Review: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe 2021 TV Series
Mattel’s He-Man is back in vogue. Less than two months after Masters of the Universe: Revelation (Netflix’s fantastic all-ages sequel to the 1980s series), the streaming service has come out with yet another reboot, the CG-animated He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. While this new version shares its title with the ’80s show, they have little else in common, apart from a few bullet points of the basic He-Man premise: good-guy toy wields a power sword that turns him into an übermensch, cackling skull-man bad-guy toy wants the sword and/or the power. Nearly everything else is a stark departure. And while this may irk those who took issue with the ways Revelation shifted the narrative focus away from the stars of the 1980s show, it’s worth remembering that these series are largely meant for children — especially this new one, an adequate, breezy, zippy adventure with teenage protagonists.
Eternia is now Eternos, a realm where magic and futuristic technology blend together. Prince Adam (Yuri Lowenthal) has been separated from his father, King Randor (Fred Tatasciore), for a decade and has no memory of who he is. He lives in the forested outskirts of the kingdom along with the Tiger Tribe, a small but peaceful group of humans and tigers living in harmony. (They seem to reject magic and fear technology, but this doesn’t play into the story much.) Adam’s closest allies are the tiger Cringer (David Kaye), once his pet in the original, now re-imagined as a wiser, older mentor, and his adoptive human sister Krass (Judy Alice Lee), a sprightly, blue-haired, purple-skinned girl who enjoys knocking things down with her helmet.
This rural paradise is thrown into disarray with the arrival of high-tech magician Teela (Kimberly Brooks), re-cast as a white-haired Black teenager, on the run from a pair of villainous thieves she recently betrayed: the brutish Kronis (Roger Craig Smith) and scheming sorceress Evelyn (Grey Griffin), along with their lanky, tech-savvy sidekick Duncan (Anthony Del Rio), who doesn’t seem too enthused about being a bad guy.
Chaos ensues when the villains catch up to Teela, leading to Adam’s discovery of the show’s enormous, anime-inspired version of the Power Sword. It allows him (and only him) to call down the power of Castle Grayskull and transform from a scrawny teen into the hulking He-Man, Eternos’ champion. However, the long-dormant sword is also a beacon of sorts, and activating it awakens a mysterious figure from his decade-long stasis: Adam’s uncle and King Randor’s long-lost brother, Keldor (Ben Diskin), a man with a skeleton hand and a familiar lust for Grayskull’s powers.
Eagle-eyed He-Man fans will no doubt recognize some of these names, and while the characters don’t bear all the hallmarks of their 1980s equivalents, they eventually grow into versions of them with enough passing resemblance. Krass is a version of He-Man’s short, stocky, spring-legged ally Ram Man — one of the funniest toys in existence — and she eventually takes on the mantle of Ram Ma’am. Villains Kronis and Evelyn become Trap Jaw and Evil-Lyn in surprisingly dazzling fashion. Duncan is a teenage Man-at-Arms who switches to the side of good. And Keldor is… well, you can figure it out from his blue and purple color scheme, or by putting an ‘S’ in front of his name (Yes, he was in fact He-Man’s uncle in the comics.)
But the show’s similarities to existing canon are far less interesting than its departures. While it retains the premise of a seemingly never-ending power struggle, it takes a meaningful approach to the He-Man mythos. Stories in which royal families are revealed to have hereditary abilities tend to skirt around the icky-ness of bloodline essentialism. Masters of the Universe turns this central flaw into a core conceit. When He-Man’s classic nemesis Skeletor (Diskin) enters the picture, his story becomes all about absorbing and usurping other people’s powers, including those of his villainous allies.
By contrast, the show’s version of He-Man shares his powers with Krass, Cringer, Teela, and Duncan, each of whom undergo similar transformations, and are gifted with cool new technology and abilities. In a related change, the heroes all seem to know He-Man’s secret identity, though he leads a double life in a different way: as a villager on the run, uncertain whether he wants to embrace his newly discovered royal lineage.
