Saturday, March 05, 2022

My Revelations

I want to talk about "Masters of the Universe: Revelation." But I can't. Not yet. Because as I made my way through Part 2 of the series a few weeks months ago, I figured out why it wasn't quite clicking with me. And in order to talk about that, I'm going to have to tell a story. 

Way back in 1998, my eighth grade English/Language Arts teacher, the late great Mr. McKissick, assigned us a project: Write a pitch for a TV series. I'm sure it will surprise you to learn that I was just as much of a dork-ass nerd at 14 as I am now, so naturally my pitch was...
The words "The Power of GRAYSKULL" written in way too many Windows 95 fonts.

"The Power of Grayskull," a weekly hour-long animated series that would serve as a sequel to the original He-Man and She-Ra cartoons, while also introducing the adventures of He-Ro, the hero of Preternia, who fought King Hiss long before the time of He-Man. "The Power of Grayskull" was designed as a kind of anthology series, where each hour-long block would include two to three shorter stories following one of the three main casts, with the Sorceress and the Book of Living Spells as a framing device.

It's worth remembering that in 1998, reviving a cancelled cartoon felt considerably more outlandish than it does today. There were a handful of soft-sequel reboots like "Beast Wars" and "Extreme Ghostbusters" (and "The New Adventures of He-Man" a few years earlier), but they rarely had much connection to their predecessors, for obvious reasons. 

To cast this series, I relied heavily on the original casts, with John Erwin and Melendy Britt reprising their roles as He-Man and She-Ra, respectively, and I filled in the rest of the roles as best I could with the information available on the pre-IMDb Internet. 

But not every character I wanted to use had a consistent voice actor in the original series, and not every voice actor was still around (RIP, Linda Gary). So to flesh out the cast, I looked to other prominent voice actors (i.e., the cast of "Beast Wars"). And when I exhausted that resource, I pulled a "Gargoyles" and filled in the rest with actors from "Star Trek."

In the end, I think I made some ambitious choices (Leonard Nimoy as King Hiss? Sure!), some inspired choices (Nana Visitor and Dana Delaney as Evil-Lyn and Teela? Sounds good!), some choices so on-the-nose that even a Wizard Magazine Casting Call would consider them lazy (Brent Spiner as Roboto? Didn't have to think too hard about that one, did you?), and some really, really ill-considered choices (Jennifer "Kes" Lien as the Sorceress? Oh honey, no). 

Oh! And of course I included Mark Tung Lashor and Twistoid.

I even started writing a pilot script, which I guess would have been one of my earliest pieces of He-Man fanfic. It's clearly an attempt to be a more mature take on the characters, beginning on the eve of Prince Adam and Princess Adora's 25th birthday, with Adora and her OTP Sea Hawk expecting twins. Adam and Teela are in a romantic relationship, and Skeletor returns after a long absence to an Evil-Lyn who is infatuated with him since he magically transformed her hate into love. 

So. Spoilers for "Masters of the Universe: Revelation" follow.

Have you ever had the experience where someone knows that you're a fan of something, and they get you a gift that's thoughtful, that shows they care about you and know about your interests, but also shows that they're not actually tuned into that subculture at all? "I know you like those comic books, so I got you this 'The Big Bang Theory' t-shirt," that kind of thing? That's what Masters of the Universe: Revelation feels like to me. It's well-intentioned, and I can't even say that it's bad, but it's just not quite right in a way that almost feels ungrateful to mention.

The entire time I watched the series, I kept having this thought: "this just isn't for me." Which is kind of ridiculous. I love He-Man. I have strong opinions about Clamp Champ and Scare Glow. I wanted a more mature, continuity-heavy take on the He-Man mythos so badly that I spent a good portion of my high school years writing several. And it's helmed by Kevin Smith! Remember, this was me in 2008: 

Your humble blogger dressed as Silent Bob from the View Askew movies.
It's for the look; I don't light it.

"Masters of the Universe: Revelation" was made precisely for me. Or, at least, it was made precisely for the me I was at 16. I think high school Tom—the Tom who wrote New Adventures of He-Man fanfic and talked about MOTU lore nonstop on the e-mail listserv—would have loved this take. It does what I turned to fanfic to do: takes the mythos seriously and tries to tell a more mature story, where characters grow and have emotional depth and continuity matters. The 2002 Mike Young Productions series did some of that, but was also explicitly a reboot with redesigned characters that wasn't beholden to the old continuity in the ways that "Revelation" tries to be. In that way, "Revelation" is a lot closer to what I wanted to see, a sequel rather than yet another parallel continuity for a universe that already had so many different threads to follow. 

That's part of its weakness, too. Because for all that "Revelation" was billed as a sequel to the '80s cartoon, it tries to be a sequel to (almost) everything that came before. We see King Grayskull and Tri-Klops' floating robot sentries, who were MYP additions. Pigboy and Blade appear from the 1987 Motion Picture, and a lot of the discussion of Eternia as the center of the universe derives from that story. We see a savage He-Man, clearly a reference to the early minicomics, and the sword is broken into two halves, much like it is in those early DC Comics stories. We even get Wundar, who was (sort of) invented by the MOTU Classics toyline, and Goat Man, who only appeared in a Golden Book. 

And I think that's where it starts to fall apart from me. For as much as "Revelation" respects past continuity, there are places where I couldn't help the "well, actually" impulse from bubbling up. For instance, they paid close enough attention to the continuity to catch onto the idea that Queen Marlena knew that Prince Adam was He-Man (something that is never outright stated, but has been a longstanding fan theory), but the friction between Adam and Randor makes it seem like "Prince Adam No More" never happened. 

