WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Steven Universe: The Movie, which premiered Sept. 2 on Cartoon Network.
Steven Universe: The Movie was the cinematic premiere for the character and his world. Set two years after bringing peace to the galaxy, the happy ending that Steven, Peridot, Amythest, and Garnet had been hoping for is quickly interrupted by the mysterious Spinel and the massive drill she brings to Earth. As she's eventually revealed to have a long-standing connection with Pink Diamond and therefore Steven, she proves to be a capable and imposing threat to all the Crystal Gems.
However, her origins also make her into the most tragic characters in perhaps the entire Steven Universe franchise, which is saying something. The two elements elevate each other, helping make her an incredibly definitive and compelling villain.
Spinel, unlike the more specific and angular Gems, spends most of the Steven Universe movie assaulting her targets with her stretching limbs. It gives her maneuverability and speed unlike any of the other Gems.
In her first sneak attack, the Crystal Gems barely land a single hit on her while she moves around them. It's not just her actual abilities that make her threatening, but her general demeanor. The entire time, she's clearly deranged in her attacks. Her rage only intensifies as she fights and discovers that Steven has no idea who she is. She's got no reluctance in trying to destroy the entire planet, and laughed when she was reversed to her earlier incarnation by being cut in half.
Steven has faced many kinds of enemies over the years, but Spinel is a particularly brutal villain to confront him.
The other enemies tended to be part of a militaristic empire, using a structure and strategy in their attacks. Even the corrupted Gems are purely chaotic, moving and attacking more on animalistic instinct than anything else. Instead, Spinel is cruel in her acts. She wipes the memories of her enemies, gleefully doing more damage to a Gem than usual. She takes pleasure in her attacks. She's the closest thing Steven Universe has to a Joker, and it's terrifying.
THE DOWNSIDE OF FRIENDSHIP
What makes the Spinel so effective as an antagonist, even beyond her physical capabilities, is how she reflects so much of Steven's own methods. She has a seemingly limitless wealth of powers, utilizing them with creativity. She's defined by her inability to change, which much of Steven Universe focused on.
She even spends most of the film in her more innocent reversion, trying to be his best friend and getting him to be with her. It's the same kind of tactic that Steven has used to convince his enemies to become his friends, and served as his primary means of saving lives.
This makes her the perfect counterpoint to Steven, wanting that friendship but in a far more selfish way. Her entire reasoning for targeting Steven is because she felt betrayed by Pink Diamond forgetting about her. Spinel was given to Pink as her best friend, an endless source of entertainment. But when Pink decided to abandon homeworld to become known as Rose Quartz, she left Spinet.
In another world, she could have even come with Pink Diamond and been a member of the Crytal Gems alongside Peridot. But Pink Diamond was soon fully absorbed in her conflict with the diamonds, and never made her return to recover Spinel. Spinel waited for six thousand years and only learned of what happened after Steven spread the news of his adventures around the universe.
Bitter and devastated, she went off the deep end and targeted Steven. She's what happens when the friendship Steven preaches fails, a genuinely tragic display about how sometimes friends lose their connection and move on, and just how painful that can be.
THE TRAGEDY OF SPINEL
In a series full of tragic figures and sympathetic villains, Spinel might be the most potent. Her default form is a sincerely friendly figure, who only went off the deep end because of Pink Diamond's perceived betrayal.
She's furious, all stemming from a very human internal pain. It's what makes their final battle so dramatic, with Steven trying to reach through to her while also countering all of her attacks. Spinel alternates between malicious -- transforming her body into any number of shapes and weapons -- and moments where she cries and openly asks Steven why she wants to attack him.
She's more confused than anyone and in a terrible deal of inner pain. But she can't stop herself from lashing out, because that's all she can think to do. It makes her simultaneously threatening and heartbreaking, and makes Steven's attempts to get through to her all the more poignant.
It also makes the final moments where Steven and the other Diamonds finally do get her to calm down and just try to move on so effective. After spending an entire movie with this poor girl who just wants to be loved, she becomes the new center of a family unit desperate for someone to grow close to.
It's an unexpectedly happy ending for everyone involved, with the Crystal Gems, the Diamonds and even Spinel ultimately getting what they really needed out of the adventure.