Fabulous Secret Powers

‘He-Man’ writers on character’s enduring homoeroticism in ‘Masters of the Universe: Revelation’

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: REVELATION (L to R) MARK HAMILL as SKELETOR and CHRIS WOOD as HE-MAN in episode 101 of MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: REVELATION Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

Both Rob David and Tim Sheridan grew up with Masters of the Universe toys in their toybox. Now, they’ve made a career milestone out of it. The two collaborate on Masters of the Universe: Revelation, the much-buzzed-about revival of the classic 1980s Filmation animated series. The show lands on Netflix July 23.

David cut his teeth writing for kiddie television series, including Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go!, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Robotboy before landing his job as Vice President of Creative Content for Mattel, the toy company behind Masters of the Universe. He executive produces and co-created the new series, alongside executive producer/showrunner Kevin Smith.

Sheridan already rides a wave of success in 2021, having penned the script to the animated films Batman: The Long Halloween, Parts I & II, Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy, and Superman: Man of Tomorrow. Here, he gets sole credit for the fourth episode of the series–one of the most pivotal. As a gay man himself, Sheridan also brings the queer lens to the material, bringing the existing LGBTQ themes that have made He-Man something of a gay icon (not to mention a viral sensation) to the fore.

Masters of the Universe: Revelation picks up not long after the original 1980s series left off, and aims to elevate the material to a more adult level. When the evil Skeletor (voiced here by Mark Hamil) launches an attack on Castle Grayskull, Prince Adam (Chris Wood) raises his magic sword to become the champion He-Man once again. Though he succeeds in defeating Skeletor once again, his victory carries a heavy price as all the magic of the universe is lost, and the planet Eternia is thrust into apocalyptic chaos. He-Man’s friend Teela (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Orko (Griffin Newman) form an uneasy alliance with Skeletor’s lieutenant Evil-Lyn (Lena Heady) to try and restore balance to the universe before Eternia dies.

We sat down with David & Sheridan to discuss the new show, He-Man’s ironic, if enduring, gay fanbase, and fulfilling their lifelong dream to bring a more adult tone to the series. Masters of the Universe: Revelation debuts on Netflix July 23.

So I know both of you are avowed He-Man fans. Rob, I know Masters of the Universe is a big property for Mattel—a legacy property, if you will. When you were presented with the idea of a darker take on the material, did you hesitate?

RD: Not much, from me. If anything, I had to be pulled back. My job at Mattel is outside the toy sphere. I work in the entertainment side of the company; my background is in writing television for kids and families. Before we did Revelation, I was writing the comics for DC. Some of that, because it was specifically an older audience, we could do very earth-shattering, dire stakes. In talking about doing a show with Ted Biaselli at Netflix, we had a wonderful breakfast at Comic-Con in 2018. We said “Wouldn’t it be great to do a show for adult fans?” We knew we could do it in a way that where the characters were as deep as we always imagined them to be, and storylines that had stakes and realism that matched the idealized version of Masters of the Universe that we all had in our heads.

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: REVELATION (L to R) GRIFFIN NEWMAN as ORKO, TIFFANY SMITH as ANDRA, SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR as TEELA, JUSTIN LONG as ROBOTO and LENA HEADEY as EVIL-LYN in episode 103 of MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: REVELATION Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

Why the choice to do a continuation of the original series rather than a clean reboot?

RD: Personally, because we’re talking to people who grew up on the original show. They’ve been waiting to have story elements pay off for almost four decades. There was also a show Mattel produced in 2002 [that rebooted the series]. That was also simultaneously trying to appeal to fans that grew up on the original. It got to a certain point in the storyline, and then it ended. There were still certain story elements that didn’t pay off. We have another He-Man show that we’re doing with Netflix which is catering to the next generation of fans. They will get Prince Adam that they get to meet for the first time. But for this show, we’re talking to directly to people who grew up on the original. We just wanted to say here are the toys where you left them. Just pick them up and keep going.

TS: I’m glad you say that about the toys. It’s funny, I don’t think of this series as darker. The way I played with the toys as a kid, I feel like that is what we tried to bring to life. It always had huge stakes for me when I was playing with the toys. I think you can look at and say it’s darker [than the original series], but it’s not darker than the way I played with the toys.

