Steven Universe review

Some of the enormous cast of Steven Universe
Some of the enormous cast of Steven Universe – click to embiggen

Steven Universe is about an irrepressible kid with an alien mother and human father. His mother was the leader of a rebel remnant group that came to Earth some thousands of years ago, and became the planet’s adoptive protectors. Three of that group remain; Amethyst, Garnet, and Pearl, and together with his human father Greg Universe they are raising Steven. His mother Rose Quartz, having taken human form, had to choose between her own existence and Steven’s. This becomes an  important plot point later, when we find out she wasn’t what we thought.

For a show with such simple animation*, it has deeply imagined characters and mythology. All of the characters have complex needs and flaws, and perhaps because of that complexity you will see none of the stereotype of bumbling fatherhood or zany antics for their own sake. The show does one thing really well; it imagines how an actual loving family might work against insurmountable odds. Even if three of them had taken human form as a comforting illusion to the others.

You could almost pick a character at random to illustrate this point, but their leader Garnet will suffice. She is immensely powerful, but quiet and reserved. And yet it is obvious how deeply she loves Steven and how that love is returned. Imagine if your favorite aunt were a hyper-intelligent pile driver with a deadpan sense of humor.

OK one more example: Pearl was literally built for entertainment, as a singer and dancer. After four thousand years of combat she is kind and sweet and still looks gracile and delicate but her body count would fill a stadium. The musical scene where she teaches Steven’s girlfriend Connie how to fight with a sword is lovely and chilling.

If you like musicals (and I do!), the series features dozens of wonderful musical numbers.

Much of the conflict in the show comes from the fact that the rebels’ home world has not forgotten and does not forgive. But they are not a monolithic evil either. One of my favorite characters (see if you can figure out why) is Peridot, an exiled technician whose growing appreciation for Earth has put her at odds with Homeworld and all its sadistic and lethal power.

Much has been written by others about SU’s dissolution of formal gender concepts, and this is one of the most refreshing things about the show. Until you take in a story where gender doesn’t define much of anything, it’s difficult to appreciate just how in our world it defines far too much.

Like another cartoon series that I will write about later, SU has inspired tons of fan fiction and some truly awesome art and music. And thinking about it, inspiration may be a good measure of the cultural value of a franchise. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s very little fan fiction, fan art, or fan music about Fred Flintstone.

There’s a whole lot more and I could go on for hours, but Steven Universe is a great series that I cannot recommend too highly.

  • To reiterate, LET YOUR KIDS WATCH STEVEN UNIVERSE. Watch it with them.
  • Greg Universe looks like Homer Simpson if Homer had magnificent hair, but two humans could not be more different.
  • As with any series, there are a couple perfectly awful episodes
  • *The animation has beautiful moments and a few scenes that are clearly substandard. This is typical of American animation. Not every director is Miyazaki or Shinkai.
  • Video: “What’s Up With Steven Universe” describes the characters and cartoon style.
  • Update: Since I wrote this review, there’s been a movie and a future series, neither of which I have seen. But I did see a clip where grown-up Steven is suffering from PTSD, from the trauma of all his experiences in the first series. Later he asks his father; “How do I live life if it feels like I’m about to die?”
  • UPDATE 2: I’m inclined to be suspicious of future series for beloved franchises (Violet Evergarden movie to choose an example) I did see this one and it does a great job with the idea of trauma and a child superhero. Just because someone has powers does NOT mean they are ready to fight in wars and deal with loss.

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Older technology guy with photography and history background