Part of what made She-Ra and the Princesses of Power so good was the way it completely reimagined the classic cartoon. It was still set in a magical realm with talking horses and evil robot armies, but it took an old show — which, if we’re being honest, was created for the express purpose of selling toys — and gave its characters and world some real depth and meaning. It was funny and exciting, heartbreaking and beautiful, without a toy commercial in sight.
On the surface, Masters of the Universe: Revelation, which stars She-Ra’s long-lost twin brother He-Man, isn’t quite so exciting. It’s not a reboot but a direct sequel, one that’s meant to pick up right after the original cartoon ended in 1985. It has the same cast of characters, some of which are pretty goofy, like a wimpy battle cat and an alien sorcerer with self-esteem problems. Skeletor (now played by Mark Hamill) remains a gigantic dork. Yet, thanks to a bold decision early on, the show manages to become something that almost feels new.
Big spoilers for Masters of the Universe: Revelation ahead.
Because it’s a direct sequel, Revelation wastes no time in setting things up. Immediately Skeletor is in the midst of a plan to destroy Castle Grayskull in order to reveal its true power so that he can harness it for himself. Unfortunately, his attack has the potential side effect of not only destroying the planet of Eternia, but also all of existence. The ensuing battle between the two iconic leads largely removes them from the story, and shifts the focus to other characters.
It’s a dramatic shift, and from there Revelation resembles something of a post-apocalyptic fantasy wasteland. The story fast-forwards a few years when Teela (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a former royal guard, is now a scavenger, making a living by scrounging for old bits of tech and items imbued with magic. There’s a strange cult that worships technology, and, without Skeletor to lead them, Eternia’s many villains have scattered. Eventually, Teela learns that the planet is slowly dying as its magic leaks away, so she reluctantly sets about setting things right. It’s one of those epic quests that involves traveling to both heaven and hell, and pulling together a group of misfits to help you do it.
This premise lets the show mostly get away from the Saturday morning cartoon vibe of the original, while still keeping the same characters and world. Eternia remains an interesting mix of sci-fi, swords, and sorcery, as if Frank Frazetta and Ralph McQuarrie had a jam session. Killer robots fight alongside beast men, and sword-wielding warriors ride mechanical horses and armored cats into battle. Things have a bit more of a Mad Max vibe this time around, with villages fighting over the last drops of magic while the techno-cult terrorizes them. In addition, Teela has a new job as a mercenary, Man-at-Arms (Liam Cunningham) has become an Obi-Wan-style hermit, and Evil-Lyn (Lena Headey) is left confused without a dictator to support. They all end up joining forces in the quest.
It can feel like a reboot, but the show does retain some of the inherent silliness of its predecessor. Revelation’s writers never met a terrible pun they didn’t like, and characters like the dopey villain Mer-Man and the perpetually terrified Cringer feel out of place in this grittier world. The acting is also uneven. There are some good individual performances — Cunningham adds a welcome gravitas, Headey channels her inner Cersei, and Hamill hams it up as always — but it often sounds like a video game where everyone recorded their lines separately. (There are also a few bizarre jokes, like a “no glove, no love” quip that doesn’t seem appropriate in a PG cartoon.)
Because of all of these elements, the show doesn’t feel quite as refreshing or daring as She-Ra. But for a direct sequel to the original cartoon made to sell toys, its surprisingly modern; the dramatic opening paves the way for a new path even if Revelation never fully breaks away from its source. What’s available now on Netflix is also only a beginning: the first part of Revelation is five episodes long, and the final episode suggests there might be even bigger changes in the future.
Masters of the Universe: Revelations will be on Netflix on July 23rd.
Update July 21st, 12:40PM ET: This review has been updated to remove a specific plot spoiler.