Monday, July 26, 2021

I Finally Watched Masters of the Universe: Revelation

By the power of geekdom, how can folks not like Masters of the Universe: Revelation? I'm not sure, because it is an epic, summer blockbuster movie in five episodes with one massive cliffhanger.

My (Lack of) Background with MOTU

I have none. Zero. While showrunner, Kevin Smith, and I are both from Generation X, I'm two years older than he is. As such, back in 1983 when the original cartoon debuted, I had just aged out of the target audience for He-Man and his toy line. I was a Star Wars kid who owned a ton of those toys, but I was just not interested in MOTU. Even when Return of the Jedi landed in theaters, I didn't buy a single ROTJ toy. I had just graduated from middle school. I was heading into high school in the fall of 1983. I was, I suppose, growing up, and leaving toys behind.

That said, I knew a few things. I knew that the hero was He-Man, his lady friend was She-Ra (literally thought that was her name until I started watching Revelation), and his enemy was Skeletor, a dang cool-looking villain. And I knew the setting was Grayskull which, when you looked at the name and the visuals, I just assumed was where Skeletor lived. Other than that, I knew next to nothing about MOTU and never bothered to learn. I didn't even see the live-action movie with Dolph Lundgren. Even when He-Man made an appearance in DC Comics alongside Superman, I probably just shrugged and waited until the next issue. Needless to say, I barely gave MOTU any thought.

My Background with Kevin Smith

I had never seen any of Smith's films until 2019 when I saw all of them. For me, he was a podcaster, the host of Fat Man on Batman. I loved his deep dives into Batman, the comics, and all the things that excited him because they also thrilled me. I wrote a blog series back in 2019 where I finally watched and reviewed all his films (and my favorite often surprises people) leading up to Jay and Silent Bob Reboot's release. (Every post began with "I Finally" so I kept it here, too, even though MOTU: Revelation is brand-new.) I saw it at a special screening here in Houston with Smith and Jay Mewes in attendance. It was a great night.

Along the way, writer Marc Bernardin joined Smith as a cohost for Fat Man on Batman that morphed into what it is now: Fatman Beyond, a podcast where Kevin and Marc talk about geek news, take questions from the audience, and generally weigh in on all things geek. Over the years, however, the writing lessons of Marc and his in-depth commentary on movies and story, have become an education for anyone who cares to listen. He has a way of cutting through all the clutter and getting down to the crux of a story and why it ticks or doesn't. I started transcribing Marc's comments into a quote folder. While I am very much like Kevin when it comes to emotionally reacting to various things (audience reaction videos to the end of Avengers: Endgame get me every single time), I grew to love Marc's pronouncements on story. It's helped my own writing immensely.

Enter MOTU

Having 'caught up' with Smith's filmmaking, I was in the bag for anything he'd do next. I watched his TV episodes when he directed The Flash and Supergirl, but I wondered what his next big thing would be. When he and Marc announced that it would be an update to MOTU, I likely screwed up my face and uttered a "Why?" aloud for no one to hear. Seriously? He's gonna do an animated show about that toy line back in the 1980s that I didn't care about then or now? 

Yes he was. And the more he talked about it, the more I listened. It wasn't like I could fast-forward through one of the podcasts. Well, I could, but who knew how long it would take for notorious talker Smith to stop talking about MOTU and get on talking about Batman, Marvel movies, or anything else I knew about.

So I listened to everything. And what came through was Smith's boundless enthusiasm. But a key to this excitement for the franchise was not merely the thing he was hired to do. It was enthusiasm for the franchise itself. He loved MOTU and it came through in his voice. It would be something he genuinely wanted to see even if it he wasn't the showrunner. Over time and multiple podcasts, he wore me down. 

When I watched those trailers, I recognized what he and the entire creative team had done: update the visual look from the original Filmation version to a 21st Century sensibility. I started to get excited for this franchise I had never seen.  I knew that whenever MOTU: Revelation dropped, I would watch it. When he indicated Marc would write an episode, that was just icing on the cake. 

