The awesome Masters of the Universe: Revelation recalls the joys of being a toy-demolishing child

Expect honking big fantasy battles, bizarre sci-fi machines and weird monsters in Kevin Smith’s reimagining of Masters of the Universe. Most of all: expect a helluva good time, writes Travis Johnson.

The real magic trick that Kevin Smith (yes, Clerks’ Kevin Smith) and his team perform with Netflix’s new Masters of the Universe is this: the stakes feel real.

See also:
* Best new movies & series on Netflix this month
All new streaming movies & series

Well, “real” for a certain value of “real”. Yes, it’s still a cartoon, and yes, it’s still based on Mattel’s range of musclebound science-fantasy action figures that absolutely ruled back in the early ‘80s (I had Castle Grayskull and Snake Mountain, you guys!). This salvo of five episodes (with five more to come down the track) is in fact a direct sequel to the old Filmation cartoon, meaning it’s not a grim and gritty reboot. All that cheesy after school/Saturday morning stuff? Orko and Cringer and snarky Skeletor and that? It’s in continuity. It’s not dismissed.

And if Masters of the Universe: Revelation was only a continuation of that, tonally the same, it’d be a curio for most of us, and something for a certain stripe of (mostly male, mostly middle-aged) nerds to obsess over. But apparently series executive producer and Masters of the Universe nut Ted Biaselli issued Smith a dictum: “When you tell your story, give it real stakes. Don’t treat the characters like they’re goofy jokes: write them as if we’re doing Shakespeare.” Smith, bless ‘im, took that to heart.

So, Masters of the Universe: Revelation kind of lulls you with its opening movements, which are a pretty close copy of the old cartoons but with better animation (Castlevania’s Powerhouse Animation is on rendering duties). There’s Prince Adam (Chris Wood), there’s warrior woman Teela (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Man-at-Arms (Liam Cunningham), bumbling magician Orko (Griffin Newman) and more, trading corny one-liners. Here comes Skeletor (Mark Hamill, and how stacked is this voice cast?) cackling maniacally, and Evil Lynn (Lena Headey) and the bad guys to mess things up. Adam turns into He-Man, Cringer (Stephen Root) turns into Battle Cat, smashy-bashy—you know the drill…

…and then everything changes.

Because what Revelation has that the old series didn’t is this: it doesn’t have to put the toys back in the box at the end of every episode, safe and sound. The status quo is not sacred. So, whereas every other clash between He-Man and Skeletor was largely free of consequence, this one sets all of Eternia on its ear. We’re left wandering a kind of post-apocalyptic world where the never-ending battle between good and evil has left deep scars. He-Man and Skeletor are both missing, presumed…missing (the embargo notes on this one suck), and it’s Teela who’s our point of view character, tasked with putting things right again.

It’s awesome. It really is, capturing that feeling, so elusive in adulthood, of epic scope and majesty you invoked when banging your toys together in the sandpit. Sure, they were, seen with distance and clarity, just pieces of plastic with punny names and easily lost accessories, but when you’re seven and shoving Tri-Klops (Henry Rollins, can you believe it?) at Roboto (Justin Long), it felt like the coolest and most important thing ever. Revelation recaptures that feeling for us old fans, and recreates it anew for the current crop of kid viewers (I tested this theory on a six-year-old and, folks, he could not tear his eyes away from the show).

The animation is beautiful, with character designs that are exaggerated almost to the point of caricature but still ridiculously cool. Composer Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica) provides a suitably portentous score that lands somewhere between Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian, elevating the proceedings considerably. The action is great, unfettered by real world physics and budgetary concerns.

Yet what really works are the characters. Smith and his team understand that, in this kind of thing, the most important stakes are personal and emotional—the vast battles in service to the characters’ goals, dreams and desires. It might be easy to dismiss the Masters of the Universe ensemble as barely-sketched stereotypes—after all, back when Mattel was making these things, novelty action features and cool weapons were more important than motivation and back story.

Yet here we get some depth, with characters normally on opposite sides thrown together and forced to figure each other out if they’re to find a way forward. We get nuance, we get complexity—and we get honking big fantasy battles, bizarre sci-fi machines, ancient magic and weird monsters.

So, if this weekend you find yourself, a grown-arse adult, tearful over the fate of certain characters, or finally understanding where Evil Lynn is coming from, grinning like an idiot as Prince Adam holds aloft his magic sword, or simply in awe of what is one of the best cliffhangers in some time…well, you’re not alone. This show has the power.