Masters and Caves in a Post-Magic Age:
He-Man and Philosophy
Jeremy E. Scarbrough
Masters of the Universe dominated children’s entertainment in the 1980s and it continues to enchant new generations and re-enchant original fans. Through innovative and unforgettable toys, a cartoon series, a feature film—introducing She-Ra and subsequently launching the Princess of Power series—a live-action film starring Dolph Lundgren, an animated Christmas Special feature, a touring live theatrical show, a 1990s animated series, a 2002 animated series, and a long history of comic lore spanning across several publishers including Mattel, Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse; MOTU has left a memorable mark on the history of pop-culture. The latest installment in this lineage of legendary lore is Kevin Smith’s Masters of the Universe: Revelation. It is filled with nostalgic gems (classic characters and vehicles) and witty easter eggs (such as Man-At-Arms referring to Skeletor’s horse (Night Stalker) as a “night-mare”). The classic lore’s love for laughter remains well intact with literal kicks being followed by commentary such as, he “got a kick out of that.” Overall, there are many satisfying aspects of the new series. Still, it has been met with mixed reviews and some pointed criticisms.
MOTU has long appealed to our moral imagination—especially questions of good vs evil and an ultimate sense of justice to be served—as well as an existential interest in self-empowerment, but the new series presses much deeper into a number of philosophical themes. Even some of the criticisms of Revelation concern philosophical ideology. In this essay, I will unpack some of these themes as presented in Part 1 of Revelation.
CRITICISM, CULTURE WARS, & CAVE DWELLING
Perhaps the most obvious philosophical theme has to do with a shifting of perspectives, as it is Teela and her new companions (including an old acquaintance and unlikely ally) that receive the spotlight. As controversial as some aspects of contemporary Critical Theory have become (namely, Critical Social Justice), it is perhaps understandable that some of the critical pushback involves a suspicion of covert “woke” agenda here. (If the camaraderie between Teela and Andra were to develop in a manner similar to that of She-Ra and Catra, in the Princess of Power’s 2018 reinterpretation, then perhaps such a charge would be more substantive. As it is, however, this does not seem to be the case). There also seems to be some divided criticism over racial representation—namely, whether it was best to have Andra and King Grayskull swap races from their original depictions, because it is easier to expand racial representation within an established canon, or whether it would have been more appropriate to create new characters for the purpose of expanding representation. Other critics may value the exploration of multiple perspectives yet see the new emphasis on feminine power with the accompaniment of male perspectives marginalized as an unnecessary overemphasis, a displacement that is disappointing if not insulting. Didn’t She-Ra just get her spotlight? They might ask. Is it necessary that Teela displace He-man here also? They might press.
Still, it does not necessarily come off as an agenda of that sort. While it is disappointing for the classic fan not to see more of the very hero they are likely tuning in to see, Smith’s creative expansion of the classic lore warrants pondering. And without attempting to open a can of worms, herein lies a point of clarity that our culture today should understand about the culture wars over Critical Theory. First of all, the western tradition of philosophy is itself a pondering and questioning of perspective. Second, there is a middle ground on this spectrum of contemporary disagreement whereupon theists and non-theists alike champion an open dialogue of perspectives, but without the shouting/shaming/silencing nor the relativizing of truth to mere perspective, which seems to accompany many popular prescriptive presumptions. CT has a complex history, tethered to some specific ideologies, expanding from traditional ideologies, and branching out into a number of subsequent contemporary theories of critique—some more explicitly Marxist, others less so (though the influence of Marx remains); some driven by agenda and advocacy, and others interested more primarily in research and cultural critique.
Thus, it is important to understand that while critical theories do involve agenda and moral prescriptions at the popular level (and these are ultimately questions of worldview) at the strictest level of scholarship, a fundamental interest of CT in general (not here speaking to any contemporary theories in particular) is the questioning of perspective and popular narrative. That is, CT as descriptive is a methodology. (Since prescriptive critical theories are moral narratives in themselves, this means that CT as a methodology can even be used to scrutinize the popular claims of various critical theories). The journalist, for example is a methodological or descriptive Critical Theorist in this sense. And so was Socrates, in this sense—quick to ask questions and press into the claims of various perspectives in order to discover whether wisdom is there or to explore and expose problematic presuppositions. Socrates is a far cry, however, from the prescriptive critical theorist or moralistic critical theory, which believes itself to be the moral waker of the unenlightened. Socrates was a seeker and a sage, but not a savior.
