Like everybody who was a kid in the early 1980s and had access to US cartoons, I watched the original He-Man and the Masters of the Universe series. Though I was lucky, because the “access to US cartoons” part was not a given in the three TV channel world of 1980s West Germany, where children’s programming had to be wholesome and the likes of He-Man or indeed anything that promised more thrills than Heidi or Maja the Bee (both of which ironically were Japanese takes on European children’s classics) was deemed “violent American trash” and not available, unless you were one of the lucky few to have cable and access to private TV.
Because I lived in a rural area, we did not have private TV at home until February 27, 1989 (and the fact that I can still tell you the exact date more than thirty years later should tell you what a momentous occasion that was). However, my Dad worked in the Netherlands from 1983 to 1989 and had a flat in the centre of Rotterdam (quite literally with a view of Rotterdam’s townhall). And that flat came with cable TV, which meant that during the holidays I could watch all the cartoons on Sky Channel courtesy of the DJ Kat Show and Fun Factory. Those shows aired all the good stuff – M.A.S.K., Transformers, Jem, Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, Ulysses 31, The Care Bears, Bravestar, G.I. Joe, Inspector Gadget, Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs, The Galaxy Rangers, Blackstar, G.I. Joe, both versions of Ghostbusters and yes, the original He-Man and She-Ra. And I watched it all and loved that stuff – except for Roger Ramjet, whom I hated with a passion and fantasised about throwing into the canal outside the apartment.
At the time, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was not my favourite. I preferred his sister She-Ra and if you’d asked me for my favourite cartoon of them all, it would have been either Jem or M.A.S.K. (before M.A.S.K. fell from grace due to a character doing something that deeply disturbed me) as well as the Japanese Candy, Candy anime (which aired on Belgian TV at around the same time, so I always get it mixed up with the others) and Defenders of the Earth, the joy of which I could share with my parents who knew the characters from their newspaper comic adventures. That said, I remember He-Man fondly, because He-Man was very much ubiquitous, simply because there were so many more He-Man episodes than most of the others.
I never had any He-Man toys, nor any of the other cartoon toys, even though my parents would probably have bought them for me, if I’d asked (I did have a sizeable collection of Strawberry Shortcake figurines, after all). But I never asked, because by that point I had internalised that He-Man, She-Ra, Jem, Transformers, M.A.S.K. et al were violent American trash that nice kids were not supposed to enjoy. I don’t even know how I came to internalise this, since my parents never had any problems with me watching the cartoons. I did eventually acquire a Teela action figure as a flea market find in the late 1980s.
Those cartoons were basically 25-minute toy ads and I knew that even as a kid (especially since the commercial breaks helpfully ran ads for the very same toys). Nonetheless, I loved them. They also had a big influence on me – how big I wouldn’t realise until many years later. And I’m far from the only one. Look at how many reboots, reimaginations, live action versions, etc… of 1980s kid cartoons there have been in recent years. For example, right now Snake Eyes, a pretty neat looking movie based on the ninja character from G.I. Joe, is in the theatres. They may only have been glorified toy commercials, but those cartoons influenced a whole generation and have outlasted many of the more serious and wholesome media of the same era. At any rate, I don’t see a big screen Löwenzahn reboot anywhere. As for wholesome and educational cartoons, how wholesome and educational does Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids look now, knowing what we know about Bill Cosby?
The reason why those glorified toy commercials endured, while other media of the same era faded away is that – as comic creator Jerzy Drozd explains in this YouTube video – they did a lot of things very well. They also had some very talented people working on them, e.g. J. Michael Straczynski got his start writing scripts for He-Man, She-Ra, Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors and others.
Another thing that those cartoons did was serve as a gateway to SFF and its subgenres for many kids of the era. Because a lot of the cartoons of the 1970s and 1980s were based either directly or indirectly on SFF of the pulp era. One of my formational science fiction influences, along with reruns of the original Star Trek and Raumpatrouille Orion as well as Time Tunnel and Space 1999, was the 1978 Captain Future anime, which blew my mind when it aired in West Germany in the early 1980s. Decades later, I found out that the show was a remarkably accurate adaptation of Edmond Hamilton’s Captain Future pulp stories from the 1940s.
