Review: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

1 Dec

Eric and I went binge-watching <grin>

The writers and producers of She-Ra: Princess of Power had one great advantage over their modern-day successors. They were not, on one hand, besieged by shrieking social justice warriors demanding ‘representation,’ ‘diversity’ and a great many other buzzwords that detract from the all-important requirement to tell a good story. And, on the other hand, they didn’t have to contend with whiny man-children of both genders moaning about how changes to a much-loved show ruined their childhood forever. One might note, as I do, that most of the complainers on both sides have nothing at risk, while those who have to listen to them do.

But I digress.

She-Ra: Princess of Power worked, as a show, for much the same reason as both He-Man and Thunderbirds. It was unashamedly a kids show, with a surprising amount of limits on what could be shown, but it rarely talked down to kids (apart from those wretched morals tacked on to the end). Nor did it play gender politics; it’s largely female cast (villains as well as heroes) did well on their own merits, rather than at the expense of the men. It really should have been studied by whoever wrote The Last Jedi.

It also managed to assume an identity of its own, separate from He-Man. Where He-Man defended a kingdom and a planet against a would-be evil overlord, She-Ra’s evil overlord had already effectively won the war. She-Ra was the figurehead of a resistance movement, not the defender of an established order. And, while the show did pull in a great many details from its brother (hah) series, it also managed to be just different enough to be more than just another spin-off. Boys came to watch because of He-Man; they stayed watching because of She-Ra. She had the unfortunately rare talent among action heroines of appealing to both genders.

It was something of a shame, I thought, that the revitalised 2002 series of Masters of the Universe didn’t last long enough to reintroduce She-Ra. (The comics did try to fill this hole, with mixed results.) By and large, the 2002 series fixed many of the problems with the original He-Man series – if nothing else, He-Man faces a great many challenges he actually has to use his brain to defeat – and it would have been interesting to see another spin-off (even if part of the backstory would have to be changed). Instead, there was a dearth of He-Man related material until it was revealed that She-Ra would be rebooted as She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Reactions to everything from the changed backstory to She-Ra’s very appearance were … somewhat mixed. (And Netflix managed to mess up Death Note …) I withheld judgement until I had a chance to actually watch the series.

TL:DR – There’s a lot to like in the series, but also a few things to dislike. YMMV.

She-Ra-and-The-Princesses-of-Power-Princess-Alliance-Netflix

The basic plot is fairly simple. Adora and Catra are (apparently) orphans, cadets raised by Shadow Weaver to serve Hordak’s Horde. They know nothing about the outside world, save for what the Horde taught them. On the eve of Adora’s promotion to Force Captain, the two girls escape the Fright Zone and enter the mysterious Whispering Woods, home of the last remnants of the Great Rebellion. Lost, Adora discovers a sword that seems to be calling to her. Unable to resist the call, she sneaks back to the woods and encounters Glimmer and Bow, both members of the Rebellion. In the ensuring chaos, Adora finds the sword and discovers it allows her to turn into She-Ra, a superpowered princess. Worse, to her horror, Adora discovers she’s been fighting on the wrong side. The Horde is evil. Swearing never to go back, Adora leaves Catra and joins the rebellion herself.

Bow: Your army is called the Evil Horde.

Adora: Who calls us that?

Bow: EVERYBODY!

Learning that She-Ra is just one of many superpowered Princesses, Adora and her new friends set out to reunite the Princess Alliance, a defence force that stood against the Horde until they were defeated and shattered by Hordak. In the meantime, Hordak promotes Catra to Force Captain and charges her with waging war on the rebellion. This she does with brutal efficiency, first successfully capturing Glimmer and Bow, then seducing Entrapa to join the Horde, displacing Shadow Weaver from her position and – finally – leading an assault on Bright Moon (the home of the rebellion) that comes within a hairsbreadth of success. The season ends with She-Ra and her new comrades preparing to take the war to the Horde, while Catra – now promoted to Hordak’s second-in-command – starts planning her next step …

There’s a great deal I like about the series. The show’s designers did an excellent job of displaying a fantasy world, from the industrial nightmare of the Fright Zone to the creepy Whispering Woods. They picked and mixed some of the best elements from the original show, while stripping out some of the sillier (and weaker) elements. There are plenty of grounds for a crossover between this show and Masters of the Universe, although there would be problems making the 2002 series interact with this one. They also depicted relationships that strengthened and weakened as time wore on, while including plenty of action and adventure. The only real weak point in the show’s production is that it’s a long story, rather than an series of stand-alone episodes. It can become confusing if you watch such episodes out of order.

