Rebecca Sugar’s ‘Steven Universe: The Movie’ a retrospective on emotionally intelligent series

March, 2015. I’m home for spring break from NYU, feeling more alone and confused than even a Millennial usually does. My first two or so years of college have felt like a wash, specifically an acidic wash of vodka and vomit, and I’ve reached the point of looking ahead into my post-college years and have no clue what to expect. The only thing I really know is the bar across the street from my dorm, which was the reason I picked that dorm, and the french fry place around the corner, which was the second runner-up reason. I’ve gone through a lot of changes since that moment in my life, and so has the show I started watching in those long, boring evenings of spring break. Steven Universe has gone from a cute show with hints of something deeper and darker, to the most emotionally intelligent show on TV with lore to rival Game of Thrones. 

I mention how much this show and I have grown over the past almost-five years because the Steven Universe movie is all about how much the show’s characters have developed since the pilot aired in 2013. Steven is right at the end of putting the galaxy back in order after the events of the show, when a mysterious new gem appears–gems, as non-viewers may not know, are alien warriors, all with the pronouns she/ her, who came to Earth thousands of years ago with the goal of conquering it. While some gems, including Steven’s mother Rose Quartz, banded together to save Earth, other gems like Jasper and Yellow Diamond are villains that Steven had to battle in the show. 

Now, it’s two years after the end of the show and Steven must cope with Spinel, a gem who was hurt by his mother and who wields a weapon who can make gems lose their memories. When Steven’s friends Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl are all reset on all their character development from the whole show and beyond into their backstories, Steven has to find a way to give them six seasons’ worth of emotional growth before the timer on Spinel’s doomsday device runs out and the Earth is destroyed. As a film looking back on the show, reflecting on everything that happened over the six years of Steven’s story, this is the perfect plotline. 

From the first musical number to most gripping emotional moments of the film, director Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe: The Movie is a retrospective on the show, with a clear point of view on Steven’s development and everything he has left to do. Yes, you heard me right–the show is over, but the film is the first to admit that despite being half-alien, Steven is still a human. He’s going to have to work on himself and navigate relationship problems for about as long as the rest of us are, which is our whole lives. The movie even shows this visually by putting a time jump between the end of the show and the beginning of the movie, showing Steven at 16 with a completely different look and voice than viewers of the show saw.

This might be a bold move for an animated show, where characters seem to be immortal most of the time, but a Steven Universe film about growing couldn’t have happened if he had appeared not to have changed since 2013. In fact, the film’s examination of the characters’ development is even more striking when they are faced with a villain who has not developed at all for the past six thousand years. Without spoiling anything, Spinel is what every good antagonist should be–the antithesis of the protagonist. Where Steven’s strength is that he can, as one song puts it, “make a change’ by pushing himself to be compassionate and listening to others, Spinel’s character development has been put on hold for millennia due to the actions of Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz. 

If Spinel is the version of myself I see when I look back to the spring of 2015, or an alternate version who somehow made it all the way to 2019 without growing as a person, then the impulse to slap her silly so many SU fans felt is explained–we tend to feel irrational anger when confronted with our younger selves. I’ve even heard people who started Steven Universe and didn’t keep up with it say that they disliked how naive and immature Steven is in the early episodes–could these two characters be disliked for the same reasons? 

Projecting annoyance on our younger selves is a reaction to shame; it’s our subconscious’s way of ensuring we don’t do The Bad Things again. But as ever-compassionate Steven can show by example, that’s not exactly the point. People tended to joke that this was a show not about beating the bad guys, but befriending them; Steven finds a way to bring villain after villain into the fold of the Crystal Gems over the course of the show. Looking back on where the show has been, from its fractious fandom to the flaws that fandom was extremely vocal about on Twitter, and comparing it to where I’ve been during the same period of time, I’m not ashamed of any of it. Declaring myself a Steven Universe fan used to elicit groans about obnoxious Tumblr users, but the fact is that at some points in my life I’ve been an obnoxious Tumblr user, and that will never change. 

By focusing on how, in Steven’s words, we’ll “always have work to do,” this film has given a send-off to Steven, the creative team, and the fans who came of age (in whatever capacity) over the course of the show. It even mirrors real life in that there’s still literal work for Steven to do–the limited series Steven Universe Future, named as a callback to a song from the movie, starts airing December 7. 

In this new series, Steven moves on from the events of the show and faces new problems, and I suppose I will as well. I’m not used to my comforting animated TV shows confronting me with my fear of change the same way real life does, but now that Steven Universe has left animation with the bar firmly raised, perhaps that’s another way I’ll need to grow.

© Giorgi Plys-Garzatto (11/24/19) FF2 Media

Photo credit: Cartoon Network

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