The original He-Man of the 80’s was meant to sell toys, with occasional social messages shoved in to mollify parents. The latest reboot in 2021, the CGI He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, has its own lesson – how to do a reboot and create a good show.
Episode one opens with underclass magic-user Teela stealing a sword for failed coup-potters, the witch Evelyn and the engineer Kronis. When the sword talks to her, Teela flees to a village of refugees allied with a race of talking tigers. When her employers decide to murder everyone to take the sword, Teela and Kronis’ apprentice Duncan turn on them. Fortunately, the sword turns an amnesiac young man named Adam into a powerful hero. With this new “He-Man” and Adam’s headbutt-inclined friend Krass, they take on the attackers.
That’s episode one. Within twenty-two packed minutes, it establishes two forms of magic, previous and current political problems, economic strife, and more. The rest of the series follows suit – while still having time for anime-style transformations and hijinks.
The show’s first lesson is one of precision. There’s not a wasted scene nor a wasted opportunity to tell a story or have a bit of characterization. The show isn’t mechanical but is more akin to a musical composition that uses each instrument or beat to its fullest.
This precise composition allows for density. When the show moves at a good clip and dialogue is well chosen, a lot happens. Revelations and worldbuilding details come thick and fast. Characters have ups and downs, grand quests mix with tiny moments. The world feels alive.
Finally, this precision and density give room. There’s time for glorious attack sequences and silly jokes. There’s space for creating moods with the graphics. These additions bring the characters and world to life.
The show is a masterful example of how to do good storytelling.
However, a show is nothing without a world and characters. How do you work with an old property that was largely a marketing effort? How do you acknowledge the real emotional attachment developed that took He-Man farther? Also how do you make it something new and alive?
Simple. Treat the original as raw material.
The show’s world is a complete rethinking of the original property, taking past creations and reorganizing, re-using, and re-creating. Characters may be re-envisioned, two concepts merged to form a third, and so on. The result is a deep world, but also one an old fan will recognize as sure as a rebuilt house reflects the old dwelling.
For example, let’s talk Prince Adam, aka “He-Man” (though he’s not thrilled with the given nickname). Gone is the Clark Kent take of a supposedly wimpy prince who becomes a hero. This Adam is an amnesiac in a tribe of refugees who has destiny dropped into his hands. He has to learn to use power, discover who he is, and find out why he becomes He-Man. The result is an exciting character journey that goes to not always pleasant places, but is also about good person trying to do good.
This is one character. Plenty of familiar characters appear (sometimes merged into one character) with their own stories and takes. Unbound by trying to keep it “the same,” the show can create something rich and alive.
Here lies the next lesson of the show: don’t be bound by the past, use it. Freed of trying to “do the 80’s thing but not” the show soars on its own, unbounded by expectations. All its inspirations are obvious, but they’re wings, not weights.
Finally, the show has the right voice talent – it’s clear everyone is into their role. The ever-reliable Yuri Lowenthall is a great He-Man/Adam. Grey Griffin’s Evelyn/Evil-Lynn is a joyfully villainous schemer. Last but in no way least, Benjamin Diskin’s Keldor – later Skeletor – has a wonderful arc, descending from coup-plotting brother to complete maniac and madman.
The final lesson is get the right people to bring about your vision.
There’s a lot to learn from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (the 2011 show). It’s actually worth the time for authors and writers to pay attention to.
And that’s before you get into the fact the show has lots of good things to say on friendship, power, and more . . .