After five seasons and a movie, Steven Universe gives us… reality?
Steven Universe (Zach Callison), along with the Crystal Gems Garnet (Estelle), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz), Pearl (Deedee Magno Hall), Lapis Lazuli (Jennifer Paz), Peridot (Shelby Rabara), and Bismuth (Uzo “Yes, Uzo Aduba” Aduba) finally dealt with the Great Diamond Authority (Patti LuPone, Lisa Hannigan, Christine Ebersole) and brought (relative) peace to the galaxy. In the movie two years later, the team managed to deal with Spinel (Sarah Stiles), a victim of Steven’s mother’s (Susan Egan) selfishness. They also founded an interstellar haven for gems that are now without purpose. And that’s where this series begins.
Steven and the Gems are now trying to run “Little Homeschool,” a facility for gems to learn how to deal with not being essentially slaves or soldiers under the Diamond Authority. The running of the school is tedious and often much less satisfying than fighting evil dictators was, and problems start to arise because of it.
In a lot of ways, this might be the best thing this series ever gave us, because it reminds us that there is no end to progress, it’s just a hill you keep rolling the ball up and hoping it doesn’t roll down. The Movie tried to address this idea, and did to an extent, but the show gets a lot more of the point across. There are messages about the fact that adulthood (which is what Steven has essentially hit) consists largely of responsibilities that are not the kind of fun challenges we see on television. Sure, when you fight a giant centipede there’s a chance you die, but after the fight’s over, it’s over. When you finish teaching a class of gems how to operate a bank account, then… you need to teach the next class. Unlike a genocidal war (like the Diamonds usually waged), there is no end to helping the world develop. The show is reminding us how hard doing “good” really is, something that it always tried to do in the past with empathy.
In addition to that very somber theme, the show deals with the reality of how trauma is usually associated with the kind of things Steven has dealt with, as well as the trauma of finding out that your parent was, in fact, not a great person. In this series, at least so far, Steven discovers that he may be inheriting some of his mother’s rage-based powers, which leads him to be afraid of expressing himself openly. We also see many of the characters fearing change, whether it be relationships ending or just evolving.
The only problem so far is that they haven’t really indicated what direction the mini-series is going to go, nor how many episodes it’s going to be, but I can say that I think there’s some interesting things set-up and I really hope they pay off.
The animated show that worked to defy standard hero tropes gets a movie that… does the same thing but with more singing and awesomeness. Best of all, you could watch it with no knowledge of the series and it would still work.
SUMMARY OF THE SERIES (Spoilers for the show)
Steven Universe (Zach Callison) is the first male member of a group of formerly all-female alien superheroes named the Crystal Gems. Unlike the other members Garnet (Estelle), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz), and Pearl (Deedee Magno Hall), Steven is half-human through his father Greg Universe (Tom Scharpling) and his mother Rose Quartz (Susan Egan), formerly an alien dictator named Pink Diamond. He and his friends defended the world from the invasion of the other Diamonds (Patti Freakin’ LuPone, Lisa Hannigan, and Christine Ebersole) until finally Steven finally brokers peace through his powers of being super loving and tolerant. Yes, really, and it’s awesome.
It’s been 2 years since the end of the last season of the show and Steven has successfully helped dismantle the evil empire of the Diamond Authority, achieving a pretty much total happy ending. On cue, a new threat arrives in the form of Spinel (Sarah “I WAS KATE MONSTER” Stiles), a cartoonish and cruel gem whose plan is to destroy everyone, Gems and People alike.
First of all, I have to say that the show this is based on is amazing. It has one of the absolute slowest starts of any series, to the point that I actually recommend skipping the first half of season 1 (Start with “Mirror Gem”) if you want to try it, but after that it becomes so unique that it’s hard not to love it. Part of it is that the main character is a very deliberate subversion of the typical hero archetype.
