The day that Netflix announced Masters of the Universe: Revelation was a happy day for me. Not only was my favorite childhood hero returning, but Kevin Smith was behind it. Smith, a lifelong nerd who understands the importance of protecting beloved characters and franchises, was the perfect person to bring the series to life.
I figured there would be some backlash from the people you can’t please no matter what you do, because such is the nature of fandoms these days. But I didn’t expect the anger from a large swath of fans who saw it as an attempt to make it the Teela show. It was vexing and perplexing.
I watched the show. I loved the animation and the music and the cast and the writing. It felt like an old-school episode of He-Man. Despite not hating it, though, I realized I had complicated feelings about the new series that I just couldn’t shake. The vitriol aimed at the new series was on my mind all weekend, long after I’d watched all five episodes.
As a 1980s child, I grew up with He-Man. I was fortunate enough to meet Filmation’s Lou Scheimer at San Diego Comic-Con, twice, and I cried at the panel when he announced it would be his last public appearance. He died soon thereafter, leaving behind a brilliant legacy tainted by shoddy business deals that ultimately robbed him of the ability to cash in on the franchise he helped build.
He-Man is tied to some of my happiest memories as a child, and I’d been so excited to see it come back to television. So why was I so conflicted about it? To answer this question, I had to go back to where it all began.
Masters of the Universe: Revelation — He-Man and playground politics
Despite the complexities of kindergarten playground politics in the mid-1980s, it was a universally accepted truth at Loma Portal Elementary that if you were going to “play He-Man” at recess, it was a co-ed experience.
By that point, the cartoon had ended its run and we were all watching reruns. Though no new episodes of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe were being developed, She-Ra: Princess of Power was slowly gaining ground. On our playground, though, we were all devoted He-Man fans and that was that.
When it came to our hierarchy, Jesse Correia was He-Man. Jesse was always He-Man, except on the rare occasion that Darren Young tried to take over the role. (Truthfully, though, Darren was a much better Man-At-Arms; Darren grew up to be a doctor despite his debilitating fear of blood so playing the part of the brilliant engineer ended up being way more in his wheelhouse than a muscular hero who occasionally scraped his knee.)
As a self-professed tomboy, during recess I was always playing He-Man with my guy friends. I was the happy owner of an impressive collection of toys (including the Castle Greyskull playset, which looked totally rad next to my beloved My Little Pony stable), and I was perhaps even more familiar with He-Man lore than my male counterparts because my brain was as captivated by the stories as much as the battles. I can also say in all truthfulness that He-Man was my first crush, whatever that means for a five year old.
My options when playing He-Man never felt limited, despite the claim that the show was made for boys. In my 5-year-old mind, it didn’t matter how many options I had because there was only one real choice for me: Teela.
While the Sorceress was powerful, she was stuck at Castle Greyskull all the time and I wanted real adventure. Teela was He-Man’s friend and someone who fought at his side and could kick butt when necessary. And even though Evil Lyn was arguably more powerful than Skeletor, I wanted to be a hero, too. So Teela it was, always.
Our adventures at recess took us to the far reaches of the Eternian desert (the sandbox) and to the top of Snake Mountain (the jungle gym) itself. In those daily 25 minutes of freedom we fought epic battles where good and evil collided, and we usually managed to conclude the adventure before returning to Mrs. Worth’s classroom when the bell rang.
Looking back, I had no idea my beloved cartoon was considered nothing more than a vehicle to sell toys. The lessons at the end of the episodes spoke of always telling the truth, never talking to strangers and the importance of family. It wasn’t just an empty and vacuous money grab. (Though it did sell a lot of toys…this I know…) There were life lessons being dished out in every episode.
Perhaps more importantly, though, He-Man created a very inclusive environment on the playground. With male and female characters prevalent in the cartoon, no one ever tried to keep girls from playing too. I never heard my guy friends tell me that I couldn’t play with them because I was a girl.
