Tom Jolliffe takes a look at Kevin Smith’s much anticipated Masters of the Universe: Revelation and the fan furore it has sparked…
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was a rite of passage for my generation. A campy, colourful, just ever so slightly shoddily constructed animated series with the all good hero, He-Man, fighting the comically evil Skeletor. The show itself became a sideline for a toy line from Mattel. Said toy line would become infamous for excessive oversell. Every time a new character was sketched out for an episode, you could all but guarantee, no matter how lame, that a toy would be fired out on the production line. In the late 80s, at a time when the cartoon was out of vogue and being overshadowed by heroes in a half-shell, anyone frequenting a yard sale, jumble sale, car boot sale etc. would inevitably find hordes of He-Man cast off toys. You’d rarely find the man himself, or the A-list line up. You’d find rubbish like Fisto, Grizzlor, Leech etc. The show, which had quite a cynical marketing mentality, aimed at impressionable kids, would slowly become known for recycling plotlines, animations and just dredging the well for the most half hearted of ideas to get He-Man powing the camera (and the end morality lesson du jour).
Despite this, the original form that my generation got used to as He-Man is something that brings a warming nostalgia. Even as I re-watch some of them with my daughter now, I appreciate the better episodes (and there were some doozies), even if there were some dreadful fillers along the way. We’ve seen a few reboots over the years, like The New Adventures of He-Man which was greeted with apathy. Another rebooted series in 2002 was also short-lived, though actually, a little underrated. Perhaps through these reinventions, the intention to update and make He-Man cool, lost the essence of what made the original show so popular. Maybe He-Man needed to be a little bit naff. Perhaps we loved it because it was, actually, a little bit shit.
We also had, in 1987, the movie that shaped my childhood. Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella doing battle in Cannon’s Masters of the Universe. The film, greeted with scorn by critics and division from fans, was a love it or hate it affair initially. For the ones who loved it though, they really loved it. Again, some rough elements, a little bit of cheese and a bit of comical badness gave it an endearing quality and for the most part it’s very well put together, largely thanks to a crew brought in with a background including Star Wars among others. In more recent years the films popularity has risen as it has been more positively reappraised. It’s actually funny, and sometimes even intentionally so. Then the appreciation for just how great Langella is as Skeletor has been a consistent. Ironically, the kind of film Masters was, is now thoroughly in vogue. To all intents, it is a MCU formula, made before that formula was deemed viable (and before they ploughed big money into making them).
In the last 20 years we’ve had innumerable green lights for a new MOTU movie. It has just never transpired. The interest probably isn’t there for a big budget movie. Truth be told, the fact a McG helmed He-Man never got made is probably a blessing. Finally though, in the wake of streaming platforms taking over and producing masses of new content to compete with each other, there is now the opportunity to make dangerous bets a little more sure-fire. In Netflix land, Adam Sandler can once again reign supreme for example. Additionally, the internet allowed for the successful reboot for a film series we never knew we needed more of – The Karate Kid. Cobra Kai proved hugely popular (in no small part for being nostalgically warm and pretty damn good).
This brings us back to Masters. An ideal platform is waiting. Kevin Smith the orchestrator, and suddenly after a few months of buzz and fanfare following lots of artwork (with He-Man front and center – more on that later) and a good trailer, Masters of the Universe: Revelation is out. On Rotten Tomatoes it went down a storm. The critical consensus was that the show was enjoyable. Enough quirk and reverence to please fans of the original and updated successfully enough to gain new fans. A critic’s job is to take a step away and look at the material objectively of course. We are in the world of passionate, high fandom though. This means Joe Public with a hearty sense of nostalgia for He-Man (either in Filmworks or Cannon form) are likely to be more subjective in their viewpoint. Ask Rian Johnson about that. Indeed, ask Mark Hamill, for the unfortunate son of Vader has just bookended a four year period where he’s been a part of two of the most maligned projects going.
The response in some corners against Star Wars: The Last Jedi was savage. Like Revelation, it came out with a great critical reception (still hovering over 90% on Rotten Tomatoes I believe). The fan response was far more divided. Not many loved it, but a whole heap more absolutely loathed the film, to such an extent many were calling for it to be stricken from canon and reshot entirely. The response was so vociferous that the follow up film would became a steaming mess of attempted damage limitation with far too many safe ideas crammed together incoherently, whilst needing to keep continuity with what happened before. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker didn’t anger fans as much, even though all told, it’s a dreadful mess of a film. For what it’s worth, for all the contentious aspects fans hated about Last Jedi, its biggest problem for me is that it was just weighted by subplots and poorly developed. It wasn’t the abomination fans felt, an affront to ‘their’ Star Wars. It also wasn’t as brave and redefining as some critics felt either. Just ultimately, a bit meh. That said, at least Johnson had a bit of a vision, whereas Abrams came into Star Wars by remaking A New Hope. By Rise of Skywalker he was more a firefighter than a director.
