Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Springtime In Eternia (4)

We are rapidly approaching the end of June but I still have a couple more thoughts to ramble on about as far as the Masters of the Universe are concerned. So this will likely carry over into July, but only as far as next week and then I’m done. But for now, onward we go!


Just in case I didn’t make this explicitly clear earlier, I want to emphasize how near-universal the responses to my He-Man survey were in terms of respecting the narrative imperatives in the MOTU setting. He-Man is protagonist #1, Skeletor is antagonist #1. Man-at-Arms is He-Man’s main ally, and Beast Man is Skeletor’s enforcer. Almost everyone who answered me just took those facts as given. But where did they come from?

Mostly from the cartoon, I reckon.

It wuold have taken an entire separate post to even get into the hamhanded moralizing of each episode's bumper
The original MOTU action figures were packaged with little mini-books that provided a minimal amount of backstory for the various characters. A lot of things were left intentionally vague, but in general a kid who took the time to read those supplemental materials would get an impression of a pulpy heroic fantasy world. It was something like Conan the Barbarian, with more fantastic creatures plus the hi-tech weapons of a forgotten civilization. It wasn’t adult-sexy or adult-gory, but it arguably took itself seriously, at least.

The He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon, on the other hand, was not just for kids but for little kids. Now that I think about it, maybe that explains the precipitous decline in my interest in He-Man in general and why I never collected the later waves of figures. I really liked the mini-books’ world. It was a bit edgy, just the slightest hint of something really primal below its fantastical surface. And then the cartoon came along and dumbed everything so far down that I couldn’t be bothered with it any more.

Among other things, the cartoon introduced:

- the character of Orko, a child-like flying elfin magician whose spells were prone to backfiring
- He-Man’s mom and dad
- He-Man’s secret identity as Prince Adam
- Battle Cat’s secret identity as Cringer the cowardly tiger
- The characterization of most of Skeletor’s minions as bumbling clowns

And quite a bit more that I will resist the temptation to catalogue exhaustively here. I don’t think any one of those additions or alterations makes the Eternia mythos any better, and in fact I think to one extent or another across the board they drag things down. And on some level I knew that even as a kid. I watched He-Man a lot after school, but let’s be honest, not much else was on. Nowadays I feel the appropriate amount of 80’s nostalgia toward the series whenever someone references it, but I have absolutely zero interest in sitting down to watch an entire twenty minute episode. I’m pretty sure it would be terrible.

I can kind of sort of understand some aspects of the dilution of He-Man for the cartoon. Doing a straight animated adaptation of an Edgar Rice Burroughs/Robert E. Howard kind of world would be a tough sell for the advertisers and the censors of the time. So instead of leaving the villains as genuinely scary threats, they turn them into buffoons mostly good for comic relief. And the secret identity serves a couple of semi-justifiable purposes. One, it creates an opportunity to use the iconic “I have the power!” stock footage of the transformation in every single episode, which must have cut down on production costs. (And to be fair, it is a money sequence that can still make cynical old me smile a bit.) Two, it creates a little more dramatic tension. He-Man never loses, because he is superstrong and awesome. The outcome of a fight between He-Man and any bad guy is a foregone conclusion. But will Prince Adam be able to sneak away and transform into He-Man without betraying his secret to anyone? Obviously yes, that’s just as much of a foregone conclusion, but it allows for a different kind of tension.