RD: I agree with Tim. The other thing I hope is coming through in Revelation is that these are real heroes. Sometimes heroes are even more heroic the more they have to overcome. And at the end of the day, these people really care about each other. They love each other. That’s why we care about the stakes. They’re good people in dire situations. One thing we wanted to do is deconstruct some of these characters and put them back together again. There are two characters that Tim just knocked out of the park: Evil-Lyn and Orko. I hope I’m not getting ahead here…

A bit, but please, go on.

RD: Without spoiling anything, there’s an episode where Orko and Evil-Lyn get to take center stage that has some of the most beautiful and illuminating dialogue that sells those characters in an amazing way. The script came in and Kevin [Smith] texted me did you read it yet!? And he sent a picture to me of himself crying.

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: REVELATION (L to R) GRIFFIN NEWMAN as ORKO in episode 101 of MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: REVELATION Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

Wow.

RD: He was reading Tim’s script. Anyone out there that thinks Kevin’s tears are just for public consumption, he legitimately gets moved by this stuff.

TS: He also cries at the drop of a hat.

[Laughter]

TS: He’s a wonderful man.

That’s great setup. Tim, I invited you here for a couple of reasons, the first being that you wrote my favorite episode of the show. You do bring dimension to the characters in powerful ways. Orko, for example, gets a level of depth that we’ve never seen before—he’s far from the bungling wizard of the original show. How do you go about developing those layers?

TS: Well first, thank you for saying that. Let me say that this show is a team effort. What you see is the product of a bunch of people. I think Orko and Evil-Lyn, are the characters I most identify with. I feel Orko, who is always trying hard, but doesn’t always succeed at heroics. And Evil-Lyn is just a fabulous diva. When I sat down to work on the episode, we just got word that Lena Heady was going to play Evil-Lyn. I immediately ran to my computer and rewrote her all her dialogue. I don’t know Lena, but I know her work. There’s some magical thing that happens: I knew what she could do because I’d seen it so many times. So I didn’t need to hold back. She could sell it and make it human. So if Evil-Lyn and Orko work, I have to thank Lena and Griffin.

The voice cast here is outstanding. The other sly thing you do is some fan service of the highest order. Again, without giving anything away, you introduce certain characters that were produced as toys, but never included in the original TV series. How do you go about integrating them?

TS: The first meeting we had—Rob, correct me if I’m wrong—I feel like Kevin asked “Who’s the character you never got to see that you want to see in the show?” Without missing a beat, Ted said “Scareglow.” So we knew from that moment that Scareglow was going to happen. I think that for me, to have a black slate in a certain way made it easy to approach Scareglow and say what’s he about. It’s a great thing about Masters of the Universe that if you look at a toy, you know right away what his “thing” is—the theme for the character. With Scareglow, leaning in with fear as a motivating force was the quick understanding we had of him. The other thing that was really fun was the concept of the glowing: his fascination with things that glow. It can mean a lot of things.

RD: I have to jump in on that. The fear aspect of Scareglow is really important. A lot of times, taking these characters you want to be true to the core concept. But you also are using them because of how they function in terms of the larger story and themes. Fear was really important. What we’re trying to do with Revelation is to take the concept of self-empowerment—the theme that makes Masters of the Universe evergreen—and expand it to show how we all have the power. Adam always represented that, but now we have the chance to dramatize that for a vast array of characters. The Power Sword has always been a metaphor for a key to unlock inner strength. You can use that to transform the world. And the barrier to that is fear—fear from the outside, fear from the inside. So when you have that dynamic at play, inviting Scareglow to our story as someone to embody that in a key way—I can’t wait for people to see that moment.

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: REVELATION (L to R) TONY TODD as SCARE GLOW in episode 104 of MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: REVELATION Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

TS: If I can “yes and” Rob for a second. The classic era—so much of it is about secrets of our identity.

RD: Secrets of Greyskull.

