I must confess to being significantly embarrassed when my father walked in on me watching TV the other day. Now I watch television of all shapes — and very varied quality — so watching something odd is never a big deal, but that afternoon he glanced at the television in bewilderment and then at me, too incredulous to say much. I couldn’t quite justify myself, either. Over on the screen, Skeletor was trying to take over Castle Grayskull. With one viewing of Masters Of The Universe: Revelation on Netflix, Baba and I had time travelled more than three decades.
When I heard Kevin Smith was making an ‘adult animated series’ set in the He-Man universe — a universe created by Mattel purely to sell toys in the early 1980s — I expected the director of Clerks and Mallrats to go for something dialogue-y and irreverent, something where Skeletor waxes sarcastic about He-Man’s pantslessness and characters dissect the show’s constant homoerotic subtext, but the new series hews surprisingly close to the original animated series.
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Masters Of The Universe: Revelation isn’t adult in the vein of Netflix shows Big Mouth, BoJack Horseman or even the very cool Castlevania (by the same Revelation animators) but instead categorised as “family watch together TV” on Netflix. This is an earnest, non-risqué effort. The series gives those old-school characters depth while staying loyal to the uniquely metal cheesiness that made He-Man iconic.
This is a tough ask. The original He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe had the same plotlines over and over, where Skeletor and gang would be thwarted by He-Man and his friends, each episode existing exclusively to introduce new characters and vehicles — a.k.a new toys — to an audience hungry for playthings. While Smith’s new show features many of these (I smiled embarrassingly wide at spotting the weaponised ROTOR hovercraft in an action sequence) the show takes pride in fleshing out one-note characters.
The first episode is so true to the old show it feels cringeworthy. A ceremony in the kingdom of Eternia is interrupted by Skeletor’s attack on Grayskull, and most of the episode is an unspectacular fight sequence. My dad was right to judge me, felt I. One atrocious line uttered by villainess Evil-Lyn — “I’m not clawful, but I can be awful” — convinced me that Smith may have squandered his substantial gift of making characters gab. By the end of the episode, however, the difference is clear.
This is not a He-Man series. The show focusses on Teela, voiced by Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar, learning that Prince Adam has secretly been transforming into He-Man all these years. She feels betrayed by everyone she’s “ever trusted as a child,” something that holds strange heft in reference to characters we literally bought into. With Skeletor and He-Man taken out by a huge mystical explosion that also kills all the magic in the kingdom, Teela refuses to stand by her father Man-At-Arms and those who knew He-Man’s secret, instead choosing a mercenary, magic-less life.
This isn’t a groundbreaking concept, but it does introduce storytelling stakes into this universe. Teela’s conflict is mirrored by Evil-Lyn — voiced unmistakably by Lena Headey from Game Of Thrones — finding herself rudderless without a big purple skull-faced egomaniac leading the charge ahead of her. There is a wonderfully satisfying exchange where Evil-Lyn is forced to team up with that forever inept little magician, Orko. He tells her his parents named him ‘Oracle,’ but he never felt wise enough to carry or deserve that name. She tells him she added the “Evil” part to her name later.
With the creators loath to break any moulds, most of the original Mattel action figures used to be shaped exactly alike. My friends and I used to pop heads and arms off some action figures and on to others to create our own misfit Eternians. Yet in the new series, Beast Man looks like aboriginal Hulk (from the House Of M comics), and Adam is a petite princeling not at all interchangeable with the beefy He-Man. These characters are not the same.
Not having He-Man and Skeletor around for the majority of these first five episodes (five more episodes will come to Netflix later this year) allows other characters to soak up the spotlight and become compelling in their own right. Tri-Klops, once a gimmicky figurine, is now a self-proclaimed technological messiah, leading a violent cult fundamentally opposed to magic and its practitioners. (I’m dying to see how they reinvent the ridiculous spring-legged Ram-Man.)
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The two big characters make an impact even with limited screen-time. Mark Hamill, the Star Wars veteran known in animated circles for voicing a fantastic Joker, is creating a fascinating Skeletor. The fifth episode ends in a genuinely dramatic cliffhanger.
There is some self-aware winking. The show’s barrage of puns is nudged at by Teela saying He-Man had “the sense of humour of a teenager who didn’t get out much.” Smith’s big achievement, however, may lie in the affection he bestows on these plastic playthings, making it clear there’s nothing wrong with not getting out too much.
Masters Of The Universe: Revelation is an odd but perfect fit for Smith — fanboy first and creator later, a director who scripted fine Catwoman comics and a man who named his daughter Harley Quinn — purely because he understands the power silly stories hold in unlocking the imagination. The magic doesn’t lie in the characters or action figures themselves, but in making kids swap body parts and make laser sounds with their mouths and declare they have the power. The power of a toy story.
Streaming tip of the week:
Talking about refusing to grow up, The Grand Tour returns to Amazon Prime Video this weekend with Lochdown, a special where Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond drive classic American cars around Scotland during the pandemic.