The core of the new series, for better or worse, is the complex relationship between Adora and Catra. Adora and Catra were both abused by Shadow Weaver, but Catra got the worst of it; they grew up together as adopted sisters, yet were fragmented by Adora’s defection (made worse, perhaps, by the fact Adora was completely blind to how Catra was abused until it was too late.) The writers did a good job of representing their relationship – and how it went sour – in a manner that reminds me of Thor and Loki’s relationship from the MCU. It’s definitely worth nothing that, for all of Shadow Weaver’s favouritism towards Adora, Catra was the better student. Her attack on Bright Moon fails through bad luck, not a failure on her part.

Catra-and-Adora

Adora herself comes across as a tomboy, of sorts; an understandable development given that she was raised in a military academy. This is in stark contrast to just about all of the other Princesses, all of whom display a certain degree of immaturity. She’s a likable character, but she is hampered by her self-doubts and guilt over believing the Horde’s lies for so long. The three-way friendship between Glimmer, Bow and Adora gives her balance, which works very well. In some ways, they complement each other. Curiously, there doesn’t seem to be any personality change when Adora becomes She-Ra. He-Man and Adam often came across as two different people.

The writers did a reasonably good job of depicting the other princesses on the show, giving them all distinct personalities as well as strengths and weaknesses. They are a diverse group – and not just in skin colour – although this is something of a weakness in its own right. One princess spends her time pretending that nothing is wrong, another traps herself in her own castle … and one, the youngest, is so much of a stickler for the rules that she practically gives the Horde a free shot at her kingdom.

Indeed, one thing that grates is a definite lack of maturity. It’s hard to say how old some of the princesses are – Adora herself comes across as sixteen, barely – but they are almost completely immature. It’s hinted that most of them lack parents, perhaps because of the defeat that ended the last Princess Alliance. Glimmer, the only one who does have an on-screen parent, is no better. Her arguments with her mother are absurd, from an adult point of view; her mother grounding her comes across as ridiculous. But then, her mother is pretty immature herself. So are most of the Hordesmen. And the less said about Sea Hawk the better.

Hordak, curiously enough, is an exception. He’s definitely evil and intimidating, to the point that even Catra fears him, but he’s not a bad leader. He promotes Catra, over Shadow Weaver’s objections; later, he rewards Catra for her plan, despite its failure, on the grounds that Catra got far closer to outright victory than anyone else. And when Shadow Weaver steals the credit for Catra’s first plan, he makes sure Shadow Weaver gets the blame when the plan goes south in the very next episode. He’s a far more complex (and less humorous) character than the original and the show is all the stronger for it.

The vast majority of the episodes also work fairly well. The Sword manages to introduce everyone important (except Hordak) and generally showcase the show’s world. Flowers for She-Ra is perhaps the weakest, suggesting that the writers weren’t quite sure where they were going when they penned it, although it does have its moments. Princess Prom is the sort of episode, from the blurb, that I would have hated … but, as a matter of fact, it’s one of the strongest episodes in the season. The Battle of Bright Moon works up until the final moments, when the rebels are saved by good luck. Catra did not deserve to lose.

Much – not all – of the online debate over the show was misguided. She-Ra does look strange when she first appears, but that vanishes fairly quickly. It’s possible that there might be a male and female version of the superpowered form, with a man transforming into He-Man if he wielded the sword. The show does not indulge in much – if any – male-bashing: the closest it ever comes to anything of the sort is Sea Hawk confessing he acts like an ass to cover up his insecurities, something that could also be said of Glimmer. (Kudos to the writers for recognising that and using it.) And let’s face it; none of the female characters are remotely perfect either. (Shadow Weaver is far less intelligent and cunning than her original series counterpart.) My childhood has not been ruined <grin>.

That said, the show does have weaknesses. One of them is that She-Ra is simply too powerful. The writers had to bend over backwards to keep her from winning the war single-handedly. Adora is weakened by her insecurities and, later, by a simple lack of knowledge.

