Whether you listen to the podcast, read my blogs or do similar stuff elsewhere, you understand that there’s simply some things you never outgrow. For a long time for me, that was pro wrestling, but as I finally waned off that in the past few years, one of the biggest influences of my childhood has remained as prominent a figure as ever: He-Man.
Sure, the original in the early-mid 1980s was a behemoth, but what I want to talk about today (and for the next few weeks) is the 2002 reboot of the Masters of the Universe made by Mike Young Productions for Cartoon Network.
It didn’t last long – only 39 episodes – which is a shame because I genuinely loved this series. And that love was not strictly based on nostalgia; it is genuinely good. It also had a wonderful toyline that became such a pain in the ass to collect as it felt like all you could ever find were repaints of He-Man and Skeletor and never the secondary characters needed to fill out your battle lines.
As opposed to the late-80s attempt to rejuvenate the He-Man brand by sending him into space to defend the planet of Primus (so, so bad…but something I would love to cover here if I can ever get around to it), this iteration holds close to the original MOTU mythology that we grew up loving and expands upon it in ways that are respectful, yet grow it at the same time.
Rather than go too deep into backstory – as we have 39 episodes to watch and discuss the finer points – let’s get right into things.
Season 1, Episode 1: The Beginning Part 1
Original Air Date: August 16, 2002
You may have noticed this is a “Part 1”. The first three episodes of this series were aired together in a block on Cartoon Network to introduce fans to the new mythos with a nice, full dive. This entire series can be found on YouTube, and I’m nice enough to include the episode here so we can watch together.
We open with young Prince Adam (first big change from the original as there is now a very obvious physical difference from Adam and He-Man) getting ready to introduce us to his world in a very obvious callback to the original series, but he is immediately cutoff, by an attacking squadron of Skeletor’s minions. After a quick gaze of all the new, updated 2002 looks for the involved characters, we see a brief He-Man transformation before going into the title page.
The open is short, but sweet. I remember watching this when it originally aired (I would have been about 20 at the time) and I was immediately hooked. Like, “fuck yes, hook this to my fucking veins” excited.
From the beginning, we’re already seeing a major difference in storytelling from what we knew. We get Captain (not quite yet King) Randor leading a small squad of defenders (Mekaneck, Ram Man and the trusty Man-At-Arms) and it’s obvious that we’re seeing a glimpse into the history of Eternia. This will prove to give us some backstory and explanation which there wasn’t much of in the original.
I don’t blame the Filmation series for that, by the way. There wasn’t a lot of precedent to take a cartoon and do some kind of episodic storytelling, especially when so much of the universe was being made up almost on the fly with new characters or motives being introduced in almost every episode. Twenty years later, however, we have people who grew up with He-Man, are knowledgeable about the characters and world and are getting an opportunity to produce their version of it that they would wish to see. It’s an officially licensed version of fan fiction and it’s why we’ve gotten so many cool productions in our adult years of properties we loved as kids. You really think the Marvel Universe would have been as good without fanboys leading the charge?
Randor speaks with the Eternian Elders and informs them of Keldor’s coming arrival with his forces of evil. The Elders give him the look like, “Money, we fucking know. We’re the Elders. We know all this shit.” Randor is confused AF, and then frantic when he’s told that the Elders are gonna peace out and he’ll be left to be King after he defeats Keldor.
We then get the first appearance of Keldor and his minions. Personally, I love the updated looks for all the characters and this brief little backstory of Keldor having his face burned away in battle and retreating to one day become Skeletor, the Overlord of Evil, is nice to give some motivation to his future plots.
Also, if this first fight scene is any indication, we’re going to be getting a lot more excitement in this series. That’s partially attributable to advances in animation, but also that the animators have a lot more leeway to show some violence. That’s a good thing.
We move into the present day and are met with teenagers Teela and Prince Adam in a basic training session being overseen by Man-At-Arms and Mekaneck. Adam in his prince form is still a goof-off, but with good reason as Eternia hasn’t been threatened by evil in his lifetime so he doesn’t see the need for training. Teela, though younger in this version than the original, still shows a serious demeanor in her training and will obviously be moving into a role as Force Captain at some point. Good for her. Gotta have goals.
Far across the land, in a dark, lava-pooled world, we see Snake Mountain. Evil-Lyn, Beastman, Tri-Klops and Trap-Jaw are coming together as they’ve been called by Skeletor who has been waiting years to return himself to public consciousness. It seems as if – when the Defenders drove the baddies from Eternia – a Mystic Wall was built to keep them from returning. Skeletor has finally found a way to breach said wall and cause some fuckin’ ruckus again.
While Skeletor and his henchmen are breaching the Mystic Wall, the heroes of Eternia are celebrating Prince Adam’s birthday. There’s fun and games for all, but once Skeletor has succeeded in bringing the wall down, Man-At-Arms gets an emergency telepathic message summoning him to Castle Grayskull. He grabs Adam and goes unbeknownst to the rest of partygoers while Skeletor steps foot into Eternia for the first time in years.
Adam and Man-At-Arms arrive at Grayskull and we meet the Sorceress. She’s trying to explain to Adam that it is his destiny to become He-Man, the great protector of Eternia, but he’s like, “Nah, fam, I’m gucci and you’re making me miss my birthday party.”
Adam chucks up the deuces and heads back home as the Sorceress is giving Man-At-Arms that “This motherfucker” look. MAA just shrugs like, “Money, gone learn today.”
Adam obviously thinks everything he’s just heard is complete mularkey, but as he’s about to return to the kingdom, plumes of smoke are rising from all ends signifying that a battle has taken place as we set the tease for Episode 2.
It’s hard for me to be unbiased here because I grew up loving the shit out of some MOTU. But I was excited as hell when this was coming out in 2002 and I was excited as hell re-watching this in 2019. I think it’s a terrific first chapter for a reboot that delivers on multiple fronts.
When you have a property as popular as MOTU once was it’s going to be tough to satisfy everybody. You have to have your fan service while at the same time, not just obliterate the original mythos that people grew up loving. Personally, I think the creators did a wonderful job expanding on the original story and deepening the characters and their motivations. For long-time He-Man fans, I really don’t see how you can dislike this.
As for new fans, or people and kids who didn’t grow up with this, I think it’s a very easy story to get into. There’s not a lot of “inside baseball” happening here. Obviously, there are little things you’ll appreciate having grown up with MOTU, but you won’t find this new telling hard to consume without that prior knowledge.
All in all, a badass first episode that has me excited to get into the next one and the series as a whole.