Masters of the Universe: Revelation Is The Last Jedi of He-Man Cartoons

Despite all appearances to the contrary, that title is not clickbait, I promise you! Where She-Ra and the Princesses of Power reinvented the series as a super queer tale of found family and self-actualization, Masters of the Universe: Revelation is a sequel, and reveals itself to be a somewhat queer-coded tale of found family, consequences, and DEATH.

Also, there’s a holy war?

I was just as surprised as you!

I tend to like TV shows and movies that go harder than they need to, and MOTU: Revelation absolutely does that. The writers have chosen to take both aspects of He-Man seriously, so we get a show with an admirable commitment to terrible puns and alliteration, and also a surprisingly mature work that honors the original show’s themes and sword-and-sorcery aesthetic. This continuation of the show serves as a direct sequel to the original cartoon that ended in 1983 rather than The New Adventures of He-Man, and it excels at updating the ’80s fantasy color palette and bi-lighting. Kevin Smith also deals seriously with the show’s cosmology, invents a new Eternian religion, and includes a shockingly vulnerable take on mortality that might have rewired my brain a little bit.

First, for some non-spoiler thoughts:

This is a dark continuation of the original ‘80s cartoon. Most of your favorite characters appear, but they’re grappling with PTSD and aging. There is a lot of death, most of it seemingly permanent. A little swearing, and some goddamn unforgivable puns. In short, kind of the perfect He-Man update, as far as I’m concerned. The voice cast is impeccable, with Sarah Michelle Gellar giving us a steely take on Teela who’s fed up with most of the ruling class of Eternia, Lena Heady somehow making Evil-Lyn even more hot, and Chris Wood shifting easily between He-Man’s booming voice and Adam’s gentler tone. Cringer actually gets an important speech, and he’s played by Stephen Root, so it works. I love Griffin Newman in The Tick (and as Watto in the sadly discontinued alive-and-well-but-possibly-in-a-new-form-like-a-shining Force-Ghost-of-itself George Lucas Talk Show) and he is GREAT as a sickly, traumatized Orko.

(Good GOD I just got to type the words “sickly, traumatized Orko.” Sometimes this gig loves me back.)

And best of all, of course, is Mark Hamill as Skeletor. There was no way that was going to be bad, but it’s even better than I expected. He cackles and sneers and tosses off puns and I found myself rooting for him just as hard as I did when I was small. Although to be fair, this isn’t Skeletor’s greatest moment, because his greatest moment is this, and there is no topping it.

If you’re an adult who loved He-Man as a kid, I think you’ll enjoy the update. It does some really interesting stuff with the world, and takes everything in an interesting new direction. It will probably be too much for smaller children—I would have been fine with it but I’m a freak—because there are some moments of violence, two in particular that are shocking. (Didn’t expect to see so much blood in a He-Man cartoon!) As I said in the title, the closest analogue I can think of is The Last Jedi (and not just because of a fantastic Hamill performance, although that helps) because this series, at least in its first half, is concerned with consequences. What does constant adventuring do to a person—even a magical one? Is it ever worth it to hide giant, universe-shattering secrets from those you love? How many sacrifices do you have in you, exactly?

I want to be clear, though, that the show is also, for the most part, really fun to watch. There are a few moments when the plotting gets a little byzantine, or when epiphanies seem slightly forced, but it also gives us Mer-Man capturing Evil-Lyn, telling her that while he has no time to hear her pleas he has time to watch her die, and when she calls him a ‘traitorous trout’ he responds by screaming: “You forgot all about Mer-Man! Now you’ll never forget Mer-Man!” Except, if he’s killing her, she’s not going to have much time to remember him, is she? Plan your shit better, Mer-Man.

