As a kid, there was He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and there was everything else. Thus, it’s with some admitted nostalgia that I report that the new Masters of the Universe: Revelation is a success, at least insofar as it authentically resurrects the franchise’s favorite characters while simultaneously updating them—and their adventures—for the 21st century. Spearheaded by Kevin Smith, Netflix’s animated saga feels like an organic continuation of the original syndicated TV series that ran for two seasons from 1983-1985 (in the process, it ignores the 1987 film and later 2002 TV show). Moreover, it manages the not-inconsiderable feat of humanizing its larger-than-life heroes and villains just enough to make their story play like more than simply an extended Mattel action-figure commercial.
Blessed with a superb voice cast, Masters of the Universe: Revelation (July 23) is the first five-episode run of what will purportedly be an ongoing series. And at least in these initial installments, it revisits familiar terrain, only to then routinely upend expectations. Its tale begins in conventional fashion, with Skeletor (Mark Hamill)—the cackling dark lord of Snake Mountain—attempting to use trickery to gain entrance into Castle Grayskull, a stronghold that houses the power of Eternia, as well as the universe. Unfortunately for him, his latest scheme is once again complicated by the arrival of He-Man (Chris Wood), the gallant and invincible alter ego of Prince Adam, who wields the power of Grayskull via the aptly (if unimaginatively) named Sword of Power.
Powerhouse Animation Studios, the outfit behind Netflix’s video game-based hit Castlevania, is responsible for the anime-inspired style of Masters of the Universe: Revelation, which retains the basic designs of the original toys and series, and yet bestows them with more brawn and angular features, as well as makes their movements swifter and sharper. That alone proves an upgrade for He-Man and company, even if the blonde do-gooder himself is a bit, shall we say, steroidal.
He-Man’s frame now bulges to the point of absurdity, which would be fine—realism certainly isn’t the name of this game—except that his head is too small for his massive shoulders. It’s a minor misstep, however, considering that the rest of his comrades and adversaries boast their signature looks and colorful personalities, be it loyal inventor Man-At-Arms (Liam Cunningham), clownish floating magician Orko (Griffin Newman), valiant guardian Sorceress (Susan Eisenberg), cunning witch Evil-Lyn (Lena Headey), cowardly pet cat Cringer (Stephen Root), ferocious brute Beast Man (Kevin Michael Richardson) or staunch warrior Teela (Sarah Michelle Gellar).
These and many more recognizable faces show up in Masters of the Universe: Revelation, and those with a fondness for the property will surely get a kick out of a few of its cameos—especially an early blink-or-you’ll-miss-him appearance by the excellently conceived and hilariously named Fisto. Masters of the Universe’s enormous roster of fighters and fiends means that each episode includes some beloved player, including Stinkor (Jason Mewes), Trap-Jaw (Diedrich Bader) and Tri-Klops (Henry Rollins), the last of whom winds up being the leader of an anti-magic cult that worships at the altar of technology. From a geeky standpoint, Smith’s reboot-y sequel series honors its predecessor in ways notable and sly, thereby allowing it to function both as an accessible entry point and as a fleshed-out extension of what came before.
Narratively speaking, Masters of the Universe: Revelation generally lives up to its title, providing a series of bombshells for, and about, its main characters. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that its primary focus isn’t on He-Man but, rather, on Teela, the adopted daughter of Man-At-Arms, and the brave Captain of the Royal Guard. At the start of the premiere, Teela is given the cherished title of Man-At-Arms by King Randor (Diedrich Bader) and Queen Marlena (Alicia Silverstone). Alas, the celebration surrounding that honor is short-lived, since Teela is soon called to duty to help protect Castle Grayskull from Skeletor, here voiced by Mark Hamill with a devilish rasp that recalls his legendary vocal performance as the Joker. The ensuing battle ends in tragedy, not only for one of the show’s most important figures, but for the universe itself. Through a sequence of cataclysmic events, all of Eternia’s magic vanishes, leaving Teela, Orko, Man-At-Arms and Roboto (Justin Long)—Man-At-Arms’ trusty automated “son”—to pick up the pieces.
The fact that Masters of the Universe: Revelation features the deaths of main characters—at least, temporarily—sets it apart from the original series, as does an overarching modern sensibility that’s felt in both Teela’s fury over being lied to by her closest comrades and her and Evil-Lyn’s similar desire for independence from their male compatriots. Such inklings, as well as the subtly suggestive relationship between Teela and mercenary Andra (Tiffany Smith), lend the proceedings a welcome contemporary vibe. Additionally, by concentrating on one of He-Man’s trusted sidekicks (who’s not his twin sister She-Ra, Princess of Power), Smith pulls off a victorious bait-and-switch, foregrounding a character who—even in this two-dimensional form—is significantly more interesting than Adam/He-Man, whose unimpeachable nobility continues to render him something like a cardboard-cut-out WWE variation on Superman.
Will any of this appeal to viewers over the age of 10 who don’t already have warm-and-cuddly feelings about He-Man? Probably not, since the yarn spun by Smith and his team of writers (and directors Adam Conarroe and Patrick Stannard) is an odyssey full of magical worlds that aren’t that amazing, conflicts that aren’t that exciting, and life lessons—such as Teela’s need to face her fear, figuratively and literally—that aren’t very novel. Then again, nearly 40 years after the property first became a national sensation, Masters of the Universe: Revelation is less about winning over newbies than about tapping into old fans’ cherished memories of childhood days gone by. In that respect, it accomplishes its mission—and there is, to be sure, some chance that Powerhouse’s sterling animation will alone convince a few He-Man novices to take the plunge. Mostly, though, the ability to give the faithful what they crave is this venture’s true power.