The notion of inclusivity was reinforced when I later quit Girl Scouts in favor of Little League. Jesse’s father was our coach and I had a pink glove and Jesse had a blue one. All of my He-Man friends from school were on the team and they had no problem when I played first base because they knew I was good enough to be there. No one ever told me I didn’t belong. There I was, one of three girls in the entire Peninsula Little League, playing with my beribboned pigtails tucked under my cap and the only one who had a problem was Johnny Rodrigues because he was a jerk. (He didn’t go to our school so he really doesn’t count.)
Looking back, I know that my personal Eternia in the middle of San Diego in the 1980s was unusual. But there is no question that for those few precious years the gender politics you might expect on an elementary school playground didn’t exist because there was always room for boys and girls when it came to “playing He-Man.”
Even as a child I recognized that Teela was the embodiment of Girl Power. As an adult looking back on the early ’80s cartoon I see that she’d been created as a tribute to the pro-women spirit that spun out of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
In the balance of power between Eternia, Castle Greyskull and Snake Mountain, 1980s Teela didn’t need to be rescued. She was He-Man’s friend, but more importantly, she fought side by side with him. Teela got herself into her fair share of sticky situations but no more than her male counterparts. More importantly, she often got herself out of trouble without the need for being rescued.
(And let’s face it: Teela has been kicking Prince Adam’s butt since 1983.)
Masters of the Universe: Revelation — Holding Out for a Hero…and not wanting him dead
I’d be lying if I said I was surprised by the gatekeeping brought about by the new show’s premiere on Netflix.
I read comic books. I’m a Star Trek fan. I know what happens when that tiny population of so-called fans try to assert their dominance over a fandom, policing it under the guise of protecting canon and preserving its sanctity. These gatekeepers are almost always male, they’re always angry and their arguments are irrational. They’re never happy with anything.
While the gatekeepers were stewing on social media, spouting off about how they hated the show without having seen it because some dude on Twitter said it sucked, there was another group of fans raising concerns of their own.
Admittedly, I was in this group. At least, at first.
I didn’t have a chance to watch the first episode of Revelation until later in the day, but I’d seen He-Man trending on Twitter and I couldn’t resist looking to see what people were saying. I was super-excited for my childhood hero to return, and after the dumpster fire that was 2020 I’d say we needed He-Man more than ever. I needed He-Man more than ever.
To quote Bonnie Tyler, I was “holding out for a hero” because I really needed one. I lost my mom in December and the world has been falling apart. I needed a heavy dose of nostalgia to remind me of happier times.
When I saw negative reactions about the first episode I couldn’t help but worry. There were people saying it was the Teela show, calling out Netflix for a bait and switch because their marketing promised one thing and delivered another. People were saying Kevin Smith killed the franchise. Worse yet, people were saying that Kevin Smith killed He-Man.
I’ve learned over the years that it’s incredibly important to form opinions on your own. The court of social media might say something is bad, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. Everyone has opinions, after all.
Once I saw the first episode, I was struck by the beauty of the animation and how well Bear McCreary’s music fit the show. It felt like an old-school He-Man cartoon, and even the dialogue was reminiscent of what I remembered as a kid. Just as I’ve grown up, the show grew up, too. Characters could swear, and violence could be violent.
Not only did the new series capture the essence of everything I love about He-Man, it also course corrects for some of the things that never made sense. Adam and He-Man’s vastly different body types, for example, is a huge improvement.
Kevin Smith did it, I thought to myself. He brought back He-Man.
And then he killed him.
Masters of the Universe: Revelation — A perfect storm brewing in Eternia
He-Man’s death in the first episode was gutting. There’s no other way to describe it.
As soon as it happened there was no question in my mind that this was part of some larger story. He-Man might be “dead” but he wasn’t permanently dead. He couldn’t be. Teela would play into the story of getting him back, but it never felt like “her” show. All of that angst about a Teela show was completely unwarranted.
