I just finished watching the first 5 episodes—or Part 1, as I was told—of Masters of the Universe: Revelation, the new animation series produced by Kevin Smith for Netflix, based upon the beloved 80’s franchise He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
I have to be honest here: I had zero expectations about this endeavor, even going as far as missing its release date. If a friend of mine hadn’t brought it up, I’d probably gone a couple more days (or even weeks) without watching or paying any attention to it.
Now, however, I’m really glad he mentioned it and gladder still that I watched it but, above all, I’m glad to have been wrong. So wrong. This series is way better than anything I could have imagined because, in essence, Masters of the Universe: Revelation (Revelation, from now on) is the feminist retelling of He-Man that I didn’t believe it was possible.
By the Power of Grayskull
I grew up watching the original He-Man cartoon. Although the plots were thin and the PSAs at the end annoying, young little me enjoyed it immensely because it was something I didn’t know back then I would come to love immensely later in my life.
He-Man was fantasy.
It was not high quality fantasy, mind you, but it was imaginative. The characters were bold and attractive, the names were ridiculously on your face—but so easy to remember!—and the whole aesthetic felt fresh and vibrant, that combination between magic and technology (or fantasy and science fiction), something that burnt indelibly in my innocent mind. To this day I reference He-Man whenever I need to come up with good examples of science fantasy or arcanepunk, as it’s sometimes called.
In short: I’m a He-Man nerd. I’ve watched the series (all of them), I know the names… ¡Gosh! I’ve even read the comic books. And yet, I wouldn’t rewatch the original cartoon today. My main reason for not doing so has nothing to do with the poor animation, laughably bad plots, or lack of dramatic progress but, instead, with the whole macho bullshit that forms the core DNA of that childhood love.
The Manliest Man Who Ever Lived
He-Man (1983) is problematic as fuck. The female characters are little more than decoration, everybody is super fucking white, and whoever isn’t strong or has any emotions beyond anger are either making fun of or looked down upon (Orko, Cringer). What’s worse, the macho bullshit goes so far that Skeletor, one of the coolest characters in the history of Big Bad Evil Guys, is written as a sissy parody, a pejorative stereotype used to designate non-mainstream forms of masculinity.
And then there’s the protagonist himself, the manliest man who ever lived: He-Man. He’s so macho that half his name his “man”. While Adam is innocent and care-free, He-Man is strong and violent… And that is supposed to be admirable. Even worse, He-Man has a disturbing tendency to mock his adversaries for not being as strong and emotionless as he is. I’m sorry, but he sounds more like a bully than anything else to me.
The writers of the original show constantly presented the ingenuity and wide range of emotions of Skeletor as something undesirable, and He-Man’s stoicity as a standard to live by. The PSAs at the end of every episode usually revolve around being “good” in the most traditional, cis-white heteronormative way possible.
So that’s why I wouldn’t watch the original He-Man now. It makes me uncomfortable and reminds me that most things created back in the 80s were, under their veneer of progress, utter minority-phobic shit.
In my opinion, Kevin Smith is a perfect example of male white privilege. If you ask me, the best thing he had done prior to Revelation was Dogma, a movie that I really like but that hasn’t aged well. And, in spite of having no artistic relevance in 20+ years, Mr. Smith still appears everywhere. Just the other day I discovered that he’ll be one of the voices on The Sandman Act II on Audible (apropos: I cannot recommend this version enough to anybody who’s interested in Sandman, whether you have read the original comics or not).
So, when Revelation was announced—and much of the onus of the series was placed upon Smith’s job as producer, showrunner, and writer—I became hesitant. It sounded like something for other people, not like She-Ra (2018), for example, which was written by and for LGBTQI+ people. I became even more detached from the upcoming series when I read an interview in which Smith distanced his project from the abovementioned She-Ra‘s bold rewrite of a once male-gaze dominated fantasy, and emphasized that He-Man (2021) was “for fans of the original.”
Uh-oh. Nazi alert. Nazi alert.
I decided then and there that I’d try to forget Smith’s He-Man existence as much as I could. After all, in today’s world of über abundant narratives, you can just don’t watch or read some stuff. It’s what I’ve done with most of the DCEU after Man of Steel, for example. It’s what I did with The Hobbit movies and that awful Tolkien pseudo-biopic as well (and people invited more than once to watch those shitty films for free. Fast food included). So, what was the harm in missing Smith’s He-Man?
Defying Gravi—Ahem! “Expectations”
So now you probably rightly imagining that I sat down to watch Revelation with less than positive expectations, so to speak. In fact, I was ready to shut the screen at first sign of celebrating the “good-ol’ macho bullshit”.
