By David Armstrong
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983-1985) looms large in the 1980s nerd culture fusing science fiction, fantasy, and, let’s face it, psychedelic trips. The original show followed He-Man, the superpowered Prince Adam, and his comrades Teela, Man-At-Arms, Orko, Battle-Cat, and Roboto as they sought to prevent the evil wizard Skeletor and his minions from taking Castle Grayskull, the home of the Sorceress whose champion He-Man is. Mattel has never come up with a better way to sell toys: calling upon the Power of Grayskull while holding the Sword, Prince Adam became not only the bulky, impressive, goody two-shoes He-Man, but indeed a line of collectible action figures whose impact on the psyche of Generation X is difficult to overstate.
There have been other attempts to reboot or continue the franchise before Kevin Smith’s new Masters of the Universe: Revelation (2021), but none have had quite the love and care put into them that this show has: animated by Powerhouse Animation Studios and voiced by a cast that boasts Chris Wood, Mark Hamill, Liam Cunningham, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Lena Heady, Revelation enjoys a set of resources for production that it puts to best effect with a story that is, given the source material, frankly amazing. The original He-Man was a children’s cartoon following the ordinary rules of syndicated children’s television: nothing is permanent, and the adventure du jour is written primarily for entertainment purposes, with lore following as a secondary interpretive enterprise. It is easy to forget that this is actually how most of the beloved science fiction and fantasy of the late 20th century got its start: not as an attempt at worldbuilding on the scale of, say, Tolkien’s legendarium or Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, but as an attempt to tell an imaginative and entertaining story, sometimes perhaps even a compelling one, that later through popularity evoked demand for canonical continuity. Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Star Wars all set the precedent, in this sense: however much worldbuilding was active behind the scenes of these franchises, the nuts and bolts of wider character arcs and cosmological contexts were really only of concern to the fanbase after popularity had already been established. And where there are canons, there are of course schisms, sometimes between fans, and sometimes between fans and creators.
Revelation has both appeased and aggravated fans on these grounds. On the one hand, it takes the continuity of the He-Man universe, set on the planet Eternia at the nexus of space and time and inclusive of other characters like She-Ra as well, far more seriously than the original show ever did. It gives superior animation, writing, and narrative craft to the original show in almost every way for its characters, so much so that it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that this sequel is really overkill for an 80s cartoon that has existed in popular consciousness for the last fifteen years primarily as a meme. On the other hand, a good deal of the original fanbase, now in middle age or later, is not a fan of the direction the show takes in Revelation, beginning with an immediate axing of He-Man and Skeletor, and choosing to center the perspectives and feelings of characters like Teela, Evil-Lyn, and Orko.
There’s a narrative brilliance to this decision, at least from a writer’s point of view. It’s the same logic that drove J.J. Abrams to avoid showing Luke Skywalker onscreen in The Force Awakens until the very end of the film, or that limited Mike DiMartino and Brian Konietzko to but one full, meaningful appearance of Aang in The Legend of Korra: namely, for sequelae to be worth the trouble, they need to do more than just give the audience the extended high of simply seeing more of the original hero. They rather have to extend the story’s impact and scope in a way that either moves beyond or at least contextualizes the hero through the introduction of a new protagonist or the individuation of a hitherto underdeveloped character. In Revelation, that character is Teela: in the wake of the revelation that He-Man is really Prince Adam, after his noble death in trying to prevent Skeletor from destroying the universe, Teela renounces her position at court in service to the King and Queen of Eternia and magic itself. She is later brought back by the collective efforts of Sorceress, Evil-Lyn, and Cringer, who reveal to her that unless magic is restored to Eternia through re-forging the Sword of Power, the entire universe will whither and die. To accomplish this, Teela will have to descend to Subternia and then ascend to Preternia—effectively, Hell and Heaven—to retrieve the shards of the Sword of Power and reforge them using the last ember of magic in Eternia preserved by Sorceress. The C.G. Jung, Joseph Campbell-quality of the hero’s journey in Revelation can be a bit pungent, but then again, it is not for no reason that katabasis and anabasis form the basis of most of the classic and most compelling heroic arcs. Among the external revelations about the true nature of He-Man and Eternia, the most significant revelations for each of the characters are each of their coming around to the knowledge of their true selves, facing their deepest fears in the hell of Subternia and their deepest desires in the paradise of Preternia.