MOTU: Revelation Is Epic

Note: Spoilers abound from here on out.

Treating the show like a Saturday morning cartoon, I settled in to watch this new show this past weekend, but I made one crucial decision, the same decision I made when I watched Smith's films back in 2019: I did no pre-watch research. I merely watched the episodes, one after the other, reading no background or reviews. All my reactions to the show would be mine alone.

Thankfully for a newbie like me, the opening of Episode One gives an overview and immediately I realized my error about Castle Grayskull. It's not Skeletor's house. Yet another revelation was He-Man himself. I never realized that was a secret identity. He-Man's basically a super-hero, Shazam-like in that the scrawny Prince Adam bulks up to become the buff and powerful He-Man. I'm down for that.

Speaking of super-hero-type things, during that Episode One battle between Skeletor's forces and the heroes, Skeletor uses his magic to conjure various things, like a giant fist he swings at He-Man. My DC Comics-loving self took a note that said, “Oh, Skeletor’s like Green Lantern." Still good so far. Heck, all of the events of Episode One, which Smith wrote, was all it took for me to instantly be enthralled with the show. The animation was fantastic, the more adult tone was on point, and the action was exactly what I wanted: over-the-top and with stakes. Seriously, what's not to like?

The Music is More Than I Expected

But there was one aspect that I noted more than once in my note-taking: the music. As a guy who considers the soundtrack to a movie just as important as the movie itself, I loved it. When I listen to many of the soundtracks I own--be they from John Williams, James Horner, or others--I can "see" the movie in my mind as I hear the score.

Bear McCreary composed the music not for a mere cartoon. He took to heart the mantra the Mattel folks gave Smith during the creation of the show: make this franchise feel epic and Shakespearian. McCreary delivered. Not only did we get a huge, sweeping orchestral score, but he threw in metal-like guitars in many of the action sequences. That was awesome.

Yet McCreary didn't just compose bombastic music. He wrote the smaller, quieter parts equally as good. You know how seconds after a show ends, Netflix's app prompts you to either skip the credits and jump to the next episode or stay for the credits? I stayed for the credits just to hear McCreay's music. The end piece for Episode One, with its single French Horn mournfully playing after the titanic events that close that episode is a wonderful piece of music that reminded me a little of how Princess Leia's theme from Star Wars (1977) sounded.

The Quest Starts With Lots of Fun References

Naturally, after both He-Man and Skeletor "die" in Episode One, we have the what comes after. Teela (not She-Ra, thank you very much) and everyone else have moved on. So, too, has Eternia, this time, with technology. Science fiction geek that I am, I loved the tech in the next four episodes. And I especially appreciated how it was used in the show. Magic failed Eternia, so tech filled the void. Excellent take and historically accurate analogy (for our world). 

I appreciated how we start with Teela and then revisit every other character and what they've been doing in the years since the magic died. So, too, did I love the little references thrown in for the benefit of the audience, the “if you know, you'll know parts.” "Sorry about the mess," line from Teela was an obvious one, but I also dug the "Certain death? Most likely.“ line as a callback to Disney's The Emperor's New Groove. 

In a nod to the old shows, it was fun to see adventures from back in the day. I'm not sure these were actual episodes remade in the modern style or untold new adventures by our heroes, but I'm game to see them nonetheless. But I thoroughly enjoyed how Episode Three started with a cold open showing a past adventure and when He-Man uttered a cheesy line, the episode flipped back to Teela's new friend, Andra, openly questioning Teela's retelling. It enabled the writer of that episode to acknowledge the source material and the nature of 80s cartoons in general. That writer? Marc Bernardin.

