After spending five seasons learning how to control his powers, manage the gem and human sides of his life, and cleaning up after his mother’s mistakes, he — and the rest of the Crystal Gems — frankly deserve a break. And it seems that they got one: after the climactic events of “Change Your Mind,” a new period of detente has spread across the universe with the gradual dissolution of the Gem Empire. Steven is finally getting along with his somewhat adoptive second family of the Diamonds despite their obsessive clinginess, but he’s eager to continue living out his life with his friends and family on Earth.
Also, he’s two years older and has a neck!
Steven Universe: The Movie picks up with Steven more self-assured and happy than we’ve ever seen him. But as so often is the case in Rebecca Sugar’s fantasy world, the high doesn’t last: a new threat to Earth sparks a microcosmic event that dredges up all of Steven’s previous conflicts, forcing him to confront basically every metaphorical demon he’s faced throughout his adolescence. In true Steven Universe style, the movie is a spectacle of animation eye-candy and heart-wrenching songs sung by the series’ comfortably familiar voice cast. While Steven Universe: The Movie doesn’t mark the end of the series, it’s a poignant cap on the characters that we’ve come to love over the past six years.
[Ed. note: major spoilers ahead for Steven Universe: The Movie.]
The beginning of the movie hits some of the highest highs we’ve seen thus far — an early sequence, “Happily Ever After,” runs through the Crystal Gems’ past escapades, recapping the series in a way that is more lightly nostalgic than dragging for longtime viewers of the series. There’s some obvious changes, too: everyone has new clothes and there are a few fresh musical cues tied to familiar characters, but it’s an unmistakable homecoming.
Life comes crashing down with the arrival of Spinel, a hyperactive gem animated in elastic rubber-hose style of early 20th century animation. Her character design is perfectly suited to her kind of off-the-wall villany: from the get-go, it’s clear that Spinel has come to Earth not only to exact her vengeance but also to have one hell of a time doing so. Watching her twist, leap, and maneuver around the Crystal Gems is incredibly entertaining, particularly as she gleefully sings through “Other Friends,” a ragtime-flavored song that complements her animation style.
This first fight against Spinel’s alien weapon poofs the gems back to their “factory settings:” Pearl is ready to serve, Ruby dutifully protects her noble Sapphire, and Amethyst doesn’t know any better than to mimic those around her. Steven himself is set back to his own kind of default state: with no functional control over his gem powers, he has to figure out how to deal with both a overbearingly friendly Spinel (also poofed and reset) and the giant drill she left to pump poison into the Earth.
In order to stop it, Steven must essentially recreate all of his friends’ character development arcs on a time crunch. In a way, it makes Steven Universe: The Movie almost feel like a recap film as both Steven and the gems experience familiar moments like Garnet realizing her love for herself or Pearl’s burgeoning rebellious streak. As Steven tries to recreate the conditions that made the Crystal Gems into who they are today, it’s apparent how far the group has come over the course of the past five seasons.
Punctuating the nostalgia are some excellent goofs as well as moments of pure fan gratification. Pearl’s unnerving servitude is cut by the fact that she addresses Greg, who she believes to be her master, as “Um Greg Universe” after he hesitates when giving his name. Connie straight-up slices a car in half with her sword. Most standout is the out-of-nowhere fusion of Steven and Greg (henceforth referred to as “Steg”) along with the return of Opal (Aimee Mann). With fusions like Garnet framed as romantic relationships, it’s easy to forget that any relationship rooted in trust and love can be the basis for a fusion. Really, Steg has been a long time coming. The fusion is an emotional cap punctuated with Steg’s killer abs and vocals, and he’s voiced by Ted Leo, a frequent Aimee Mann collaborator.
All of that fades away, however, when it comes to Spinel herself. As Steven puts the pieces of his friends’ memories back together, he continuously forgets and ignores Spinel, in the process inadvertently bringing back her memories of abandonment at the hand of Pink Diamond. With a tragic backstory only truly rivaled by that of Lapis Lazuli, Spinel pursues vengeance and lashes out at the closest thing she can get to Pink: Steven.
Steven being left behind to clean up his mother’s messes is a familiar theme. What’s different this time is that the biggest fight is already over: in theory, placating the Diamonds should have been the final battle. Spinel’s arrival and justified hurt hammer home the fact that Steven may never get his happily ever after, regardless of how much he ostensibly deserves it. No matter what he does and no matter how many people he loves into peace, there will always be someone else whose heart he has to mend. While contending with loss of control over his own powers and having to recreate his friends’ development arcs is great narrative, it’s also symbolic. Each challenge Steven faces will be just as difficult as his very first.
That doesn’t mean that things are all grim — this is Steven Universe! With the support of his friends, Steven eventually does manage to overwhelm Spinel with love, saving Beach City in the process. There’s a particular sequence where Steven climbs up Spinel’s drill as Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl evacuate the city. Even in mortal peril and conflict, the dulcet, slow-jam tones of “True Kinda Love” play in the background like a “lo-fi hip-hop beats for surviving the apocalypse” playlist. Even at the apex of danger, things are still pretty chill. By now, we know to believe in Steven.
Steven Universe: The Movie is the perfect culmination of a story that already feels complete. While this isn’t the last we’ll see of the Crystal Gems, it’s hard to imagine any better closure. The fact that things will never calm down for Steven is part of the ethos of the series itself. Most central, however, is a philosophy that Steven sings towards the end of the film: “Hey you, show me that solvable problem, we can get through this, I’ll do the hardest part with you.”
Palmer Haasch is a New York City-based entertainment & culture writer. A former Polygon intern, she specializes in TV, anime, fandom, and internet culture. Find more of her work at palmerhaasch.com.