As with most perspectives, critical theories are not without their problems, and yet the one who cannot buy what CT might be selling in particular cases should still be able—extending a principle of charity—to find dialogical fruit and food for thought through the contemplation of various perspectives—and the questioning of things which seem not to be in question. Is it good, for instance, for He-Man to deceive his friends? Does this call into question certain aspects of his character—namely, truthfulness and loyalty? As Adam’s friend—close enough to be a confidante, one would think—and He-Man’s fellow warrior, Teela has a unique struggle worth pondering.
As it relates to MOTU: Revelation, the approach to perspective seems to be more of a Socratic quest—the pragmatic wrestling with, and descriptive unpacking of perspective amidst an ultimate journey toward objective answers concerning moral truth and the greater good—as opposed to a mere relativizing of truth to perspective. The series is built around a particular event, but more so around the subsequent issues which arise because of that event. For Teela, it is a questioning of perspective. Forced out of her Platonic cave (epistemically speaking; Plato was speaking both epistemically and metaphysically), Teela now has a crisis of faith because she no longer has a justified true belief. Everything she thought she knew turned out to be false/fake—or so she believes. She blames magic for this deception and rejects such metaphysical ideals as antiquated and serving as the root of pain and deception—a potent metaphor for modernist rejections of metaphysics.
EPISTEMIC PUZZLES & METAPHYSICAL STRUGGLES
So, the first major theme of Revelation is an epistemic question: Why trust, and trust what (magic; past experiences; historical narratives; the word of a close friend or father)? Plato describes one who is, unknowingly, chained inside a cave and only ever able to perceive shadows (things that aren’t really real—distortions of truth, unable to reflect accurately the real, the true). Upon discovering that his/her understanding was wrong because his/her perspective was hindered, the hope is that s/he would wish to become a lover of wisdom—a philosopher—and seek understanding beyond the cave (See Plato, Republic, Book 7). Sometimes wisdom leads elsewhere, but sometimes it leads back into the cave—for cave-ness cannot be fully understood without first understanding the nature of a cave, and this is difficult to ascertain without seeing the cave for what it is, in the light of the sun and in contrast to what it is not. (And some castles are not unlike caves. Indeed, Grayskull has its depths, and reaching its secrets is not unlike grasping, chained, at shadows).
Will Teela return to a past she left behind in order to seek a deeper understanding concerning the inside and out of the cave in which she found herself tethered? Or will her mantra continue to be (as it became for a time): I looked to magic, and it failed me. (Look to no caves for epistemic shelter—no powers of Grayskull; the security of faith becomes a pragmatic “whatever works” by the power of one’s own hand. “You don’t need magic; you just need better tech;” S1:E2: “The Poisoned Chalice”). Indeed, the greater good seemingly required secrecy, and therein deception. Teela’s perspective was challenged, but not necessarily expanded. Instead, her heart was hardened. It had to be challenged yet again in order to open back up. This began when an emboldened Cringer suggested that Teela’s skepticism is really just a projection of her fear—an anxiety involving the weight of a suppressed conviction concerning her moral responsibility to carry on Adam’s calling. (Scare Glow later corroborated Cringer’s observation, when he stated that Teela was dripping with fear). She was further challenged when her father reminded her of what she already knew to be objectively true; she knew Adam (the goodness of his heart; who he really was) even if she didn’t know his big secret (and even if it was a really big secret).
The second major philosophical theme begging to be explored is the battle between magic and technology. What will win out as the object of faith in a post-magic world: magic or tech? Magic is referred to as an empty promise, and those who are “greedy for it” are seen as ignorant if not the enemy. Even Teela refers to “magic and the monsters it makes” (S1:E1, “The Power of Grayskull”). As if the metaphor of contemporary culture’s struggle with hope based on metaphysical truth was not potent enough, the religious symbolism becomes all the more explicit with phrases like, “Magic is dead.” We also see the other side of this—an extremist religious cult worshiping the seeming stability of technology, augmenting (diminishing?) humanity with technology (creating cyborgs), and praying in the name of robotics, automation, and the holy sprocket. These acolytes despise magic and want to destroy the remaining relics of such an abhorrent belief/practice. The true promise of the future, for them, is to be found—seized—through humanity’s mastering of technology. It is worth reiterating the dripping symbolism; some have rejected magic [the antiquated religion] and simply substituted humanity and its technology as the new religion. What’s worse, the technology is ironically de-humanizing. This alone is pregnant with philosophical riches worth pondering.
