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Show, Don't Mattel: 'Masters Of The Universe: Revelation' Is Toying With You

An I-Have-The-Power vacuum pits Teela (Sarah Michelle Gellar) against Evil-Lyn (Lena Headey) in Netflix's <em>Masters of the Universe: Revelation</em>.
An I-Have-The-Power vacuum pits Teela (Sarah Michelle Gellar) against Evil-Lyn (Lena Headey) in Netflix's Masters of the Universe: Revelation.

Because the world is vast, and the internet is deep, we can take certain things for granted, among them: There exist, in surprising numbers, Masters of the Universe purists.

These are individuals who love the Filmation animated series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, which ran in syndication in the 1980s, with a fierce ardor unsullied by irony, or cynicism, or, you know, taste.

Maybe they were young enough, when the series aired, to recognize the series for what it was — an extended commercial for an ever-expanding Mattel line of steroidal action figures, choking-hazard accessories and extruded-plastic playsets — and respond to it on that simple level.

Maybe instead they were jaded adolescents when it aired, and gathered with friends every afternoon after school intending to snicker at its minimal-effort animation (characters cycled through only a handful of motions as they walked against scrolling backgrounds that repeated themselves every few seconds), its homoerotic imagery (He-Man and Skeletor's personal style confirms that Eternia is home to a thriving leather community), and its cast of punningly named characters (Fisto! Stinkor! Mekaneck! Sssqueeeze!), only to find themselves caught up in the series' mythology.

Maybe they're toy collectors, ecstatically giving themselves over to the siren song of nostalgia as they scour the internet for that final, elusive Scare Glow that would complete their collection of colorful characters all sporting the exact same hyper-muscular anatomy. (Eternia evidently has only Gold's Gyms, no CrossFits.)

Whoever they are, these MotU ride-or-die-ers, they're out there in droves, and they continue to regard the series as a sacred text — a cosmic, cheesy, and kiiiiinda gay sci-fi/fantasy text that is best remembered as it was, preserved in space-amber.

What are they to make of Netflix's Masters of the Universe: Revelation, which does not content itself to simply reboot the '80s series, but goes further, completely revamping and — most controversially — retconning it as well?

I mean: They'll hate it, probably. Stands to reason.

How about the rest of us, though? That's harder to figure.

The More Things Change ...

The new series, developed by nerd-nabob Kevin Smith, goes the familiar route, when it comes to rebooting a property like this one: Everything You Thought You Knew Was Wrong!

It's a tried-and-true reboot tactic for a reason: It allows contemporary storytellers to return to characters they loved as children and sand off the edges that render them dated, sexist, or racist — or merely insufficiently complex and compelling — to modern audiences.

(Netflix is splitting this first season of the series in half; the first five episodes dropped on Friday, July 23rd; the back five will drop at a later date.)

The pilot, written by Smith, proves a kind of narrative bait-and-switch. We open on a ceremony granting Teela (voiced by Sarah Michelle Gellar) the title of Man-at-Arms, while Prince Adam (voiced by Chris Wood), his pet tiger Cringer (voiced by Stephen Root) and the wizard Orko (voiced by Griffin Newman) look on. Meanwhile, the dastardly Skeletor (voiced by Mark Hamill) and Evil-Lyn (voiced by Lena Headey) are up to their usual skullduggery.

From that description, two things should be immediately apparent:

1. Nothing on Eternia has changed much, since the '80s series.

2. This thing sports a tremendous voice cast.

By that first episode's end, however, the eternal stalemate that marked the original series has been shattered, the original cast thinned out considerably, and the mythology on which the series was built has been upended (read: Everything You Thought You Knew Was Wrong!).

Put it this way: Eternia gets a sudden I-Have-The-Power vacuum.

The Universe Gets A New Master

The episodes that follow center themselves on a character who existed as an afterthought in the original series. The reason for this doesn't have all that much to do with what Smith and his writers have done to the show's mythology, which, at the end of the day, isn't as big a deal as it seems at first. The show's new status quo soon reveals itself to be at best a kind of distinction without a meaningful change from what it was before.

Smith and his writers know that no amount of gravid blather about cosmic balance and the loss of magic and the end of the universe can make us invest in the series without some emotional underpinning. That's why, smartly, the trigger that changes the direction of the series from episode two on is one character realizing that, back on the O.G. series, they were lied to, endlessly, by that show's "heroes."

It's small, yes, but it's enough to key into, as the series keeps up an endless stream of the usual high-fantasy goings-on. (Epic quests! Mystic portals! A sword that must be reforged! Etc!) It's enough, too, that the series devotes so much time to characterization — which, it's safe to say, was never a hallmark of the original.

And while the animation is far more fluid and energetic than that of the '80s series (a low bar, admittedly), given this voice cast, you'd be forgiven for closing your eyes during the Teela/Evil-Lyn scenes, for example, if only so you can picture Sarah Michelle Gellar trading verbal barbs with Lena Headey in some dark Burbank recording studio.

MotU: Revelation's MVP? The Casting Director

Again and again, the voice cast manages to impart more gravitas and emotion to the proceedings than any show featuring a character named Stinkor has any right to. Headey adds shades of grey(skull) to Evil-Lyn's previously one-note persona, Newman shows us an Orko who's wracked with self-doubt and thus significantly less annoying, and Stephen Root remains Stephen Root, an actor capable of turning a cowardly talking cat into a creature of rare insight and empathy.

The script gives Chris Wood's He-Man and Mark Hamill's Skeletor fewer chances to find similar nuances in their characters — indeed, Hamill sounds so much like his Batman: The Animated Series Joker here that you find yourself thinking the Clown Prince of Crime has just changed his makeup and started juicing — but they aren't around enough for that to make much of a difference.

The final moments of the first half of this season suggest the series might slip back into the old, familiar pattern it managed to shake off at the end of the pilot episode. That would be unfortunate, because for most of these episodes, Masters of the Universe: Revelation manages to dig something new out of a toy chest that's been sitting in the corner for almost 40 years.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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