Masters of the Universe: Revelation resurrects He-Man, the character who may be the ultimate male power fantasy, and then succeeds by removing him from the equation and focusing on Teela instead. He-Man and Skeletor are on the sidelines for almost all of the first five episodes that have dropped on Netflix. Instead, the focus is predominantly on Teela and Evil-Lyn, the central female characters of the original series. This has, predictably, led to an enormous amount of vitriol from certain corners of the internet and certain fans of the original TV show. (The Rotten Tomatoes review bombers have the audience score down to around 30%.) The great thing about the show is that in fact seems to be exactly what Kevin Smith and the rest of the creative team were hoping would happen.
Smith has spoken at length since the series dropped about the concepts and ideas they were going for by doing all of this. Even with the limited screen time, the characters’ motivations and real dilemmas have been seriously highlighted by the series. The key factor that the chorus of angry keyboard warriors seems to be missing is that the entire show is still formed around He-Man. They just don’t like what it has to say and what it means about the misguided way they see the world.
Most ‘80s cartoons were toy commercials first with everything else being secondary to the need to create and sell products. Far from being an exception, the original He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was developed in order to sell the already existing toy line produced by Mattel. The action figures already existed and the company loved that concept, but unlike other successful toys of the time, there was no movie, comic, or TV show to create a universe around the toys, there was only the notion that they were made to appeal to boys.
As Roger Sweet, one of the original designers of the concept and developers of the toy line, described in the He-Man episode of The Toys That Made Us, the entire concept for the toys was about making the most masculine possible power fantasy to appeal to adolescent boys. In many ways, this makes He-Man the ultimate male power fantasy. The character is an intentional cipher, a collection of tropes about masculinity crammed together into a dream man for the adolescent boys and men with feelings of inadequacy. The figures are almost grotesque exaggerated versions of a certain concept of masculine power (“I have the power!”) Even though it was a decision based on capitalism even He-Man’s “lesser” alter ego, Prince Adam, has the same body type. Even without magic, the story is the same. The original show serves to reinforce those stereotypes.
And that is why it is so compelling that Masters of the Universe: Revelation is most interested in the show’s women. Teela (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is the main character and her journey is the emotional crux of the half-season. In the original series, Teela was simply “the girl” of the good guys. She also was the only one of the core group of heroes at the center of the stories who did not know He-Man’s secret identity. Duncan (the Man-at-Arms), Cringer, the Sorceress, and Orko all knew this supposedly gigantic secret. Somehow though, Teela did not. There were never any in-universe reasons given for this which made it even more noticeable. It also made Teela seem removed from the others and not quite as central to the story.
That sense of being an outsider drives Teela’s story as the central character of Revelation. In the first episode, Duncan is retiring and Teela is honored as the new Man-At-Arms. During this ceremony, the others are all pulled away to fight Skeletor, but since Teela does not know Adam’s secret, she is left behind. Eventually, she makes it to the scene, just in time to fail to save He-Man.
The three things combined—the betrayal of not knowing the secret, the death of He-Man, and the fact that she failed to save the day—combine to knock all of the spirit out of her. Teela leaves the castle at the end of the episode broken and betrayed, and the rest of the series becomes a vessel for her to regain her status as a hero, and to take her place in the pantheon of heroes that she had always previously been denied.
The series time jumps several years into the future, but it is never clear exactly how far. Magic is leaving the universe and things are very dystopian, which gives all of the stories in the middle a particular vibe of unease about the world that plays into Teela’s paranoia. Teela has also been given a partner, Andra (Tiffany Smith). Andra is a young adventurer who has the drive and love for heroics of a younger Teela and is a much-needed introduction of a person of color in a very white universe.
The relationship between the two is never spelled out, but the dynamic certainly seems at least as romantic or sexual as any on the show. Between all of that and Teela’s dramatic undercut, it seems the intent is at least for the audience to infer that the relationship between the two has some deeper levels. But, unfortunately, as so often is the case with issues of LGBTQIA+ representation, it is left up to interpretation only, at least for now.
Not up for interpretation is the fact that Evil-Lyn (Lena Headey) is given more depth in this show than she had in any of the previous incarnations of the series. Evil-Lyn is presented as the opposite side of the same coin as Teela. (Which is fitting considering that the original toy-line used the same molds for both.) Her dissatisfaction with Skeletor was clear even in the original series; she may have been his second in command but she always wanted to be the central figure.