TS: Secrets we keep from our family, our friends and ourselves. When we came in and looked at that from a modern viewpoint and where we are in our lives, we said “What is it about those secrets that we keep—our ‘fabulous secret powers’—what happens if we keep those secrets too long?” How can they fester? What effect do they have? I believe they can become a destructive force in our lives. So that was something we really focused on and realized early on: the natural progression of the themes.

RD: I’m going to “yes and” you right back. Peace doesn’t happen when you think it would happen. It’s really when there’s transparency and self-knowledge that everyone can be actualized and healed.

TS: And that transparency comes with its own pitfalls.

Speaking of secrets and duality…we need to, at some point, address: He-Man of course has a very devout queer following, but he and Skeletor and the rest of the characters are something of icons. There’s been some controversy around that since the first trailer dropped, and debate over if that is a projection, or if it’s endemic to the material. I’d also be remiss not to mention the famous 4 Non Blonds video of Prince Adam singing. Rob, how aware are all of you at Mattel about this?

RD: Happily aware. Mattel is aware of that and very comfortable. We write these characters for an audience that allows everyone to see themselves in the characters. If people see any of our characters as an icon for what they identify with, that’s wonderful. That’s what heroes are there for: to see ourselves in them, and use them as dramatic metaphors.

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: REVELATION (L to R) MARK HAMILL as SKELETOR in episode 101 of MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: REVELATION Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

Tim, you and I are both queer. What’s that about? Is it just the kind of muscle-Tom of Finland sort of iconography? Or do you see something deeper in that?

TS: I think it’s so easy and reductive to look at it as the silly image of guys in loincloths. I didn’t know anything about muscle guys when I played with He-Man as a kid. What I understood was being fabulous on the inside. The thing about the classic era—we didn’t see “out” boyfriends holding hands. It was a different time. And yet, Masters of the Universe managed to develop, maintain and still has a huge following within the LGBTQ community. What I think that tells us is that it’s not just about characters that share similar traits. It’s about the themes, the stories we tell, and how we hook into that. Like Rob says, how we see ourselves. I feel bad talking about something that’s not Masters

It’s all good.

TS: I wrote an animated Superman movie last year called Man of Tomorrow. For me, that movie very much is a coming-out story. Superman isn’t gay. Neither is He-Man. But a lot of people can identify with it. Immigrants saw their immigrant story. People on the social spectrum saw themselves. What we’re talking about here is the ancient concept of coding.

Yes.

TS: I think we like to look at things of a different time and say “that’s coding.” I think in ancient times, coding was about reaching out to other people like us who couldn’t talk about it. It was a way to connect. Nowadays, the modern, evolved version of coding is about bringing everyone together—making something understandable enough that we all see ourselves reflected. That’s how we went into Revelation.

Interesting.

TS: Visibility is important to everyone, but visibility isn’t just about which characters are holding hands. It’s also about themes and stories and our inner fabulous secret powers and our secrets. That’s why Masters of the Universe endures.

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: REVELATION (L to R) CHRIS WOOD as HE-MAN in episode 101 of MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: REVELATION Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

RD: And Eternia is a perfect setting for that. It’s the center of the universe, the nexus of all realities.

TS: And they all unite for a common cause.

RD: To kick Skeletor’s butt.

[Laughter]

Metaphorically speaking, I see this as a series about and finding hope in hopeless times. Rob, I know you were a philosophy major, so I’ll start with you on this one. What statements do you feel like you’re making about hope?

RD: You’re absolutely right. Hope comes from within, from inner strength. It’s also in your community and your friends. We are the hope we’re looking for. We all have the power. You have the power. Love is all around us. If anything, what this show says is love is magic. When we love ourselves and each other, that’s when we transform.

And for you Tim?

TS: For me, Masters of the Universe has always been—and I think what we’ve done by raising the stakes—is this great mix of triumph and tragedy that makes heroes. It heralds hope. That’s what these great cosmic stories have always done for us. Hopefully, the audience will see that hope represented in the greatest times of darkness. Without question, Masters of the Universe is the most fun I’ve ever had in this business with the greatest people I’ve ever worked with.

Masters of the Universe: Revelation debuts on Netflix July 23.