Kevin Smith’s He-Man reboot is a weird balancing act between nostalgia and revisionism
It’d be easy to call Netflix’s new Masters of the Universe: Revelation show an exercise in He-Man nostalgia, but that’s just its surface. Sure, we have the same characters from the early 1980s cartoon back for more adventure: Prince Adam and his alter-ego He-Man, his evil antagonist Skeletor, beautiful and dangerous Captain of the Royal Guard Teela, bumbling magician Orko, and so on. But however much the choppily-animated action sequences might pay homage to the original series, it doesn’t take even all of the first episode for it to become clear that there’s something else at work here. This is a revision, an updating of the Masters’ concerns to match those of the 21st century’s mainstream. Masters of the Wokeverse, let’s call it.
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This isn’t the first time the universe of Eternia has been subjected to one sort of revisionism or another. The recent Netflix series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power ignored He-Man altogether, instead going with Anime-style animation to work its way up to a kiss between two female characters as its climax. No choppy sword-fights, no stilted dialogue: just a couple of girls professing their love for each other.
Maybe showrunner Kevin Smith, director and writer of the worst movie I’ve ever seen in the theater, wanted to get on the bandwagon and make amends for Harvey Weinstein financing most of his movies. Maybe he just knows what will sell these days. In any case, he starts off the show with a typical battle scene, cross-cut with a ceremony to bestow Teela with the title of Man-At-Arms. Soon enough, though, that battle is done, and despite the efforts of Teela and of He-Man himself, something has all but stripped magic from the world of Eternia.
Having managed to preserve just enough of a spark of magic to keep their planet from winking out of existence, Adam/He-Man disappears, along with his antagonist, Skeletor. Everyone presumes them dead. Teela rejects her brand-new title and sets out on her own, having had enough of weakling princes who conceal their secret identities from her. And from there on through the rest of the five episodes out of 10 so far available to watch, it’s Teela’s show.
This is where Smith and company get into murky waters. Teela accepts a quest to restore magic to the planet of Eternia, and it treats us to a cosmological lesson that shows how magic (which goes undefined) is the source of all energy and life in the universe. With magic slowly draining away, the world and the universe don’t have long to last. Skeletor’s right-hand woman, Evil-Lyn, who also wants magic back, sets her dread staff aside and pitches in. Somewhere along the line Man-at-Arms and Orko show up, bearing magical water. There are some fights, and Teela does a bit of sulking here and there over having so much responsibility.
Eventually most of them find their way to the underworld, and from there to Valhalla-Light, where Prince Adam does seem to be enjoying mead in the company of other warriors, though there are no Valkyries serving it to them. Somehow or other Adam’s magical sword is the key to restoring magic to their world. In any case, the cosmology of Eternia is insignificant beside the question, Why should I care? Because whatever else Smith and his team might manage to do, however artful and period-accurate the animation, they rely on that initial hook of nostalgia. Without it, they don’t have a show.