I have been away from my computer today, trying to organize my thoughts around this being the fourth year my wife has been on dialysis, my son graduated from high school, and the coronavirus has ravaged the world and the minds of people everywhere. The state of the United States has become petty, shortsighted and cruel.
Why the strange lead in? I discovered a new He-Man series started today and because I had been sequestered I had not heard the ranting and raving about the series and its failure to deliver He-Man as fans had come to love him. Rotten Tomatoes rated the series a 94% while the fan rating as been at 30%. I was surprised and felt compelled to watch Masters of the Universe: Revelation just to see if the gap was as wide as it seemed.
But I have a confession to make. Despite all of the ways you have come to love me as the Answer-Man, I have a great and terrible secret: I hated He-Man and the Masters of the Universe when it first happened Back in the Day.
There. I’ve said it.
The Masters of the Universe were incredibly popular, a phenomenon, you might say, a toy with an unusual appeal, presumably fusing the appeal of hyper-masculine wrestling with the need to create an action figure which would never be confused with a doll.
It didn’t matter. As much as I loved superheroes, Masters of the Universe always felt weirdly unfinished. While J. Michael Straczynski says there were rules, guidelines and even a bit of backstory, he was able to do what he wanted with a degree of freedom. He worked on the series as a story editor in the early 1980s. As action figures, the toys didn’t appeal to me and I didn’t understand anyone who did like them. Despite my superheroic pedigree, the Masters never managed to trigger my sense superheroic connection, even as everyone around the world had gone Masters Of the Universe crazy during the 80s.
One day, I was thinking about Masters of the Universe and Thundercats and realized why I didn’t like either of those works: They didn’t have a significant backstory. There was no there, there. Both of these toy franchises were exactly that, toys. No background of significance, no stories of note. No awesome world ready for exploration. These heroes fought on the same sets, over the same things, episode after episode, year after year. The same insipid dialogue, and of course always the moral moment or lesson at the end.
I came to the realization that it wasn’t Masters of the Universe or Thundercats that was the problem. It was me.
Their explosion onto the scene was right as I was becoming an adult and having read thousands of novels by then, I wanted anything I invested time in to have a backstory. These shows seem to pride themselves on never adding anything they didn’t need.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was a televised commercial designed to sell toys. The creator, Funimation may say otherwise, but I know a commercial when I see one. With 130 episodes in the can back from 1983 to 1985 (two seasons with 65 episodes each) the show ran in syndication until 1988 and spawned other animated toy series with equally bland offerings focused on selling toys in a half hour. See: ThunderCats, She-Ra, Princess of Power and G.I. Joe to name a few.
What is Everyone So Angry About?
Why IS everyone so angry about Masters of the Universe: Revelation?
I have no idea. If you can watch a season of Tiger King, Marvel’s Inhumans (which didn’t make it to Netflix or a second season), Netflix’s Iron Fist and pretty much anything else on Netflix at the moment, you can watch Masters of the Universe: Revelation without any effort.
To be fair. I’m not sure who it’s for.
The show is without question, visibly better than any version of the Masters of the Universe efforts to date. The art is better, the colors are better, the sound is clearer, the special effects and art are head and shoulders above previous works. I liked the costume designs, the women didn’t have their midriffs out and had plenty of opportunity to be as heroic as you remember the show being (except there were men doing all the best stuff.)
Let me put a spin on this show which will be unpopular: Masters of the Universe: Revelation is what He-Man and the Masters of the Universe would have been, if anyone had cared to tell a story that was better than watching their kid play with the figures, then writing their kid’s adventures down and calling it a day.
This five episode installment actually makes an effort to tell a long form, multi-threaded story – a cohesive adventure with five discrete segments, showcasing different characters and different viewpoints. How well it does this is a matter for debate, but for the first time I have ever watched anything related to the show, and I thought: Someone tried to put a backstory, however shallow, together and focused that story on characters who were in the previous hundred episodes little more than mistreated story props.
Because I don’t want to spoil this for you, those brave enough to watch it, and psychologically resilient enough to handle the changes, I will only give you my impressions from this point on, because, as much as I would love to just dogpile this show because of its pedigree, my ethics as the Answer-Man do not allow me to do so.
Is This Your He-Man and the Masters of the Universe?
Are you a fan of the 1980s show? Did you thrill to the adventure of He-Man and Skeletor stalemating each other across Eternia with other toys, er, minions battling for Castle Greyskull and the Sword of Power? No matter how many times these foes battled, the outcome was never in doubt. He-Man, Battle Cat, Teela, Man at Arms and the Sorceress got the job done and were home in time for dinner.
This is not the show you are looking for.
Hell no. It’s much better. Why?
Because someone tried to care. Someone tried to make an adventure with meaning, with significance, with stakes that mattered. They were the wrong stakes, in my opinion, but they were there and they mattered.
You saw Eternia change. Radically. All of the expectations for a rousing battle with no stakes are teased at during the series, which in my mind, are the best parts. The writers literally troll you with the previous lack of stakes while you’re watching the current adventure!
I found myself smiling in spite of myself. There were a couple of moments which almost seemed as if He-Man himself were looking directly at you, the audience, and mocking you for your devotion to his antics.
The story is centered around Teela, the daughter of Man at Arms (who was and remains the real, resident bad-ass of Eternia) who quits the service of the royal family and becomes an superhero in her own right fighting against the rising tide of technology in the magically-infused world of Eternia.
