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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.