For other cartoons, the inspiration was less overt, but still very notable to anybody who’s familiar with the pulp SFF of the 1930s and 1940s. In one episode of the excellent Rogues in the House sword and sorcery podcast, one of the hosts said that his introduction to sword and sorcery was He-Man, followed by Conan the Destroyer. My own experience was very similar. True, I had heard the name Conan by the time the original He-Man cartoon started in 1983, but all I knew about Conan was
a) that he was a barbarian
b) that he was played by Arnold Schwarzenegger who was from Austria originally, and
c) that he was violent American trash that nobody should watch or read
By the late 1980s, I had also picked up that Conan’s creator had committed suicide, based on a 1989 diary entry in which I muse about whether suicide is an occupational hazard for writers and list as examples Ernest Hemingway, “the guy who wrote Chess Novella” (Stefan Zweig) and “the guy who wrote Conan the Barbarian” (Robert E. Howard).
However, my true introduction to sword and sorcery were the sword and sorcery influenced cartoons of the 1980s, followed by various Franco-Belgian-Dutch sword and sorcery comics of the same era. Not only did what eventually became Masters of the Universe originally start out as a Conan toyline, Eternia is also very much a grab bag of sword and sorcery influences. He-Man is basically a Frank Frazetta Conan cover come to animated life and given a dye job (or John Jakes’ Brak the Barbarian with a haircut), while Teela is C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry (a parallel that Masters of the Universe: Revelation makes very clear) with Red Sonja mixed in. Orko is the less capable relative of Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes from Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories. Mer-Man and his mer-people are Lovecraft’s Deep Ones by another name, the Snake Men literally are the Serpent Men from Robert E. Howard’s Kull stories. There are also various Cthulhu inspired things with tentacles. Skeletor is certainly influenced by Howard villains such as Thoth-Amon and Thulsa Doom, who also affects the skull face look. Scareglow, a glow-in-the-dark Skeletor variant which does appear in Masters of the Universe: Revelation, is borrowed from the Floating Skull, a villain in the Conan story “Red Nails”. Though Eternia also borrows a lot from the related sword and planet genre, since the Eternians do have energy weapons and all sorts of impractical but cool vehicles.
When Masters of the Universe: Revelation was originally announced, I was initially wary, because a lot of the recent reboots and reimaginations of classic 1980s cartoons hadn’t really delivered what attracted me to the originals. The recent She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is a good example. By all accounts, it was a very good cartoon, but the animation style was so offputting to me that I just couldn’t watch it (not that the original animation was actually good). Which is okay, because I’m really not the target audience for those shows anymore and the ones who are the target audience apparently enjoyed the show. The Masters of the Universe: Revelation trailers, on the other hand, looked promising and actually like the He-Man and friends I remembered. And when the reactions to the show were largely positive – aside from the usual aggravated fanboys – I decided to give it a watch.
Warning: Spoilers below!
Masters of the Universe: Revelation is very much a continuation of the original show – 35 years after it went off the air – featuring all the familiar characters and cool but impractical vehicles and even the moral messages, silly humor and groanworthy puns and nonetheless manages to bring something new to the familiar story, including a couple of shocks and surprises.
The biggest surprise is probably that Masters of the Universe: Revelation is actually more Teela’s story than He-Man’s, which is perfectly fine by me, because Teela was always my favourite, though the usual suspects are of course aggravated, because Kevin Smith got girl cooties all over the Masters of the Universe.
The first half season starts out with Teela being finally granted the status of Man-at-Arms for her service to the kingdom of Eternia. Fun fact: When I first watched the original cartoon in the 1980s, I didn’t know what a man-at-arms was and assumed it was simply the name of the character. When I encountered the term in its original meaning some time later, I kept picturing the He-Man character. There’s a big celebration for Teela and everybody is there, including the original Man-at-Arms, who’s also Teela’s adoptive Dad, Prince Adam, King Randor and Queen Marlena, Cringer, being terrified as always, and Orko, being inept as always.