Some of the ideas in this series fell flat. The characters still didn’t get enough time to develop. We still don’t get to see more of the kind of storytelling I like to see. When I think of Brandon Easton’s ThunderCats, I am put in mind of a world being redeveloped hopefully without destroying the legacy of the work. I loved his ThunderCats series but it seems not enough people could make the leap from toy-commercial to developed characters.
I suspect, try as the creators might, Masters of the Universe, featuring the idea of telling meaningful stories, will likely die on the vine for the same reasons. To me, it is the ultimate irony. A series written to sell toys creates a fan fervor rarely matched in television. No real effort is made to tell meaningful stories, they were little more than eighteen minutes of heroes bashing their heads together. They became a phenomenon.
Breaking New Ground
A generation later, in an effort to mine the nostalgia, the series is remade, with an eye to the art ; with an effort to weave together a backstory, to make characters meaningful; to bring to life those secondary characters, Teela, Evil Lyn, and Orko and give them some real and meaningful dialog, a chance to emote with them. In my mind, this is the most real these characters had ever been.
The fans appear to hate it more than ever. What I hope for, though is a new generation of fans will see the revised Masters of the Universe as a new series which I hope will try and break new ground, move away from featuring only men in pivotal roles, and allow the fertile ground where other groups who have been ignored in early generations of television to get a chance to appear and be represented.
No. This is not your father’s Masters of the Universe. It tried to be more than a commercial selling toys. It was not perfect. But damn it, I can admire it for daring to do something different, to refuse to break out something old and push the same stories, the same tropes and pretend it was doing something meaningful.
Like it not, (and I don’t) He-Man and the Masters of the Universe‘ was groundbreaking. The series two seasons paved the way for superheroes to reappear in the late eighties and early nineties. And, like it or not, it made ripples we are still acknowledging today. But if we are being truthful, it was at best, low budget television, which did little more than pander to children to get them to nag their parents into buying toys.
I admire the writers of this new version for daring to take on this assignment, knowing in their hearts to make the show representative was surely going to make someone unhappy and they did it anyway.
Masters of the Universe: Revelations is a mixed bag. It wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to acknowledge its ridiculous past while trying to move into a more significantly-considered future. Frankly, I wish them luck. If they can turn these failed toys into real heroes, something beyond the pandering exploitation machine they were spawned from, more power to them.
After the five episodes, things are very different in Eternia. Will they be able to sustain this difference? Will they be able to find new stories to be told without reverting to their previous formula? God, I hope so. This effort thus far, despite its flaws, has promise. I want to hear Mark Hamill as Skeletor, one more time. And if this is the coda to the Masters of the Universe, they got a better sendoff than they deserved.
Notice I didn’t mention the live action movie in 1987 with Dolph Lundgren? Let’s keep it that way.
Masters of the Universe: Revelation
The series features the voices of Chris Wood as He-Man, Mark Hamill as Skeletor, Sarah Michelle Gellar as Teela, Lena Headey as Evil-Lyn, Tiffany Smith as Andra, Susan Eisenberg as the Sorceress, Liam Cunningham as Man-At-Arms, Griffin Newman as Orko, Dennis Haysbert as King Grayskull and Alan Oppenheimer as Moss Man.
The producer is Kevin Smith of ‘Clerks’ fame and the animation was produced by Powerhouse Animation Studios. The writers included, Eric Carrasco, Diya Mishra, Tim Sheridan, Kevin Smith, and Mark Bernadin. It was directed by Adam Conarroe, Patrick Stannard and Kevin Smith.
Art Rating: 7.5 – It wasn’t as good as the superhero anime’s I have come to love of late (My Hero Academia, Blood Blockade Battlefront, Full Metal Alchemist) but it is definitely higher-quality than anything the Masters of the Universe have ever enjoyed before. The artists use strong clean lines, with more focused yet still heroic proportions for everyone. I liked the costume updates and hope they will continue.
Story Rating: 6.5 – This was the standard McGuffin Quest with a couple of shocks which were unexpected. I found the dialogue of mixed quality. It went from decent to ugh, sometimes within a couple of minutes. I only have to think of the original though and feel better for their current efforts. I think I enjoyed the flashbacks the most, strange as that sounds. There was an effort to give some characterization to what were considered secondary players and an expansion into the world and its mythology/backstory. Eternia almost came to life. Maybe next time.
Cultural Updating: 8 – There was greater representation among the cast, a noted problem given the nature of the original series and television from the 80s. Women were strongly featured in this first installment and I appreciated this greatly. They could still do more and I am hopeful as Eternia expands and grows so will their chances to create more representative media.
Overall: 7.3 – Despite my general dislike for the genre of commercial-toy cartoons, I found the effort made by the producers of this show to be one of great love and enthusiasm for the previous works.
The Masters of the Universe: Revelations may not be for you. You may have outgrown this particular piece of nostalgia-porn. But it may be just the thing someone else needs to make it through the day during this pandemic. If you don’t like it, move along, citizen. Let people enjoy things.
The Answer-Man says its good enough and has the potential to be better. Rated a solid 7 on my scale. Could it be better? You betcha. In my mind, considering the journey, it is one of the better reboots on the market. Enjoy!
Thaddeus Howze is an award-winning writer, editor, podcaster and activist creating speculative fiction, scientific, political and cultural commentary from his office in Hayward, California.
Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He has published two books, ‘Hayward’s Reach’ (2011), a collection of short stories and ‘Broken Glass’ (2013) an urban fantasy novella starring his favorite paranormal investigator, Clifford Engram.