Steven Universe showrunner reclaims the past with her 'absurd,' 'ridiculous' movie villain
Warning: This article contains spoilers from Steven Universe The Movie.
If you’re reading this, chances are you saw Steven Universe The Movie on Cartoon Network Monday night, which means you also met the villain, someone who remained a mystery for some time.
Her name is Spinel and she’s a combination of many things. In the context of the story, she’s a cartoony Gem who became a childhood play pal of Pink Diamond, Steven’s mother. When Pink Diamond outgrew her, Spinel was left alone for thousands of years with only her thoughts, thereby becoming more and more insane. Two years after the events of Steven Universe season 5, at a time when Steven is just content to put heroics on hold and spend time with his friends, Spinel descends upon Beach City to unleash her vengeful wrath.
For series creator Rebecca Sugar, Spinel is far more complex. “As an animator, I have a really complicated relationship with old cartoons,” she tells EW. “I love history, but I really don’t like nostalgia, and so it makes me want to use those ideas to talk about what they are and what they mean to me.”
Sugar, who came out as bisexual in 2016 and as non-binary in 2018, created something with Steven Universe that became a cartoon haven for LGBTQ kids who hadn’t seem their stories told on screen, and it has since grown to become even more welcoming of characters from different backgrounds. For so long, this was an enigma within the lineage of animation, especially works from the more classic age of black-and-white Disney and Looney Tunes that perpetuated tropes (sometimes harmful tropes) of marginalized people. It was the goal of Sugar and her team to take “these cartoony, old ideas and try to re-approach them and make you feel what they represent, while also putting a totally new spin on them.”
In that context, Spinel is like a character from this lost era of animation. “She’s outdated. She knows that and it hurts her,” Sugar explains. “When she doesn’t understand that, she’s just so obtuse and when she does, she’s just angry… She’s ridiculously toxic and she knows that she’s ridiculous and it makes her dislike herself more. It turns her in on herself more. I just find her so interesting and I love showing that in the form of exactly what she is, which is this cartoon that has been lost to time.”
At first, Sugar didn’t want to use eyelashes for the character — another characteristic in animation that can bend towards tropes. But, in sticking to the mission of breaking down and rebuilding these old concepts, Spinel received a different style of eyelashes, one that looks more like mascara running down her face from tears. Sugar also played with the “evil stepmother” and “evil stepsister” tropes with the character’s origin story, combining it all to create this “absurd” and “ridiculous” villain, as she describes.
“For us, writing the show as marginalized individuals, I really want to express that if you’re somebody who thinks that somebody else deserves to exist less, you are ridiculous,” Sugar says. “If you’re somebody who thinks that it makes sense to take your anger and your personal problems out on other people who have nothing to do with it, then you are ridiculous. That ridiculousness, I want to push it as far as it can go, the one-dimensionality of that, the obtuseness of it. I want to put it on display. I don’t want to shy away from the absurdity of that. I have felt the awfulness of it and the frustration of it.”
Pitching the story for Steven Universe The Movie, especially Spinel, Sugar, now 32, found herself in a place she hadn’t seen since she was 25 years old. “I was really fighting again in a way that I hadn’t for a long time, fighting for a story and defending it,” she says.
The showrunner was used to the motions of production, being in a writer’s room and coming up with stories for the next episode and the next. For the movie, reps for Cartoon Network initially approached her only about the potential to do a feature before 2015. “Because we had to pitch it before we were picked up, I was back in the room with storyboards, doing voices and trying to make sure that it was exciting and trying to show why it was going to be funny,” Sugar recalls.
At first, the network wasn’t sure if Spinel should be in the movie at all. Without a fully fleshed out design and the lack of music to explain how the songs would work together with the narrative, it was difficult to explain why she was crucial to this tale. Sugar can only describe this process as “intense.” She says, “I could say all day this is going to be interesting and funny and describe the ways she was going to move and sound and be, but that was a very difficult thing to explain because it’s so animation specific.”
It’s difficult for Sugar to speak for what was going through the minds of these network reps, but she says the humor of it all helped tremendously. After all, Steven Universe, at the end of the day, is a kids program.
“They went, ‘Oh! It’s funny,'” she recalls of the pitch meeting. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, the show is funny. The Gems are funny, this character [Spinel] is funny.’ That’s really a huge part of what we were excited about. The premise is funny, and I think sometimes everyone but us on the crew forgets that we like making a funny show. We haven’t been waiting to make a not funny story. I want to heighten everything. If it’s going to be more funny, it should be more tragic. Everything should be more cartoony.”
Without an officially announced season 6, it’s unclear what the future holds for Steven Universe. Only Sugar and Garnet know that. But the key all comes back to the movie. Pieces of the movie’s story were initially planned for the show. When the writers finally got the green light for Steven Universe The Movie, plans tweaked. Sugar then began to use episodes of season 5 — like “Change Your Mind” and “Reunited” — as testing grounds for what a movie could look and feel like.
As she says, “We were ready to charge in with all of our strengths and just put them all on display and also explore some aspects of Steven we hadn’t gotten to touch on the show. So much of the show is Steven not even sure that he is himself and after ‘Change Your Mind,’ everything gets to change. He’s grown up so much and he can assert himself in a way that he couldn’t before because he was always living with that insecurity. So there was a lot we wanted to explore about Steven, but not all of it fit [in the movie] so some of it comes next. And that’s about all I can say about any of that.”