And then the first episode ended and my jaw dropped off.
I recommend that you go and watch the series, if you already haven’t. The following discussion includes spoilers for the whole five episodes released so far.
SPOILERS FOR PART 1 OF MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: REVELATION FROM NOW ON
To my absolute joy, what Smith & co. did was to take everything that was amazing about He-Man (1983) and added everything that wasn’t there: the people of color, the wide range of emotions, strong sense of plot and progress, and women. So. Many. Women. Young women. Old women. Human women. Alien women.
From the very first moments the series sets up its incredible premise: the protagonist is no longer Adam/He-Man, but Teela. Yes, the girl who was the adopted daughter of Man-At-Arms. That one. The first episode, in fact, starts with her ceremony to become Man-At-Arms herself! And she’s tough and sure of herself, and ready to battle Skeletor and everybody else on Snake Mountain now.
I was pleasantly surprised enough with this setup, but then He-Man (2021) did something better: it deconstructed the old He-Man. It showed us the true ending of a macho “heroic” struggle: death and more death. Annihilation. The end of everything. Smith & co. revealed the ugly underneath that I mentioned before and, even more interestingly, led it to its natural conclusion. War profits no one. There is no “war to end all wars”. Violence only breeds violence, never peace. Skeletor’s desire for validation at any cost and He-Man’s lack of empathy and violent-by-default response can only end one way: with both of them dead, and the world the poorer for it.
And this was just episode 1, people.
The Central Tension
Matt Colville said that “a lot [of good stories] have a central tension”… And I agree with him. A central tension is the conflict between two major forces that sits at the center of a narrative. Examples include: Good vs. Evil, Man vs. Nature, Order vs. Chaos, etc.
Revelation, unlike its 1983 predecessor, has one great central tension: Magic vs. Technology. The antagonists are all for technology, while the protagonists are pro-magic. This creates a wonderful scenario, in which characters old and new can have new allegiances; there’s no longer Skeletor & co. vs. He-Man & co., and that is so refreshing. It truly feels like a sequel, in the sense of exploring a new conflict instead of retreading the same old ground.
Surprisingly enough, Teela is the reluctant heroine, a mercenary in the post-He-Man world that the series establishes after episode 1. The idealist for the magic cause is, in fact, Evil-Lyn, who becomes the knowledgeable magic-user of the protagonist group, and the core trio is rounded up by Andra, a new black female character with a knack for technology and a nerd about old He-Man stuff.
The quest of this trio? To save magic and restore Eternia.
Talk about a feminist plot.
Old characters join this trio but, in this case, they feel new because the end of the old struggle changed them. Beast-Man, for example, has always had a crush on Evil-Lyn, but now instead of being a comic relief for it, it is presented as a platonic love that serves the heroic cause.
And so it goes, with the heroes visiting both Eternia’s Hell and Heaven in their mission to restore the world and the whole of creation. The adventures are centered on the secondary characters, in exploring and deepening them. Even Orko gets a beautifully dramatic character arc! And Cringer gets to be wise thanks to his fear.
Another detail that I loved: Evil-Lyn gets to be the Crone, the Wise Woman of the group. Amazingly voiced by the incomparable Lena Headey, when she takes off her helmet all of her hair is white. Her face has scars and wrinkles. She is just plain great.
And then it comes the final episode. In Preternia, the Heaven equivalent of the series, the characters get to meet the old heroes of the world, the He-Man alter egos. And they are wonderfully diverse! There’s even a woman!
In this moment the series pivots to have Adam get a chance to get resurrected, to become He-Man again. And my old fears returned. Were these five episodes just a long con to return to the old status quo? I kept on watching with trepidation…
I Have the Power!
And then everything went to shit. In a good way.
Adam returns to life and is about to turn into He-Man for the first time since he died… And then, a spear pierces him from back to front. He gurgles in his own blood and Skeletor appears! The fucker was hidden in Evil-Lynn’s backpack all along.
What’s worse, both Evil-Lyn and Beast-Man return to Skeletor’s side once he returns. Old (toxic) habits die hard!
And then, Skeletor gets to do the one thing he always wanted to.
He says the words and becomes, in his own words, “a god”.
Now that everything lies in shambles I don’t know what to think. Maybe it was just all a long con to restore the status quo, but I don’t think so. It seems to me that this series is going somewhere.
And I’m along for the ride.
I really hope the next batch of episodes are as good as these five. They’ve been some of the coolest fictional surprises I’ve received in a long time.
If not, at least we’ll always have Part 1 of Masters of the Universe: Revelation to look back fondly upon.
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