In early 2019, the iconoclastic filmmaker, podcast host and foul-mouthed bon vivant got a call from his agent. Mattel, the toy company, wanted to meet, but they required that Smith sign an NDA first. So Smith asked where their offices were located.
“He’s like, ‘El Segundo,’ and I’m like, ‘Fucking Santa Monica? I’m not going out there!'” Smith said. “So, I passed. And then they called back, and he was like, ‘They said they’d come to your house.’ I was like, ‘Oh, that’s great. Yeah, send them over. I’ll talk whatever they want to talk about.'”
Sometime later, Rob David, vice president of content creative at Mattel Television, rolled up to Smith’s Hollywood Hills home. After Smith signed the NDA, David explained why he was there: He wanted Smith to help him make a Netflix series based on the 1980s animated kids show “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.”
Anyone familiar with Smith’s sui generis oeuvre of profane indies like “Clerks,” “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma” might be surprised that Mattel would think of Smith as the right creative shepherd for an earnest swords-and-sorcery property about a hulking Adonis in a furry speedo and chest-plate. Smith certainly was.
“I never would have put that together,” he said. He was a young teenager during “He-Man’s” run from 1983 to 1985, and he wasn’t exactly a die-hard fan. “I almost hate-watched it, because I was like, this show’s for babies,” he said. “They have one of the baddest-ass villains in history, Skeletor, visually incredible, and all they did was somersault and not really fight. Nobody ever got stabbed. But it was the ’80s, so you watched everything that was on.”
David, however, had a specific pitch for Smith. Mattel was already working with Netflix on a CG-animated “He-Man” series that would reboot and update the property for a new generation of children. And the company was developing a live-action feature film adaptation that would also bring He-Man’s world of Eternia into a 21st century cinematic context.
But David and Netflix’s director of original series Ted Biaselli had hit upon a third approach to the property: A show that would be “for those adult fans who grew up loving ‘He-Man,'” David said. “Not to even reimagine: Let’s just do a direct continuation of the classic ’80s era.”
Separate from his feature film work, Smith had authored comic book runs of Marvel’s “Daredevil” and DC’s “Green Arrow” in the late 1990s and early 2000s that David greatly admired for their fealty to the subject matter, with none of Smith’s signature dick and fart jokes. “He’d taken some of the great stuff that Frank Miller had done with ‘Daredevil’ and found a way to honor that but then build on it,” David said.
David and Biaselli wanted Smith to do the same with “He-Man”: Take the show from the 1980s and continue that story with those characters, only now for an adult audience. Finally, He-Man and Skeletor could really do battle, and one — or both! — could get stabbed.
Smith loved the idea.
"I know what a fan base reacts like when they don't get the thing they grew up watching."
“[Biaselli’s] like, ‘I yearn to watch the show I thought I was watching in childhood. That’s what I’m looking for here, the same show, but people can die. Can you do that?'” Smith said. “And I was like, ‘That’s the only thing I can do.’”
“Honestly, if it had been anything else outside of that — if they were like, ‘We want you to reinvent this for the modern age’ — that would have scared me off creatively, because I’m not that inventive,” Smith continued. “And also, because I know what a fan base reacts like when they don’t get the thing they grew up watching. You think I’m gonna be the fall guy for that? If I’m involved in a thing, it’s going to be true to what it is. It’s gonna be true to the franchise.”
And yet, a little more than 24 hours after the debut of “Masters of the Universe: Revelation” on Netflix — and despite near universally glowing notices from critics — the show has been “review-bombed” by users posting to Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb. The general consensus among those upset: Smith had indeed not given fans the thing they grew up watching — namely, he had not given them He-Man.
By any reasonable measure, Smith, David and the rest of the creative team were successful in achieving what they set out to do: Make a series that looks and feels like a sophisticated, adult continuation of the “He-Man” animated series from the 1980s. Beloved sci-fi composer Bear McCreary (“Battlestar Galactica,” “The Walking Dead”) wrote a sweeping score that takes the story seriously. Several locations from the original show are smartly utilized, and nearly two dozen characters (Trap Jaw! Tri-Klops! Stinkor!) make memorable appearances. The animation, led by directors Patrick Stannard and Adam Conarroe (Netflix’s “Castlevania”), pays loving attention to the design aesthetic of the original — characters drive vehicles that evoke the tie-in He-Man toy line — while upgrading it for an adult eye and sensibility. One example: While He-Man and his alter ego Prince Adam are still voiced by the same actor (this time by “Supergirl’s” Chris Wood), Adam is now a scrawnier, more normal looking young man, instead of a hulking Adonis who looks exactly like He-Man in regular clothing.
