Steven Universe and the Art of Heartfelt Heroism

When I use the word “superhero,” certain images may spring to mind: the outrageously defined muscles and superfluously nippled armor of Batman; the solid jaw and immovable hair curl of Superman; or even the smooth, pendulum swooping of your friendly neighborhood Spiderman. What isn’t expected from the primary-colored plethora of superheroes is a tubby, overeager goofball of a kid who can only use his powers after he eats novelty cat-shaped ice cream sandwiches. Nevertheless, Steven Universe, the title character of Cartoon Network’s new cartoon, fits that description and he has quickly become my new favorite superhero.

Steven Universe is a member of the Crystal Gems, magical defenders of the earth. The three Gems, Pearl, Garnet, and Amethyst, are named after the crystals they carry on their bodies that grant them life and magical powers. Steven, who is half human, has inherited his mother’s gem where his bellybutton should be. Pearl, Garnet, and Amethyst are three powerful ladies who have devoted their lives to defending the earth from the weekly supernatural monster or universe-threatening phenomenon. Steven, eager to take his place in the team with his mentors, follows along and tries to balance his superhero dreams with the daily struggles that come with being a little boy.

The show was created by Rebecca Sugar, former storyboard artist, composer, and writer for Adventure Time. For fans of the Land of Ooo, it will come as no surprise that Sugar’s newest venture is a bright explosion of childish fun and creative sophistication that engages younger and older audiences. The show tackles age-old Saturday morning morals about the importance of community and teamwork with energy, enthusiasm, and care. The Steven Universe writing team does not devote their 11-minute episodes to subtlety, so the weekly message can be heavy handed at times. While the scripts of the individual episodes are light and entertaining, with a few standout lines and delightful moments of simple, childish wisdom from Steven, clever uses of language are ultimately not the show’s priority.

Rebecca Sugar is more concerned with the grander arcs of character development and world building. The moment the series was renewed for 104 episodes (after airing only 19!), Sugar dove into the evolution of gem lore and the eerily suspect history of Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. The characters themselves are fresh spinoffs of classic archetypes. Pearl is reminiscent of the overbearing and neurotic mother seen on every family sitcom, but her nagging teaches and encourages the other gems to be safe and to grow. Garnet is the imposing leader of the gems and prefers to solve problems with her fists, but she is also soft-spoken and tenderly protective of young Steven. Steven Universe is a show that charms its audience with its refreshingly unselfconscious love and respect for its characters and their often simple lives.

Steven Universe is cartoon candy for the eyes. Reminiscent of its spaghetti-armed cousin, Adventure Time, Steven Universe’s characters are plasticized caricatures that stretch and bend into refreshingly unorthodox character designs. Each character is a variation of the same primary colors and simple shapes, allowing the cartoon cast to exist in the same animated world while simultaneously furthering the frontiers of animated representation by including characters of all shapes, sizes, and skin tones. The characters’ exciting designs work perfectly with their original group of voice actors such as Estelle and Aimee Mann. Even Nicki Minaj lends her celebrity cackle to the four-armed, five-eyed wrecking ball, Sugulite, and does an incredible job embodying the out of control gem-fusion.

Every Crystal Gem has the power to magically produce a weapon. The graceful ballerina, Pearl, can summon a luminescent spear. Wise-cracking, back-talking Amethyst snaps a thorny whip. Steven’s “weapon,” however, is nothing more than a shield. Steven Universe’s protagonist is not concerned with charging into battle and socking it to an opponent—his goal is to protect, heal, and nurture. Steven solves problems with friendship, not fighting. Steven Universe doesn’t aim to be high art or a white-knuckle action series, but a sweet cartoon that glorifies its characters for trying hard and caring for each other. In today’s world of trendy irony and apathy, a show whose hero is heroic because he cares is refreshing and inspiring for an audience of all ages.

Grade: A

A surefire pick-me-up