The original He-Man and The Masters of the Universe debuted in September of 1983 and was primarily devised as a glorified advert to sell a Mattel action figure line of the same name that had been released the year before, that it was anything more than that was thanks to a talented roster of writers like Larry DiTillo, Brynne Chandler and J. Michael Straczynski who fashioned tales of high fantasy with a moral and ethical core.
Rebooting a franchise is always a tricky business, He-Man is no exception, especially following previous reboots, the 1990 New Adventures of He-Man and the 2002 He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, both of which attained moderate success but for most fans never managed to hit the high notes of the original series.
Time move on, audiences grow older and the rosey hued mist of nostalgia papers over some of the shoddier elements of a cartoon that wasn’t really known for it’s high production values, so it’s a somewhat brave move to tie the new Netflix series so closely to the original, one major change is the somewhat normal looking appearance of Prince Adam, noticeably toned down from his earlier incarnation, everybody else however remains as close the the original designs as one could hope.
One of the biggest issues with such a long running property lies with the big bad, Skeletor is by very definition a cartoon villain, he exists to get his arse handed to him by the titular hero on a weekly basis and over the course of the already existing 234 episodes that is pretty much what people have witnessed, he’s a character desperately in need of rehab, to be taken seriously he needs a win and oh lordy does he get one, even if the cost at first seems unreasonably high.
He-man is killed in the first episode.
There are some people who will obviously have an issue with this, how on earth can you have Masters of the Universe without He-Man? although to me this was one of the shows biggest strengths, reminiscent of comic books such as Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” and Neil Gaiman’s “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader” He-Man’s death is the key to the narrative, he still appears in several scenes via flashback, but his absence not only moves the plot forward but gives a chance to further develop a number of heroes and villains whilst examining what life is like on Eternia in a post He-Man world, where magic has all but disappeared.
Teela is promoted to the role of main protagonist, a figure racked with anger, but an anger that seems tinged by guilt, as somebody who lost a few people in their teenage years, I spent a long time being angry at dead people, not just for secrets untold, but the pain of not knowing and not being able to reconcile seemingly disperate fractions of the same person.
Here that feeling is accentuated, as it seems quite a few people knew He-Man was Prince Adam, but Teela was not one of them, she rejects everything of her old life and leaves to forge a new path, The anger she feels may not feel justified to all, but it’s an anger fuelled by grief and for me at least, that resonated harder than I would have expected.
The rest of the plot is pretty much a standard heroes journey quest to retrieve two mystical objects combine them back into the fabled Power Sword thus returning magic, not just to Eternia, but to the whole of the universe, old characters make appearances (including some that only existed in the toy line), new alliances are forged and the plot verily skips along including many references not just to the previous TV incarnations but also several of the comic books, it’s safe to say that fan service is in full effect.
This is where the newest incarnation works the best, for those that enjoy a deep dive into the lore there is plenty on offer here, but not at the expense of the casual viewer, those new to the franchise will still have a rip roaring time without picking up on the myriad of references whilst fans of the original (if they can get past a world without He-Man) can amuse themselves no end picking up on the easter eggs liberally spread through each episode.
It’s not without issue, for a series based on a saturday morning cartoon, it does skew a little to the older audience, in the original He-man may have wielded his sword, but most of the fights were more like wrestling and usually ended with him picking up and throwing his opponent, stripped of network censorship concerning childrens entertainment, the new incarnations doesn’t shy away from blood and brutality, nor in one instance a little bit of profanity, played for laughs for the older viewer, but not exactly what you would expect given the history of the franchise.
The other minor issue for me sits with the episode count, at a meagre five episodes it exists as an easy afternoon of viewing, but when all is said and done it feels like a prologue, it’s very existance seems to serve as the jumping off point to a much larger story, but if these five episodes are anything to go by its a story I’m very much looking forward to.