Who'd have guessed a new He-Man
series would be the most controversial show of the summer? If you google it, you see new articles in Forbes
. YouTube is filled with reaction videos--mostly angry reaction videos. Why? Why does anyone care? This isn't the first time we've had a reboot of the 1983 series. There was one in 2002, it lasted for two seasons. No-one was particularly interested. You certainly didn't hear about it in Variety
. The new series, which debuted on Netflix on Friday, is created and produced by Kevin Smith. That's something. But how many people saw or even talked about Kevin Smith's latest movie, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot
Interest for the series really began with a trailer:
That's a dynamite trailer. It's the earnest kitsch of it, it's the attitude, it's, above all, the editing. A lot of people saw something else in it, too. An antidote to the endless string of subverted expectations of gender norms that have become, ironically, all too expected. It hasn't been long since Netflix was finally forced to end their series about a new, broad-shouldered She-Ra. Now here was Masters of the Universe: Revelation
, a new series that said it was okay to indulge in a fantasy about powerful, muscular men saving the day with sexy, beautiful women. It promised to be a breath of fresh air after we've gotten used to entertainment media's unsubtle attempt at social engineering over the past five years. That's what it seemed like.
Then rumours started swirling that this was all a "bait and switch", that the show was actually going to be centred on Teela, a female supporting character from the original series, and that He-Man would be somehow sidelined. Smith specifically denied this was the case. He lied. And then he lied about lying. Which, of course, added fuel to the fire.
I'm actually not angry about Smith lying. He was in a tough spot. He had a big twist at the end of his first episode and suddenly everyone already knew about it weeks in advance. What could he do? He has a reputation for being accessible to fans. Suddenly ignoring everyone would be suspicious. I would have advised him to choose his words more carefully--don't acknowledge that people have accurately predicted the thing but don't deny it either. You don't want to spoil it for people who genuinely want to be surprised, but you don't want to antagonise people who like to try to predict these things, either. Put your ego aside and admit they figured something out. Don't insult a bunch of strangers on the internet. Because now the show has a 26% audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Sure, it could be worse. It could be series 12 of Doctor Who
(now at 16%). And maybe the negative reactions are actually driving more people to check the show out.
I felt like I had two horses in the race. I watched He-Man
when I was little and I'm a fan of Kevin Smith, particularly his early movies from the '90s. So I had to see the thing for myself.
In some ways, I was very pleasantly surprised, particularly by the first episode, the only one solely written by Smith. It shows a strength for crafting suspense I wouldn't have counted among Smith's talents. Most of the episode switches back and forth between two developing scenes--Castle Grayskull under attack by Skeletor's forces and a party at the palace where all the heroes are blissfully unaware of what's occurring. Every cut back and forth changes our understanding of what's happening in each place and the sense of threat is built incrementally. It's really well done.
There are fireworks at the party and one of the corny jokes in the opening involves Cringer cowering under the table at the sound of the fireworks. It occurred to me the phenomenon of pets being terrified of fireworks has been a meme lately on Facebook and elsewhere which made me wonder if the marketing team for a show like this deliberately seeds memes out to the internet to help a show look relevant.
Many of the jokes in the first episode are playful in the manner of jokes of someone who fancies himself a wordsmith--when Orko traps Cringer in a bubble, he desperately asks if anyone has the power to save him. Prince Adam makes a dramatic appearance, popping the bubble with a pin, and holding it aloft he coyly says, "I have the power!"
YouTuber Grace Randalph feels Prince Adam might be somehow LGBTQ. It's possible--He-Man's alter-ego is now conspicuously the smallest man on the show--even smaller than Teela, who shows she can easily overpower him. Adam is much smaller and He-Man is much bulkier so the contrast lends some credence to the effectiveness of his secret identity.
I went back and watched some episodes of the original series (they're all available for free on YouTube through the official Masters of the Universe
channel) and Teela does get on Adam's case for being lazy and unfit for battle. But this clearly seems to be part of Adam's act in the old show. In the new show, he clearly could never hold his own against Teela.
The first episode ends with Skeletor and Adam apparently dying and, just as Smith said it wouldn't be, the show thereafter becomes about Teela and He-Man only appears in a few flashbacks. Smith's bad PR instincts and woke influences aside, I actually really like the idea of apparently killing off He-Man in the first episode. I'd even be up for having Teela as the main character if it were done a little differently.
In the Variety
interview, Smith says he kind of "hate-watched" He-Man
as a teenager, that he considered it a show for "babies" because it was about people with swords who never stabbed each other and just did somersaults. And he's right. I'm younger than Smith so I was
a baby when I watched He-Man
--well, I watched until I was six or seven years old, then I distinctly remember feeling like I was too old for it. My friends and I had the same complaints Smith had--all these people with swords and they never used them, and it was silly that no-one ever died. Of course, the makers of He-Man
had their hands tied by studio and network mandates about the amount and kinds of violence you could have in a kids show in the '70s and '80s, much as shows to-day are forced to adhere to diversity quotas and gender deconstruction. It's always something. By the late 1980s, I was focused more on Ghostbusters
, Who Framed Roger Rabbit
, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
. I don't think I'd watched the show at all since 1985 until this past week. I couldn't remember a single plotline.