In the first episode, however, Smith, David and the rest of the creative team made a bold creative decision: He-Man (seemingly) dies, as does Skeletor (voiced by Mark Hamill), the result of a cataclysmic battle that also leaves Eternia devoid of all magic. While He-Man appears in flashbacks, for the rest of the first half of the season, he’s missing in action from the main story.
Instead, He-Man’s friends and even some of his enemies have to figure out how to bring magic back to Eternia, and save all of existence in doing so. In this quest, they’re led, reluctantly, by He-Man’s former loyal compatriot, Teela (voiced by Sarah Michelle Gellar) — who still feels devastated and betrayed as the only one in He-Man’s inner-circle who never knew he was also Prince Adam.
In speaking with Variety about these choices, it’s clear that the creators and cast of “Revelation” only ever wanted to please fans of the show by getting to do the things the original never could: real stakes and real consequences, with nuanced characters imbued with genuine pathos and psychological maturity. But it’s also clear that “Revelation” is a textbook case of the precarious tightrope walk of trying to please fans of a legacy franchise while also trying to avoid merely regurgitating what came before. Especially given that the world of extremely online fandoms — almost always exclusively driven by men — have not responded well when a property previously led by a man suddenly has a woman at its center instead.
After Wood won the role of He-Man — “I went for it, just screaming, ‘I have the power’ in our closet, hoping that my family wasn’t thinking I was losing it,” he said with a laugh — discovering in the very first script that his character appears to die was, indeed, a shock.
“I read it and I was like, ‘Wait, is that…? Is that how this happens?'” he said. “‘Is this…is there more?'”
As anyone who has seen all five episodes of “Revelation” knows, there was more for Wood to do, especially in Episode 5, since neither Skeletor nor Prince Adam really died died. But David’s initial pitch to Smith kept Adam alive the entire time. In the midst of a massive battle at Castle Greyskull, Skeletor breaks the vessel containing all magic on Eternia, and He-Man is forced to split the Sword of Power in two in order to contain the ensuing explosion. In David’s version, Adam survived; robbed of his ability to become He-Man, he spends the rest of the series figuring out how to build himself back up to his former glory.
“Kevin thought that was terrific,” said David. “And then he one-upped me and said, ‘What if we don’t just break the Sword of Power? What if we actually break Adam, too? What if he dies, when we flash forward a few years we really get to explore that — also what is it like for a world without He-Man?'”
In breaking the story for “Revelation,” Smith said David pulled out “books of lore” for He-Man and Eternia created by Mattel over the decades since the toy was first created. Between David’s commitment to the history of He-Man, and Biaselli’s bone-deep love for the original show, Smith felt like he had guard-rails keeping him from going too far afield. Besides, his mandate was to make a He-Man show where characters could actually die; what better way to make that clear than killing the show’s main hero and villain from the jump?
“All we have to do is not disavow anything,” Smith said. “Nobody’s saying, ‘Hey, man, everything you knew about He-Man was wrong.’ It’s like, no, everything you knew was absolutely right. And now, this is what happened when they finally had their epic battle — and what happened after that.”
“Even though this is a love letter to the 1980s version of ‘Masters of Universe,’ we didn’t want to rest on that,” added David. “In order for something to be alive, it’s got to have the capacity to surprise you. It has to have the capacity to grow.”
Once Wood understood the approach, he loved it. “It was jarring, but in a really amazing way, you know, because Skeletor and He-Man, there was no real urgency or life or death stakes to their battles [in the original],” he said.
With He-Man’s death locked in, Smith looked at the characters who were left in Eternia who could drive the story for the next four episodes. One jumped the to the fore.
“Teela I was particularly interested in because she’s been fucking lied to her entire life,” Smith said. “And that, to me, was drama.”
In Episode 2, Teela is working as a mercenary for hire, and her disillusionment with He-Man and alienation from magic work as a kind of allegory for the cynicism of adulthood overshadowing the wonders of childhood. She was the perfect vehicle for what “Revelation” was trying to do: Strip away everything the heroes cared about to get at the heart of who they really are, and what makes them heroic.
“My favorite movies are ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ ‘The Wrath of Khan,'” said David. “The hero gets really hit hard, and then the story becomes about how the hero gets back up again and better and stronger than ever. In basically stripping away all the comforts the hero took for granted, the hero reveals to him or herself what truly makes them strong inside and then have to rebuild.”
“We thought by having an unexpected character go on that journey in real time with the audience,” he continued, “we would be able to really hit just how important He-Man is, and just how important those themes are.”
"You really fucking think Mattel Television, who hired me and paid me money, wants to do a fucking 'Masters of the Universe' show without He-Man? Grow the fuck up, man."
When Gellar was first approached about playing Teela, however, she wasn’t sure she wanted it.
“I thought it’d be a very small role at first, because just looking at ‘He-Man,’ I didn’t even really necessarily remember her,” she said. “I mean, maybe vaguely. And then I started reading [the scripts], and I was like, ‘Oh, she’s the show! OK, this is new.'”
