Bringing back He-Man and the Master of the Universe was always a no brainer. The original cartoon, which ran for just two years back in mid 80s, while massively derivative (Conan The Barbarian, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons – take your pick) was also massively influential (Transformers, Thundercats, GI Joe, Visionaries, My Little Pony er, Dungeons & Dragons). Netflix had already hit creative paydirt with its Anime-influenced She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, the smart, overtly queer, rainbow-filled delight that wrapped up its run in 2020.
Bringing Adora’s super-swole brother back was an obvious move (the two shows, from different studios are – at this point at least – unrelated, though there are hints they share a continuity). That Kevin Smith was at the helm, promising a direct follow up to the old cartoons and featuring barely-messed-with character designs, only sharpened the excitement.
He-Man, of course, has been rebooted before – three times, in fact, if you count the 1987 live action film – and never especially successfully. Those previous versions, as with She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, were specifically designed to take the frame of the original story and drape a more up-to-date adventure for modern kids over it. Unfortunately, they tended to lose something in that process.
This He-Man, titled Masters of the Universe: Revelation, takes a different tack – Smith, always a fanboy at heart, wants to make a He-Man that those 40-something nerds that begged for the Castle Grayskull playset for Christmas in 1985 would resonate with. It had to be fundamentally the same show while, crucially, being something modern audiences and modern kids can appreciate too.
And that is quite some challenge – nearly forty years on, those old cartoons, however fondly you remember them, do not hold up well. Basic eighties animation aside, the barbarian costumes look like beefcake fetish wear, sidekicks Orko and Cringer are annoying to the point of unbearable, the women characters, Teela, Evil-Lyn and the Sorceress, are cardboard-flat and weirdly sexualised, the titular hero is wooden and bland in either of his forms, and even the iconic Castle Grayskull looks it’s been carved out of soap and then ran under a warm tap for ten minutes. There was a reason for all of this – He-Man, like Transformers, was a cartoon based on an existing toyline, not the other way around. Those designs were action figures first, reverse-engineered into stories. Adding to the challenge, toymakers Mattel are still involved with the new show and have, obviously, a new line to flog.
Smith’s solution is a clever one, and the reason for that is tricky to discuss while swerving spoilers. Episode one, ‘The Power of Grayskull’, does exactly what the publicity and Smith’s grandstanding implied: It’s an episode of He-Man. The animation has been updated, but the costumes and design – down to the hero’s furry trunks – look very much like the old show. Orko and Cringer are still massively annoying, Skeletor, voiced by Mark Hamill in full Joker-mode (genius casting) is camp to the point of ridiculous, and even the voiceover that opens the show and Castle Grayskull’s half-sucked-lollipop design are almost identical to the original.
It’s fun to see the whole shabang rendered in modern animation, spotting the easter eggs and glorying in the camp, but you do wonder how on Eternia our interest could possibly be sustained past the novelty of that first twenty minutes. Which is when Smith pulls the rug, in a move we won’t spoil here, completely resetting the board.
When we return to Eternia in episode two, ‘The Poisoned Chalice’, it’s to a darker and more grown-up world. Still child-friendly, but far closer in tone to the recent She-Ra, even down to some subtle queer-coding. The new show, noticeably different to the one we’d been watching in episode one, takes a little while to find its feet as we feel our way through new character motivations and alliances, and is not without its tonal fumbles.
Stick with it, though. Episodes four and five, ‘Land of the Dead’ and ‘The Forge On The Edge of Forever’ are brilliant, bringing real character depth – especially to the poorly-served Orko and Teela – and some creepy touches as we move from Eternian hell (Subternia) to Erternian heaven (Preternia), facing deep moral quandaries and genuine emotional beats. The finale, which takes some inspiration from Canon’s flawed but fondly remembered 1987 live-action movie, ends on a cliff-hanger that elicits a real gasp as Smith resets the board a second time and leaves us dangling precariously. It’s a doozie, honestly.
Much of Revelation’s success is in its performances. Producers have been canny here, bringing in great character voices (Hamill, of course, but also Griffin Newman as Orko and Susan Eisenberg as The Sorceress) alongside figures known more for live-action. Sarah Michelle Geller, Buffy herself, is great as the battle-hardened, cynical version of Teela, Justin Long brings real Pathos to Roboto and Chris Wood elevates Prince Adam/He-Man from the wooden beefcake of the eighties. Admittedly Lena Heady (Evil-Lyn) and Liam Cunningham (Man-At-Arms) aren’t falling a million miles away from their Game of Thrones characters, but both acquit themselves with some class. Between them, the material really sings.
It’s a game of two halves then, with the formulaic but enjoyably familiar opening giving way to a darker show, initially less sure of itself, that hits its stride and swings big as it gallops to a hell of a cliffhanger. Hopefully that momentum can be maintained when Part Two drops later this year.