But the forces of evil do not sleep and so Skeletor launches yet another attempt to conquer Castle Grayskull, using the fake robot double of He-Man (apparently, the character is called Faker) as well as Evil-Lyn and her magic. Skeletor does manage to get into the Castle and hold the Sorceress at bay (though you wonder how she fell for the fake robo He-Man a second time) and inists that he wants something that is buried under Castle Grayskull, namely the orb from which all magic in Eternia flows. The editing is quite clever here, because we do not see Adam at Teela’s party (and indeed, people wonder where he is, suggesting that he’s off heroing), until the fake robo-He-Man is revealed. And since I had forgotten this particular plot point, I was genuinely surprised.
The Sorceress manages to call for help, the good guys show up and a massive battle ensues. In the course of this battle, Skeletor manages to trick He-Man into stabbing him (“You finally figured out how to use that sword”, Skeletor says, a reference to the fact that He-Man never actually used his sword to fight in the original cartoon, 1980s censors being nervous about fighting with sharp pointy things) and thus opening the vault wherein the orb rests. Once the energy in the orb is released, it will destroy all of Eternia and the rest of the universe, unless someone absorbs the energy. He-Man, being his usual heroic self, offers to absorb the energy, by drawing the sword of power and calling on the power of Grayskull, while already in He-Man form. He is warned that this could kill him, but – being the hero that he is – does it anyway.
As a result, Eternia is saved for now, but at a terrible cost. The sword of power breaks in two halves and He-Man briefly reverts to Adam (in front of the eyes of Teela, who has no idea that Adam is He-Man) before he and Skeletor are disintegrated. Yes, Masters of the Universe: Revelation seemingly kills off both He-Man and Skeletor – the protagonist and antagonist – at the end of the first episode. This is a true shocker – also see Tor.com reviewer Leah Schnelbach’s reaction – and it’s not going to remain the only one.
The aftermath of this double (triple, if you count Adam and He-Man as two people) death is similarly shocking. King Randor finally learns that his son was He-Man and that he’s also dead in the worst possible way (Marlena, being smarter than her idiotic husband, knew all along). He has a freak out, blames Duncan a.k.a. Man-at-Arms, strips him of his rank, banishes him from the palace and forbids him to return at the threat of execution (because now that the main protector of your kingdom is dead, it’s a really smart move to kick out the other person capable of protecting the realm). Teela, who is both mourning her best friend and also furious that everybody she ever cared for lied to her, takes off her iconic headband and quits. And that, folks, is just the end of episode one.
Now Teela is absolutely justified in being furious. For starters, it never made any sense to me that she didn’t know Adam was He-Man. In the original cartoon, she’d have to be blind not to notice, because He-Man was literally Adam with his clothes off. Masters of the Universe: Revelation handles this better by making Adam the skinny and scrawny kid he’s supposed to be. But nonetheless, Teela was in almost every single episode of the original He-Man and accompanied He-Man, Orko, Cringer/Battlecat and Man-at-Arms on almost every single adventure. She’s capable and heroic (unlike Orko and Cringer) and should have been let in on the secret of He-Man’s identity and indeed, there is no reason why she wasn’t, except for the annoying cliché that the love interest never knows secret of the dual identity hero, causing dual identity heroes to be stuck in love triangles with themselves.
The fact that Lois Lane did not know that Clark Kent was Superman for decades is probably the best known example of that trope, but it’s not the only one or the earliest. The earliest example is probably The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy from 1905 (and for all that’s holy, don’t read the original book, because it’s terrible and filled with any -ism you can imagine). Zorro, created by Johnston McCulley in 1919 (and here the original novel The Curse of Capistrano is well worth reading) is probably the best known example pre-Superman.
