- Masters of the Universe
- Executive Producer, Kevin Smith
- Featuring the voice talents of
- Chris Wood as Prince Adam/He-Man
- Liam Cunningham as Duncan/Man-At-Arms
- Susan Eisenberg as the Sorceress
- Sarah Michelle Gellar as Teela
- Tiffany Smith as Andra
- Mark Hamill as Skeletor
- Lena Hedey as Evil-Lyn
- Diedrich Bader as King Randor/Trapjaw
- Griffin Newman as Orko
- Alicia Silverstone as Queen Marlena
For the three or four people who might not have been aware, there’s a new Masters of the Universe animated series on Netflix, with Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats, Jay & Silent Bob, Tusk) as the show runner. Over the weeks since the show’s release, it might have also escaped the notice of some that not everyone has been wholly on board with the direction of the show. In fact, since the release of the first five episodes there have been some vocal folk on the internet who have expressed… dissatisfaction with the series. Being a little slow in sitting down to watch, I went into it with some concerns. I mean, if this many people are so unhappy that they’re taking the time out of their days to throw that much shade at a thing, was I going to be wasting my time watching that thing?
I mean, people don’t just scream into the void that is the internet unless something’s really, really messed up. Right?
Now that I have watched the five episodes (twice) & listened to what a few others had to say, I have regrets totaling zero. In fact, I think I’d go so far as to point out that if there’s really any time that’s been wasted, it’s in the efforts going above & beyond to shred the latest swing at Masters of the Universe. Negative reviews aside, the fact is that not only was I going to watch it regardless of dissenting opinions, but some of those reviews also managed to build up some of the anticipation as I dove in.
Thank you, internet.
While there are going to be some minor spoilers later on in the article, I’ll start without giving too much away (but watch out for the spoiler warning ahead) by saying that I really liked the first five episodes out there so far. I’ve watched it twice now, first a couple episodes at a time and then in one long viewing. If you can watch it in one sitting, which isn’t too rough given that you’re looking at under two & a half hours, is that it plays much better when binged as opposed to an episodic series. Speaking from the perspective of a guy who watched the original cartoon as a kid, I will say that the tone is there, particularly in the opening episode. As it moved along, it built up into a more complicated storyline where the classic characters were given a chance to develop into more than the caricatures that they tended toward in the classic series.
Much as we old timers may have loved the old Funimation series, we would have to admit that it was geared toward kids with the primary goal of marketing the Mattel toy line. Every episode of the show was a self-contained story with about as much of an arc as could be expected in a twenty-two-minute run time. Showrunners couldn’t assume that everyone would be glued to their televisions at the same time every day, as hard as we tried to be, and there was only so much they could do by way of ongoing stories and subplots. Skeletor wants into Castle Grayskull. With the help of his allies, He-Man has to stop Skeletor’s evil plans without anyone finding out that he’s really Prince Adam. In the end, we all learn something important like “stay in school” or “don’t do drugs”. At their core, the old stories don’t run much deeper than that.
So what’s different, and what’s gleefully the same, about this continuation of one of my earliest childhood fandoms? Let’s talk about that.
(Warning: Here there be spoilers!)
Like I said, the opening episode has got to be the closest to the style & attitude of the old cartoons as I’ve seen since I was watching the old cartoons. Everything from the dialogue and one-liners to the situations surrounding the latest in a long line of Skeletor attempts at infiltrating Castle Grayskull. Only this time, he makes it! While everyone else is at a big to-do celebrating Teela’s rise to the rank of Man-At-Arms, the true mastermind behind it all (voiced by a perfectly Joker-ish Mark Hamill) achieves his long-sought goal. And that’s when the show turns, ever so subtly, into new territory. As events come to a boil in what could be the final showdown between good & evil, He-Man does the unthinkable and runs the Sword of Power through Skeletor’s guts.
This isn’t the end, however, as the deed triggers events that threaten the destruction of not just Castle Grayskull, not only Eternia and its people, but also the entire universe! Events can only be stopped if He-Man uses the Sword of Power to capture and contain the energy being unleashed, knowing full well that it will mean his death. In a tragic chain of events, He-Man/Prince Adam is killed, along with Skeletor and the long-kept secret is finally out as Teela witnesses her lifelong friend’s transformation. King Randor, who had never in all that time suspected the true identity of his own son, banishes Duncan/Man-At-Arms and threatens him with execution if he ever returns (the King’s kind of a ponce, really). And Teela, furious with the knowledge that everyone she’d ever trusted knew Adam’s true nature and kept it from her- by Adam’s order, it should be pointed out- turns her back on her station and Eterna and leaves everything behind.
That’s all in the first episode! It’s also where the series loses some folk.
There’s a time jump leading into the second episode, which introduces us to a much different Teela. Still embittered by a lifetime of being lied to, she’s more than a little angsty and has taken up the life of an adventurer for hire alongside new friend, engineering genius Andra. Cue the series of side quests designed to teach Teela a little something about herself and the world she lives in, and enter an odd mix of reluctant allies.
All of the people complaining about how the season ended? You have to realize that what we saw was pretty much the end of Empire Strikes Back, which is to say not the end. Episode 5 (back on MOTU now, not Star Wars) was only the first half of the season, which someone (not Kevin Smith) decided to release in two bunches instead of all at once. That may or may not have been the best move for the show, as it’s resulting in a group of people passing judgment in its entirety. Personally, I think that judgment is a little hasty and not entirely deserved, but that’s just me.