In his book, A Brief History of Thought, Luc Ferry approaches the history of philosophy as a great dialectic over one essential question: the question of salvation—facing the fact of mortality and the fear of death, mourning the death of the past (loved one, good times, or opportunities gone by), and wrestling with anxieties over the future (the unknown, the uncontrollable, and the inevitable loss of our loved ones). Referencing Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, he observes, “Everything that comes under of ‘Nevermore’ belongs in death’s ledger” (Ferry 2011, p. 5). What is fascinating to ponder while reading Ferry’s work—or while studying any survey on the history of western thought—is the point that philosophy seems to function as a sort of pendulous swing between the belief in higher truths, telos, or a grand-scale order and materialistic deconstructions.
In contrast to ancient religious perspectives, some ancient philosophers developed early theories of materialism. Stoicism was a unique approach to materialism (in contrast to that of modernity) in that it kept the notion of a grand-scale order and cosmic harmony that is so complimentary to religious views. Alas, whether it be of the Stoic, Buddhist, or Secular Humanist variety, there is ultimately no deeply satisfying solution to the problem of salvation within a materialistic or pantheistic determinism—“Frustration and impotence are the salient properties of hope, from a materialist point of view” (p. 225)—and yet there is nevertheless some wisdom in Stoicism’s and Buddhism’s emphasis upon letting things go and not allowing your anxieties to overcome you.
Ferry acknowledges Christianity as offering the most appealing solution for the problem of salvation (p. 261)—with its promise of eternity, and its emphasis upon love and reunion with loved ones, “but for those who are not convinced, and who doubt the truth of these promises of immortality, the problem of death remains unresolved. Which is where philosophy comes in” (p. 4). He expounds, “I find the Christian proposition infinitely more tempting [than the wisdom of Buddhism and Stoicism] –except for the fact that I do not believe it. But were it to be true I would be a taker” (p. 263). Christianity’s doctrine of salvation, he observes, was “so ‘effective’ it opened a chasm in the philosophies of Antiquity and dominated the Occidental world for nearly fifteen hundred years” (p. 53). With the rise of Secular Humanism and its emphasis on skepticism and a nature-oriented empiricism, the ancient teleological perspective—a grand-scale order and purpose, a cosmic harmony—became increasingly challenged. Subsequently the authority of theism became increasingly rejected. “Modern thought puts mankind in the place of cosmos and divinity” (p. 102).
Yet, this “enlightened” empiricism became so ironically rigid as to bring into question the very point of a salvific hope. “In the absence of a cosmos or a God, according to strict humanism principles, the idea of salvation would seem virtually unthinkable…. For many people, the question of salvation was to vanish completely. Or it has become confused with the question of ethics.” (p. 133). Thus, “the Moderns turned in two main directions…. [first,] “what we might call the ‘religions of earthly salvation’, notably scientism, patriotism, and communism” and second, the Kantian notion of an enlarged thought—that enlightenment leads to emancipation, thereby making us freer and happier (p. 136, 139-43). Moreover, it was believed, science can emancipate us from superstitions and our mastery of nature will liberate us to new feats in power over our circumstances.
Nietzsche and postmodernism thereafter challenged both humanism and rationalism. “Unlike the Stoics, clearly, Nietzsche does not believe that the world is harmonious and rational…. But like the Stoics, he invites us to live inside the moment, to be responsible for our own salvation by accepting everything that is the case, to obliterate in ourselves the distinction between happy and unhappy events, and to emancipate ourselves above all else from these inner conflicts fatally nurtured by a misunderstanding of time [remorse for the past; hesitation in facing the future]” (p. 192-93).
Alas, Nietzsche’s amor fati is an untenable conclusion for many, since learning to love whatever is the case—an exceptionless love for the real as it is—would mean simply accepting Auschwitz or other injustices. Following this historic decline into disenchantment, “we find ourselves caught between alternatives,” says Ferry—whether to continue the path of deconstructions or to return to the high road to ponder idealism more deeply (p. 200-201). He concludes, “I prefer to commit myself to the path of a humanism which has the courage fully to take on the problem of transcendence” (p. 227).
And so, many contemporary philosophers who cannot buy what materialism (and the deconstruction which follows) is selling, and yet remain either convinced that God is dead (an antiquated ideal) or else, at least, unconvinced that theism is true, abide within a philosophical space wherein they cannot let go of metaphysical or idealistic hope (for example, the hope for justice), and yet neither have they found a substantive grounding for justifying such hope. It becomes a new leap of faith to replace the allegedly antiquated one.