I’ve always hated that trope, even as a kid, because it made no sense to me. Cause why could those dual identity heroes not even trust the woman they supposedly love? Especially since telling the truth would solve so many problems. Sometime in the late 1980s, I came across Frank Miller’s Daredevil run, where Matt Murdock’s love interest Karen Page sells out his secret identity to his sworn enemy Kingpin in exchange for drugs (yes, this really happened and it’s not the worst thing that happened to poor Matt Murdock either) and thought, “Okay, so that’s why all of those superheroes never tell their significant others about their secret identity, because they all know what happened to Daredevil. But still, isn’t that a little far-fetched, cause how high is the likelihood of something like that happening again.”
So in short, there was absolutely no reason not to tell Teela that Adam was He-Man and therefore, her anger is completely understandable. Not to mention that Teela has just lost her best friend and learned that he’s been lying to her for years. So Teela is angry, grieving and traumatised. The rest of the series will follow her as she comes to terms with her trauma. In my Jirel of Joiry reviews, I argued that coming to terms with trauma was a common theme in sword and sorcery. However, it’s not a theme I expected a He-Man cartoon of all things to embrace.
The next episode is set several years later. Teela, now a hardened cynic and sporting a new haircut, is working as a mercenary with her friend, new character Andra. Mercenary is of course a time-honoured profession for any sword and sorcery hero, since sword and sorcery characters tend to be amoral drifters who will do the right thing eventually, but often only by accident. And so Teela and Andra mainly recover stolen magical artefacts. Because after the events at Castle Grayskull, magic is draining from Eternia and magical artefacts are now at a premium. Yes, Adam/He-Man not only got himself killed, he also failed to save Eternia, so his sacrifice was completely pointless.
An old woman hires Teela and Andra to recover a magical goblet from Snake Mountain. Andra doesn’t want to go, but Teela has been there before (and promptly has a flashback of breaking into Snake Mountain with He-Man) and agrees to take the job. They find that with Skeletor dead, his old stronghold has been taken over by his former henchman Tri-Clops (the guy with the three rotating eyes), who has decided that magic is the root of all evil and must be eliminated and that technology is the future. Tri-Clops has also founded a weird techno-cult that worships the Holy Motherboard (I bet Kevin Smith was proud of that pun) and turns its followers into cyborgs in a bit of very 1980s body horror. Tri-Clops and his techno-cult will become recurring antagonists for Teela and her friends. This whole magic versus technology subplot is reminiscent of the barbarism versus civilisation theme that runs through Robert E. Howard’s works from Kull via Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn to Conan and which also pops up in the correspondence between Howard and H.P. Lovecraft.
After some fighting (and a guest appearance by a Cthulhu-esque tentacle creature, because Cthulhu won’t be left out, if the rest of the gang is here), Teela and Andra manage to recover the magical goblet and are promptly enlisted by the old woman to deliver the goblet to Castle Grayskull, which is about the last place where Teela wants to go, since this is where her trauma occurred. Besides, King Randor has declared Castle Grayskull a forbidden zone, off limit to everybody on the pain of death (King Randor is not just a complete idiot, he’s also way too execution happy. Someone get rid of him and put Marlena in charge). But they’re mercenaries and mercenaries need to eat, so Teela finally agrees.
At Castle Grayskull, Teela and Andra find the Sorceress, aged and near death due to the loss of all magic. The old woman reveals herself to be Evil-Lyn in disguise (not a huge surprise, because Lena Headey’s voice is pretty distinctive). Surpise, Evil-Lyn and the Sorceress are now working together. Of yes, and Eternia and the whole universe is doomed, if the two halves of the sword of power aren’t combined again.
Cringer is there as well, to watch over the Sorceress (yeah, lots of help he’ll be). Cringer is also the one who persuades Teela, who still wants nothing to do with any of this, to take on the quest. Because just like Teela, Cringer is grieving – after all, he lost his best friend, too. Nonetheless, he tells Teela that life goes on and that she must go on the quest, lest Adam’s sacrifice be in vain.
