Four years ago writer/director Kevin Smith announced to fans at an Anaheim toy convention that he had been hired to create a new Netflix animated He-Man series. He promised “an epic tale of what may be the final battle between He-Man and Skeletor.”
Two years later, fans were horrified to discover Smith might have meant “final battle” a little too literally: in the pilot of Masters of the Universe: Revelation, He-Man and Skeletor were seemingly killed, leaving He-Man’s BFF Teela to take center stage all the way until the midseason finale.
Critics loved it. Fans…did not. Online hostility ran so hot Smith actually went after them. In an interview with Variety Smith expressed shock that fans were taking the show’s initial twists so seriously.
“You really fucking think Mattel Television, who hired me and paid me money, wants to do a fucking ‘Masters of the Universe’ show without He-Man?,” he asked. “Grow the fuck up, man.”
ithin a week of release, the show had already disappeared from Netflix’s top ten.
Because of the pandemic, Smith has not had much chance to interact broadly with fans of the show since the series’ release. But this weekend he came to San Diego Comic-Con 2023 to talk about the series’ upcoming new season, Masters of the Universe: Revolution, to be released in early 2024.
Smith is a master of such events, truly the P.T. Barnum of Comic-Con.
“I’m happy to report because of the SAG strike I’m the most famous person here,” he said at the start. The crowd roared.
But while he and his co-executive producers Teddy Biaselli and Rob David had many interesting things to tease about the upcoming season of their show, including the addition of Keith David in the role of new villain Hordak, Smith couldn’t quite stop himself from returning again and again to the negative fan responses to season one.
“I’m super proud” of the new season, Smith said at the start, after showing a fun clip of a battle scene between He-Man, his allies, and a now-glow-in-the-dark-and-able-to-embiggen Skeletor. “But I was proud of the last one, too, and the internet told me I shouldn’t be.”
Later, Biacelli — who has been involved with many successful toy and comic adaptations, including Umbrella Academy, Sweet Tooth, and a number of Transformer projects — began his comments on the character of He-Man in season two with the quip, “Contrary to rumors…He-Man is back.”
Smith immediately responded, “To be fair, He-Man never left. He was like, absent for three shows. But we don’t do a show called Masters of the Universe and kill off the main guy. He was gone for a moment, but never gone.”
Even at the end, Smith couldn’t seem to let it go, asking all those in the audience who had loved their show to clap — a request which got plenty of applause, though by no means the entirety of the thousands of people in the room.
Then he asked all those who didn’t like the show to applaud, saying it was fine, the three of them could take it. And he was met with silence.
“You fucking liars,” he said, to laughter from the crowd. “I took a lot of shit online. Somebody better clap right now.”
Despite how that might read, the quality of Smith’s comments generally felt far more playful than defensive — though near the end, after Biaselli, David and he had talked in depth about the characters, Smith did point out, “When Revelation came out, a lot of people were like ‘Kevin Smith’s He-Man, Kevin Smith’s He-Man.’ As you can see, this is a triumvirate. These dudes have deep roots in the material, and care.”
Hearing himself, he added, “I’m not dodging a bullet here, I just always want to give credit where credit’s due.”
Likewise, in describing the new season, which they promised would deliver on what fans said they found lacking, Smith ended by saying: “To some extent you’re all like coauthors. Remember that: If you don’t like Revolution, it’s your fucking fault as well.”
Still, you couldn’t help feeling like beneath the jokes he remained pretty stung by the whole affair. At one point he sang the praises of his collaborators: “To sit here and listen to them speak about these characters with child-like wonder…” Smith said, inviting the crowd to give them a hand.
But when David — who has been involved in many animated iterations of MOTU — responded in kind, saying “You are a joy to work with. Everybody on the entire team — the writers, all the animators at Powerhouse, everybody at Mattel — they adore Kevin,” Smith jumped in: “It’s the audience that doesn’t enjoy Kevin.”
I could sit back here in the cheap seats and take pot shots at Smith for complaining when he did decide to spend the first half of the first new series about He-Man and Skeletor in 20 years refusing to give fans He-Man and Skeletor. Or I could point out that for as interested as he and his co-EPs said they were with fan reactions, here at their first big panel they didn’t do an audience Q&A, which suggests maybe they'd heard enough.
But mostly I felt like I was watching a guy who had poured his heart and soul into a project, only to find himself slapped in the face. His wry humor had exactly the quality of someone talking about an ex they had really loved, years after they’d been publicly jilted. You know you’re supposed to have moved on, and you’re really trying to act like you have, but also Jesus Christ can anyone explain to me what the fuck happened?
Meanwhile the audience listened, occasionally chuckled…and that’s about it. At one point the team posted a picture of Chris Wood, who plays He-Man/Adam. Talking about the cast members of a show is normally an occasion for attendees to cheer. Here, at first, no one reacted. Literally, no one. Even after a few started to clap, the response was remarkably light.
It was so shocking that Biaselli stopped talking about the second season direction of Adam/He-Man just to talk about just how much they had loved Wood, and the great qualities he brought to the series.
“We are temporary custodians of this brand,” Biaselli said later, in what seemed another attempt to reassure this silent audience. “We love it, we hope that people saw that there was love in there. If you didn’t, someone else will be the custodian and they will do something else. Something as great as MOTU is bigger than Rob, is bigger than me or Kevin, and it’s going to live on and it’s going to have many iterations.” And those in attendance seemed to take this on board, as they had pretty much everything else, with a kind of benign indifference.
You could read that as rejection, I guess, but given the fervor of the online responses to this show, "herd passivity" doesn’t really seem like the reaction you’d expect.
Personally I wonder whether what we were seeing wasn’t hostility but disinterest. Pundits have asked what the effect of Hollywood not showing up to Comic-Con would be. Perhaps it was hundreds (or thousands) of people showing up for something they actually didn’t care about, in the hope of being entertained by the most famous person here. Maybe few reacted at the Masters of the Universe panel not because they hated the show, but because they didn’t even know it.
As if to underline that point himself, at the very end of the panel Smith pointed out that there was a girl in the front row who had been sleeping for the last 20 minutes. Waking her up, Smith had her brought on stage and asked her if she would be willing to hoist He-Man’s sword and say his famous line “I have the power” to end the panel.
As he talked to the 8-year-old, she chewed gum and stared at him with the kind of devastating boredom that only a child can serve up. Her entire manner was so flatly disaffected, Smith kidded that she reminded him of working with Ben Affleck.
Ironically, this was the one moment the entire audience seemed fully invested in what was going on. (This and Smith’s double-entendres about just how hard the show was going to “service” its fans in season two.) Clearly, this is what they came for: not the Kevin Smith show but the Kevin Smith Show.
Listening to them talk about the Masters of the Universe, the passion that Smith, Biaselli and David have for the material is palpable. So is the ache that they feel at having their efforts not appreciated (or just plain not succeed). Smith clearly came to San Diego hoping for a moment of catharsis and reconciliation with a fanbase he loves.
But in the end I think he found himself just an act in somebody else's circus.