Steven’s primary weapon is technically a shield, but really it’s his natural compassion towards others. Almost every major ally he gains over the series is a former enemy that he wins over through discourse, understanding, and love. There’s even a joke in the movie where all of the new Crystal Gems compare how long it took them to stop trying to kill Steven. It’s so fun to watch a character win through turning enemies into friends rather than just through martial force, even though some great shows have done it in the past (Goku in Dragonball and its progeny does it all the time… while also punching people). It also has some of the most distinct characters in terms of both design and also writing, from amazing supporting characters to villains with deep and complex motivations. Much like Adventure Time before it, the key is that the show seems so simple at the beginning that you hardly realize how much they’re setting up until suddenly you’re dealing with complex situations derived from well-crafted characters rather than plot contrivance. Additionally, EVERYONE has arcs, meaning that the entire world grows with the main characters, as opposed to just being static figures from which the main character derives events or, worse, Flanderized characters that become more simple over time rather than fully-formed characters.
This movie does have Steven going through an arc, but most of the other Gems’ arcs are essentially recapping their previous character developments. Since it’s a film and time is limited, that’s not inherently bad and it does allow for people who aren’t familiar with the show to get a good sample of what made it great. Additionally, in true Steven Universe fashion, Spinel gets an excellent character arc including an absolutely amazing backstory and resolution. There are a few seeming Dei Ex Machinae, but the fact that the film is presented as a Broadway musical kind of makes that seem appropriate, since most plays have that as part of the conclusion.
The music is fantastic, with at least 3 great earworms. When you consider how many great musicians collaborated on it (Aivi & Surasshu, Chance the Rapper, Gallant, James Fauntleroy, Macie Stewart, Mike Krol, Grant Henry (Stemage), Ted Leo, Jeff Liu, Jeff Ball, and Julian “Zorsy” Sanchez, as well as Estelle and Aimee Mann), as well as how many great singers were involved, that makes sense. The animation is fantastic and done perfectly with the songs. I particularly love that Spinel is animated to be a cartoon from the 1930s, a la “Steamboat Willie.” Sarah Stiles’ voice performance makes it even more apparent that she’s designed to be goofy comic relief that’s been tortured into being a villain. This makes her fight animations extremely interesting and creative, because while most of the characters in Steven Universe are relatively humanoid and move like they’re solid and normal, she moves completely erratically and elastically, which adds to her dangerousness. It also ends up making her feel more “obsolete,” something that plays well into her backstory.
The main thing I love about this movie is that it condenses one of the major themes of Steven Universe within the narrative: Change. Change is the most important thing to Steven, because he not only asks others to change, he shows them that it’s possible by changing himself. It’s routinely pointed out that this is perhaps his greatest ability, because other gems cannot change. They’re born in one form with one purpose and they will stay that way forever. The Crystal Gems are notable for the fact that they have all changed, with Pearl, a born servant, becoming independent, Garnet, two different gems combined, choosing to live as a fusion through the power of love, and Amethyst, a defective gem warrior who works to adapt to a life completely different than the war she was born to fight. However, Steven, as a human adolescent, is constantly changing and growing, going from nearly powerless at the beginning of the series to an incredibly powerful force, but he only ever uses that strength to try and endure until he can show people that empathy is the real way to end conflict. He routinely forgives people for trying to hurt him in order to show others that forgiveness is even possible and can really work. He turns the other cheek when people hit him and loves them anyway, but he mostly shows them that he can be better, so they can be better too. He also chooses to empathize with those who hurt him and understand why they’re hurting too rather than choosing to judge them for their actions. Basically, he’s a half-human half-effective-deity with magic powers that encourages people to love each other rather than judge each other and to try and live your best life rather than yelling at others for what they do that you don’t approve of and I can already feel the DMs in the inbox for this sentence. The film goes ahead and takes this to the next level by having Steven acknowledge that even the changes he’s undergone to this point cannot be enough, that change needs to continue forever because we can always be better than we were yesterday, and that understanding that is his greatest strength.
Overall, this was an amazing film and I recommend it for everyone with kids because it teaches you things that even a bunch of reptiles doing backflips and killing robots never could. It also has Steven essentially winning a fight with the absolutely devastating line “Only you can.” In context, it’s one of the most poignant and relevant things I’ve seen in film, so see the movie and get the context. Maybe you’ll find you’re changed by it. I’ll leave you with one of the last lines from the show:
I don’t need you to respect me, I respect me. I don’t need you to love me, I love me. But I want you to know you could know me, if you change your mind.