The best stories are timeless. It’s why you can read your favorite book at 18 and 24 and 32 and it will mean different things to you every time, if you haven’t stopped growing. It’s why you can watch the same movie as your nephew and come away thinking it was about completely different things. No series has stood in that age gap like Steven Universe, which, on the surface, is an animated show about a boy fusing and fighting evil with his Gem friends, but, just below that, is a sprawling and intimate exploration of themes and experiences like grief and identity and queerness and trauma and depression and anxiety and family and loss and moving on. At its core, Steven Universe believes one thing above all else: that love is the answer. And Steven, himself, is the embodiment of that limitless, healing, galaxy-changing love.
All of that is true still in Steven Universe: The Movie, which landed on Cartoon Network earlier this month — but Steven is growing up. His voice is deeper. He’s dressed like a teenager. Connie kisses him. He’s got a neck. And, in his 90-minute musical, which retells the story of his whole world and introduces brand new characters (including one very audacious fusion!) and conflicts, he’s faced, for the first time, with the knowledge that love doesn’t always win. He has to learn to protect not only the world, but also himself. Steven Universe is forced to figure out boundaries.
Let’s start at the beginning with an important truth: Garnet wears wedding rings on both hands, which she shows off while singing her opening exposition about Ruby and Sapphire.
In fact, everyone exposits in the opening number and it seems like they’re all living inside their happily ever afters. And don’t they deserve it? (Of course they do.) But it’s not long before they meet Spinel, another Gem who was traumatized by Pink Diamond’s actions and has arrived on Earth to torture Steven about it. Spinel is just further proof of showrunner Rebecca Sugar’s boundless genius. Spinel is caught in stasis: she was created to be Pink’s childhood friend and when Pink abandoned her to start her own colony, she told Spinel to stand still for a thousand years, like a game. And so Spinel doesn’t look like the other Gems; she looks like the love child of a cartoon straight out of Mickey Mouse’s early years and the devil himself. The hair, the eyes, the smile, the gloves, all of it. And because you can’t look at cartoons of that era without thinking of the gaze and biases that went into making them (Betty Boop, just for one example), you can’t peep Spinel without clocking her innate toxicity as a creation.
Spinel doesn’t just look different; she is different, mostly because she is completely immune to Steven’s goodness and grace. None of the ways he’s helped heal the other Gems work with Spinel. She just straight up wants to punish him for her pain and nothing’s going to stop her. I have seen so much of my own childhood pain and trauma reflected in Steven Universe and been so empowered by his ability to (literally) knit himself back together and never stop having hope. Sometimes, though, if I’m honest, I’ve worried that his tenacious innocence borders on naïveté. Turns out it doesn’t. It’s just that Spinel is the first Gem who, ultimately, won’t accept his help. And so he is acknowledges that until she wants to be helped, he can’t do anything about it. And his responsibility is to himself, his family, his own safety, his own happiness.
Seeing a child recognize that he’s not responsible for the toxic actions of someone he’s trying to love is a more jaw-dropping thing on all-ages TV than the show’s nearly unbelievably queer wedding.
Oh, there are other things here too. New relationships, new ways to love, new ways to experience and wield power, more backstory (especially for Pearl), more jokes, more gayness (again: Pearl) and way way way more songs. And another hard and important lesson: That there’s no such thing as happily ever after. That happiness is a new battle each morning. When I started watching this series, I never would have dreamed of comparing it to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but here we are. “Strong is fighting. It’s hard, and it’s painful, and it’s every day. It’s what we have to do. And we can do it together.”