The title character of Steven Universe is an adolescent boy who, over the course of the Cartoon Network series’ first five seasons, developed the ability to fly, to conjure an impenetrable pink shield out of thin air, to use his saliva to heal injuries short of death (and sometimes beyond), to merge his body with a friend’s (in an act called fusion) so they can become even stronger as one than they are side-by-side, and more. But his greatest power — and the reason the show became so adored that a follow-up film, Steven Universe: The Movie, will air on Labor Day, potentially leading into future seasons — is both much simpler and much more remarkable:
Steven is kind.
The animated series, created by Adventure Time alum Rebecca Sugar, has a complicated mythology involving the Gems, an alien race of women whose leaders, the four Diamonds, want to reshape the universe into something following their very rigid and orderly caste system. Thousands of years ago, we gradually(*) find out, a Gem known as Rose Quartz (Susan Egan) formed a rebellious group called the Crystal Gems to protect life on Earth from being conquered and eradicated by the Diamonds. By the time the series begins in the present day, Rose has sacrificed herself to give birth to half-human son Steven (Zach Callison), who is raised in part by failed rock-star dad Greg (Tom Scharpling) and in part by the three surviving Crystal Gems: the enigmatically cool Garnet (Estelle), uptight Pearl (Deedee Magno Hall), and immature Amethyst (Michaela Dietz). Steven inherited Rose’s gem, and her powers, but his age and the human half of his DNA make them slow to emerge. So in the show’s earliest adventures, Steven is a glorified mascot to the Crystal Gems, along mainly for moral support and the occasional bit of improvised pubescent boy strategy.
(*) Most episodes are 11 minutes long, and Sugar slow-plays a lot of the backstory and major arcs by focusing the start of the series (and each ensuing season) on relatively light-hearted standalone adventures. It’s a seasonal structure that classic genre shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, and The X-Files used so well back in the day, but that’s unfortunately gone out of vogue in favor of pure serialization. (When Veronica came back this summer, it told a single, eight-episode story.) As a kids’ show with extremely nuanced themes, Steven Universe benefits greatly from how much time it lets you marinate in Steven’s world before getting to the big topics. But a newcomer wouldn’t be blamed for sampling the first few episodes and dismissing it as something much sillier and more superficial than what follows.
But even after he begins mastering his inherited powers, it’s clear that Steven’s greatest asset to the team — and the most appealing part of the whole series — is his fundamental decency. It’s not just that he prefers nonviolent solutions when Garnet or Amethyst would be content to smash the latest monster in their path. It’s that his impulse is almost always to empathize and try to help, and to see the best in everyone he meets — whether seemingly villainous Gems like the smug Peridot (Shelby Rabara) or humans like shiftless doughnut-shop worker Lars (Matthew Moy). Steven wants to be friends with everyone, and wants everyone to be friends, and more often than not, he succeeds. (Think Leslie Knope, but huskier and less intense.)
Heroes who are intrinsically good can prove intimidating to storytellers who need to generate conflict. It’s why most of the attempts to make a post-Christopher Reeve movie about Superman involved making him angstier, or why, before Chris Evans came along, no one believed audiences would want to watch a hero as cornily forthright as Captain America. But when it works — and hoo-boy, does it work on Steven Universe, whether you’re a wide-eyed kid or a cynical adult — the force of their virtue shines so brightly that it can be hard to imagine wanting anything even slightly less sincere.
Steven’s empathy and his knack for accepting people on their own terms proves essential for a show that presents complex ideas in a manner its young audience will appreciate. Just like Buffy once used monsters as metaphors for adolescence, Steven Universe uses the Gems to talk about a variety of LGBTQ issues (among other things). Pearl’s unrequited love for Rose — and her resentment of both Greg and Steven for taking Rose from her — is subtly but clearly established, and is something she and the guys have to work through together. Gems are only meant to fuse with others like them (Ruby with Ruby, Pearl with Pearl), which makes the Crystal Gems’ habit of fusing with one another an abomination to the more traditional, repressed Gems. Yet Steven is thrilled when he sees Pearl and Amethyst fuse into the giant archer Opal. And when he accidentally fuses with best friend (and mutual crush) Connie (Grace Rolek) into the glamorous, intersex Stevonnie, it becomes a story about the importance of consent, with each of them frequently checking in with the other to be sure they want to stay this way a while longer.
It’s a wonderful show for many reasons, but the curiosity and warm-heartedness of Steven is the crucial one.
Steven Universe: The Movie plays less as a sequel to the series so far than a Greatest Hits collection — almost a primer for newcomers, even if it won’t have the same impact on them that 160 bite-sized episodes of TV had on the veterans.
The movie takes place a few years after the Season Five finale, and early on features a long expository musical number about who everyone is and how they all got happy endings when last they appeared. Then along comes a mysterious new Gem who at times resembles Bugs Bunny at his most anarchic, at others the elastically cheerful Steamboat Willie-era Mickey Mouse. Her attacks give the Crystal Gems a kind of factory reboot that erases all the emotional progress they made during the series, forcing Steven to recreate important moments from their lives to bring them back to normal.
The structure of the movie can make it feel like a rehash of things the fans all know so well. (At one point, Steven even loudly complains that he is once again having to deal with the consequences of something his mother did.) Fortunately, it’s a rehash accompanied by a soundtrack of terrific original songs (co-written by, among others, Chance the Rapper, Aimee Mann, and Ted Leo) performed by Steven and friends. And if I’m following in Steven’s footsteps and looking for the best in this follow-up to those five wonderful seasons, I’d look at the movie as the start of whatever Sugar wants to do with this world next. If it’s meant as a conclusion, it’s fun but inessential. But if it’s the start of a new phase of an older Steven’s universe, then it makes sense to travel down memory lane — with frequent musical interludes — before pushing onto whatever comes after the happy ending.
The first four Steven Universe seasons are streaming on Hulu, while Season Five is available On Demand. Steven Universe: The Movie premieres September 2nd at 6 p.m. on Cartoon Network.