a following that seems to still be growing. Today, the videos are contained and published on Rolfe’s own website, cinemassacre.com, along with his other films and humor shorts. Over the years Rolfe has added other characters to his stable including Board James and the Bullshit Man, but it’s the Nerd who is easily the most popular of them all.

The Nerd videos successfully tap into nostalgia by invoking memories of frustrating evenings spent with a terrible game just rented from the local video store. Everyone who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s who played video games can probably recall a few bad decisions that lead to tossed controllers or broken toys. For most kids of that era, picking a game at the rental store was like tossing darts. You could judge them only on so little. Some games would print screenshots on the back of the box while some would force you to go off of the cover art alone, which was often purposely misleading. I know I personally encountered many duds, usually selecting a game based on a license I was familiar with through television or film. That’s how I ended up getting stuck with Road Runner on the NES for a weekend. If you’ve never played Road Runner on the NES consider yourself lucky. Watching someone else slog through these games has proven to be entertaining, and Rolfe is able to blend in other elements to keep things fresh and entertaining. What once were simply clips of gameplay with cuts to the Nerd’s reactions have grown into elaborate skits and battles to the death with the likes of Bugs Bunny and R.O.B.

James Rolfe is the Angry Video Game Nerd; a beer-swilling, profanity-spewing, victim of bad games.

James Rolfe is the Angry Video Game Nerd; a beer-swilling, profanity-spewing, victim of bad games.

As the years have gone one, it has become harder to find games worthy of the Nerd’s time. One game though has been saved, the infamous E.T. for the Atari 2600, which is the so-called worst game ever. This was a game Rolfe and his friend and collaborator Kevin Finn decided could not be confined to the usual ten minute internet video and instead announced that they were pursuing a feature-length film for the Nerd. They attempted to get backing from actual production studios based in Hollywood, but when that didn’t work, they turned to crowd-funding and were able to come away with enough cash to make the film a reality. It took a long time for the movie to be filmed, edited, and eventually released, but hopefully the wait was worth it for those involved and those who were eager to see it.

When it was announced this summer that Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie would receive a limited theatrical release, I was on my honeymoon, and as a result, missed out on the ticket pre-sale. The film was released digitally in the fall, but I opted to just wait for the Blu Ray which arrived the week before Christmas at my residence. As a fan of the web series, I was intrigued at how Rolfe and company would turn a ten minute video into a feature-length film. Would the Nerd prove interesting enough a character to command my attention for nearly two hours? And how would the production come across given the budget?

Well, I would say that, for the most part, the film works. The premise of the film is that everyone and their grandmother wants the Nerd to review E.T. (known as Eee Tee in the movie for obvious reasons), but because he has such bad memories of the game from his childhood, the Nerd refuses. A video game company, Cockburn Industries, takes note of the Nerd’s popularity and how his videos have actually lead to a demand for the bad games he reviews. They decide to green-light a sequel to Eee Tee and get the Nerd to review it, at which point he’ll condemn it and people will buy it. Cockburn sends one of their executives, Mandi (played by Sarah GlennDanzig, I mean, Sarah Glendening) to befriend the Nerd and his associate, Cooper (Jeremy Suarez), and get the Nerd to agree to a review. She poses as a nerd herself, and by getting Cooper and the Nerd to make a friendly wager over whether or not the Atari landfill story is true or not, finds a way to get the Nerd to agree to a review. She organizes a search team to scope out the landfill area in New Mexico, while those involved soon find themselves attracting the attention of a military group charged with protecting the secret of Area 51, which is located nearby. It’s all pretty crazy, but essentially the Nerd and his friends spend time illuding these military types and getting caught in a massive conspiracy theory surrounding the game and its ties to the existence extraterrestrial life. There are aliens, a massive god-like monster being, and even Howard Scott Warshaw himself (the creator of the actual E.T. 2600 game), along with a whole bunch of other stuff I’d rather not spoil.

Some of the actors joining Rolfe include (clockwise from top right) Time Winters, Sarah Glendening, and Jeremy Suarez.

Some of the actors joining Rolfe include (clockwise from top right) Time Winters, Sarah Glendening, and Jeremy Suarez.

The plot of the film is supposed to be “out there” with purposely telegraphed twists and over-the-top characters. The villainous General Dark Onward (Stephen Mendel) is especially creative as he’s a paraplegic with a tank for a lower body who has a penchant for losing limbs. Time Winters is entertaining playing the required illusive genius who clues the group in on the secret of Eee Tee while Helena Barrett plays a capable right-hand woman to Dark Onwardby the name of McButters. The actors are mostly veterans of small productions like soap operas and commercials who mostly handle themselves well. The script they’re given is full of silly, corny, lines that they sell well. One of my concerns going into the film was how Rolfe would stand-up amongst professional actors. Any concerns I had were remedied early on as Rolfe clearly knows how to both write for his venerable character and how to portray him. If there’s a weakness in the script, it’s with the Mandi character and McButter. Perhaps not accustomed to writing dialogue for women, Rolfe and Finn’s script for the two aims for cheese but often misses the mark. Their cat-fight scene meant to induce laughter instead brings about groans.

General Dark Onward is probably the most ambitious character in the film.

General Dark Onward is probably the most ambitious character in the film.

The production is noticeably done on the cheap, but it doesn’t limit the film’s scope or imagination which is all that matters. There are lots of easter eggs buried in both the plot devices and the way certain effects are handled (including an obvious homage to one of the worst films of the 1990’s, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III). Rolfe opted primarily for practical effects in lieu of computer generated ones. The films makes frequent use of miniatures, which aren’t really designed to trick the viewer, but are instead meant to amuse. Some of them are quite spectacular and I found it enjoyable watching these scenes and trying to imagine what the crew went through bringing them to life. There are some computer effects, like a Mario inspired lava sequence, and they impressed me in their scope. The soundtrack was handled by Bear McCreary, whom fans of The Walking Dead should recognize. His score makes liberal use of video game sound effects from that era as well as the Angry Video Game Nerd theme song by Kyle Justin. It’s the film’s strongest point, and while not the type of soundtrack I’d seek out, it perfectly suits the film and enhances the viewing experience.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie should satisfy fans of the Nerd and gaming culture alike. It’s also clearly a love-letter to classic sci-fi and adventure pictures and the influences of films like Raiders of the Lost Arc and Godzilla are easy to spot. The plot is large and as captivating as a film based on the Angry Video Game Nerd could possibly be. If I had one last nitpick with the movie it’s that the Nerd doesn’t get enough of an opportunity to really get angry, but I suppose it was necessary to present a slightly more humanized version of the character in order to get it to work on film. I enjoyed the movie, and the loads of bonus content contained on the Blu Ray gave me something fun and interesting to check out after the film was over. Watching an independent film come to life is a rewarding experience. The film obviously means a great deal to those involved with it and their enthusiasm is contagious. This is a film that would be hard to hate, so it’s a good thing it turned out as well as it did.

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