Now a lot of 1980s toy tie-in cartoons had tacked on moral messages at the end, telling kids not to do drugs, skate on thin ice, run away from home or whatever. My kid self hated these messages, because they felt condescending and stupid. That said, He-Man’s moral messages were better than most, because they actually referred to the events in the episode you just watched. Kevin Smith chose to keep the moral messages, but integrates them into the actual plot instead.
The two halves of the sword of power have ended up in the realms of Subternia and Preternia, which are the Eternian equivalents of heaven and hell. So that’s where Teela and friends (i.e. Andra, Evil-Lyn and Beast-Man who is utterly devoted to Evil-Lyn and protects her) have to go. However, neither of them can reforge the sword of power. Luckily, Teela knows someone who can, so she goes to see her adopted Dad Duncan a.k.a. Man-at-Arms first.
Duncan is older and greyer than he used to be and tries to remain under the radar (after all, King Randor threatened him with execution, if he ever showed up again), though he still finds time to beat up street punks and tangle with Tri-Clops and his techno-cult. Duncan is happy enough to see his estranged daughter, though he doesn’t want to go with her, because he’s adopted more strays in the meantime, namely Roboto, a robot who has Duncan’s skills and memories, and Orko, who’s close to death due to the loss of magic in the world (and still mourning Adam as well).
Roboto is willing to accompany Teela and friends and since he has Duncan’s skills, he can reforge the sword, too. Orko also wants to come along and convinces Teela that he wants just one last adventure in a scene sure to make your eyes misty. Duncan finally agrees to come along as well (and in a nice bit of symbolism, dons his old helmet, which he’s been using as a fruit bowl), but Teela tells him to go to Castle Grayskull instead to protect the Sorceress, because Tri-Clops and his technocult are sure to attack Grayskull eventually and Cringer won’t be much of a help at all.
After some trouble with Mer-Man (whom Evil-Lyn calls a “treacherous trout”), Teela and friends finally reach the gates of Subternia, the land of the dead. The series turns into the Jirel of Joiry story “Black God’s Shadow” at this point with Subternia standing in for the basement of Castle Joiry with its portal to the underworld. The party is quickly separated and subjected to hallucinations which force them to deal with their fears. Roboto, Andra and Beast-Man fight zombies. Orko and Evil-Lyn end up in Orko’s home dimension of Trolla and bond, when Orko reveals that he was always a disappointment to his family, because he was so inept at using magic.
Meanwhile, Teela finds herself faced with Scareglow, an obscure toy from the original toy line that’s basically a glow-in-the-dark skeletor. George Daniel Lea has a great article about Scareglow and the horror tropes in Masters of the Universe: Revelation at Ginger Nuts of Horror. Scareglow is the ruler of Subternia and feeds on people’s fears. He also forces Teela to confront her fears. Yes, this is basically C.L. Moore’s “Black God’s Shadow” or Fritz Leiber’s “The Price of Pain-Ease” (which also has a magical artefact cut in half) only that the trauma Teela has to overcome is grief and the anger at being lied to and not sexual assault, as with Jirel.
So Teela finds herself fighting an evil version of He-Man, who mocks her and declares that he never cared about her, and then, her old self. Teela eventually taps into the magical powers she has inherited from her biological mother, the Sorceress (another thing that everybody has lied to Teela about), powers that terrify her. She defeats Scareglow and recovers the sword.
However, Scareglow isn’t down for long and so he and his minions reappear, just as Teela and her friends are about to pass through the gate that leads from Subternia to Preternia. Orko uses the last of his magical powers to hold off Scareglow long enough so the others can escape and then expires. Yes, they killed Orko, too, the bastards. And yes, I cried, which surprised the heck out of me, because I didn’t even particularly like Orko, the blatant comic relief, as a kid.
