The best part of Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is the villains

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Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power gives the ’80s Filmation series a sleek, shiny reboot. Without having to stand on the brawny shoulders of He-Man (the original series was intricately tied with the He-Man and the Masters of Universe, with Adora being He-Man’s long-lost twin sister), Princesses of Power forges its own path.

Like its original, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power follows Adora as she discovers her true destiny as the hero She-Ra. Originally raised by the Evil Horde, Adora stumbles across a mysterious sword calling out to her in the woods and decides to join the Rebellion. She teams up with Princess of Bright Moon, Glimmer, and archer Bow to rebuild the Princess Alliance, a group of royal warriors determined to take down the Evil Horde. But to do it she must leave behind her past, specifically her best friend Catra who’s still loyal to the Horde and feels betrayed by Adora’s actions.

While the strong lead characters of Adora, Glimmer and Bow beam through with a splashy new animation style, what makes this reboot particularly compelling is the fleshed out villainous cast, who dominated their scenes and gave motivation and depth to their retro counterparts.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power - Glimmer, Bow and Adora DreamWorks Animation/Netflix

Every few days leading up to the launch of the show on Netflix, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’s official Twitter account revealed a new character, ranging from the oh-so-subtly-named Netossa to talking horse Swift Wind. But for a show priding itself on its large ensemble cast, beyond the core trio of Adora, Glimmer and Bow, the rest of the princesses never really get a chance to shine.

The heroines have their moments, certainly, but because of the nature of the first season, corralling the cast together isn’t an easy task. We see most of the princesses separately, but there’s only a few episodes where they come together and interact — for instance, the show’s eighth episode, “The Princess Prom,” has them attending a royal ball, where their fun personalities can really riff off one another. It’s certainly a setup for things to come, but considering the emphasis on the expanded cast, I expected more.

What managed to surpass some pretty high expectations were the cast of bad guys.

It helps that unlike the dozen or so princesses, there are only four (and later on, five) important villains to keep track of, so when the episodes shift to them, the focus is tighter than when the show tries to juggle the large princess cast. While bad guy leaders Hordak and Shadow Weaver are focused on their own big bad agendas (Hordak, typically, wants to take over the world; Shadow Weaver is specifically bent on bringing Adora back to the Horde), those in lower ranks have deeper reasons as to why they’re drawn to the all-powerful Horde.

Namely, they all feel like misfits.

Catra, we know right away, feels directly abandoned when Adora goes off and joins the glimmering princess crew. Fellow Force Captain, the cheery Scorpia, reveals that she too was once a princess, but when the Horde invaded, her family surrendered and joined. It’s not a decision she regrets.

“I never really fit with the other Princesses,” Scorpia confides to Catra, before Catra whisks her away to the All-Princess Ball. (“That’s exactly why you have to go! How dare those princesses pretend they’re better because you’re different!”)

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power - Scorpia and Catra on the way to princess prom Dreamworks Animation/Netflix

This theme of not fitting in gets a darker reprise later on in the season when one of the princesses gets left behind by the others who presume her dead. They don’t bother to look for her. This is right after flower power Princess Perfuma complains about how hard it is to work with this particular character, due to her quirky — and yes, different — personality. Catra and Scorpia find her hiding out in the pipes of the Fright Zone (the Evil Horde’s appropriately named headquarters) and she blissfully tells them she’s just waiting for her friends to return for her.

But Catra points out that it’s been very long. The princesses aren’t coming back.

“All these princesses care about are people who are just like them,” Catra tells her. “But you’re not like them, are you?”

Catra preys on this insecurity, which she recognizes in herself. It’s this manipulation that turns Catra into a truly compelling villain; instead of being bent for total world domination, she’s pushed to act because she feels out of place, left behind by her best friend and closest confidant, and she’s not going to let it happen to anyone else — even if that means twisting her words.

And she has a point; for all its preaching about peace, the Princess Alliance doesn’t treat their quirkiest member with much respect. The Horde’s got their own evil agenda and manipulative tactics, of course, but like Catra says, you can be who you want to with them. No one’s going to leave you behind.

The show’s 11th episode is its strongest, particularly because it does away with the extra cast and focuses very intimately on Catra and Adora, trapping the two in some sort of simulator that replays their childhood memories, showing the multifaceted nature of their relationship. Adora was always there to defend Catra, but Catra wanted a chance to shine outside of her best friend’s shadow. Their surrogate mother, Shadow Weaver, clearly preferred Adora over Catra, even when they both got in trouble for the same actions.

By its end, we see just how wounded Catra, how far she’s been driven, how this final betrayal from Adora was just the wedge that split their already fractured relationship. It’s a turn from antihero to full-on villain that’s believable and full of momentum. That is to say, we’ll stick with this one through season two.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is now streaming on Netflix.

https://www.polygon.com/2018/11/14/18094960/she-ra-review-netflix