The Inverse Interview
Kevin Smith reveals the inspiration for his Netflix 'He-Man' sequel [Exclusive]
“Skeletor was a badass vision.”
— Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith has told his origin story before. He’s never said what happened next.
In dozens of interviews, the New Jersey-born film director known for his devotion to Marvel, DC, and Star Wars, cites seeing Richard Linklater’s 1990 comedy Slacker at the Film Forum in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village as the radioactive bug bite that led him to make movies himself.
In the 2011 book The Film That Changed My Life: 30 Directors on Their Epiphanies in the Dark, Smith said of Slacker: "It was the movie that got me off my ass; it was the movie that lit a fire under me, the movie that made me think, 'Hey, I could be a filmmaker.' And I had never seen a movie like that before ever in my life.”
Years later, Smith released his debut feature Clerks in 1994. Filmed inside the Leonardo, New Jersey convenience store where he worked the day shift, Clerks possesses a likewise youthful restlessness in its illustration of young men caught up in their own bullshit, from sex with exes to the ethics of The Empire Strikes Back. After Clerks came a steady stream of generational classics like Mallrats (1995), Chasing Amy (1997), Dogma (1999), and Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), all late-night premium cable staples throughout the 2000s.
But there’s a second chapter to Smith’s informal film education (he dropped out of the New School after one semester). Shortly after Slacker, Smith saw another movie at the Film Forum that blew his mind. In a new interview, the director, now 50, tells Inverse how one classic Japanese anime inspired his career, and ultimately led him to his latest project, a He-Man sequel premiering later this month on Netflix.
“When I was 21, I was living in central New Jersey,” Smith says. “In order to see an indie film, you had to go into Manhattan to see something cool. [That’s where] I saw Slacker. But one of the next movies I saw at the Film Forum was Akira.”
Released in 1988, Katsuhiro Otomo’s anime masterpiece Akira imagined a future Tokyo in disarray, along with an uncanny prediction on an unpopular 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Replete with adult themes like terrorism, sexual violence, corrupt authorities, and Japan’s culturally specific fear of rampant biker gangs, Akira was a shock to the Western system, where animation was long underestimated as a children’s medium. In 2020, The Guardian praised Akira as the film that “helped cartoons grow up.”
“It’s a gorgeous, stunning piece of work,” sings Smith on the virtues of Akira. Over Zoom, Smith opens up on his small but personal history with anime. He doesn’t think himself an expert, but he recognizes anime’s transgressive quality that challenges its audience in ways American cartoons did not until recently.
“Most of the animation I was fed my whole life was from here, in the states,” he says. “But [with] outliers like Battle of the Planets, you were getting another culture’s version of a ‘cartoon.’ You saw storytelling from another part of the world. Even as a kid, you could detect subtle nuances. Cartoons from across the sea were more, for lack of a better description, grown-up.”
Akira wasn’t the first Japanese cartoon to cross oceans, but it blew open the doors for anime’s enduring popularity in the late 20th and early 21st century, creating a space for more hits like Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, Pokémon, and more. In 2021, anime is more popular than ever.
“I wouldn’t call myself a huge anime fan,” Smith says, “but anything animated, I’m influenced by [it].”
“Cartoons from across the sea were more, for lack of a better description, grown-up.”
Enter: Masters of the Universe: Revelation. Developed and produced by Smith, the new Netflix series is a sequel to the 1983-1985 hit He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, a (Western) cartoon created by toymaker Mattel to compete against the juggernaut Star Wars.
In all versions of the story, Masters of the Universe is the story of He-Man, defender of Eternia. Using a magical sword, the boyish Prince Adam becomes the beefy, loinclothed He-Man to fight back against the evil Skeletor. Revelations, which stars a stacked voice cast including Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy), Lena Headey (Game of Thrones), and Mark Hamill (Star Wars), picks up where the original series left off, with He-Man and Skeletor’s feud reignited.
Smith, whose childhood belongs to Star Wars and Super Friends, was aging into his teens when He-Man ruled the airwaves. That didn’t stop the magic of Eternia from enchanting Smith.
“I loved the [He-Man] cartoons,” says Smith.
“Skeletor was a badass vision.”
Raised in a Catholic family in New Jersey, the Smith household didn’t have cable. “You had five channels,” he says, “so anything animated was cool.” While Smith was “a little [older than] who they were going for,” he would “come home from Our Lady of Perpetual Health, take off [his] uniform, and watch He-Man.” On Zoom, Smith rests his head on his hand like a child laying prone with feet kicking before the glow of a living room TV. “Skeletor was a badass vision.”
Due to his age, and his parents’ emptied wallets, Smith never played with Mattel’s best-selling He-Man toys.
“I remember talking to my parents, ‘Can I get Castle Grayskull?’ My parents were like, ‘We blew so much money on Star Wars, now you want something else? No! You get one toy line.’ It’s like Netflix and Mattel knew I never got to play. So they’re like, ‘Here you go.’”
But those Star Wars toys still fueled an imagination Smith is putting to the screen all these years later.
“I feel like I grew up to become a storyteller, [because of] Star Wars figures,” he says. “You could only do the main adventures so many times before you start [doing your own] stuff. That’s what we did with Masters. We just started to create.”
Revelations isn’t Smith’s first cartoon.
In 2000, Smith adapted his Clerks — which won acclaim after its premiere at the ‘94 Cannes Film Festival and entered the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2019 — as a short-lived adult animated series on ABC.
“It’s like Netflix and Mattel knew I never got to play.”
Tonally in the spirit of Family Guy, the series cleverly spoofed popular culture, politics, and through its main antagonist voiced by Alec Baldwin, gentrification by the mega-wealthy. But due to the archaic Nielsen ratings system, Clerks: The Animated Series was canceled after two episodes. Not two seasons. Two episodes.
“Seven million people watched the first episode of Clerks,” he says. “In those days those numbers weren’t good enough.” Despite its quick demise, Clerks found a cult following on DVD. In 2011, Complex ranked Clerks as one of the most underrated animated shows of all time.
With Revelations, Smith will accomplish what he couldn’t with Clerks: Completion.
“In this era, you get to tell your whole story,” Smith says. “You’re not going to be cut off in the middle. You get a season, at the very least. The difference between Clerks and this is night and day. [Clerks] was a lot of hope in the toilet. [Revelations] is a lot of hope going the distance.”
It’s a little too early for Smith to know if a second season is in the cards, but he’s hoping. “I don’t know if we’ll get a Season 2, but I know we’ll get Season 1 and it’s going to impact people in a big, bad way,” he says.
Like Akira, Revelation is made for adults — the ones who spent their youth playing with the same He-Man toys Smith did not. It began life under Netflix’s growing anime ranks, alongside Castlevania and Blood of Zeus, but now claims only artistic inspiration from the Japanese art form.
“It was born under the anime division [at Netflix],” says Smith. “For the first six months of our lives, we were anime. But as we progressed, [it became] tough to blend anime with this mythology. Because it’s got its own look. There are moments pulled from anime, but I would not consider Masters of the Universe anime.”
But Smith believes that Masters of the Universe: Revelation is alive because of the power of anime.
“[Without] anime, this iteration doesn’t exist,” Smith says. “Anime trusts its audience to understand. To grow up and not go, ‘We can’t do that.’ Growing up in the states in the ‘70s and ‘80s, our cartoons were simple morality tales. Like He-Man, or Super Friends. But it was always animation that came from other cultures that impacted me the most. It’s always been part of my life. Battle of the Planets, man!”
Masters of the Universe: Revelation begins streaming on Netflix on July 23.