How Steven Universe Fulfilled the Full Potential of... The X-Men?

WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for recent episodes of Steven Universe.

Steven Universe is the best cartoon on television for one key reason: It wears its heart on its sleeve. Not only does that mean it is a show fraught with emotion, it also means it's a show that openly acknowledges its influences. Those influences -- from the show's anime- and musical-tinged aesthetic to a very Naruto-esque speech made by the character Amethyst -- were all over the recently concluded Heart of the Crystal Gems arc. But one influence stands out in particular, that of the classic X-Men.

Of course, the fact that the Claremont Era -- the most successful, longest-running and arguably most important run the X-Men franchise has ever seen -- has such influence over a current pop culture phenomenon is nothing new. While the 31-year-old series creator Rebecca Sugar didn't grow up while Claremont's seminal run of X-Men, New Mutants and so on were thrilling fans for the first time, there's a pretty good chance that, like most Millenials, she grew up entranced by the equally seminal X-Men: The Animated Series on Fox Kids.

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And, as even a casual X-observer like myself could tell you, that show's main storytelling thrust was taking stories from the Claremont era, like The Dark Phoenix Saga or Days of Future Past, and injecting the show's Jim Lee-designed cast into them. Coupled with a game vocal cast and expressive (if often repetitive and error-ridden) animation from AKOM, and it's an unlikely combination that worked and stuck in kids' heads.

But when pointing out that the Heart of the Crystal Gems arc took inspiration from X-Men, it's best to note that there are no 1:1 parallels between the two.

The arc focuses on the emotional fallout and reconciliation between the Crystal Gems after it was revealed that their dead leader, Rose Quartz, also Steven's mother, was actually Pink Diamond. That's a big deal, because Pink Diamond is the Gem leader that Rose was previously thought to have murdered and thus inspired other Gems to fight by her side, which resulted in the highly destructive Earth Gem War. It's clear the arc is cribbing from the same sort of soap-operatic action that drives all superhero comics, but this particular story feels very Claremontian in its nuances, which makes it all the more enjoyable.

Consider that the arc begins with a breakup. Specifically, Garnet (Estelle), splits into her two component Gems, Ruby (Charlene Yi) and Sapphire (Erica Luttrell), with the latter running off, furious at the centuries of deception. While an explanation from Pearl eventually fixes the problem, it's only with Sapphire, as Ruby has run off.

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That takes us to another Claremontian staple: A genre pastiche that seems out of place but perfectly echoes the character's emotional journey. In Ruby's case, that involves looking to an old Western comic for inspiration and deciding to become a cowboy. With a shape-shifted Amethyst as her steed, she goes on a brief journey (laid over, in typical Steven Universe fashion, with a wonderful song) that embodies her emotional state before making a big personal decision. Remind you of any hirsute Canadians who go on ninja-filled escapades in Japan before making big decisions?

There's other examples, such as the return of a long-gone character in Bismuth (Uzo Aduba). "Heart" really embraces the pure soapy, pulpy heart of superhero storytelling that the X-Men embody so well in the arc's conclusion -- the wedding itself.

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