Here, particularly with Lena Headey’s ability to convey so much with an articulate sneer, she is shown to be even more nuanced. She is driven not by evil—as she says she added the “Evil” to her name later—but by her feelings of being out of place in the world. Everything in the world is wrong, and if it is wrong then why not hook up with someone who just wants to change it, even if they might change it for the worse.
The big magic users of the series, Evil-Lyn, Orko, and The Sorceress are all linked in the fact that Eternia without magic is useless and deadly for them. That makes them allies, no matter how much they might hate to admit it. The Sorceress in particular has always seemed removed and above the others, but here she has to team up with Evil-Lyn and set aside whatever idealism she might have previously subscribed to.
The voice actors are key to the success of the show. Each of the main characters is voiced by a very famous actor, and their fame and previous parts seem intended to cast additional shades of depth on the characters. It is impossible to hear Sarah Michelle Gellar’s voice without thinking of Buffy. Gellar also leans into some of the underlying rage which powered Buffy in later seasons to inform some of the burning passions that drive Teela. Her performance is remarkably hardened. This is the voice of a seasoned and tested hero, now fighting a different battle within herself, and it could not work as well without the associations and choices that Gellar brings to the role.
Similarly, Lena Headey and Liam Cunningham bring the associations of their past roles on Game of Thrones to Evil-Lyn and Duncan. Headey’s Evil-Lyn is cold and powerful, driven to her own ends but also capable of considerable nuance. Late in the show, Evil-Lyn removes her helmet and lets her long white hair flow. Something about that action softens and humanizes her. She has always been guarded, unwilling, and unable to be herself. But for that brief moment, after fighting together with her life-long enemies to defeat one of the many malicious foes with which she once teamed, she was at peace with herself. Evil-Lyn is constantly driven by her failures, caused by her association with the ultimate failure, Skeletor, but she sometimes can see that she is more than that. And it is Headey’s performance that makes this all clear.
On the other side is Man-At-Arms. Cunningham’s version of Duncan has all of Ser Davos’s loyalty and wit. Duncan is given gravitas and with it a sense of sadness. Teela had been a daughter to him, but she left because of his concealing Adam’s secret. Adam, Orko, and Roboto are like his sons but over the course of the series, we watch him lose them all. It makes the character much rounder and in the hands of some actors, this role may have actually been a bit of a downer. But Cunningham also lets loose and embraces the silly side of the world. This Duncan has a marvelous sense of just how wacky everything happening around him happens to be. When Duncan shows up out of nowhere to save the day against Mer-Man, twice, Cunningham milks every line to the max.
Mark Hamill has made a full career of doing exactly that. Especially with his voice work for the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series, and Ozai in Avatar: The Last Airbender Hamill embraced all of the crazy tics of the characters, going for broke and succeeding. For Skeletor though, a character as defined by the original vocal performance by Alan Oppenheimer as he was by his physical appearance, Hamill took a different approach. This is a less overtly comedic version of the screeching voice, it is darker and deeper. This is also the case for the villain himself. This Skeletor kills Mossman, and his choices are deeply and meaningfully harmful to Eternia, first by causing the removal of magic and then by fulfilling his goal of defeating He-Man and becoming a Master of the Universe.
Teela and Evil-Lyn wind up teaming up to bring magic back to Eternia, which means re-forging the sword of power, which was split in half when He-Man and Skeletor disappeared. Duncan and Orko are compelled to help, which ultimately costs Orko his life. To get the sword, they wind up traveling through Preternia and Subternia (basically the heaven and hell of Eternia). All of this leads to some surprisingly emotional moments for the “non-humanoid” characters. Orko, already dying due to the magic leaving the universe, sacrifices himself for the others to make it out of Subternia.
As the others build him a small gravesite later, the entire show takes on a sense of stakes that had previously seemed impossible in this universe. Later, when Roboto, Duncan’s robot doppelganger, refuses to be saved as well this whole feeling is exacerbated. This world is full of strange and different beings but they are all able to love and die and change, and that allows the show to explore very different themes than might be expected.
Key among these themes is the idea we are left with at the end of Episode 5. That even victory may be nothing more than a vessel for defeat. Teela succeeds in returning He-Man from Eternia’s version of Valhalla only to see it all lead to Skeletor’s ultimate victory. As we head into the break before the second half drops later this year, it seems the whole of the world is falling apart. He-Man lays dying, Evil-Lyn is back at Skeletor’s side, and the magic that has come back to Eternia is filled with darkness. Teela will have to pick up the true mantle of the heroic champion and end the evil by embracing the things she fears about herself. All of which is what makes Masters of the Universe: Revelation such a fascinating show, and also what makes so many so-called fans of the original hate it so much.