Alright, y’all, I’m about to evangelize the fuck out of a thing with all my heart and soul. Bear with me. It’s a journey, but a worthwhile one. This show has utterly enraptured me this summer and I love it with my entire being and am desperate to draw more people into its warm and inviting embrace of fantastical adventure. The last two weeks have basically been a blur of consuming all 52 episodes of this series to the exclusion of almost everything else in my life, and it is amazing and you should watch it. Now.
Lengthy Summary of the Masters of the Universe franchise through present
What Came Before
So, some background is probably in order. In the early 80s, action figures were king, and Mattel had a hell of a line up its plastic sleeves. Masters of the Universe was a 5.5" toy line that launched in 1982, featuring Prince Adam, secretly the most powerful man in the universe, He-Man, his castle-full of burly companions, and their nefarious foes lead by the vile Skeletor, who sought to rule the mystical planet of Eternia and was only stymied by He-Man and his big ol’ fuck-you sword. Some pack-in comics gave enough of a frame story to kickstart pre-teen imaginations, and the toys did very well on their own. But when a companion series, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, by production company Filmation launched the following fall, He-Man exploded in popularity as the glitzy 80s cheeseball animation brought the toys’ adventures to life. Years later, the memes would basically write themselves.
In fact, it was so successful that it spawned a spin-off cartoon based on He-Man’s equally powerful twin sister, Adora, carting around her own magic sword and a cadre of allies and villains who sometimes were real clear copies of He-Man characters, fighting against the villainous Horde on her own planet, Etheria. Like He-Man before it, She Ra, Princess of Power was some gloriously funky 80s cheese, right down to the abysmal character names, including Catra (and evil cat-lady who could also turn into a cat), Castaspella (a sorceress), Hordak (leader of the Horde), Entrapta (a genius inventor who specialized in, well. . . traps), and Bow (She-Ra’s buddy who used a. . . oh fuck, do I even need to say it?). Specifically geared to bring in a pre-teen girl audience to the toy line, She-Ra faltered in that goal, failing to captivate like other female-targeted properties like My Little Pony and Rainbow Brite.
As the 80s came to a close and children’s toys moved on to new fads, the MOTU properties were relegated to the occasional run of comics, the hoards of dedicated collectors, and the occasional furtive attempt to spin up new media properties, including 1990’s The New Adventures of He-Man and another reboot in 2002, Masters of the Universe vs. the Snakemen. Catching lightning in a bottle again seemed eternally just out of their grasp. She-Ra would show up, usually as a bit player, from time to time, but by and large, the ongoing series, toy lines, videogames, and comics focused on Prince Adam.
The Return of She-Ra
Come 2017, when Netflix and Dreamworks announced a forthcoming reboot of, of all things, She-Ra, in the form of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Headed by Noelle Stevenson, coming off the back-to-back Eisner-winning successes of her comics Nimona and Lumberjanes, the series was her brainchild and sought to strike a balance between modernizing the property and reveling in its cheesy roots. With a new, anime-inspired artstyle, an expressly queer and diverse cast, and an intricate storyline carefully plotted in advance, it would de-age most of the cast to be in their mid-teens and adapt a serialized storytelling method, following their adventures across about three in-universe years split across its four planned seasons. Netflix and Dreamworks saw some pushback as designs and eventually trailers came out ahead of the series, with detractors wondering why they’d “de-sexed” She-ra and so clearly “given in to” LGBT-friendly sensibilities. Asked by a network exec about the meaning of a shining rainbow in a climactic scene in Season 1, Stevenson only semi-jokingly identified it as “the gay agenda.” The usual cavalcade of minor boycotts and Youtuber prognostications of doom came and went.
And then, the series launched. 13 episodes of mind-bending, eye-drenching explosions of color, set to an epic blend of soaring orchestration and sparkling 80s synths, featuring a bright and cheerful nearly fully female voice cast (and an entirely-female writers room), it would at first seem to be the boldest possible expression of Girl Power imaginable. The humor and writing are twee and energetic, reminiscent of Steven Universe and Avatar: The Last Airbender at first glance.
Like both of those critically acclaimed series, however, there’s a lot more to SPOP than first meets the eye. Stevenson’s perhaps-subversive take on the classic story of a powerful sword-wielding woman and her alliance of magical princesses fending off the forces of doom goes way deeper than the terrible cat puns and terrifying 80s hair-dos of its predecessor series.
Characters grow and develop and shift allegiances and goals organically as the simmering cold war between the mechanized Horde (with its army of “recruited” child soldiers including, initially, Adora herself) and the shattered Princess Alliance heats back up. Lifelong friendships are torn apart and enemies become fast friends. Magical powers are discovered and mastered, and ancient mysteries are dug up and explored. Throwaway lines of dialogue slowly develop into seasons-long mysteries steeped in wildly inventive sci-fantasy lore. And through it all, the themes of love overcoming hate, trust and honesty, abuse and recovery, redemption and growth, and the sins of the past haunting those in the present develop and flower beautifully.
With a swift release schedule and an active, young, digitally hooked-in production team, the series grew in popularity and earned a massive following, spawning countless fansites, cosplayers, and thoughtful literary analyses of its themes and messages. The show was indeed queer through and through, proudly displaying loving gay relationships right alongside straight, and even featuring a nonbinary character in a complex and starring role in one season. It became a bastion for representation as its diverse cast of characters spun out their fantasy drama, 13 episodes at a time.
And Now We’re Here
And then came Season 5, released just last month. After Season 2 got split in half, Stevenson’s original 4-season, 52-episode plan finally reached its long-promised conclusion. Unlike original series creator J. Michael Straczynski’s aborted Babylon 5 storyline of space operatic heroism, SPOP was going to see its creator’s vision through to the end. Riding on the shoulders of landmark children’s television before it like the aforementioned Steven Universe and the ATLA sequel series The Legend of Korra, S5 soared to all new heights and capped off years’ worth of plot and character development with a nonstop rapidfire blast of utterly fulfilling storytelling and joy-sparking revelations.
Like, fuck, y’all. I cannot even begin to describe to you how good the payoff of Season 5 is. Don’t get me wrong – the preceding four are some of the most excellent sci-fantasy adventure fiction out there! Sure, S1 takes a couple of episodes to ramp up to full speed, but soon enough your embroiled in a magical world of intrigue, lost civilizations, dark sorcery, fantastical beasts, and gloriously evil villains. But S5 is one of the finest and steadiest landings I’ve ever seen a series as acrobatically gifted as this pull off, to strain the metaphor to death. Leaning hard into the sci-fi underpinnings of the setting, it goes fully cosmic and utterly, gloriously bonkers with a star-spanning tale of love, loss, revenge, and redemption the likes of which I’ve never really seen in so-called children’s TV.
Hell, get your kids to watch it with you. SPOP is stuffed to the gills with genuinely heartwarming lessons on being a good person delivered in perfectly digestible chunks. It’s got zany gags and sparkly gee-whiz moments to hold even pretty young ones’ attention, but the themes it manages to work in are way better than thw moralizing drivel of, say, a GI Joe end stinger. The show is rich with representation and great role models, showing how anyone can grow, learn, and make a difference, no matter how overwhelming the odds.
Also, the show features Seahawk, the greatest supporting character of all time.
I rest my fucking case. Watch She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, and then come talk to me about it, because I have so many goddamn thoughts.