January 3, 2023

Review of Masters of the Universe: Revelation

I recently watched Masters of the Universe: Revelation (seasons 1 and 2), a continuation of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. With reboots, remakes, and reimaginings, it's useful to think about one's previous relationship with the material being rebooted, remade, or reimagined (if one has one).

I largely missed out on He-Man and the Masters of the Universe as a kid. I was born in early 1983. By the time I was old enough to enjoy Saturday morning cartoons, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe had finished and was syndicated (and I don't think my local stations re-ran MOTU episodes). My older brother--born 1979--however, had been a big fan of the show. He had accumulated several of the toys and playsets. I vaguely remember being enthralled as I watched him play with his Castle Grayskull, Snake Mountain, and figures, and dream-wondering about when I would get some "big kid" toys too. I vividly remember the vivid art on the cardboard boxes and being just as enamored of that as the toys inside.

I do vaguely remember seeing the live-action film, Masters of the Universe (1987), on home video, probably in the early 90s, and also being annoyed that Orko wasn't included (he was my favorite character) and a little frightened by Skeletor in-the-flesh.

Fast forward to 2017 when the Netflix docuseries, The Toys That Made Us, came out: I watched the He-Man episode and was really intrigued (and a little incensed) by the creative and business background of the character. I am also into sword and sorcery fiction in general, and Masters of the Universe is something of a campy homage to that subgenre of fantasy. So, I'm hooked in these two ways as well.

To summarize: I like MOTU. I am interested in He-Man and related characters. I missed the original show as a kid. I came to the new Netflix show out of curiosity and a little bit of delayed nostalgia.

One the first things that intrigued me about the show was the way it wasn't centrally about He-Man. It was focused on Teela pretty much from the beginning. Another aspect that I thought was interesting was the tone. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is mostly ridiculous and playful, but Masters of the Universe: Revelation immediately felt more serious, even mature. The characters weren't cardboard cutouts. They were dynamic, complex, and driven by conflicting desires: e.g. familial love, relationship trauma, deep-seated confidence issues, and other serious stuff. The external and psychological stakes stayed high from the beginning. Even Skeletor, who has always been rather comical, was intense and interesting, a genuine Lord of Death, tragically soul sick from his stultified ambition.

As season 1 proceeded, the serious tone continued and accelerated, and it worked for me. There was also a bit of nostalgia and depth, a sense that these hitherto silly characters had deep pasts and previously established relationships rife with unfinished business. The way episode 1 set up the later episodes to be in the aftermath of [excised to avoid a spoiler], was really intriguing. It gave a sense of continuity with the old show, the old conflicts, but it created an important tear in the continuity. With the beginning of episode 2, one realizes that this is going to be a different story than expected.

Later, as the other characters from the past are located and brought in--Evil-Lyn, Man-At-Arms, and Orko--this satisfying "Ghost of Christmas Past" feeling is fully established. He-Man ended in 1985, 36 years passed, and by-and-by this new show was created; accordingly, something like this strange sense of the passage of time--the weirdness of traversing the last 36 years--is captured artfully in that shift between the end of episode 1 and the beginning of episode 2. It was very clever and surprisingly nuanced.

I really enjoyed the reveal at the end of Episode 4. Preternia was a fun element of the story. And the end of episode 5: talk about a dramatic entrance.

I don't want this to go very long. In the spirit of a conversation starter, let me briefly say a few things about season 2. Season 2 was a lot of fun, and I was hooked throughout, but I think it suffered from the perennial fantasy problem of always needing to raise the conflict's stakes, i.e. the need to get more and more epic. I thought the character development of Evil-Lyn was the most intriguing. I am not ashamed to admit I felt some emotions as Teela and Man-at-Arms came to terms with each other. But as the epic conclusion proceeded, I started to feel something akin to Dragonball Z fatigue. Still, the spectacle was awesome.   

I'm so glad I watched this show. I'll probably watch it again. Since watching it I have purchased MOTU toys for my nieces and nephews as presents, and may have kept one for myself. And I'm interested in re-watching some of the old show and reading some of the old comic books.