Netflix UK TV review: Masters of the Universe: Revelation Part 1
Charlie Brigden | On 21, Jul 2021
Part 2 premieres on 23rd November 2021
What happens when you put a toy commercial disguised as a cartoon together with the creator of some of moviedom’s most risque comedies? About what you’d expect, really. Clerks writer and director Kevin Smith might seem an odd choice to be the one to resurrect 80s animated show Masters of the Universe for a third time – not counting the 1987 Dolph Lundgren movie – but with his pedigree in writing comics and his proud celebrity geek status, he’s also not the weirdest pick for this Netflix series. But does he end up holding his sword aloft in triumph, or limping away like literal scaredy-cat Cringer?
The first five chapters of Masters of the Universe: Revelation are an odd beast, to be sure. As the title suggests, the unveiling of secrets is the crux the show hangs upon, with the good and bad that comes with that. The first episode reintroduces us to the world of Eternia and all of its inhabitants that have strange but marketable names such as Tri-Klops, Roboto, and of course, Skeletor, although you wonder how it would play to someone who hasn’t at least some knowledge of the previous cartoons and toys.
Surprisingly, Smith’s protagonist is not the hulking He-Man but faithful companion Teela (probably why the prefix “He-Man and the” has been dropped from the title), who begins the story succeeding her adopted father as the new Man-at-Arms before everything goes to hell, thanks to Skeletor – who makes a play for the secrets of Castle Grayskull and a magical orb MacGuffin. It’s at this point that Teela finds out what seemingly everyone else knew, which is that the true identity of Eternia’s champion was her BFF, Prince Adam.
Understandably annoyed, Teela takes off to become a mercenary with the much-needed person of colour Andra, which goes swimmingly until Skeletor’s right-hand gal Evil-Lyn shows up to tell them that the loss of the orb means that all of the magic is disappearing from Eternia, which will eventually destroy the universe. To fix it, they need to find the two halves of He-Man’s power sword, which, once reforged, will make everything hunky-dory again. Cue a Lord of the Rings-style quest where heroes and villains need to band together and journey to find the sword bits that happily reside in Eternia’s equivalent of heaven and hell, handily allowing Teela to play out her fears in a metaphorical fashion.
The main issue with MOTU: Revelation is that it feels like a product made of many different hands pulling in wildly different directions. It’s a cartoon made by Mattel that wants to sell a bunch of new action figures, but it’s also Kevin Smith wanting to make a bad-ass new version of a franchise popular with people his age, who luckily for Mattel also are probably two audiences in one. But because these people are now in their 40s, there’s a presumption that the audience is similar to the minority who complained about The Last Jedi because they just wanted to see Luke Skywalker as a bad-ass with a lightsaber – note the extensive use of the word “bad-ass”, which is one of the most overused terms when talking about such things.
So, is it “bad-ass”? Well, it’s certainly full of huge battles that range from fairly harmless long shot explosions to some quite violent close-up deaths, with one of them particularly gruesome. The show is rated 12, which seems contradictory considering its origins as a Saturday morning cartoon and, subsequently, there seems to have been an effort to make it more appealing to that middle-aged audience with some weirdly inappropriate moments, including a reference to a 1980s safe-sex slogan and Evil-Lyn deadpanning by saying “oh, bollocks”. But for all these attempts to punch it up for today, the whole thing feels remarkably inert, with plenty of flat dialogue that tends to undermine the times when it does go for some kind of depth, mainly with Teela facing her feelings of guilt and betrayal.
Smith has assembled a fine voice cast for the show, and that’s certainly one of its strengths, although some of the more famous voices do tend to make you go “wait, is that…?”, with Lena Headey’s Evil-Lyn a particular culprit, as well as Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Teela and Headey’s Game of Thrones castmate Liam Cunningham, who here seems to be emulating Liam Neeson as Man-at-Arms. There’s also the wonderfully gravel-voiced Tony Todd as the lord of the underworld, Scare Glow (yes, really). The weirdest choice, though, is Mark Hamill’s Skeletor, who not only sounds too close to his Joker from Batman: The Animated Series, but also has dialogue tailored to emphasise his legacy as the Batman villain.
The animation style is fine, having a smooth anime veneer while remaining colourful enough to match the original show, with some wonderfully painted backdrops. And then there’s the thundering score by Bear McCreary, following up his Battlestar Galactica reboot work by musically reimagining the world of Eternia. There are some beautiful moments in the score and McCreary knows how to pump up the audience’s blood at crucial moments, as well as provide an emotional backdrop for the action.
And perhaps that’s the problem, because he’s really doing the work that the writing should be. There are moments that grab your attention and make you care about what was happening, but those moments are all where music and action are the primary catalysts. With these shows, though, it’s like teaching a mouse to work for their food; you give them a little bit of something tasty and that gives them the drive to access the rest of the meal. But your show has to be doing something other than providing a few cool action moments for you to want to hit that button and get to the next episode. It’s an irony that in a story about magic being sucked out of existence, very little of that magic is actually present.
Masters of the Universe: Revelation is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.