A more curious weakness is a strong streak of elitism that runs through the Great Rebellion – but not, oddly, the Horde. The Princesses are in power because they have power (one of them is eleven, someone who would not be allowed to rule in the real world until she came of age) and pretty much everyone involved is strikingly pretty and human, rather than a crossbreed and/or ugly. There’s no sense that merit is involved at any point, which is rather disappointing for Bow and the other mere humans. Bow is perhaps the most competent character in the Rebellion, but he’ll never match a Princess. There’s a sense that some people are just better, which is a pretty poor Aesop.

The Horde, by contrast, is an equal-opportunity employer. Not all of its ranks are filled with power-mad tyrants like Shadow Weaver. Force Captain Scorpia is a Princess – and a surprisingly decent person, unlike the original – but she’s also monstrous and there’s a strong hint she isn’t welcome at the Princess Prom. Catra is allowed to climb in the ranks, rather than being permanently held back; later, when Entrapa joins the Horde, Hordak welcomes her too. I’d be curious to know if this was deliberate or not.

I’ve noticed that most Social Justice Bullies will notice the near-problem (Donald Trump was rude about women) and ignore the far-problem (the treatment of women in Third World countries). Adora ignores Shadow Weaver’s near-constant abuse of Catra, but puts her life on the line to fight for people she doesn’t know. It’s not hard to blame Catra for resenting this, nor for realising well before Adora that the Horde was evil. But then, people do tend to be blind to something that appears usual to them.

The writers also attempted a great deal of inclusion. This works better than most, at least, because the script doesn’t call attention to it. No one mentions skin colour (although discrimination against ‘monsters’ is mentioned; no one makes an issue of body-shape or anything else that might prove controversial. There’s a great deal of room for plausible deniability. Indeed, while one can argue that Adora and Catra have romantic feelings for each other, one can also argue that they’re really sisters (if from other mothers). There’s no more homoerotic subtext than there is in Thor.

Overall, as a kids show, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power works fine. It lacks the semi-grittiness of the 2002 Masters of the Universe reboot (and a crossover might be awkward, although doable), but it also lacks the weaknesses of both the original He-Man and She-Ra shows. I think it will probably manage to appeal to both boys and girls. However, an adult might notice – and wonder – at some of the unfortunate implications.

It isn’t the sort of show I’ll watch time and time again. But you know … it isn’t Netflix’s Death Note either.

Advertisements

4 Responses to “Review: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power”

  1. Daniel December 1, 2018 at 10:11 pm #

    I watched the trailer and got turned off big time. Your review has made me decide to try watching it. Didn’t take much convincing because I absolutely love Netflix take on Voltron and was hoping she-ra would be in that same style.
    Rewatching most of the original he-man doesn’t hold up as an adult the original she-ra holds up better but still. I too loved the 2002 reboot and was sad that they couldn’t finish the arc as planned

    • Kell Harris December 13, 2018 at 6:32 am #

      It does have the same people who wrote voltron. Most of the criticism was just complaining.

  2. William December 2, 2018 at 11:48 pm #

    I’ve watched the show and agree with most of your points. Catra certainly seemed to have a crush on Adora, which she transferred to Scorpia I thought.

  3. Kell Harris December 13, 2018 at 6:31 am #

    I binged watched the series as well. The back and forth anger in their relationship personally reminded me more off nebula and Gomorrah ‘s relationship then loki and thors. In abusive households often there is a favorite or they are pitted against each other. Similarly often a victim will hate a family member more then the abuser as displaced rage for their failer to stop the abuser. Catra is so complex because adora was both her only friend and the one who didn’t ‘save’ her. Honestly I don’t think adora was oblivious she as a child just didn’t know what to do. At the same time catra acts like an ex girlfriend through most of the series. She was truly the most interesting character. I wanted to succeed more then adora.
    One the biggest strengths of the show I felt was the complexity off the villians. We never even learned why shadow weaver was so fixated on adora. Honestly shadow weaver knows something about adoras past. Oh and I think the elitism was deliberate. Catra was able to pull in entrapta become of it. It will be interesting to see if they will continue with this theme and bring it to its conclusion. As a long time fan I will definitely check out later seasons. But the Netflix deathnote? That’s just a figment off my imagination it’s doesn’t exist.It never happened( puts fingers in ear while singing lalala)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: