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What Kevin Smith Wants Us To Know About Masters Of The Universe: Revelation - Exclusive Interview

It was 1983 — a time when some Gen Xers were barely entering the first grade and the world's first millennials were still in diapers. It was also a time when kids hastily flocked to the nearest glass-tube television sets after school, so they could raise their play swords in the air and shout a generation-defining catchphrase in unison with their favorite animated hero: "By the power of Grayskull — I have the powerrrrrr!" Whether it was a plastic sword, a butter knife, or whatever handheld stick you could get your hands on, if you were a child of the 1980s, you at least once mimicked Prince Adam as he transformed into the musclebound He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe. (This writer is guilty as charged.)

Now, the cartoon that captured the hearts of so many children and teens of the 1980s is coming back with a new animated Netflix series spearheaded by the View Askewniverse maestro himself, Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats). It's called "Masters of the Universe: Revelation," and it acts as a true direct sequel to the original 1983 series. Yes, He-Man is back, as well as Skeletor and most of your other favorite Eternians — but don't expect it to be an exact replica of the old school formula. Smith was in his early teens when he was captivated by the "Star Wars"-meets-"Conan" intergalactic swords and sorcery that is "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe." Like many of those raised in that era, he was blown away by the eye-popping array of action figures made by Mattel, as well as the mythology that was further fleshed out in the original comic books produced by DC.

So far, fan response to the faithful character designs and stellar voice cast choices, which includes Mark Hamill, Lena Headey, and Sarah Michelle Gellar, to name a few, have been met with enthusiastic praise. The final test is to see how the hardcore fans respond to the story and whether they embrace Smith and crew's vision. You see, rather than making a show that's an exact imitation of the original, Smith (who serves as showrunner), along with his collaborators, decided to shake things up just a tad. Without spoiling too much, your biggest clue should be that this isn't titled "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" — this is called "Masters of the Universe: Revelation." Sure, He-Man is still the ultimate driving force behind the plot, but what would happen if he was down for the count? What would happen if Skeletor and his bumbling crew of henchmen, for once, bested the most powerful man in the universe?

As many loyal fans are aware, in every single episode, the wisecracking Skeletor's wicked schemes were always foiled by He-Man. No matter how many times he tried to sack Castle Grayskull, the end result was always the same — good always prevails, evil never wins. "Revelation" explores what would happen if He-Man lost and how that would impact the other major players such as Man-At-Arms, Orko, and most of all, Teela. From the ending of the premiere episode, it's very clear that Smith and crew aren't playing around. The stakes are higher, the tone is a smidge darker. There's actual bloodshed, and not everyone makes it to the midseason finale unscathed. And holy moly, what a cliffhanger. Skeletor (voiced by Hamill) is actually a forced to be reckoned with — for once, he's a real threat.

If anyone knows how passionate, opinionated, venomous and swift fanboy justice can be, it's Kevin Smith — in fact, fanboys are his brethren. In his podcast "Fatman Beyond," he's known for regularly (and emotionally) geeking out about all things nerdy, from Marvel to DC Comics and his most favorite topic of all, Batman (his own daughter is named after villainess Harley Quinn). And he's also been on the other side of the fence. When it comes to his cinematic offerings, he's taken his fair share of lashings and scathing reviews from critics, but up until now, he's mostly only helmed his own original creations, such as the Jay and Silent Bob movies. "Masters of the Universe" is without a doubt the most beloved, nostalgia-laced property he's ever dabbled with — and he's aware of its rich history and the rabid fanbase that comes in tow.

During a recent exclusive interview with Looper, Smith made it clear that he recognizes the high level of expectation he's facing with He-Man and opened up about the unique form of pressure he's experiencing for the first time. He's aware he's holding the very childhood of millions in his hands, but he's a fan too, and he ultimately hopes you love his take on the cartoon he cherishes just as much as you do. In addition to sharing stories about working with original Skeletor voice actor Alan Oppenheimer (who now plays Moss Man), he also shared his thoughts on Cartoon Network's 2002 iteration of "He-Man" and teased what's in store for "Masters of the Universe: Revelations Part II" and beyond.

Dealing with fan ire

Are you feeling a unique form of pressure right now? You of all people know that fanbases can be so rabid and opinionated. How are you preparing for the onslaught of feedback, whether it's positive or negative?

What a great question. I'm used to feedback from my day job, like with the movies, but I'm used to more negative than positive feedback. You have to remember, I made "Mallrats," which flopped, and people loved it later, but when it came out, all the critics hated it. "Jersey Girl," "Yoga Hosers" — I've been through it. I certainly know how to take people being like, "You suck!" I've never worked on something as well-known as this. It's one thing to f*** up a Jay and Silent Bob movie. You only piss off Jay and Silent Bob fans. Here, you run the risk of pissing off people who are like, "I don't know who you are, but you f***ing ruined my childhood!" I know how toxic people can be. I don't think it necessarily comes from a place of hate, it comes from a place of love. People love s*** so much, they take it personally. I've seen it for years growing up in sports. People like to treat sports, like it's real or some such s***. Now, pop culture is being treated like that: movies, TV, cartoons. It's very tribal and it's very like, "Hey man, this is mine and it identifies me and if you f*** it up, you're f***ing ruined!" and blah, blah, blah, blah. So going into it, man, I knew that was always a possibility, but I'll be honest with you. I never once thought about like, "Are we doing the right thing?" Because of the circumstances of the job.

On one hand, I had one boss at Mattel named Rob David, who not only is the Mattel guy, but he literally wrote the "Masters of the Universe" comics for the last few years over at DC. On the other side, I had Ted Biaselli, our Netflix boss, who is literally the biggest "Masters of the Universe" fan on the planet. He still has all his original toys unboxed on shelves in his house. The only reason his whole project exists is because of Ted.

In Revelation, the stakes are higher

It's very clear in the first episode that you guys aren't messing around, and the stakes are way higher. In the original 1983 series, Skeletor never wins. But here, it seems like he's a force to be reckoned with. Where did that stem from?

I met Rob first and I pitched a story. Rob, he's like, "Let's take it to Ted, see if he likes it." So I met Ted and he told me this — and man, it was so beautiful and set the tone for the rest of the work. He was like, "When I was a kid, I watched every episode and I believed that Skeletor was going to kill He-Man. I believed that in my heart, and then I got older, and I realized that s*** was never going to happen." He goes, "What I've wanted to see, my whole life, is a version of this show that I thought I was watching when I was a kid. I just want to believe that, they can die, that there are consequences, that there are stakes." He goes, "Just show me that. Can you do that?" I said, "I think I could do that." If they asked me to reinvent it, like they had done with She-Ra, I was not going to be the right person. I'm not that creative. What they essentially asked me to do is like, "Just do the next episode, but do it as if everybody could stab everybody else." And I was like, "I think I can handle it."

So between those two guys, one runs Mattel. So, it's his whole job to make sure that "Masters of the Universe" continues to sell. And the other guy, who made this whole thing happen, who worked his whole life and wound up at Netflix, after being at Hasbro and Disney, to finally be in a place where he can make his dream "Masters of the Universe" animated series. Between those two guys, I couldn't f*** up. I couldn't walk in and be like, "Hey man, what if Skeletor is hanging out in front of Quickstop?" They'd be like, "Kevin, that's your day job. Here, you do this." So honestly, there was never fear, ironically enough. I was never like, "Boy, I hope the fans love this," because number one fan — the guy who writes our checks, the guy without whom we don't get a job — he was the first person and the only person we had to please. I was like, "We get him, we got everybody else."

He-Man's deception tickled Kevin's fancy the most

Were there any debates over how many characters they wanted you to shoehorn in? Because there are some notable characters you don't see in these first five episodes. I was hoping to see Ram-Man, Stratos, Zodak, but they never show up, and some fans may get upset over not seeing their favorite characters right away. How long did it take you to figure out the story you wanted to tell, and which characters made the most sense? I know it probably hurt you to omit so many fan-favorite characters, but at the same time, you don't want to over bloat this cartoon with glorified cameos, you know what I mean?

Excellent question. First off, if you don't see your favorite figure in the first five — remember, there's a back five, as well. So if you haven't seen your fave yet, trust me, they've been cast. You're going to see a lot of people. Going into it, since they have such a deep bench of characters, almost as many as Marvel, almost as many as DC, you're like, "Maybe this is the only time we get to do this." Naturally, your first inclination is everything but the kitchen sink, but mercifully, because we had Teddy and Rob, they were like, "Look, if we do it right the first time, we'll get to everybody, eventually." The idea was, let's rest on the characters that were literally in every episode. So every episode of "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" featured He-Man, Teela, Man-At-Arms, Orko, Battlecat/Cringer. It didn't even necessarily include the Sorceress in every episode, but she's in almost all of them.

On the villainous side, for Snake Mountain, of course you had Skeletor, Evil-Lyn, and Beast Man in every episode and mostly Trap Jaw and Tri-Klops as well. So at that point you're like, those are core, that's who we're dealing with. Since our story is what happens to the rest of the masters of the universe when their two linchpins go away, we knew they were going to be coming forward, we knew that immediate family has to deal with the fallout. On He-Man's side, particularly the deception, that was what tickled my fancy the most — the idea that only some people knew who he was, but not Teela. You know, even though she protected him as Prince Adam and fought side by side with him as He-Man, for some reason, she wasn't allowed to know.

What happens when she finds out after she can't confront him with it? What if she finds out under the worst possible circumstances? So the storyline kind of dictates which characters you gravitate toward or which ones are going to fulfill all of your storytelling needs. So then there are characters like, deeper cut characters, like Zodak, who's been around from the beginning, cosmic enforcer and whatnot. You're like, "Do we shoehorn him in to Season 1? Or is Zodiac Season 2?" So we've got plenty of opportunity, particularly in the back half, for — "Hey look! Hey look! Hey look!" — with big battles and stuff like that. But it was actually a procedure where we actually had to go, like, "Who gets to come and who doesn't?" And then there's also like, some characters make the trip, but don't get to say anything. So at least you see them and stuff, but everyone's fair game, particularly if we get a Season 2.

Original He-Man voice actor John Erwin was approached

I was blown away by the stellar voice cast you rounded up, but I was particularly happy that you got Alan Oppenheimer in there. I mean, he's the original Skeletor. Was there anyone you pursued but couldn't get? I was kind of hoping that you would pull John Erwin, the original He-Man, out of retirement.

John was absolutely one of them. Naturally, we wanted that voice of his, the legendary voice, but that was not to be. Alan engages with the fan base on a regular basis, he has for years at the cons and whatnot, and has enjoyed being Skeletor. I don't know John, I never met him, but based on what Alan says, for John, it's like, "That was my job." It doesn't go beyond that. So we did, we reached out, but it didn't pan out. Mercifully, Alan was like weighed down with it and if you listen real closely, like at the end of Episode 1, you'll hear Alan doing Skeletor. He says something, he actually references Skeletor. But while we had Alan, we had Mark Hamill, because Alan's older now, obviously, and he can't do the voice quite the way he used to. So generally, he doesn't engage with the voice publicly. He used to do his phone rings for people but now he's like, "If I can't do peak Skeletor, I don't want to do Skeletor." Totally understandable. But when we had him behind the mic, I was like, "Alan, I'd be remiss if I didn't get you to hide in our Episode 1, if we could hide the real voice of Skeletor," and he gave it to us. 

So if you go back and watch that episode, I don't want to spoil it, I don't want to say the line he says, because it literally spoils Episode 1, but it's when Teela is outside the palace and the last 30 seconds of the show, you'll hear Alan buried in there. And how awesome to have the dude who is like literally a bridge between both versions of the show? He was there for every episode. Having him in the sound studio and then later on, we brought him on for the after show, "Revelation Revelations." He was able to tell us incredibly moving stories, funny stories. He's a funny f***ing guy. But he told us this really moving story about meeting a fan at one of the cons who was just like, "I wanted to kill myself when I was younger, and it was the moral lessons at the end of that show that made me hang on." It's so easy to dismiss it as like, "Oh, it was a kid show made for kids," but you never know who's watching that show. You never know what kid is watching and what's going on in that kid's life and art, for so many people, is a life preserver in many ways. So it stands to reason that even "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" was responsible for saving somebody's life and Alan could share that with us. So having legacy cast involved meant everything.

I liked how you tackled the Clark Kent/Superman issue of the original. Because He-Man was basically just Prince Adam with a tan. In your mind, how old is he in this one? Because I don't think the original 1983 show ever mentions his age.

We put him between 18 and 21. So the idea now, for those at home playing along, who aren't deeply familiar with this, Mattel creates "Masters of the Universe" in 1981, they create a character called He-Man. It's not until DC Comics is given the license to do a series of "Masters of the Universe" comic books that DC is known for like, "Hey man, we're the home of superheroes and secret identities." They use the character of Prince Adam. So that's the dual identity that He-Man has, when he's not He-Man, he's secretly Prince Adam, until he raises the sword. So suddenly you had like, the Clark Kent/Superman thing going on and they treated it like they treat Clark Kent and Superman. The only difference is to take glasses off. The only difference with He-Man and Adam was, he took his pink outfit off and wore less. You couldn't look at the two and not be like, "Hey, I think they're related."

Prince Adam/He-Man are no longer just a palette swap

By the way, what are your thoughts on the 2002 iteration of "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe"? It seems like you took a cue from that version, because they portrayed Prince Adam as a teenager who transformed into an older, musclebound He-Man, which solved the whole Clark Kent/Superman dilemma. I also feel like the animation style in "Revelation" looks more like a nod to that version.

So, Mike Young's version, which was absolutely stellar — if people haven't seen it, it is incredibly faithful to the "Masters" franchise, and actually added spokes to the wheel. They're way more creative than I was. One of the things that we loved about that show, and definitely took from them — and it was something that Mattel really wanted too — was the idea that Adam is younger. He doesn't look like He-Man's twin. He looks completely different from He-Man. That way, you have someplace to go. The idea to go from Billy Batson to Shazam rather than just have one musclebound guy take his clothes off and it becomes another musclebound guy, and nobody knows the difference.

Yeah, the Mike Young version definitely played for us, man. I'm not sure if it influenced the look, you'd have to talk to [directors] Pat Stannard and Adam Connoroe, but Young's iteration of "Masters of the Universe," like ours, was very true to the source material. They didn't feel the need to break it apart and reinvent it — everybody looks who they look like. It's this wonderfully storied franchise and there've been so many authors who are a part of it, and everybody adds a spoke to the wheel. And with our iteration, we knew we would get to play with Mattel's He-Man toys for this little window of time. Let's do the best job we can. Let's have the most fun, the biggest adventure we can have, knowing that one day somebody else gets these characters and they get to add to it. If you're lucky, they include pieces of whatever you did and what they did.

Like I saw on Twitter, I think it was Paul Kupperberg over at DC. When we put the teaser up, he put up the cover to the "Masters of the Universe" and "Superman" crossover that DC Comics did. And he had written that story, thus writing a very essential part of "Masters of the Universe" lore. He was the one that was like, "Oh, He-Man's mother, Queen Marlena, is actually from Earth." They needed to do that so that they could have a reference to Superman in Eternia, but in doing so they changed the character forever. So now going forward, even in our version, like in the second half, Marlena will make a reference to planet Earth. You realize you're just one of the many cooks that come in and you hope that your recipe tastes good enough for people to be like, "I liked that," and bring more people into it.

But you realize, [He-Man] is not mine. Jay and Silent Bob, I can do whatever I want with, from time immemorial, but He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, I was lucky to get to play with them for the time that I did. Hopefully I get to do it again one day, but even if I don't, I'm telling you, I'm not overstating it. This is, no hype, one of the most magical f***ing experiences I've had in this business. One of the most collaborative, one of the most artistically satisfying. I've watched this show so many times. Like over the course of the last 18 months that we've been producing it, and it still makes me emotional. I still cry when main characters die, even though I know it's coming and that's the power of the characters themselves they've been around for so damn long. So we're just presenting them the way they're presented.

Sadly, we're out of time. Congrats on "Revelations Part I." Can't wait for "Part II."

I promise you part two, if you like part one, f*** — you'll love part two. Part two is brilliant compared to part one. Part one's a lot of fun, but wait till you see what happens in part two. It's nuts.

"Masters of the Universe: Revelation" Part 1 is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.