As He-Man and the Masters of the Universe debuts on Netflix today, it will mark the third show to bear the name. The first was the classic ‘80s cartoon that made the franchise and accompanying toyline a mega-hit. The second, in 2002, tried to get kids interested in the character of He-Man again but failed by stepping almost solely in the shoes of the 20-year-old original. The new, CG-animated He-Man and the Masters of the Universe series has not made that mistake.
While the show has reinvented He-Man’s core concept, it certainly hasn’t reinvented modern cartoons. It feels, and looks, like a modern-day, CG-animated kids’ series like Star Wars Rebels, the Lego cartoons, and others. There’s the same mix of kid-appropriate action, drama, and humour; nothing is so dire that a one-liner can’t be dropped. The transformations are pure anime, while both the heroes and villains have “special moves” that could have come right out of a video game. While most of the first season’s 10 episodes have their own individual adventures, there’s enough serialized storytelling that should keep kids interested.
The operative word there being “should.” For me, the show’s biggest flaw was that the 10 episodes of season one feel more like a prologue to the show rather than the show itself. A lot of major developments are parcelled out very slowly, or saved for the two-part finale, which might — might — frustrate its young audience.
However, it’s entirely possible that this is solely a complaint from an old-school He-Man fan who has certain expectations of where the story is going to go or is “supposed” to go. The kids whose first experience of Masters of the Universe is this cartoon might not feel like the show is dragging its heels in the slightest.
If the character designs or the trailer hasn’t clued you in, this new series is not for longtime He-Man fans (that’s the other Netflix show). It’s tailored to the preteens of 2021 and has updated the franchise accordingly. The show has kept its basic premise — Prince Adam has a magic sword that allows him to turn into the buff, powerful He-Man, and he and his heroic friends fight Skeletor and his evil minions — and that’s almost entirely it. It’s impossible (for me, anyway) to talk about this new series without talking about all the ways it deviates from the original, so allow us to get into some spoilers.
When the series begins, Prince Adam is no prince (at least as far as he knows). His first memories were being adopted into the Tiger Tribe, a forest-dwelling people who coexist alongside a pack of green, yellow-striped tigers. His best friends are Krass and Cringer, the latter of whom is a full-sized tiger and no scaredy-cat (having earned his name for a very cool reason).
When we meet the witch-thief Teela and tech guy Duncan — no relation — they’re both working for the bad guys, Evelyn and Kronis, although that doesn’t last long. In short order, the four teens and tiger are protecting Castle Grayskull and the people of Eternos from Evelyn, Kronis, the poacher R’Qazz, and the newly resurrected sorcerer Keldor, who has a connection to Adam old-school fans won’t be surprised by.
If you’re wondering where the traditional heroes like Man-at-Arms and villains like Beast-Man are, I can assure you they’re still part of the show. It just happens to be through He-Man and the Masters of the Universe’s biggest, best, and most modern update. When Prince Adam transforms into He-Man, he doesn’t just change Cringer into Battle Cat. He can also power up Teela into Sorceress, Duncan into Man-at-Arms, and Krass into the wonderfully named Ram Ma’am.
All five, in effect, have the power as well as the ability to become Masters of the Universe. It’s a much more egalitarian He-Man cartoon, and because Skeletor (eventually) can similarly augment his minions into classic foes, it’s a lot of fun. And if the show wants to have a chance at getting kids interested in He-Man again, fun is much, much more important than a singular devotion to the original series.
Regardless of whether this Masters of the Universe series succeeds or fails with its intended audience, I’m nothing but impressed. Netflix and Mattel have managed to reinvent He-Man for 2021, a feat that I honestly thought was impossible. It’s dared to drop all the parts of the ‘80s series that had become dead weight, and wise enough to emulate the cartoons that kids today are watching. Maybe He-Man and the Masters of the Universe won’t be enough to hook a new generation of viewers, but it’s finally got a real shot — and that’s something He-Man fans of all ages should be happy about.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe stars Yuri Lowenthal as Adam/He-Man, David Kaye as Cringer/Battle Cat, Grey Griffin as Evelyn/Evil-Lyn, Antony Del Rio as Duncan/Man-at-Arms, Kimberly Brooks as Teela/Sorceress, Trevor Devall as R’Qazz/Beast Man, Judy Alice Lee as Krass/Ram Ma’am, Roger Craig Smith as Kronis/Trap-Jaw, Ben Diskin as Keldor/Skeletor, Fred Tatasciore as King Randor, and Tom Kenny as the robot Ork-0. Bryan Q. Miller (Shadowhunters, Smallville) is the story editor for the series, which was created and developed for TV by Rob David, with animation by CGCG (Star Wars: The Clone Wars) and House of Cool (Trollhunters).
Season one is now streaming on Netflix.