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Steven Universe Cures Superhero Pessimism

Cartoon Network
Cartoon Network

Steven Universe is a teenager with cute poofy hair, a closet full of red T-shirts, and a flip-flops-only policy. Standing about as tall as Mario, with nearly the same jumping ability, Steven is a superhero. Almost. He’s inherited his late mother’s humanoid alien powers, though he’s not exactly sure what those powers are, or how to turn them on and off. He’s, uh, working on it. At the awkward age of 14, Steven is an avatar of compassion, clumsy curiosity, and heroic aspiration.

With an occasionally plaintive but, ultimately, cheerful tone, Steven Universe, now in its third season on Cartoon Network, is more like Disney or Pixar than what you’d expect from TV cartoons, the most popular of which seem to be written strictly for punchlines and gags (Futurama, Family Guy). Aesthetically, too: It’s rounder, softer, and prettier than the more angular and surreal art styles (BoJack Horseman, Adventure Time) that U.S. television animators often favor. In short, it’s gorgeous. Each 11-minute episode feels like a day at the beach.

Indeed: Steven lives in Beach City, a friendly East Coast boardwalk town filled with little mysteries and much cause for exploration. Although Steven’s father, Greg Universe, also lives in town and runs a local car wash where he spends time with his son, Steven lives in a beachside home, where he is being raised in by three stranded, humanoid aliens — Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl — collectively known as the Crystal Gems. The super-powerful Gems can summon signature weapons from an alternate dimension: Amethyst whips out a cat o’ nine tails, Garnet wears gauntlets, and Pearl wields spears and swords. Meanwhile, young Steven — his dad is human, his mom is Gem — is learning to summon and deploy his late mother’s pink shield à la Captain America. The Crystal Gems fly. The Crystal Gems sing — a handy pastime since the U.K. singer Estelle voices Garnet — and they dance. The Crystal Gems defend Beach City from the deep space aliens that have followed them from Homeworld to Earth.

The animator Rebecca Sugar created Steven Universe in 2013, following her two-season stint as a storyboard artist for Pendleton Ward’s popular Cartoon Network series Adventure Time. Sugar modeled Steven Universe on her own younger brother, Steven, and she’s said that the series is basically a tribute to the cartoons, games, comics, and fantasy novels that she and Steven shared when they were both kids. Naturally, Steven Universe is nostalgic.

For one, the show has a rosy outlook on the role of superheroes as a dutiful force for good — much unlike the popular course of modern superhero movies, which all spell disillusionment and annihilation. On a design level, Sugar is meticulous in her fan service, having drafted several episodic tributes and shot-for-shot homages to beloved anime series such as Revolutionary Girl Utena, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Dragon Ball Z; as well as video game series such as Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda. This, I admit, is where Steven Universe initially, and immediately, reeled me in: Pearl’s Utena-themed duel with Holo-Pearl in the Season 1 episode “Steven the Sword Fighter” is the most gratifying fan service I have ever experienced in my life — and a gorgeous action sequence at that.

Apart from scenes and dialogue crafted as references to earlier works, Steven Universe also derives thematic inspiration from its anime predecessors. In Utena, the titular protagonist fights to become a prince instead of a princess; in Evangelion, a teen pilot struggles to overcome depression to decide whether he even wants to save the world. At the heart of both series is a self-determination that defines the Crystal Gems’ rebellion against the Homeworld. Steven, Amethyst, Garnet, and Pearl, as well as newer cast members Lapis Lazuli and Peridot, are all working through certain traumas — Lapis having once been a prisoner of war and then later chained, in a manner of self-sacrifice, to the bottom of the sea — and they’re working together to make the best of their literal alienation.

In the current season of Steven Universe, we learn more about the so-far ominous Crystal Gem rebellion against the Great Diamond Authority of Homeworld and, relatedly, about the life and death of Steven’s mother, Rose. The Crystal Gems have made great sacrifices, and they bear trauma that Steven is just now coming to understand. In “Mr. Greg,” Steven, his father, and Pearl sing a whole episode’s worth of old Broadway-style show tunes to work through the posthumous ill will that lingers from Greg and Pearl’s conflicting romantic bids for the late Rose’s affection.

Steven Universe is precisely what U.S. cartoons have been inexplicably missing, at least in the serialized TV format: soft and colorful animation, beautiful pop and piano music, and dance as its own, relatable sort of magic. And show tunes. I’m a sucker for show tunes.