Don’t worry, Kevin Smith’s executive producer credit on the new Netflix animated series “Masters of the Universe: Revelation” doesn’t mean that He-Man and Skeletor are now hanging out in Jersey and discussing the ethical ramifications of “Star Wars.” My initial concern was that Smith’s voice would alter the tone of this show, but the only places in which that can be felt are a slightly richer sense of humor than I remember from my childhood and, even more so, a clear love for the source material here. Smith set out to relaunch “Masters of the Universe” as if it had never ended in the ‘80s, picking up right where things left off. Given how visually rich this new show is at times, he didn’t really do that—at least I don’t remember “MotU” having this much hand-drawn detail—and the show works in themes that feel current in terms of gender representation. Of course, neither of these are complaints. If anything, Smith and his team have threaded the needle that so many reboots fail to, making a show that feels both lovingly consistent with the source and fresh at the same time. The biggest complaint that fans are likely to have is that only five episodes drop tomorrow (the second half of the season lands at a future date).
“He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” was one of the most popular animated shows of the ‘80s, running initially from 1983-85 but then repeating endlessly. The characters actually debuted in 1981 with a series of toys by Mattel and then appearing in comics in the early part of the decade, but the series is what most people of my generation remember. At its core, it’s a simple good vs. evil tale with the muscular He-Man on one side and villainous Skeletor on the other. Trying to appeal to all brands of genre nerds, it’s a hybrid world of both fantasy and science fiction, incorporating old-fashioned sword & sorcery ideas onto stories of other planets and races. “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” was the biggest project in this franchise, but far from the only one as children’s books, comics, toys, and even a live-action film with Dolph Lundgren followed. He-Man ruled the ‘80s and played in repeats into the ‘90s. There was even a resurgence of sorts in the ‘00s with new toys from Mattel and new comics from Image, but these didn’t really catch on with a wider audience.
What’s interesting is Smith and company’s decision to return to the tone and narrative of the '83-'85 series. It was conceived as a way to pick up the characters from that original series and continue their stories, and the five episodes do a pretty engaging job with that goal in that mind. A massive battle in the premiere shakes up the entire power structure of Eternia, turning Teela (Sarah Michelle Gellar) into the lead for the next few episodes, as she races to bring the broken pieces back together, culminating in an episode five cliffhanger that is legitimately great. The nine-year-old me who watched the original series would have lost his mind.
I’m not sure if that toddler Tallerico would have noticed the voice work here, but it is stellar. Smith and company got a fantastic group of people together, including none other than Mark Hamill as Skeletor. (Of course, animation fans know that Hamill is a vocal master, including doing one of the best Jokers in Batman history.) He’s joined by Chris Wood as He-Man, Lena Headey as Evil-Lyn, Alicia Silverstone as Queen Marlena, Diedrich Bader as King Randor, Stephen Root as Cringer, Griffin Newman as Orko, Henry Rollins as Tri-Klops, and so much more, including cameos from Tony Todd, Justin Long, Harley Quinn Smith, Dennis Haysbert, and, of course, Jason Mewes. I choose to believe this means Silent Bob is now in the Masters of the Universe.
The great voice cast works in service of writing that has real momentum. Too many of these reboots are content with taking their time, but the best ‘80s cartoons did none of that, pushing forward mythology and world-building between each commercial break. “Revelation” packs a ton of plot and character into five episodes, almost feeling like it’s trying to do too much at times in that department, but the eager-to-entertain approach works. These things fly by in the same total length of an average Marvel movie and will leave fans Googling when the show will be back for part two.
It’s also a fantastic show in terms of sheer visuals. The character designs look both nostalgic and detailed enough to be considered current. I just miss animation that at least looks hand-drawn, numbed by years of dull character design in CGI kids shows that resemble boring video games. This one has visual artistry that amplifies writing that cuts deeper thematically than a lot of similar programs (or the original for that matter). The dumbest fans will complain that issues of empowerment and emotion are embedded here more than I remember in the ‘80s, but they can always go back to the originals.
I think “Masters of the Universe: Revelation” will also send fans of it back to those originals as watchers of the ‘80s version show the new one to their kids (or maybe even grandkids? Yikes.) It could lead to a full on He-Manaissance. It’s about time.
Five episodes screened for review.