Kevin Smith and the writers on Masters of the Universe have taken a group of characters written as the barest minimum required to be considered two dimensional, and filled them out based on information pieced together from multiple sources. Orko, that pour maligned bastard who has been regarded by many as the original Jar Jar Binks, is elevated to more than silly comic relief with some insightful writing and a great voice performance by Griffin Newman. All of Orko’s elements are there- spells told in ridiculous rhyme & the inability to get them to do what he intended- but he really comes into his own when the little dude makes a stand that would’ve made Gandalf proud. Duncan, aka “Man-At-Arms” becomes more than just He-Man’s standard bearer, rounding out to a father burdened with regrets over the choices he’s had to make between work & family. And Teela… oh boy, we could go on and on over Teela’s life choices.
Hey, since we’re here I think we will.
As might have been expected by some, much has been said about Smith & Company going off the rails by ramming a fully woke Teela down our throats. Yes, she’s a woman. Yes, she’s strong and as we catch up with her she has a strong woman who is a friend. In the years following the first episode, Teela cut her hair. Okay, I think that’s actually the entire basis for many of the complaints I’ve seen online. First off, Teela was always of the female persuasion, so we’re cool on that point, right?. All that’s new is that she’s more than a background character intended for the four or five girls that Mattel anticipated watching the original show (turns out it was a few more than that, which rolled on into She-Ra and her series). Now she’s brought to the front and while Teela is tasked with carrying much of the weight in these the opening episodes, an effort beautifully brought to life by Sarah Michelle Gellar (no stranger to the role of the strong-willed warrior). For all of Teela’s increased responsibilities, I didn’t see it as the show being turned over to her. She’s carrying the torch for a while before we get into the second act (you all understand that He-Man’s going to be coming back, right?).
If Teela were actually handed the title of show frontrunner, she wouldn’t continuously remind us about how He-Man/Adam let her down. She would have been mad and then she would have moved on to create & carry out her own legacy instead of whining on about someone else’s. I have enough faith in the writers on this show (of which there are some really awesome people) to be confident in that. As to the complaints of her being “built like a man” and cutting her hair in a style seen as “butchy”, I really have to wonder about our standards and whether or not anyone’s actually watched a female athlete in action. In particular, check out some of the women currently involved in professional MMA. Even the smallest among them have biceps, and haircuts do tend toward the shorter end unless the fighters want to spend the time and effort having their hair twisted into braids. Fighting with long, flowing hair is impractical at best and downright dangerous at worst. Is all of this saying that I had no issues with Team MOTU’s handling of the story and their characters? Read on.
My only real issue with Teela had nothing to do with her build, hairstyle, or whatever life choices she may or may not have made. My problem with her character path is that Teela doesn’t seem to be the least bit phased by the fact that He-Man/Prince Adam has knowingly sacrificed his life in order to save all of existence. She’s just mad that she wasn’t in on the secret, and spends too much time in these five episodes griping about it to anyone who’ll listen (and a few who didn’t care). That alone is the one thing that stands out to me as an annoyance. In the original series, Teela was always pretty hardcore and never passed up a chance to deliver a jab at Adam over his inability to measure up to the heroic He-Man, so that’s pretty consistent. I do understand a degree of hurt feelings over not being trusted with the greatest secret in the history of after-school cartoons, but come on. I’d think Adam would get some kind of pass given that he does pay the ultimate price to save the universe, where Teela and everyone she loves happens to live. I’m all in support of building drama and conflict into a story, but at some point you have to stop beating it over the heads of your audience & trust them to “get it”.
The essential elements are all there, but it’s been done with the awareness that most of the existing MOTU fans have grown up and have moved on to shows like Game of Thrones. The Revelation in this new iteration is that there are going to be consequences. In the first episode, He-Man stabs a guy! People in this series have been killed although in some cases (cough… He-Man) I’m pretty sure it isn’t gonna stick… However you chose to look at it, whether or not you give excess credit to the knee jerk haters, we’re only at the middle of the story, the arc of which has only just started. It’s tough to condemn or praise the whole season no matter how strongly you feel about what’s been released so far.
It also bears stating that Powerhouse Animation has elevated the action that fans would expect from MOTU. The masters behind another of my favorite Netflix anime shows, Seis Manos (reviewed here), Powerhouse pulls off some outstanding choreography in their fight scenes… which are incidentally accompanied a pulse-raising score by Bear McCreary. Character designs are outstanding, both updated & in line with the classics, and the scenery is pretty great. As far as eye candy goes, this is a much-appreciated break from some of the other attempts at reviving old animated shows.
While I’m going to hold onto my final word until the landing has been stuck, or alternatively whiffed, I can say in all confidence that what I’ve seen so far has been a fantastic look back at one of my early fandoms. Sure, there are some snags as inexplicable plot devices conveniently pop in and out of the action, but nothing that was enough to knock me out of the story. With a pretty impressive list of nods & pulls from the original show, and all of the fan favorite characters- voiced by the likes of Phil LaMarr (He-Ro), Henry Rollins (Triclops), Kevin Michael Richardson (Beast Man), Justin Long (Roboto), & Jason Mewes (Stinkor)- there isn’t much that was left out. Whether you’re die-hard or a more casual fan, Masters of the Universe has a lot to deliver. Just, y’know, wait and see what happens in the season’s back half before you start taking up torch & pitchfork.
Final Score: 11/13