The original He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe is perhaps the quintessential nostalgic animated 1980s show. Its static animation, ultra-masculine approach to its magical-fantasy world, strained comic quips and sidekicks, and hokey end-of episode lessons make the show nigh-unwatchable now for anyone but fans of the original. Those viewers are the target audience for Masters Of The Universe: Revelation, a rare, actual sequel series. Unlike Netflix’s She-Ra reboot, Revelation functions as a direct continuation of the original 130-episode run. This is at once fascinating, ambitious, and quixotic, as Revelations has to try to match the original show’s aesthetic and sensibility, update the narrative and visuals, comment on and/or clarify a lot of the original characterizations, provide old fans with plenty of references and Easter eggs, and re-establish the world of the show to brand new audiences. And it must do all of that in the five episodes that make up the first part of this 10-episode limited series from Kevin Smith.
It’s a peculiar ride, even with Smith as showrunner. The director has been a divisive figure over the years, but his deep passion for specific nerd franchises can’t be questioned (during one podcast, Smith cried while recounting an episode of The New Batman Adventures), even if his output can inspire ridicule (Batman losing control of his bladder during one of his first missions, for example). Here, along with veteran producers Frederic Soulie, Adam Bonnett, Christopher Keenan, and Rob David, Smith presents Eternia in smoother, sharper, much more dynamic animation, but also maintains the clunky exposition dumps, stilted dialogue, and even the choppy editing of the original show—at least in episode one. A risky, admirable move at the end of the premiere pushes the characters and overall tone in a much more modern, emotionally honest direction in subsequent episodes.
Eternia, as it stands post-event, has lost its magic; the people of the realm stand in bread lines for enchanted water while familiar, formerly villainous lackeys become religious heralds of the vestiges of technology that dot this world. There’s something ironic in watching people attempt to cling to what once was loved and respected, and in how Revelations sets its characters on a fantastical, Lord Of The Rings-esque journey. Smith and the creative team wink at and play into He-Man’s corniest, outdated elements, but with a surprising amount of respect and admiration, while retaining a darker, richer sensibility.
This all hinges on that season-altering event at the end of the premiere, and how much viewers buy into it (and with a second part on the way, there’s a chance that the twist will lead to some real, intriguing revelations). As it stands, though, Masters Of The Universe: Revelation kind of feels like a winking counterpoint to the more disagreeable criticisms of She-Ra. While that show offered softer, cleaner designs and more “millennial,” character-based humor and drama, Revelations is committed to harder, ultra-detailed designs and the kind of jokes and references that involve sidekicks hiding under tables and clumsy wizards messing up spells, but allowing that tone to develop more dramatically in its own way.
As much as the pivotal event in the premiere opens up the larger storyline’s potential, Revelation is, by design, beholden to its past. Certain characters are updated in rich ways, while others are forced to remain as awkward and clumsy as before. Orko (Griffin Newman) gets the biggest makeover; his previous magical clumsiness is recontextualized as personal failing and a source of self-loathing. The revamped Evil-Lyn also fares well, as Lena Headey provides the character an extra layer with every line read and perfectly sarcastic quip. Man-At-Arms (Liam Cunningham), however, feels mostly the same, if a bit more world-weary; Cringer (Stephen Root) isn’t around long enough to really establish his new, self-reflective self.
Oddly, He-Man (Chris Wood) and Skeletor (Mark Hamill) are the weak spots, as they continue to speak in belabored puns and scene-chewing pronouncements (although one quick aside from Skeletor implies that at least he’s aware he’s putting on an act). Teela (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has a surprisingly prominent role, while newcomer Andra (Tiffany Smith), who only appeared in the comic, mostly functions as the peanut gallery. But unlike this Orko and Evil-Lyn, Teela never really opens up as a character; that’s primarily because it’s unclear how the impetus for her character’s journey really affects her, which is made even more confusing in the fourth and fifth episodes. “Facing your fear” episodes are ripe for character clarification, but here they muddle Teela’s state of mind even more.
Even if the characterization is hit or miss, Masters Of The Universe: Revelation still shows real acumen in its dynamic action scenes and vibrant colors, courtesy of Powerhouse Animation (which is also behind Netflix’s slick, stylish Castlevania series). Bear McCreary’s music for the show and the sound design are meant to match the 1983 iteration, but the writing and storytelling is leagues above its previous incarnations, as Revelation delves deep into themes of loss, trauma, betrayal, and trust. Revelation is billed as an adult animated show, but it’s not nearly as gory as Castlevania or Invincible; save for a moment in the fifth episode, it never shows any blood. That doesn’t mean the show is bloodless—it’s remarkable how Smith and his team manage to take a property so genuinely, obviously toyetic and turn it into something intriguing and reflective. If you can buy into the wholesale changes and choices made in this Netflix series—and it is a huge buy-in—Masters Of The Universe: Revelation is, indeed, eye-opening.