Reboots get a bad rap these days, but the Netflix series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power makes a damn good case for them, mostly because creator Noelle Stevenson has the winning combination of appreciation for the beloved ’80s source material and the knowledge that the heroine needed an update if she was going to be successful.
And what an update she gets! The original series, She-Ra: Princess of Power, was fun, but it was firmly rooted in its origin as a spin-off of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. What it was mainly trying to do was sell even more toys by replicating He-Man’s success with a female audience. In the intro, She-Ra even introduces herself by saying she’s He-Man’s twin sister. Thankfully, this time around She-Ra is not only firmly her own person, with He-Man going completely unmentioned, but the show is far more ambitious.
As in the previous incarnation, She-Ra starts out as Adora. She’ll probably sound familiar to many fans, since she’s voiced by Aimee Carrero, who also played Princess Elena on the Disney series Elena of Avalor. The teenage Adora has been raised by the Horde, having never ventured outside their areas of control. She fully believes in their cause and her skills and abilities have her on track to be one of their most high-ranking soldiers.
Then she and her friend Catra (AJ Michalka) head into the outside world for the first time and Adora is confronted with the truth about the people who raised her. When she also finds the magical sword that allows her to transform into She-Ra, she defects to the Rebellion to try to defeat the Horde and help others, especially her new friends Bow (Marcus Scribner) and Glimmer (Karen Fukuhara).
And what a series of adventures! She-Ra and the Princesses of Power never loses sight of the fact that this is a show for kids, but it loads the deceptively light-hearted, deeply feminine material with some weighty stuff adults will be able to appreciate without becoming dour. The show is also deeply reflective of showrunner Noelle Stevenson’s values and previous work, which includes the comic book series Lumberjanes and Nimona. So while many of the characters in the original show looked like slightly more colorful Barbie (or Ken) dolls, the ones in the latest incarnation are all ages, races, body types, and sexualities, even if most of them are only strongly coded rather than openly gender fluid and/or queer.
As with most heroic journeys, the villains tend to steal the show, and many of them are far more interesting and entertaining than the heroes, with Catra being one of the most complex. Her long history with her best friend She-Ra is revealed to be deeply tragic and, once Catra commits to her path and climbs the ranks in the Horde, she emerges as one of the best written villains, period. Just watch the episode “Princess Prom,” which has She-Ra and Catra dancing together – while Catra rocks a tux no less – and tell me there’s not also an undercurrent of romantic tension between the two.
The only time the show feels lacking or repetitive is when a few scenes and storylines bring other shows such as Avatar: The Last Airbender to mind, or when Adora seems to need constant reassurance from her friends about her chosen path. Sure, other shows may have explored some of the ideas She-Ra touches on better, but the series still manages to be remarkably inclusive, not just in terms of casting, but with regards to the themes it explores. How do you transcend a legacy of loss and gather once again to fight a common enemy? What happens when you discover the people who raised you are evil? How do you let go of a friend who seems more interested in power than doing the right thing? And how do you build a new life and relationships? It’s interesting stuff and here’s hoping that Netflix continues to show how the game continues now that all the pieces are in place.