They wring a lot of pathos out of Orko having been a failure of a wizard on his homeworld of Trolla, but the original conceit of Trolla was that things worked backwards there, and Orko was known as Orko the Great because he was such a powerful wizard. This wasn't done consistently, but I chalk that up to "inconsistency" being another way that Trolla is different from Eternia. They also reveal that Orko is short for "Oracle," which would be fine if every other Trollan weren't named things like Montork and Yukkers and Snoob. 

But the most glaring bit of this is the one that, I think, is pretty obviously due to licensing reasons. After Adam dies, Marlena and Randor's marriage begins falling apart, and she tells the resurrected Adam that it's because they couldn't handle losing a child. And folks, the word "again" would have done a whole lot to make that scene work for me. Marlena and Randor already lost a child, their infant daughter Adora, who was kidnapped shortly after birth by the Evil Horde—the same Horde who's teased at the very end of the series—and the Sorceress eventually cast a spell to make it so that only Marlena, Randor, and the Sorceress remembered Adora's existence. 

It's kind of a big deal. It's kind of a big part of the overall mythos. It's kind of the source of the best media that has ever come out of the whole Grayskull franchise. The last time we saw these versions of these characters (more or less), they were celebrating Christmas with the whole "She-Ra" cast. In a show full of Easter eggs to obscure He-Man media, it's impossible to ignore the omission of half of the Filmation Universe. I understand that there are licensing reasons why they couldn't do this (see also: why there's no explicit He-Man references in "She-Ra and the Princesses of Power"), but even DreamWorks was able to use the word "Eternia."

Honestly though? Most of those complaints are such Comic Book Guy nitpicks that I kind of want to give myself a wedgie just for writing them.

The same goes for my issues with the casting. Sarah Michelle Gellar does a good job as Teela, but her voice never feels like it matches her character design. I wish Mark Hamill went a little more nasal for his Skeletor voice (too often he sounds more like the "New Adventures" version of Skeletor rather than Alan Oppenheimer), and Alicia Silverstone sounds way too young and hip for Queen Marlena. But the rest of the cast is stellar—especially Lena Headey as Evil-Lyn—and even the ones that don't quite work for me certainly do a good job with the material. 

So if all of the pieces are there, why didn't Revelation work for me? I think I would have overlooked the issues I have with casting and continuity if there were enough other factors that I liked. 

It took me awhile to pinpoint my issue, but I think it's with the tones.

Kevin from the Masters of the Universe movie saying "But wait a minute...the tones?"

Yes, Kevin, the tones. See, "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" was, to use Chris Sims's phrasing, a cartoon for little babies. What little violence they were allowed to show was just slightly more realistic than a Looney Tunes cartoon, and every episode ended with a simplistic moral to appease the watchdog groups. Skeletor is a character who once tried to eliminate an enemy by baking him a doomberry pie, and famously said:  

Skeletor saying "I don't like to feel good! I like to feel evil!"

And, well, it's hard to reconcile that with the tone of "Revelation," where Clamp Champ and Fisto get blown to ashes by a grenade and then have their souls condemned to fantasy Hell by Skeletor before he goes back to Snake Mountain, where Evil-Lyn propositions him for sex. 

And none of those things are necessarily bad. More mature takes on the Masters mythos can work; I think the MYP series, the Motion Picture, and the Masters of the Multiverse comic series are all more mature to various degrees and in various ways. But none of them were billed as direct sequels to the Filmation series. And it's that dissonance that hurts "Revelation" for me. My brain just can't reconcile Kevin Smith's versions of the characters with Lou Scheimer's. And even though I know it's because Filmation got its hooks into me before I had critical faculties and those shows are hardwired into the pleasure center of my brain, I prefer Scheimer's version. 

A lot of what I like about Masters of the Universe as a franchise is the simplicity of it. There is no layer of artifice or metaphor. The good guys are good because it's good to be good. The bad guys are bad because they like to be bad. The guy with a big fist is named Fisto and the robot is named Roboto and the guy with many faces is named Man-E-Faces. There are no rules, no genre divisions; cyborg cowboys exist alongside faceless floating wizards. There is a purity to Masters of the Universe, and nowhere is that exemplified better than the Filmation series, where the budget and broadcast standards and episodic storytelling limited the amount of depth they could achieve. And while that sounds like a criticism, I find myself constantly intrigued by the ways those constraints shaped what they were able to accomplish, and impressed by what they created as a result. 

Like, for instance: He-Man's main accessory is a sword. But there was no way that a children's cartoon in 1983 would be able to show a character using a sword as it's intended against enemies. So He-Man mostly uses the sword defensively (it often functions as a shield, deflecting laser blasts or energy beams) or as a tool (to crack open the ground or cut holes in walls). The only time he ever uses it as a weapon is against nonliving enemies like robots. And I think that's fantastic, that this hero is equipped with a deadly weapon but refuses to use it in ways that might harm other living creatures.  

So when He-Man stabs Skeletor in the first episode and Skeletor remarks that he's finally using the sword as it was intended, it rings false to me. And it's emblematic of my larger issues with "Revelation": in order to make this universe more mature, you lose a lot of what made it charming and compelling in the first place. 

Eventually, I think I'll come to appreciate "Revelation" for what it is: another new addition to the Masters multiverse, another different take on these characters that stands on its own, with its own strengths and flaws. And I really wish I could approach it with the eyes and attitudes of my teenage self, because I think it's exactly what I wanted back then. But the person I am now can't help but judge it for what it isn't: an effective continuation of the '80s series.

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