I always thought the most fun aspect of Masters of the Universe was its matter-of-fact mix of epic fantasy tropes and tech. We have a Conan analogue, a cackling evil skeleton, a giant talking tiger, a Sorceress, and a magician who can fly. But also, there are hoverbikes and lasers and airships and cyborgs. It’s like every ‘80s subgenre squashed into one story, with some dreadfully clunky animation and some shockingly gorgeous backgrounds added in for good measure. The sequel series takes that combination to its obvious conclusion in the form of a holy war between people who reject magic and worship The Motherboard, led by Tri-Klops (who is played by HENRY ROLLINS, and honestly this whole plot thread feels like a Johnny Mnemonic riff?) and those who want to save magic in Eternia, led by The Sorceress. The war weaves in and out of the interpersonal drama, as the characters go on a quest for a magical artifact that takes them to Subternia (The Land of the Dead) and Preternia (Heaven… kind of) and occasionally clash with Tri-Klops’ followers.

I did not expect this, but as with everything else in this sequel, the basic themes of He-Man are taken to a surprising level of, dare I say, realism? The writers update the classic show in ways that some people might find too gritty, but that I thought brought the series closer to being a true sword-and-sorcery epic. I also loved the commitment to treating the world and its cosmology seriously.

And now for spoilers!

 

I’m serious, I’m about to start spoiling things!

 

Okay.

He-Man dies in the first episode??? After Skeletor attacks the font of magic that fuels Eternia, He-Man tries to redirect that magic through his sword, and he and Skeletor explode together in a flash of blinding light. And THAT’s how King Randor finally finds out that Adam has been He-Man all along (which only underscores the fact that the man should not be leading a nation because come ON). Duncan is banished, Orko and Cringer are both weeping uncontrollably, and once Teela realizes everyone’s been lying to her for years, she quits her post and storms out.

This is all in the first 20 minutes of the very short series.

It soon becomes clear that the writers have removed the overpowered hero and the dramatic villain in order to highlight all the side characters who fill out the MOTU Universe. We cut to an indeterminate number of years later and find Teela working as a merc with a woman named Andra—there seems to be a frisson of something between the two of them, but the show doesn’t follow through on that yet. Teela has to step into the protagonist role and do one last job for Eternia, because it turns out that Adam/He-Man’s big sacrificial gambit didn’t work—it just delayed the problem. Magic is draining from Eternia. Once it’s gone, the planet will die, creating a domino effect that will end all life in the universe. This sends Teela on a quest that’s also an excuse to check in on all of the characters who make Masters of the Universe great.

And here’s where the show does something that made me check my “Fuck it, I’m all in” box: The character who convinces Teela to go on the quest is Cringer. CRINGER. The character who only exists because a toy maker thought it would be rad as hell to have their hero ride a tiger instead of a horse.

 

Cringer’s the one who loved Adam the most, but he insists that Teela was actually the prince’s best friend, and he doesn’t deliver this in his usual quavering whine—he speaks calmly and reasonably, and somehow becomes the most emotionally mature character on the show.

Let me repeat that: the green-and-yellow-striped cowardly tiger is the most emotionally mature character on the show.

If you’re going to make a choice like that, I’m coming with you on your quest, television show.

With He-Man out of the way, we get to appreciate Teela and Duncan as heroes. With Skeletor out of the way, Evil-Lyn is revealed to be a better strategist than him—and also way funnier. Even Beastman achieves a weird kind of pathos in his utter devotion to Evil-Lyn.

Believe me, I’m just as confused by all these sentences as you are.

And that brings us to Orko.

Orko was always my favorite character because he was a small, helpless, confused fuck-up with wildly outsized idea of his own abilities. Each time he cast a spell that went horribly awry he dusted himself off and tried it again. He was the comic relief, and was taunted mercilessly by the physically powerful characters, but he never seemed to care.

Well, um, he gets a little bit of backstory here! He’s at death’s door when they find him living with Duncan and Roboto. Here’s how we re-meet Orko. “I guess I am feeling a little under the weather,” he says, after his trick to conjure sunlight produces a raincloud instead. Then he starts crying about Prince Adam’s death, and when Teela asks him if he still thinks about him, he whimpers, “Every day. I thought it would get easier with time…” and then he collapses, sobbing, into Teela’s arms.

(I’m doing great!)

He insists on going with them to Subternia, the Land of the Dead, because—hang on, I’ll let him say it:

Please Teela. I had the best times of my life with you. That’s the only thing that can help me right now: more life. And life is out there. So, bring me on an adventure like you used to, just this one last time. I won’t let you down like the old days, I promise. I’ll be good.