Orko's Speech and Marc Bernardin’s Writing

By Episode Three, Teela has gathered a small team to search for the two halves of the Sword of Power, and that includes Skeletor's former sidekick Evil-Lyn. I only casually watched Game of Thrones but of the handful of episodes I watched, Lena Headey commanded the screen every time she stepped in front of the lens. Her casting as Evil-Lyn was marvelous, especially over the course of this episode as she begins to question all the bad things she did alongside Skeletor. Headey only gives a vocal performance, but you can hear all the cracks in her personal armor start to chip away as she shares times and the quest with the former heroes.

I knew from his commentary in the podcast that Bernardin was a gifted writer. It was his episode for which I most looked forward. And man did he deliver. He gave us humorous lines like "She's the only one with a Skeletor in her closet." Later, when our heroes have dispatched the Mer-Man, Andra says, "Something fishy about that guy." When all look to her, she says, "What? We were all thinking it." Yet for all the funny lines, he supplied some of the most heartfelt moments in all five of these episodes. Evil-Lyn's lament about her early days with Skeletor—"Instead of fulfilling my destiny, I spent a lifetime trying to fulfill his.”—is particularly moving.

But the most poignant lines of this episode were delivered by a character I recognized as being from MOTU but never knew his name: Orko. Griffin Newman voices the diminutive Trollan probably like the old episodes--in a squeaky voice--but still manages to convey tiredness and hopelessness as we first meet him. With the magic gone from Eternia, Orko is slowly dying, being kept alive by magic water delivered to him by Man-at-Arms. When Teela comes calling for Man-at-Arms, she finds Orko as well, and he implores her to take him with her. "I had the best times of my life with you," Orka says via Bernardin's words. "And that's the only thing that can help me right now. More life. But life is out there. So bring me on an adventure. Like you used to. Just this one last time. I won't let you down like the old days. I promise I'll be good." For a newbie like me, those few lines told me all I needed to know about this character. 

But then Orko delivers this speech to Audra:

"I spent years fighting alongside Eternia's greatest warriors. And now, I forget more than I remember. All my memories just blur together. So, if you're gonna lead the life of an adventurer, Andra, you might want to keep a journal. And write down everything you ever do, even the silly stuff you think is forgettable. Because when the adventures are over, that's all you're left with. Good friends and happy memories."

Bernardin is a middle-aged man. So, too, am I, Kevin Smith, and a large majority of the audience who grew up with MOTU. The die-hard fans probably have all the episodes of MOTU on DVD and have memorized many passages. I can do that with Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, and others. We've got those collective memories seared into our brains via countless viewings. But how many of us can remember the nuances of childhood, what it was really like to be a youth in high school, the little moments when we met our spouses, or those first months after our children were born. Bernardin, through Orko, is reminding us of what's really important in life: experiences with family and friends.  Orko's sentiment is all the more powerful after he finally has his big moment and sacrifices himself to save his friends. 

The Big Cliffhanger

Speaking of sacrifices, Roboto also gave his life to reforge the Sword of Power. He's at peace with it, however, saying, "I was no mere machine. I was a miracle." Isn't all of life a miracle? Yes, it is. I know these episodes were written in 2019 and into 2020 and I can't help but consider how the pandemic influenced some of this writing. 

Our heroes finally find Prince Adam and discover he's living in heaven with other heroes of Eternia. It's a story beat you knew was coming but still gave you chills when it came to pass. So, too, was Adam's natural decision to return to Eternia and abandon heaven, knowing he could never return. It's what heroes do and, after all, he's He-Man. 

But just as Adam never truly died, neither did Skeletor. His soul, like the Horcruxes of Voldemort in Harry Potter, was stored in Evil-Lyn's wand, and he reemerges just in time to stab Adam as he's about to utter that famous line. In the final moments of Part I, it is Skeletor, voiced by Mark Hamill, who gets to utter the "By the power of Grayskull" line--probably a first for the character--and become the Master of the Universe.

And now, like at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, we have to wait for Part II to drop. Let's just hope it's not another year.