Yes, like The Last Jedi, Revelation has been greeted with scorn by a big portion of fans. It might well be in fact that the majority are at the very least underwhelmed by it. A portion of them are genuinely enraged by it. Internet fans can be a strange breed I grant you, but there are legitimate reasons for their ire. One of these is the fact that Smith et. al. have played a wildcard here. They’ve tried to be clever. Being clever works sometimes, but you do also need to play fair. The expectation most fans had was that this show was going to be as it always has… about He-Man. The artwork suggested it. The trailers did nothing to suggest it was going to be about Teela. Mis-marketing can cause a defensive reaction from viewers. You might well have a good project on your hands, but if you lay out red herrings in your promotional material, or mislead, you are in danger of active rebellion. So it was that many fans felt they’d been duped with Relevation. The promise of He-Man’s return in a new series roused levels of excitement for predominantly middle aged men that perhaps they really shouldn’t have had for a cartoon at that age (I say that with an admission that I too was excited). If there’s one demographic you shouldn’t annoy, it’s middle aged men let me tell you.
On the other hand, the show’s other problem has been perhaps that, though brief, it still feels meandering through the initial run up to half way (the remainder of the series premieres later in the year). Even for some of those fans, quite willing to go into a show that shifts its gaze upon Teela and give it a chance, it didn’t engage enough for them. One aspect is because our key hero and villain of the universe are taken away in the opener. The show then becomes something of a quest as Teela is tasked with finding items, until she ends up being tasked with locating two halves of the deconstructed Sword of Power. There are forces of obstacle in the way of course, but the overriding source of evil has gone (though expect that to be different in the second half of the season). Additionally, the animation style has been a point of contention. Even Mark Hamill, who can normally do no wrong, had been a divisive issue with many feeling his vocal work as Skeletor is too similar to The Joker.
My own thoughts on the show? I enjoyed it. I have no problem with the shift to Teela, whilst expanding on some of the lore (and inventing new lore) felt engaging to me. I dug the nods to not only some of the cult characters and toys from the original run, but also to the Lundgren movie. It also had the right amount of reference as you don’t want to become preoccupied with references, as some nostalgia driven films and shows can have a tendency to be. Is it, as RT might suggest, a 94% kind of a show? Not for me. Is it a 4.7 kind of show as the fans on IMDb say (or 32% as the RT audience suggest)? Definitely not. I like the direction we’ve come to at the mid-point which promises much for the remainder. I have suspicions on what the end game will be involving Teela (maybe the next Guardian of the Sword/Grayskull). That would be interesting to me, given Adam/He-Man is one of a line of warriors who have been the chosen one. I haven’t been overly keen on the animation nor the soundtrack, but overall, it’s pretty good and Teela makes for a likeable hero. It’s also a good development on her arc in the original show, as someone always striving to have more responsibility, to be as respected a warrior as some of the men around her.
There’s a disappointing section of criticism as you would expect too. This is the modern internet age and the show has been given the dreaded ‘woke’ label. You know, that label that ultimately is a bit meaningless. People firing out accusatory calls of people being woke, liberal, lefties, fascists and other such hyperbolic nonsense. Is there a horrible lefty woke agenda behind making the show about Teela? No. It’s a calculated gamble by Smith, which appears to have brought back ire in return, but as we’ve already seen, doing He-Man again as per the old formula has historically had no legs. Maybe he wanted to pay reverence but not retread too much, and forge a slightly different path.
The reality was, even back in the old show, Teela had several arcs that made her one of the more interesting characters. He-Man was always one dimensionally heroic and infallible (aside from two or three great episodes where he’s suddenly vulnerable or crippled with doubt). As such, if anyone was right for a becoming the new center point, it was probably Teela (a Sorceress or Skeletor origin could also have been cool). It genuinely seems to burn some in a very weird way that Smith had the audacity to make a Masters of the Universe series with a female in the lead (“but the womenses have got that She-Ra bird!”). Indeed some fans who just felt ‘killing off’ He-Man was too much of a shift, might have a point, but many of these fans are also fans of The Transformers: The Movie, and to an extent the first third of that film up until killing off the iconic hero (Prime) and villain (Megatron) mirror much of the first episode here (in a show which also has some reference to other 80’s fantasy like The Dark Crystal).
Sometimes you just can’t win. The show, minus the furore, may not have been good enough to gain the traction to warrant continuation. The furore and the buzz around it probably means increased viewings. People will watch to see what the fuss is about. Perhaps viewers who may not have had an interest, or She-Ra fans, having heard the contentious reveal of Teela being the lead might suddenly think that this now has an appeal. The irony might well be that the fans who hate this show the most might well be the ones cementing the continued adventures of Teela. What are your thoughts on Masters of the Universe: Revelation? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.