One of my own intellectual weaknesses historically has been an unwillingness to deal with the psychology of religion. In my defense, too many psychologists of religion cheat at what I consider to be some of the fundamental canons of religious studies as a secular discipline: that is, they claim to exhaustively and reductively explain religion as a human phenomenon by reference to psychological need, excess, and deterioration. As I learned the discipline, vis-à-vis the centrism of Ninian Smart, scholars of religion bracket the question of transcendent value in religions in order to understand them as doctrinal, practical, and social nexus points of the human experience, without judgment and without defense. This approach leaves the table open to reductionists as much to theologians, but without this approach, there is always an ulterior motive in the study of religion, whether that of an imperializing atheism or an avenging apologetics.
The older I have gotten, though, the more I have realized that religion does have a psychology, and indeed, individual religions have psychologies. It is impossible to do either religious studies or theology without paying attention to the human psyche, the way that it is shaped by biology, culture, experience, and choice, and the way that psyches in communion express those forces in the form of religion. Whether the God of classical theism and the myriad gods that fill the universes of his creation in the worldview of many traditional religions are real or not, that is to say, there is no getting to or at them without going in and through the psyche of the people who construct them, and indeed, we can only do that with our own minds. I believe quite strongly that this God—the God who is satt, citta, and ananda, infinite being, consciousness, and bliss to borrow David Bentley Hart’s usage of Vedantic terms, the God who is the ground and telos of all existence—is the most philosophically coherent vision of reality on offer, and the only intellectually and existentially satisfying one. But I also recognize that, apart from the arguments that I take to be objectively logical which demonstrate this fact, my conditioning and receptivity to subscribe to such a philosophy of religion is itself the product of my own time, place, background, upbringing, personal agonies and joys, fears and aspirations: and so until I face those things honestly, and come to terms with what they are and mean, the God of my belief is no more than an intellectual construct or an abstraction. And if this is so for God, it is all the more true for the gods themselves: be they indeed heathen deities, great angels and saints, or demigods and superheroes of religious, secular, or fictive hagiographies. Until I understand my need for them, I cannot really commune with them: I can only need them. C.S. Lewis gestured toward this in his last and best novel, Till We Have Faces (1956), when the main character, Orual, remarks that she understands divine silence as a mercy: “why should the gods meet us face to face till we have faces?” (294). Until the fragmentation of human psychic darkness is resolved into a true personality, and not the shabby, discontented chaos of our ordinary waking consciousness, until we have stripped away the false self and found the image of God in the soul per the psychologia of the desert monastics, how are we going to “see his face” (Rev 22:4)?
Teela’s anger in Revelation is a good representation of the way that our own anger functions when the constructs of our religious worldviews are threatened: we come to feel that what we have put our trust in was a lie. In the Christian world, this kind of thing can happen for intellectual reasons—say, discoveries about the historical Jesus, the earliest Christians, the history of the Christian Church’s struggle to stay true to the course with the sciences, etc.—or it can happen for moral reasons, like the long history of Christian use of wealth and violent power to try and assert a watered-down version of its aboriginal ethics. People defect from Christianity all the time because they feel that what they were told in church or youth group growing up about the Bible and the Tradition is not really the full truth of either, and indeed, easier and perhaps emotionally healthier for many than chasing real answers to deep questions is simply to abscond from the whole enterprise. I do not doubt that many people have found greater degrees of psychological stability and moral encouragement outside of religion that they did not find within it, and certainly outside of Christianity if not outside of religion altogether. Particularly given the sad state of the Christian Churches in 2021 America, I can never judge friends for conversion experiences to Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Sikhism; most of the time, all I can do is be quietly pleased for them that they have found a peace that continues to encourage them to seek the sacred.
But as Revelation shows, there is a power to be had from facing the fears that drive our needs, and from being able to see beyond the rewards we hope to gain. Teela regains her friendship with Adam through facing the truth about what his lie has done to her; Christians who will do the hard work of assessing what their fear drives them to need Jesus to be and what mercantile reward they hope to gain from a life of following Jesus will find at the end of it that what remains for them is Jesus himself. This is the kind of deep dive into the underworld the soul, as my friend Mackenzie Amara calls it, that breaks fandoms and creates new religions: our own psychological trauma drives us to need God to be smaller, to need heroes to stay in the afterglow of the accomplishments of their original journeys, to be exempt from the complications that life throws at the heroism of its itineraries. It is this attachment to simplicity that makes some among us revile a complicated, aged Luke Skywalker, or hate the idea of a He-Man show that has relatively little He-Man; but once we have come to know the heroic icon, we cannot come to know, to love, even to embody the person themselves until we have come to terms with how that icon is constructed around the morphology of our minds. The deconstructive descent, though, offers the path forward to a reconstructive ascent—that is, in weakness, we will find that we have God’s power (2 Cor 12:9).
David Armstrong writes regularly at A Perennial Digression, which also has an attached YouTube channel.