The rest, though? Tripe. Other people have put forth this theory and made this point in regards to traditional superheroes much more articulately, but let me bring it into play here for what it’s worth. Hero sidekicks, especially young and/or semi-competent (or utterly incompetent) ones, are just inherently insulting. They are basically the writers saying “Children who watch this show need someone to relate to, so we’ll throw in an annoying tagalong who loves the hero but always gets in trouble and makes mistakes and needs to be rescued and so on. That tagalong will be the identification character for the kiddies.” So Orko is basically how the writers view their own audience, and that is not very flattering. Then, as if that weren’t enough, they had to pile on changes for He-Man to make him more relatable, too. He’s no longer a proud, noble barbarian roaming the landscape of a post-cataclysmic world, he’s a regular guy who has a mother and a father who worry about him, AND a teacher who holds him accountable (Man-at-Arms goes from ally to mentor in the cartoon translation, but at least he gets a sweet ‘stache out of the deal to indicate his older/wiser status) AND a cuddly pet … so even though Prince Adam is drawn as a grown-ass man the exact same build as He-Man, just wearing more clothes and using a higher-pitched voice (and, oddly, less tan), he occupies a child’s position socially until he transforms.

Also the transformation is purely physical, as Adam knows what He-Man knows and vice versa, so it’s kind of like “Adam” is just an act? Except the same magic sword/spell that turns Adam into He-Man also turns Cringer into Battle Cat, which actually causes Cringer to grow larger as well as change clothes (or gain armor as the case may be) and furthermore changes Cringer’s fundamental personality from lazy coward to extremely aggressive? I never quite got that part.

The point being! That for some reason the writers felt it was necessary to give He-Man a childlike alter-ego in Prince Adam and an exaggeratedly childlike sidekick in Orko, which is one too many child-identification POVs by any count … but actually it’s two too many! He-Man stories, if you’re going to argue they have any entertainment value whatsoever (as opposed to just selling more toys), are escapism pure and simple. And what adults who try to create escapism for kids consistently fail to realize is this: NO ONE daydreams about hanging out with the hero. They daydream about BEING the hero. To assume that children would not be able to properly relate to He-Man purely as a tiger-riding, wizard-battling, sword-and-axe-slinging barbarian is to grossly underestimate the pre-adolescent imagination. To compound that by assuming that children really see themselves as the spaz in the purple turtleneck who frequently does more harm than good by trying too hard – that is just plain nasty.

So yeah, I am not a big fan of the cartoon version of Masters of the Universe. (Although one of my buddies did remind me that Mer-Man had a phenomenally gargly voice on the show, which he cited as justification for acquiring that action figure just for purposes of doing the voice.) But even thinking about the cartoon at all makes me highly aware of one fact: the little guy (remember how this all started with musing about buying toys for the little guy?) has never seen and probably will never see a single episode of the He-Man animated series. Which is incredibly liberating! I could in fact hand him four random MOTU action figures and point out how they go with Castle Grayskull, and the little guy would be completely at liberty to invent any stories for them that he liked. He doesn’t have to have He-Man at all, and if he does there’s nothing to stop him from playing out scenes where He-Man and Beast Man are best buddies. I could, in fact, give him action figures of Stratos, Teela, one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and a Mexican He-Man knockoff and he would be several shades of delighted.

And that is a (literally) game-changing realization, because of course the aftermarket for old He-Man toys is driven for adults by adults, and those adults all pretty much know what’s what, who the main characters are and who the lame characters are. (The exception being the occasional mom who puts a bunch of toys on eBay and fills in the description as “my son’s old dolls, no idea who they are but all are in good shape from smoke-free home!”) You can get a lot more bang for your buck if you aren’t a slave to canonical essentiality, which a three-year-old most definitely is not. He in fact would prize quantity over classic quality every time. So I’ll probably end up bidding mainly on big, mixed-bag lots of He-Man toys and letting the little guy go nuts investing them with his own mythologies. If that means some C-lister like Sy-Klone ends up as the King of Castle Grayskull in my house, that is fine by me.

1 comment:

  1. Suddenly I'm thinking that the live action Dolph Lundgren MOTU came closer to fulfilling your image of what the story should have been than the cartoon. No Prince Adam, no Cringer or Orko, and a genuinely scary Skeletor.

    Then I remember that they travelled to our world and saved the universe with the power of awesome 80's synthesizer music. Cosmic key my ass.