In Preternia, they’re met by Adam who – since he was such a great hero in life – wound up in his world’s version of paradise after he died, together with all the other great heroes, where they all hang around and go on pretend hunts through the forest. The other heroes are basically Conan, Imaro (though he calls himself King Grayskull), a rare dark-haired He-Man prototype (explained by Marie Bilodeau at Black Gate) and a previous Sorceress.
Adam and Teela hug, though things are not at all okay between them, and build a gravestone for Orko, though there is no body left to bury. Adam also learns that his death was for nothing in the end, because they did not save the universe. Finally, Adam gives Teela the other half of the sword, though he has no idea if they can get back to Eternia.
Roboto reforges the sword, but is destroyed in the process and dies with the final words to Teela that she shall tell father that he made him better than expected, because Roboto is afraid of death and therefore truly human. And yeah, I cried some more – for a character I barely remembered from the original.
Meanwhile, Imaro – pardon, King Grayskull – tells Adam and Teela that yes, there is a passage from his tower back to Eternia. He also warns Adam that once he goes through the passage, he can’t come back to Preternia. If he dies again, he’ll be just dead. Adam, of course, goes anyway.
And so the whole gang meets up at Castle Grayskull. Cringer is really, really happy to see Adam, as is Duncan. However, the castle is under attack by Tri-Clops and his techno-cult and the attacks are getting more frequent. In the vault under the castle, Adam draws the sword, speaks the magic words (and come on, we all said them out loud, just as we did as kids) and turns into He-Man. The magic begins to flow again and Castle Grayskull and the Sorceress are rejuvenated. All seems to end well, until…
…He-Man is stabbed from behind by Skeletor, who’s not dead but has been hiding in Evil-Lyn’s staff, apparently unbeknowst to her. He-Man reverts to Adam, Skeletor grabs the sword, says the magic words and turns into Super-Skeletor.
Yes, the first half season ends with the bad guy winning and gaining near absolute power, while the still grieving and traumatised Teela has to watch Adam die (or nearly die, since he’s not yet dead) for the second time. As cliffhangers go, this one is a doozy.
I went into Masters of the Universe: Revelation expecting a bit of nostalgic fun. I got that, but I also got a lot more. For starters, I didn’t expect to get misty eyed watching a He-Man cartoon of all things, because US cartoons aren’t supposed to do that. And I even got misty-eyed for characters I didn’t particularly like as a kid.
Unlike the new She-Ra, Masters of the Universe: Revelation is still very recognisable the show we all remember from the 1980s. However, Kevin Smith also digs into the characters in a way that the original show never did nor could. Teela, Cringer, Orko, Duncan, Roboto, Evil-Lyn are all given more character development here than they got in two long seasons of the original. And even the moral messages manage to be not annoying, but actually fit into the plot.
Furthermore, Kevin Smith draws on the sword and sorcery origins of Masters of the Universe: Revelation and injects some of the themes common in the genre into the series. We have the cynical hero broken down by life redeeming themselves, we have barbarism versus civilisation recast as technology versus magic and we have the quest to come to terms with one’s trauma, including the literal journey into the underworld that tends to come part and parcel with these sort of quests. In fact, recognising all the influences and motifs was one of the things I enjoyed most about Masters of the Universe: Revelation.
I’m not sure how Masters of the Universe: Revelation will play for the younger fans who never watched the original cartoons and who fell in love with the new She-Ra. I’m also not sure how it will play for the kids who are the actual target audience, since this show is pretty damn dark, darker than kids cartoons usually are, even in our modern era. And yeah, the aggrieved fan boys who can’t stand the fact that there are girl cooties in their favourite childhood cartoon (even though Teela, Evil-Lyn and the Sorceress always were prominent characters) will hate it like they hate everything. But Masters of the Universe: Revelation is a very good take on a beloved cartoon and one which is actually made for those who loved the original as kids. And it’s nice to be the target audience again for once.
Finally – we can hope, can we? – She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and Masters of the Universe: Revelation may well be the impetus the sword and sorcery genre needs for a large scale revival.