What is free will? Can we know God? And what if everyone was really buff, with abs and stuff?

Patrick Freyne: Like all great fiction, Masters of the Universe asks the big questions

He-Man and Battle Cat in Masters of the Universe: Revelation

He-Man and Battle Cat in Masters of the Universe: Revelation

 

Great fiction asks the big questions: What is free will? How can we step out from the shadows of our upbringing? Can we ever truly know another person? How can man find meaning in tragedy? Can we know God? What if everyone was really buff, like totally ripped with abs and pecs and stuff? In a way this is the most penetrating question of all. It is one that was asked by the creators of the Masters of the Universe series back in the 1980s, after what I presume was a pretty major gas leak at the Mattel toy company. It was a question also asked by Ernest Hemingway and Friedrich Nietzsche.

The Masters of the Universe was a children’s cartoon about a delightful fantasy realm called Eternia in which everyone works out. In Eternia, it doesn’t really matter if you have the head of a robot or an elephant or a snake or a skunk or a skeleton because you are united in having a really hunky body and wearing just pants. There are places on the Clontarf seafront with a very similar culture.

Skeletor (voiced by Mark Hamill) and He-Man (voiced by Chris Wood) in Masters of the Universe: Revelation
Masters of the Universe: Revelation – Skeletor and He-Man

The most important person in the world of Eternia is He-Man. Giving him that name follows a naming convention beloved by the people of that very literal land. In Eternia if you have the face of a skunk you will be called Stinkor and if you have the face of a skeleton you will be called Skeletor and if you have the head of a bee you will be called Buzz-Off. If I lived on Eternia, I would be named BeardFace and most people on planet Earth would be called, by default, Toothless-Screaming-Babyhead. Luckily on Eternia lots of people are born with freakishly distinctive heads, keeping confusion to a minimum.

He-Man is arguably the walking thesis statement of the whole series, a character so male they’ve put two masculine identifiers in his first name, and who gets his power by hoisting a large magic sword in the sky until a shower of lightning flies out of it. Frankly, they couldn’t have been clearer about the gender anxieties of the 1980s if they had given him completely anatomically accurate genitals, and, looking at some of the original action figures, I imagine they tried.

Critiquing a children’s cartoon by revealing you’re having problems masturbating to it is most definitely a win for traditional masculinity

It’s possible the original Masters of the Universe was a post-feminist reassertion of masculine power, an attempt to turn the boys of the Eighties into hunky men of action. But I don’t think they thought that much about it, to be honest. I think it was largely just a way to sell plastic junk to those famously credulous idiots, children. And thus a lot of the original viewers of the show are now middle-aged cranks who collect toy dolls and get angry on Twitter when children’s cartoons are remade in ways they don’t like. You know, just like the tough warrior menfolk of yore. Currently, for example, some online fans of the original Masters of the Universe cartoon are angry that the redesigned female characters’ costumes aren’t sexy enough for them. Yes, critiquing a children’s cartoon by revealing you’re having problems masturbating to it is most definitely a win for traditional masculinity.

Orko (voiced by Griffin Newman) and Evil-Lyn (voiced by Lena Headey) in Masters of the Universe: Revelation
Masters of the Universe: Revelation – Orko and Evil-Lyn

The only thing most of these fans really have in common with He-Man is that they spend lots of time in their pants and sometimes sit on their cat. He-Man, for the record, rides Battle Cat, a vicious saddle-wearing beast who transforms from a cringing pet named Cringer. He-Man’s costume is filled with odd choices. He has a blonde pageboy haircut like Little Lord Fauntleroy and a sort of harness around his chest with a big “H” on it as a prompt lest people forget his name. He wears thick fur underpants but little else, which raises interesting questions about the climate on Eternia. Still, given how thin the characterisation is in the original programme, having hot arms and a cold arse is positively a character trait. He spends much of his time disguised as Prince Adam, who, to the attentive eye, is clearly just He-Man with a shirt on. But the people of Eternia are not attentive and they are amazed at the appearance of He-Man at every turn.

He-Man’s friends include Teela, whose chief characteristic is that she is one of four women in Eternia, and Orko, a floating magical quipster who is basically just a shirt with a hat, perhaps in mockery of He-Man’s own near-nudity and hatlessness. And then there’s Man-at-Arms (played by our own Liam Cunningham in the new version), who is basically the palace armourer, thanks to the rules of nominative determinism which reign over Eternia. He’s probably relieved he wasn’t named S**t-Bucket or Healy-Rae.

Because you’re an Irish Times reader, you probably want to know what Skeletor is going to do about traffic congestion or youth unemployment or the rising cost of living

My favourite character in Masters of the Universe is He-Man’s nemesis, Skeletor, who is a style icon to many, having managed to build up a big, muscley body while retaining a very thin face. This is the dream. He has great cheekbones, which he augments with a cowl and a cheeky cackle, but he is very buff. You should follow him on Instagram.

For generations, man has asked the question: What does Skeletor want? And it’s pretty simple, actually. He wants real estate. Skeletor wants to capture Castle Grayskull, the source of He-Man’s power, in order to usurp the royal family and rule over Eternia. Now, because you’re an Irish Times reader, you probably want to know more. What is Skeletor going to do about traffic congestion or youth unemployment or the rising cost of living? To which Skeletor will say “shut up, nerd”, because he’s cool that way. If only contemporary politicians were so plain-speaking.

That’s pretty much all you need to know about Masters of the Universe. There’s no long story arcs or hidden depths or consistent characterisation. Indeed, you’d think that by handing the high-profile sequel over to pop-culturally obsessed nerd-king and indie-filmmaker Kevin Smith, Netflix would be making the cranky elderly He-Man fans happy. Sadly, nothing will make them feel the way Saturday morning cartoons made them feel in 1985, so they are angered at Smith’s choice to partly sideline He-Man in preference for Teela (Sarah Michelle Gellar) as she wanders through a He-Man-less Eternian wasteland devoid of magic and populated by a techno cult run by the Elon Musk-like Tri-Klops, all the time accompanied by former baddie Evil-Lyn (Lena Headey).

Beast Man, Andra, Prince Adam, Teela and Evil-Lyn in Masters of the Universe: Revelation
Beast Man, Andra, Prince Adam, Teela and Evil-Lyn in Masters of the Universe: Revelation

The Masters of the Universe: Revelation is... fine. It moves the characters from one dimension to two but, if anything, it’s still too wedded to the goofy source material. It’s definitely better than the 1980s original but that was largely crude static animation with a marketing executive screaming “just buy these toys, you pigs!” over it. And it’s not a patch on She-Ra, the reboot of the Masters of the Universe sister show, which debuted on Netflix in 2018 and ran for five series helmed by graphic novelist Noelle Stevenson. Now, that show is visually beautiful, imaginative, funny and sweet. Like the new He-Man show, it was also attacked by angry men online who felt insufficiently sexually attracted to the children’s characters within and were not worried about being put on a register for saying it. Anyway, watch She-Ra. Give Masters of the Universe a miss. And somebody please commission a Skeletor show in which he interns at a fashion magazine and tries to make it in the big city.

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