Here’s where it gets tricky, though, and this is the root of those complex feelings I have for the new series: I think Kevin Smith is playing the long game with this story and I think the payoff is going to be awesome when we get there. I also think Smith screwed up by killing He-Man in the first episode.
It doesn’t really matter that the show is called Masters of the Universe and not HE-MAN and the Masters of the Universe. Seeing our hero die in the very first episode was hard. Too hard. Perhaps it would have hit differently if not for the pandemic. I can’t say for sure. The big, overarching heroic journey would have been more palatable — and powerful — if Smith had eased fans into it. Let them have two or three episodes to see that MOTU was back, establish the new show and its ground rules, and then go for the gut-punch. Reel them in and hook them.
Fans needed a minute to adjust to seeing characters die and hearing them swear in the first episode. He-Man has always been such a paragon of virtue that swearing and violence reminded me of the uproar over f-bombs on Star Trek: Discovery. While I don’t have a problem with violence or language, it would have been nice to have a little time to wrap my brain around it. (And truth be told, I think they both enhance the adult viewing experience.)
Ideally, Smith should have had eight episodes to work with so he could reintroduce the world and the characters, giving people time to get back into the swing of things and to celebrate the glorious return of a childhood classic. Then, in the third episode, kill He-Man and launch the arc from there. Not only would there have been more buy in, but people would have a better sense of what was happening. Killing He-Man so quickly was too much, too soon, whether or not he comes back in the second half of the season.
Interestingly, in an interview with Variety, it was revealed that Mattel Television’s VP of content Rob David originally pitched that Adam be stripped of his powers in the premiere episode and spend the rest of the season getting them back. Smith wanted to up the ante and kill He-Man and Adam to deliver a harder-hitting story. Once the decision to kill He-Man was made, there was no turning back. (I think it could have worked either way, to be honest, but at this point it’s water under the bridge.)
These days, our collective patience for the long game in entertainment has run thin. With so much competition for viewer eyeballs and shows being cancelled before they have a chance to establish an audience, it’s hard to invest time and energy into anything on TV these days. It’s particularly unfortunate for storytellers because they face criticism in the short term when their plans for a story require long-term vision.
Trust in studios, and in studio advertising, is also a problem. The cries of a bait and switch, though ultimately unwarranted in this case, are the result of deceptive marketing from major studios in recent years, so you can’t blame fans for being frustrated. (Let’s be clear here: He-Man technically was in all five episodes, but not in the way you might think after watching the trailer.)
Remember what happened with Star Wars: The Force Awakens? The original characters were back, baby, and it was time to get hyped. When the movie rolled around, beloved characters were killed off and one, Luke Skywalker, was hardly even in the damn thing until the very end despite Mark Hamill’s impressive marketing blitz.
And after years and years of incredible storytelling, Game of Thrones fans were left with season 8.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…well, you know.
When you take lack of patience, fan frustration and lack of trust and combine it with pandemic fatigue, it means people aren’t as willing to wait for gratification, and ultimately those unhappy vocal fans were able to raise their voices just enough to make it hard to hear from the legions of people who loved the show.
At this point, what’s done is done. It’s sad that so many people took to social media to complain about a show they hadn’t watched because Masters of the Universe: Revelation is good. It’s really good. It doesn’t deserve the hate it’s getting and even though Kevin Smith made the controversial (but story-appropriate) decision to kill He-Man, there is absolutely no question that he was intent on delivering a series that fans would love.
Masters of the Universe: Revelation is not a bait and switch and it’s not the Teela show. It offers a strong foundation for more stories yet to come.
The key lies in understanding that Masters of the Universe: Revelation is not He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. This is how I finally wrapped my brain around it. He-Man is still there, of course, and he will be back again. The universe is growing and expanding, and just like the kindergarten playground at Loma Portal Elementary, there is always room for more.