The first female solo-created series in Cartoon Network’s 21-year history, Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe premieres with a lot of fanfare. Series openers “Gem Glow” and “Laser Light Cannon” drop us headfirst into Steven’s, um, universe, where the enthusiastic young boy protects Beach City alongside the mystical warriors known as the Crystal Gems—AKA Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. Steven is also the son of deceased Crystal Gem Rose Quartz, and he’s on an ongoing quest to unlock the mysteries of the crystal gem embedded in his stomach.
Steven Universe is a visually stunning series, with painterly backgrounds and warm gem tones that make its pink cherry blossoms and purple twilights pop off the screen. “Gem Glow’s” most beautiful image is the cliff-side temple where Steven lives, with the likeness of a mysterious six-armed woman (a former Crystal Gem?) carved into the rock. The writing is also very solid with a few great belly laughs (watch for the running gag of Garnet hurling Amethyst at an enemy) scattered throughout.
Rebecca Sugar became an Adventure Time fan-favorite with her Emmy-nominated episodes like “It Came From the Nightosphere” and “Simon and Marcy,” and while Steven Universe is still finding its voice, it possesses a warm-heartedness and occasional melancholy that fans of her work will recognize. Sugar’s songs on Adventure Time were easily the show’s best, and Steven Universe’s songs, from its opening theme to Steven’s father’s one hit wonder “Let Me Drive My Van (Into Your Heart),” are instant earworms.
The Crystal Gems are poised to become the breakout stars of Cartoon Network’s fall lineup, and with good reason. At a time when mainstream animation studios have been criticized for lack of diversity in their female character designs, it’s refreshing to see major female characters with unique, individual body types and facial expressions. The series premiere briskly introduces their powers and personalities when Steven asks them for help: warrior-ballerina Pearl summons her staff through rigid training; rough and rowdy Amethyst can pull her whip out of her chest with no effort at all; and taciturn leader Garnet channels “the collective power of the universe” through her gem—no biggie.
For a series featuring three badass superheroines, and by Cartoon Network’s only female showrunner, it feels like a bit of a step backwards that it centers on a male lead. (The rest of Cartoon Network’s Monday night lineup–Adventure Time, Regular Show, and Uncle Grandpa–has no shortage of young male heroes.) Nevertheless, Steven is a likeable, plucky main character, and the sisterly affection the Gems have for him is clearly the heart of the show. It’s a rarity for fantasy stories to show boys with strong female role models, and hopefully, with its video games-meets-magical girl anime sensibility, Steven Universe will challenge expectations about gender roles. Steven Universe is clearly aimed at audiences of all genders, with no “for boys” or “for girls” lines drawn in Beach City’s sand.