(You know things are going well when Orko quotes the dying AIDs patient in Angels in America. )

Of course they bring him, because how could you not after that? And along the way he dispenses some hard-won wisdom to the youngest member of the new team:

I spent years fighting alongside Eternia’s greatest warriors, and now?  I forget more than I remember. All my memories just blur together. So, if you’re going to lead the life of an adventurer, Andra? You might want to keep a journal. Write down everything you ever, do even the silly stuff you think is forgettable. Cause when the adventure’s over that’s all you’re left with: good friends, and happy memories.

(Fabulous! This is all fabulous. This is exactly the emotion I want to feel while watching a fucking He-Man cartoon.)

Once they get to Subternia, he’s trapped in a vision of Trolla and thinks he’s died, bonds with Evil-Lyn as a fellow magic-user, and admits that his real name is Oracle, but he goes by Orko because he’s ashamed of not living up to his parents’ expectations! And of course after the journey through Subternia, as Teela admits to herself that she’s more powerful than she lets anyone know, and as Evil-Lyn copes with her own fears of losing all of her magic, Orko’s the one who pulls a Gandalf and holds the Lord of the Dead at bay so the others can escape to Preternia.

Orko fucking DIES. And a second later the others are safely in Preternia, and there’s Adam, which means he’s really totally DEAD, too. Not in some other mystical realm, but DEAD. And then they build a shrine to Orko but they don’t even have a body to bury? I love this show? I love it.

And please understand that this is not the most wrenching death in the series. Oh no! That’s reserved for Duncan’s other child, Roboto, who is essentially an upload of Duncan in a robot body. He volunteers to forge the two halves of The Sword of Power back together, and the power of the combined tech and magic blow him to pieces. As he bleeds oil out all over the floor, he says, and I quote:

Teela, please tell father he was more successful at making me than he knew. If I was but a mere machine, I would never be afraid to die. And yet as my gears stop, and my program ends, I feel… fear.

And as Teela starts sobbing, he says,

No tears. Don’t you see? I feel fear! Ergo: I feel! I was no mere machine—I was a miracle. What a way to go.

And then he slumps over DEAD. And I’m putting this on record now, this is absolutely what I’m going to say—if I ever decide to die—in the last day or two before I stop talking.

(Did I mention how GREAT everything is???)

And I’m being a little silly, but I do actually mean this. I think it was an excellent choice by Smith and the rest of the writers to tackle this thing like it was a mythology that deserved serious attention, and I’m incredibly impressed by the performances.

 

Okay, back from spoilers!

I’ve been fascinated by how people are handling our Age Of Reboots And Sequels. I tend to prefer things like The Last Jedi, or 2016’s Ghostbusters, or the new She-Ra, where creators who loved the originals take the themes of those movies and shows, and then run in weird directions with them. Like how I love knowing that R.E.M. were inspired by The Velvet Underground, but, aside from a few of VU’s softer songs, the two bands sound nothing like each other. (And when R.E.M. coveredPale Blue Eyes” they turned it into a straight-up country song.) I enjoy seeing how creative people are inspired by the things they love, and where their inspiration takes them. In the case of MOTU, I appreciate the way Kevin Smith and his writing team worked within the frame of a classic He-Man story to subvert our expectations—they didn’t exactly reinvent the original, or mock it, but they also didn’t just churn out a rote simulacra. Which they could have! It would have been simple enough to hit all the beats, give Skeletor some sweet puns, mock the stilted animation style, and end with a glorious PSA montage. Like this one:

 

Instead they shifted the focus of the story to a couple of the side characters, developed a fairly sophisticated cosmology, and, I think most exciting, they’re laying a path to explore Adam as a character in the second half of the season, without undoing all the development they gave characters like Teela and Evil-Lyn. (Plus I’m still reeling from just how much the writers packed into five half-hour episodes.) This show is an impressive feat, and I’m excited for the carnage that the second part of season one will bring!

 

Leah Schnelbach never imagined a scenario in which they had this much to say about He-Man? It’s been a weird year. Come scream “NYAAAH!!!” with them on Twitter!

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