The Subtitle is the Roadmap for Those Who Care to See It

It was only after I watched and thoroughly enjoyed all five episodes that I jumped online (to ensure I got the details of this review correct) and learned about the vitriol being thrown at Smith. Granted, he's used to being criticized for his own movies, but it still surprised me. This wasn't a situation where one company bought another franchise and then made movies divorced from the original creator. Mattel sought out a kindred MOTU spirit and found it in Kevin Smith. He, in turn, recruited folks who loved the franchise and gave it their all, be it in words, music, animation, or voice. 

And Mattel wouldn't have greenlit the project if they disagreed with Smith's vision. They could have stopped it at any time if they didn't like the choices Smith and company were making. But Mattel didn't. They recognized that this is a show created with reverential love and appreciation for the source material. It is a continuation of the story not from the perspective of the corporate suits who made the original but fans who loved and grew up with MOTU and are now in positions of power to say yes to a project like this. 

It seems like much of the fan reaction focuses on He-Man and him not being in every minute of the story. They point to the original title—“He-Man and the Masters of the Universe”—as proof this new iteration is just plain wrong. But it's right there in the title: Masters of the Universe: Revelation. It's not just a He-Man story. It's a story about everyone else, too. Because why not? I'm guessing all those old shows either didn't delve into the characters much or, if they did, it was only He-Man and Skeletor. 

And just as the opening of Episode One revealed the staircase below Castle Grayskull (seemed like this was a new thing), so, too, will it be likely be revealed that He-Man isn't the only person capable of being a Master of the Universe. There were those other heroes now in heaven. And now there's Skeletor. There's a good chance we'll see someone else utter that famous line and have the power. I'm betting it'll be Teela. Heck, it could even be Evil-Lyn (because I think her time with the heroes has changed her). 

But the subtitle is probably forecasting the future. It will all be revealed when we have the entire story. Because let's be honest: we’ve seen only half the story. People are losing their minds with only half the information in their grasp. Seriously, folks. You can't judge Star Wars having only seen A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Ditto for Star Trek (after Wrath of Khan) or Harry Potter (after any book/movie after Goblet of Fire) or Lord of the Rings (after The Two Towers). We don't know the entire story yet.

Fandom Should Grow and Evolve

Besides, what’s wrong with change? Was there an uproar when Frank Miller made Robin a girl in The Dark Knight Returns? How about when Lois Lane discovered Superman’s secret identity? Or when Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck became female? Or Sherlock Holmes’s Watson followed suit? Or when a young woman welded Skywalker’s lightsaber in The Force Awakens? 

Oh, wait, yeah there was. What’s the common denominator? Female empowerment. Why is there a subset of fandom that thinks only white dudes can lead franchises? True, back in the day, they all did because it was white dudes making all the choices. But fandom has evolved to be more inclusive. Back in my day, we geeks sought out each other because most every other clique thought us weird. We collectively bonded over our shared geekdom. Now those geeks have grown up and are making shows like MOTU: Revelation not only for us veteran geeks but for the young ones as well. And those young ones are living in the 21st Century, a world that’s different from the ones we lived through. 

So, from a purely business standpoint, it makes sense to have Teela and Andra and Evil-Lyn be the stars and carry the heavy load because the fandom should be more inclusive. But just by including some doesn’t mean we’re excluding others. The tent is bigger now, more diverse, and with opinions to match. That is a great and healthy accomplishment if we allow it to be.

The Verdict

Back to the marvelous first half of this epic movie (for that’s what it is, just in ten 24-minute installments), this newbie MOTU watcher loved being introduced to the franchise. I was swept away by the scope of the story, the broadness of the music, the excellence of the voice actors, and the modern animation style. It is one of the best things I've seen in 2021 and will likely rank in my Top 5 for this year.

I may be late to the party, but this stuff is really cool and I can’t wait for Part II to drop. In the meantime, however, I think I'll find out where the original series is streaming and dive in.

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