It's much better written than I was expecting, and no surprise, I guess--J. Michael Straczynski and Paul Dini both worked on the show. I watched a couple Paul Dini episodes, "The Shaping Staff" and "Teela's Quest". A show for little kids, yes, but decent pulp plots. And Teela did have a big role in the old show, as Smith claims, though it's really dishonest of him to claim that the sidelining of He-Man was ever on the level he has it.
I distinctly remember Teela and Sorceress being my favourite characters. I had all the action figures and Sorceress in particular always had a prominent role in my playtime. I liked beautiful women long before hit puberty--I also liked The Last Unicorn
. I watched She-Ra
, too, but I don't remember it as well and I think it didn't have two seasons out by the time I'd lost interest in that universe. Even after I lost interest in He-Man
, I'd still include Sorceress in the adventures I'd come up with for my toys. I had whole plots involving the Ghostbusters and the Ninja Turtles. I had the Ghostbusters' firehouse playset and Castle Grayskull and I remember both of them factoring into stories, mostly starring the Ninja Turtles.
Sorceress really gets a bad deal on Kevin Smith's new series. There's a time jump after He-Man "dies" and Sorceress is the only character who shows any significant signs of aging. Then she loses her powers and costume and she's sidelined for most of the series. After she'd looked so cool in the trailer.
In the first episode, Teela is promoted to being Man at Arms and I thought it strange no-one even asked, "Why not Woman at Arms?" In addition to making women look more masculine, there also seems to be a push to remove gendered titles or give male gendered titles to women. I thought it was strange, too, on The Magicians
when Margot constantly proclaimed herself King and no-one said, "Why not Queen?" It seems like the powers-that-be decided all traditional markers of femininity are in some way weak. Which is a pity for people like me who feel they help conjure a sense of the unique beauty and grace possessed by women.
The first episode on Smith's series ends with Teela, enraged at learning He-Man's secret identity, renouncing her family and allegiance to the kingdom in one of the most criticised scenes of the new series. Her reaction does seem extreme and without adequate motivation, there primarily for the plot to happen. And in the next episode, she has short hair, broader shoulders, pants, and a breastplate that hides her breasts.
This is definitely working against the grain of the original series, which was, after all, a Frank Frazetta knock-off, coming out the same year as Fire and Ice
and a year after Conan the Barbarian
. Her relationship with a black female sidekick called Andra has been called "queer-baiting" because they seem like they're probably a couple but it's never directly acknowledged or explored. In fact, Andra works out to be a pretty cliche, wise-cracking, token black sidekick. Though it occurs to me Teela's butch makeover and her irrational self-exile in the first episode can be rationalised. He-Man and Teela in the old series would be taken as future lovers by most viewers--especially when one considers the fact of them even walking around together is a big step for the show's prepubescent target audience. If you read Teela as having feelings she never acknowledged for Adam and/or He-Man, then the fact that she acts in an extravagantly irrational manner makes sense, as does her apparent identity crisis related to her gender. This may not be what Smith intended--and it's probably politically incorrect--but it's more psychologically satisfying than any of the show's attempts at deconstructionist character development. Except I liked the scene where Cringer tells Teela he understands her fear because he's known for being a coward.
Teela's fear comes up again in an episode where she has to fight a demoniac version of He-Man. She claims that the fear is related to her own inner power she's afraid of acknowledging, which I think is setting up her becoming the new Sorceress. As I was reminded of by the "Teela's Quest" episode, Sorceress is Teela's mother and Teela is heir (dare I say heiress?) to Sorceress' power.
The fifth of the five episodes that have been released so far do give me the impression that Kevin Smith hates He-Man
. He really kicks the fans in the groin in that episode.
Character motivations on the show are sometimes weird and without any substantial logic throughout the series. But there's enough food for thought on and about the show I'll probably check out part two when it comes out. Masters of the Universe: Revelation
is available on Netflix.Twitter Sonnet #1456The blistered foot could carry talks for days.
We wonder well if weather gear was free.
The horses waited, black. two mares and grey.
We settled 'cross an oil drum of tea.
They bought a donkey cheap and kept a pig.
Between the dusty mountains dinner fell.
The seconds dripped and sealed the sunken brig.
The morning school arose at crack of bell.
The extra flavour chipped the temple tooth.
The music matched the ice to make the cream.
A hundred yen could purchase tea of truth.
We added scores to show the strongest team.
The man was never heaped with heavy swords.
Computers never sucked the life from cords.