Steven Universe, created by Rebecca Sugar, has always been a fascinating television show for me. On the one hand, the first episode features a kid who’s afraid his favorite cookie treat is about to be discontinued, and goes on an adventure to get as many as possible while also battling an alien that can spit acid. Five season later, he’s continuing to fight an intergalactic war after learning that his mother lied about her identity and faked her death. For something that’s marketed as a kid’s show, it’s remarkably complex.
Yes, even the Uncle Grandpa crossover episode, no matter how painful it was. If you don’t know what that means, you’re probably better off.
Recently, Steven Universe: The Movie aired, and it showed that the show itself has the ability to teach things. I decided I wanted to write about this for Bad Shakespeare because I do liked the show, I like how it ended, but I also really like what they did with the movie itself, which isn’t just about growth, but it’s about how the past itself never really goes away. It’s about how no matter where you are in life you’re never done, and that’s the point.
The movie picks up a few years after the end of the last episode of the television show. Which, to be honest, I’m still not 100% was the series finale. I don’t even know if they know that. Steven has taken his place as one of the Diamond Authority and immediately used that place to dismantle the empire. That sentence makes complete sense to anyone who’s watched the show. Again, if you don’t know don’t worry, it’s still better than the Uncle Grandpa thing. What’s interesting is that this was all done completely off screen: The show ended a massive fight that finally reckons with who Steven Universe is, and the show picks up when all of the hard work is done. A colony is being built on Earth, the other colonies are done, and the rest of the Diamond Authority: White, Blue, and Yellow, are begging Steven to stay with them so they have something to remember their fallen sister, Pink Diamond by. It’s important to remember Pink only no longer exists because she “died” giving birth to Steven.
Back on Earth, Steven is ready for retirement at the ripe old age of 16 with the Crystal Gems, a group of space warriors who fought against the Diamonds to save Earth. There’s Garnet, the fusion of Ruby and Sapphire, made of love; the formerly ultra obedient and now rebellious Pearl, and Amethyst who originally thought she was made wrong but has learned to accept herself. After battling for their lives, dismantling an Empire, and defying a wonky Cartoon Network schedule, I’d say that earns anyone a little bit of rest and relaxation. Let’s face it, these movies and television shows where someone is thrown into a wacky adventure every year is fun, but realistically Season 4 of 24 should have just featured Jack Bauer curled up under his desk screaming “What the hell, man!” We could expect as much of Steven, even if his mother is an alien made of diamond. Or a diamond alien made of light.
Look, I’m still not 100% sure.
After a few minutes of rest, Earth is attacked by a giant… needle thingy, I guess, along with Spinel, a gem we’ll talk about in a minute. It’s going to destroy Earth, despite Steven’s reassurances that he had dismantled all of the bad guys everything and it was all good. Spinel, unphased by any reassurances and wanting vague revenge, attacks the Crystal Gems and “resets” them back to who they were back before they rebelled and fought against the Diamond Authority. Even Steven, who’s usually immune to these kinds of attacks is affected in some way. What follows is a story where Steven needs to remind everyone who they are, and at some point he should probably stop that giant needle from destroying all of Earth.
Spinel is interesting because she does represent the past in more way that one. Her character design is reminiscent of old style cartoons where the characters are bouncy. She uses this superpower to make quick work of the Crystal Gems, and once she is reset like the others, she looks like a certain mouse that doesn’t own Steven Universe. (yet. There’s still time to make him an Avenger.) It turns out that she was the plaything of Pink Diamond, who, after being given her own colony, leaves Spinel standing for eons in a garden. You’d think that at some point someone might have come to check on that garden, but that wasn’t dark enough to have a creature sit and get more evil for 6000 years.
That switch is important. One of the things I love about Steven Universe is that there aren’t a lot of what we’d consider bad guys. Or rather, the bad guys, if you can even call them that, are really just people with their own motivations, feelings, desires, and rather than simply destroying them, the show spends a lot of time addressing it and finding some way everyone can work together. If anyone is flat out wrong… I mean, at one point Yellow Diamond wants to destroy the Earth so there’s not much compromise there… they eventually find a way to get them to see the error of their ways. So, for a character who exudes goodness until she realizes that she was abandoned to turn evil shows a weird shift in exactly what Steven Universe is about.
Spinel wants revenge. Plenty of other acts are driven by revenge, including the aforementioned destroying Earth from Yellow Diamond. What makes Spine’s revenge so different is that it’s vastly personal. There was a distance between wanting Earth gone – because it reminded them of Pink Diamond – to the destruction of Earth because it stole someone away from Spinel. She’s a tragic character, which this show does so well, but there’s so much darkness under her because she represents the past in a way that I don’t think we always consider.
That’s what I like about it. This fascination with being “done” is primarily what drives nostalgia. Things were better when we only had three Star Wars movies and nothing else needs to come out. Things were better when you were in college, because then you could eat nachos all day and skip class and the worst thing that would happen is that you’d get nachos on your favorite shirt. That band you like released their best work in 2005, and everything after that has been selling out. Spinel is these things, taken up to the extreme. She hoped that everything would be the same, always. Her character is a design of that: bouncy limbs, a twee personality, a heart on her chest that turns upside down the more evil she gets. It’s when Steven realizes his greatest power is the ability to grow that is finally able to get through to Spinel.
Like I said, this show is pretty complex.
We can’t fully analyze this until we talk about Pink Diamond. For those not 100% up on the show, and you should, Pink Diamond was the fourth member of the Diamond Authority who ended up hiding out on Earth as Rose Quartz, eventually giving birth to Steven. The show asks us to think about her legacy as well. After all, she sparked a war to escape her sisters who, for the most part seemed misguided. Large portions of their lives seem to be spent avenging her “death.” But for her to just abandon Spinel is a remarkably dark and selfish act. Selfish on a scale I’m not sure we’ve seen before on the show. But it’s a reminder that what we’ve done in the past isn’t gone because we can’t see it anymore. Our past will always come back, and we have to reckon with it. But we also have the ability to fix it, and fixing it may not look the way we want.
I wanted to restart Bad Shakespeare on a hopeful note. I’ve loved writing this blog for 2012. Life has gotten in the way of me writing it, but I wanted to restart with this movie I saw that was a meditation on not just the past, but the future. One of the recurring themes of the movie is time, and Steven is focused on that. He’s focused on the fact that he’s now in the future, and he’s not really sure what that means. And It think that’s important. We’re all headed there, and there’s two paths we can take: We can keep looking back at the “good old days” which the scholar Billy Joel reminded us “weren’t always good.” And the future is what you make of it. Or, “ain’t as bad as it seems” one might say.
I highly recommend Steven Universe: The Movie to everyone, really. It’s a great movie. And it’s one with a message I think we all need right now.