Scenes in which the team transforms are thunderous, and they evoke the show’s anime influence, as space contorts around them and zooms by at the speed of thought. The exact same transformation clips are used in nearly every episode, though an idea that works better in a weekly series, but becomes repetitive in a 10-episode season released all at once. (It certainly doesn’t help that some of these transformations are meant to have different emotional contexts.)
Then again, this may not be a problem for the young target audience, whose attention spans require little more than flashy, whiz-bang action — and there’s plenty of that. But the show also has much more to offer. Its jokes and physical gags are consistently well-timed, and the fights have an imaginative quality. Which is to say, they spring fully formed from what feels like the imagination of a 5-year-old, with a ceaseless array of weapons and gadgets being piled atop one another — chainsaw lasers, anyone? — and exchanges that feel like video game button-mashing. It isn’t nearly as graceful as Masters of the Universe: Revelation, but it isn’t trying to be.
There are two major downsides to the new show releasing between Revelation’s first and second parts. Its version of Orko — a slapstick robot named Ork-0 (Tom Kenny), imbued with the spirit of an ancient jester — pales in comparison to Revelation’s genuinely heartwarming incarnation. And this take on He-Man doesn’t feel nearly as thematically or emotionally coherent as Revelation. Its character-centric stories are usually meaningful — especially for Teela, who feels torn between her strong-willed independence and the fact that her new magical gifts need to be summoned by He-Man. But these stories are also few and far between, and are often limited to single episodes at a time. With the exception of Teela’s arc, they rarely have any impact on the overarching narrative.
The designs, however, are fantastic. They unquestionably feel like a brand-new line of action figures which flood old concepts with new accessories, but they have flourishes and subtleties too. Teela has a pair of glowing earphones which constantly hover near her head, and which radiate the blue light of her color scheme — each character has their own — while Krass has a slightly wandering eye, the kind of realistic, unremarked-upon physical detail you don’t often see in children’s animation.
The show’s world has hints of cyberpunk influence, both in its bio-mechanical designs (which are more Apple-style cyberpunk for the heroes, with soft lights and smooth surfaces) and in its story, which briefly mentions class strata in Eternos, and offers hints about its racial strata. However, this doesn’t ever factor into the plot, in spite of Teela explicitly mentioning that she’s a “street level” citizen, while the blond, blue-eyed Adam is from an “Upper” family, terms which don’t amount to anything.
A more prominent design influence appears to be the Afrofuturism of Marvel’s Black Panther, especially the way cool-toned lights glow from beneath grooves and notches in the costumes and other surfaces. Masters of the Universe isn’t an Afrofuturistic story, but Black Panther’s thoughtful, thematically appropriate blend of ancient architecture and futuristic tech was bound to take superficial form in other media, given the film’s mainstream success. But at the very least, the show’s most overt manifestation of this influence is in the design of a Black character, Eldress (Brooks), the show’s version of the Sorceress, whose appearance is part ghostly hologram, part Egyptian deity.
When it comes to the sillier parts of the show’s identity, the dialogue has a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness — the phrase “on the nose” comes up more than once when referring to 1980s designs, like Skeletor’s appearance and his serpentine lair. But this meta humor feels like wasted effort. The series is at its best when it’s unapologetically goofy. Ben Diskin, for instance, has a wildly fun time as Skeletor, who in addition to his quest for Grayskull’s throne, also has the secondary motivation of making his lackeys laugh at his litany of terrible skeleton puns. Oddly enough, Diskin sounds more like Mark Hamill’s Joker than Mark Hamill did when he voiced Skeletor on Revelations, though this is hardly a complaint.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is a simple show, with simple characters all trying to find their purpose through big battle scenes, and with each other’s help. It’s modern children’s adventure 101, and it works even when it’s just trying to fill gaps in the story with side quests or sudden vehicular breakdowns. (Nothing some good, old-fashioned teamwork can’t fix.) And while fidelity to the original appears to be a demand for some, fewer things are more spiritually true to He-Man than a story reverse-engineered from fun action-figure designs. Why stick exclusively to the ’80s metal album cover aesthetic — one still in circulation through a whole other show and toy line anyway — when those ideas can also be remixed using a wider variety of inspirations?