In truth, Gellar didn’t pay very much attention to the original “He-Man” for the simple reason that the entire world was telling her the show was only for boys.
“I think what’s interesting about the original incarnation was it was very gender specific,” she said. “There wasn’t something for me; there wasn’t a character that I saw myself in. And I think that sort of then you realize it’s not about gender, right? It’s not necessarily boy/girl, but it’s about seeing yourself in someone in it,” Gellar said. “What’s so wonderful about what they did [with ‘Revelation’] is not only do I see myself in a lot of these female characters, but I also see myself for the first time in He-Man and Skeletor. They’re much closer to characters that I think that we can understand and feel like we have something in common with. Not that I like to think I have too much in common with Skeletor.”
It was that opportunity to humanize and complicate established characters that Smith was most excited about, especially since it gave him a chance to put into practice a decade’s worth of personal observations of the most successful attempt at fan service in Hollywood history: The Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“I know how to Marvel-ize this shit,” Smith said. “They re-served me my childhood with fresh recipes, and I get to eat the same meals that made me happy as a kid all over again. But it’s a trick. I’ve been studying Kevin Feige like crazy for 10 years. They give you something that you feel like looks like your childhood. But when you go back and compare it to your childhood, it’s way better. And that’s what we did here.”
Some fans, though, just want their childhood again. Smith spoke with Variety weeks before “Revelation’s” debut, but his sensitivity to fan reactions meant he was closely monitoring Twitter for how people were talking about the various trailers for “Revelation.” So he’d already picked up on discontent with the understanding that Teela was going to be a far more important character on his show.
“I know there’s some people that are like, ‘Hey, man, this show’s woke,'” he said. “I’m like, all right, great, then so was the original cartoon we’re fucking sequel-izing. Go watch it again. There are girls in every episode. Deal with it.”
Never one to mince his words, Smith couldn’t hide his frustration with fans taking issue with a show that, at that point, they hadn’t seen yet.
“It’s been interesting, seeing who truly is a hardcore fan,” he said. “Because anybody that’s like, ‘Oh, man, there’s not enough He-Man’ or something like that, doesn’t understand the show that we based it on. There were episodes where he lost the sword and he never became He-Man. It wasn’t like He-Man always saved the day. His friends helped him. That was the fucking point of the show.”
Now that the show has premiered, there is no denying that He-Man isn’t around all that much, but some of the backlash could also be a misread of the final moments of the first half of the series, which hinges on a massive cliffhanger. In their quest to unify the Sword of Power to bring magic back to Eternia, Teela and her friends discover Prince Adam is alive in Preternia, a kind of edenic afterlife for Eternia’s fallen heroes. In a moment of selflessness, knowing that he can never return to Preternia again, Adam decides follow his friends back to Castle Greyskull.
But once they do, and use the reunified Sword of Power to return magic to Greyskull, Skeletor also emerges, and literally impales Adam in the back before he can become He-Man again. Then Skeletor takes the Sword of Power, raises it to the sky, and becomes Skele-God, a Master of the Universe — end of episode.
It could be easy to assume that Skeletor has killed Prince Adam. But he did not.
“Adam’s not dead; he’s very wounded,” said Wood. “If you want to light the whole world on fire, in terms of destroying a fandom, you’d take He-Man out and be like, ‘That’s it, he’s gone, bye!’ Now what they’ve done is they’ve found really interesting ways to turn the dynamics of the show on its head and raise the stakes to a point that the original never saw.”
Smith was blunter.
“I see people online go, ‘Hey man, they’re getting rid of He-Man!'” he said. “Like, you really fucking think Mattel Television, who hired me and paid me money, wants to do a fucking ‘Masters of the Universe’ show without He-Man? Grow the fuck up, man. Like, that blew my mind, bunch of people being like, ‘Oh, I smell it. This is a bait and switch.'”
Part 2 of “Revelation” — which will premiere likely later this year or early next year — will actually explore David’s original pitch, with Prince Adam the one who has to recover from an almost debilitating blow.
“A lot of Part 2 is a world in which Skeletor has the power — then we get to say, ‘Well, what made Adam special?'” David said. “‘What does it mean to have the power? What made Adam the person who was most worthy to be He-Man?’ I will tell you this: Adam’s story is not done and will never be done. Not saying what happens to him, but I’m just saying the stories continues.”
Wood said he has seen very rough versions of Part 2, and his face lit up when describing them. To anyone who might be upset or frustrated with the end of Part 1, he had this advice: “I would say keep keep watching, with the biggest wink that an audio-only interview can give. In a world that’s filled with magic and supernatural powers, anything is possible.”
Even, perhaps, conquering angry fans.