Ferry’s solution, as it relates to a guide for practical living, is that focusing on the here and now—not dwelling on the past, and not becoming overwhelmed with worry over the future—seems to be an approach to living that is able to draw from and complement each of these perspectives (Stoic and Buddhist materialism; monotheism (especially Christianity); and contemporary humanism). While there may be some practical wisdom here as far as finding daily contentment and minimizing anxiety goes, this solution is not without its problems. While it admirably spotlights a practical unity amidst perspectival diversity, this aspect of theory applied cannot, in itself, dig satisfactorily into the actual question of salvation—for that is a particular question of worldview (The here-and-now-oriented call to love and strength amidst suffering found in Christianity, for instance, is grounded in an anticipatory hope). Nevertheless, the need to resist a self-enslavement to the past and the readiness to do the best you can with what you’ve got today, even as you have no clue about how to deal with tomorrow’s trials, frames well the journey Teela faces, while the cult of technology ebbs between both an animosity for the past and a desperation to create a future cleansed of magic. In contrast, we see an outcast Man-At-Arms along with Orko and Roboto doing the best they can to make the most of each day—focusing on the value of family and fellowship as the closest thing to meaning/salvation amidst the thrown-ness of their existential anxiety—with past glories gone, loved ones lost, and their future grim, in this post-magic, post-savior age.
We also see, in Teela and the cult of technology, the philosophical struggle with the question of how to process new information. In philosophy, a dialectic refers to the natural evolution of understanding via the wrestling of perspectives. An original idea (thesis) is challenged by new ideas (antitheses), and at some point a synthesis of ideas/perspectives may become the new mainstream ideology. It is that point in which a new idea, a new criticism, or new information creates a sort of cognitive dissonance that one faces the Platonic questions of cave dwelling: ought one to double down on definitions of fire, wall, and shadows (or deconstruct what it means to be a “cave”); to seek out understanding beyond the cave; or to resolve oneself to a position of perpetual skepticism?
When philosophical perspectives clash, Ferry writes, the typical response is either skepticism or dogmatism. (And indeed, we see both reactions to a post-magic struggle depicted in Revelations). Ferry suggests the Kantian notion of an enlarged horizon (an expanding of perspective) as the most appropriate means toward an end of understanding and the gleaning of wisdom. And, as mentioned above, while this does overlap with the concerns of descriptive Critical Theory, the pursuit of wisdom via an enlarging of one’s perspective is central to the Great Conversation of western history, and also lies at the foundation of a liberal arts education. And we see this play out in MOTU: Revelation. For Teela, it is the past which binds her, while the anti-magic/pro-tech cult is driven by idealistic needs to be obtained in a future vision. It is not that Teela needs to extinguish her desire for truth and a meaningful sense of trust, but she does need to let go of past wounds and losses in order to see the present more clearly. Moreover, her perspective must be expanded in order to understand the nature, power, purpose, and honor of Grayskull’s magic as foundation to a universal order of justice.
In this essay, I have unpacked two major themes as presented in Masters of the Universe: Revelation. The series poses additional questions worth pondering, and I encourage others to draw out that dialogue. Whether one appreciates Smith’s approach or adopts a spirit of criticism, the series is certainly ripe with philosophical fruit.
Jeremy E. Scarbrough holds a PhD in music (emphasis in philosophy) from the University of Mississippi, an MA in Christian Apologetics, an MA in Theological Studies, an MME in Music Education, and a BA in Music. He has taught music and philosophy at the high school and undergraduate levels. He currently resides in Tampa, FL, where he serves as instructor of philosophy for Pasco-Hernando State College. His research explores the intersection of philosophy (especially moral philosophy), theology, aesthetics (especially musical aesthetics), and pop culture. He has previously contributed chapters on heavy metal, lament, and theodicy (Music, Theology, and Justice 2017) and on sin and virtue in Marvel Comic’s Venom (Theology and the Marvel Universe 2019). Most recently, he has edited a volume on Disney and Moral Theology, which will be released by Lexington Books.
Ferry, Luc. A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, trans. Theo Cuffe. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2011.
Masters of the Universe: Revelation. Directed by Kevin Smith, Powerhouse Animation Studios, 2021. Netflix, http://www.netflix.com/title/81154670.