Masters of the Universe: Revelation struggles to be both faithful tribute and radical reinvention
Netflix's new He-Man series tries to appeal to fans of all ages and the end result is occasionally thrilling but often muddled.
He-Man has taken on a number of different forms since toy company Mattel launched its original Masters of the Universe action figure line in the early 1980s – but amidst a range of comic books, cartoons and a divisive live-action film starring Dolph Lundgren, it's the original 1983 animated series, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, which endures as the most recognisable and beloved version of the character.
On paper then it's a savvy move from Kevin Smith, the creative force behind Netflix's new effort Masters of the Universe: Revelation, to have the latest screen version of the sword and sorcery franchise be a direct sequel to that 38-year-old classic. But the execution of this premise is, unfortunately, somewhat flawed – torn between appealing to our nostalgia and a desire to do something new and different, Smith's series ends up sitting somewhat awkwardly been two posts. It succeeds to a degree as both an evocative revisiting of the original Masters of the Universe and as a reinvention of the mythos, but you're left with the lingering feeling that we might've got something even more compelling if it'd wholly committed to one of these aims over the other.
The first of the initial five episodes – the 10-part series is set to be released in two parts – plays like the series finale that the 1980s series never got, depicting the most dramatic face-off yet between He-Man and his longtime nemesis Skeletor, and it's unquestionably thrilling, with terrific anime-inspired visuals from Powerhouse Animation Studios delivering action set-pieces the likes of which fans of the original could've only dreamed of.
Though it might prove difficult initially for those same fans to adjust to having familiar characters be voiced by different actors, Smith and company have assembled an absolutely top-flight cast here too – Supergirl's Chris Wood gives us a sympathetic, more human Prince Adam which contrasts with a He-Man who's just the right side of cartoonish, while Sarah Michelle Gellar injects Teela with the kind of strength, verve and passion we'd expect from the star behind Buffy Summers and Game of Thrones' Cersei, Lena Headey, is perfect casting as Evil-Lyn. Stephen Root and Liam Cunningham are likewise inspired hires to play the meek Cringer and gruff Man-At-Arms, though Alan Oppenheimer's nasal tones are missed as Skeletor – Mark Hamill delivers a dependably unhinged take on the character but one that's a little too close to his iconic Joker from Batman: The Animated Series to truly stand out.
The ingredients are all there for Masters of the Universe: Revelation to act as a more than worthy successor to its predecessor – at points, it feels perfectly placed to fill the action-oriented Saturday morning cartoon void, channelling the types of animated shows that were rife in the 1980s and 1990s but have to a degree dried up in the years that followed, escapist adventures that appealed to viewers aged eight-12 who were too old for pre-school programming but still too young for series aimed at a more mature audience.
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The problem comes in Revelation wanting to appeal both to that audience and to those fans who watched Masters of the Universe almost four decades ago and are now, ostensibly, seeking something more sophisticated. Post-premiere, the series moves further away from the original's format and style and though generally the tone and content of this sequel is suitable for younger viewers, there's the occasional example of (admittedly mild) bad language or a disturbing visual which wouldn't look out of place in Akira but sits ill at ease alongside cute magical elves and characters with names like Beast Man.
The older fans might well respond positively to a revival that straddles the line between faithful continuation and radical adult reimagining, but it's possible that it's an approach which might hinder Revelation's power to capture the imaginations of the next generation of potential He-Man fans.
The fact that Netflix is, rather oddly, actively developing a second He-Man series – a separate project to Smith's, but one that is, according to Mattel's Fred Soulie, more firmly aimed at "kids and families" – only amplifies the feeling that this show, while far from a failure, is something of a missed opportunity. With the family-friendly box being ticked off elsewhere, Revelation might've been better off devoting more of its time to trying something different.