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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Happily Ever After Never Ends: Steven Universe the Movie and Serial Narrative

Where does a story go after the end? It's a strange question for serial narratives grapple with, and a major one for Steven Universe The Movie. Caught between the status quo and a grim cycle of trauma, the film finds a new kind of happily ever after.


The 90s and early 2000s were the golden age of direct-to-video sequels of cartoon movies. Disney was churning out low-budget sequels at an alarming rate, and every other company followed the leader. My perception of Disney remains colored by this period: I still think of them as a company that primarily milks their IP through merchandising and churns out cookie cutter variations of their existing films. Really, the 90s prepared me well for Disney's contemporary live action output.

Of the flood of sequels to The Land Before Time, An American Tail, every Disney animated film, and The Brave Little Toaster for some reason, the ones that stand out most in my mind are the three Swan Princess sequels. Why do they stand out? Search me.

The original Swan Princess, based on the Swan Lake ballet, featured an evil wizard with a transformation kink, and both sequels featured new villains who had apparently been best buds with the original dark wizard. What's their beef with Odette and Derek, the royal heroes of the series? Well, the wikipedia page for the franchise describes them respectively as a villain "who wants to regain the Forbidden Arts and destroy their happiness", and "a sorceress who is seeking the Forbidden Arts and wishes to use it to destroy Odette and Derek's happiness". This should give you some sense of the repetitive nature of these tales. Nonetheless, at the end of each film the happiness of the protagonists is safeguarded, dead heroes all spring back to life, and all is right with the world. The characters are quite confident each time that they've earned their happily ever after, and never seem to stop and think, hey, this has happened three times now, is this just what the rest of our lives are going to be like?

Steven Universe, by the end of his new movie, not only asks that question but comes up with a definitive answer. "There's no such thing as happily ever after," he intones grimly, gazing out upon a poisoned and ravaged earth. "I'll always have more work to do."

Rewatching this scene for this article, I found myself laughing at the self-seriousness of Steven's grim pronouncement. It's such a contrast to the carefree finales of my own childhood! That doesn't make it bad, mind, and from a character perspective it makes sense. Steven's a moody teen here, one who's objectively had a pretty rough life cleaning up after his dead mom's mistakes.

Still, the part of me that reacts to catastrophe with humor can't help but laugh, even as I'm shouting "god DAMMIT, Rose!" at my computer screen.

The movie, of course, is all about deconstructing "happily ever after". It has to at least disrupt "happily ever after", of course, in order to keep the plot going. Unlike the countless sequels of the 90s, though, this film grapples directly with what that disruption means, and whether "happily ever after" was so great to begin with. Like, look at a random smattering of direct to video sequels. What was the motivation of the random sorcerers in the Swan Princess series? Just to "destroy happiness?" This is (literal) cartoon villainy, but after this kind of thing happens a bunch of times in a row, after Ursula's "crazy sister" pops back up to menace Ariel again, or an evil vintage computer or whatever shows up to menace the Brave Little Toaster again, you start to wonder if there's more to the story.

In Steven Universe The Movie, of course, there is quite a bit more to the story, though we've definitely heard the story over and over again over the course of the series. A few years after the end of the series, things are looking bright for Steven and the humans and gems in his life. This happy ending, which Steven rightly feels he's earned, is violently disrupted by the arrival of the bouncy, clownish gem Spinel, astride a giant poison injector ship. There's a fight, and the crystal gems and Spinel herself all get reverted, by way of a factory-reset-scythe, to their starting state from before the series. Steven is left alone with malfunctioning powers to try and deal with the situation.

His way of dealing involves getting the Crystal Gems to remember who they are, and doing the same for Spinel. This is where the familiar beats of the story come in: turns out Spinel is yet another person that Rose Quartz/Pink Diamond messed up in a pretty big way. Turns out that abandoning someone literally created to adore you on a satellite for six thousand years isn't a recipe for great psychological health! God DAMMIT Rose!

So it turns out that the "happily ever after" that Steven longs for, where nothing ever changes and things are just Basically Good from now on has this repressed contradiction: the legacy of Rose's actions that still haunts the present in the form of Spinel and frankly who knows who else. Steven has every reason, by the end of the film, to suspect that his work really won't ever be over. Six thousand years is a long time for Rose to make big mistakes in.

In general terms, though, this might apply to any serial narrative. Certainly the transformation of Disney films into franchises of direct to video movies and even television cartoons dramatically screws with the concept of "happily ever after". "Ever after" lasts for Aladdin and Jasmine right up until Mozenrath shows up with his strangely appealing smirk and scary but still weirdly attractive skeleton hand to mess things up again. For the story to continue on, there can't be resolution... can there?

If the story continues, that means continuing to reinscribe trauma. I've talked about that before with reference to The Avengers. Drawing on the work of Elizabeth Sandifer, who describes superhero stories as being partly about trauma getting reiterated through a serial narrative, I argued that the Avengers are defined by the image of a group of superheroes back to back in a circle fighting against seemingly impossible odds after already having failed to stop the amassing of their enemy's strength. They might not stop what's coming, but they'll avenge the damage, right? This image is quite codified by Infinity War, to the point where instead of the fights of the Infinity Gauntlet comic--all the heroes trying at once to defeat Thanos--we see Thanos with an army invading Wakanda, encircling the country with the heroes facing outward, standing against insurmountable odds. As the serial narrative goes on, the central image of the superhero's traumatic creation recurs again and again.

Steven certainly experiences that in the movie. Hell, he bemoans this very story structure:

"I don't get it! Why aren't my powers back? Aren't I reliving every horrible thing that's ever happened to me? A gem I barely know is trying to kill me, I'm paying for stuff my mom did that had nothing to do with me, I'm struggling with my powers, the world's about to end... what piece could I be missing? This is the story of my life!"

And it does kind of suck, doesn't it?

The serial narrative can sometimes feel incredibly static in this framework, a cycle of the same patterns being repeated over and over, accumulating disaster. If there's continuity, if these experiences mean something, they can make the ongoing story seem crushingly pointless. What's the point of continuously struggling if it never gets to a final resolution? In particular, when characters find themselves moving forward and accumulating history, while repeating the same mistakes and character flaws, a narrative can take the form of a spiral... potentially, a downward one.

And yet, we the audience demand that dynamic, don't we? It's sometimes hard to be content to leave "...and they lived happily ever after" alone. We know that in real life "ever after" is populated by events; it must be! And apparently there was enough of an appetite for ever after's events that an entire culture industry of direct to video cartoons could thrive. This makes us weirdly complicit in Steven's misery.

On a recent episode of the Homestuck-focused Perfectly Generic Podcast, Homestuck original creator Andrew Hussie sent in a lengthy statement on the recently published Homestuck Epilogues for reading on-air. Part of the statement focuses on the darker elements of these stories that focus on the continuation of the story after its end, noting that 

"by peeking into the imagined realm of "happily ever after" to satisfy our curiosity, we discover that our attention isn't so harmless, because the complexities and sorrows of adult life can't be ignored. ... It turns out the gaze we cast from the sky of Earth C to revisit everyone isn't exactly friendly, like warm sunlight. It's more like a ravaging beam, destructive and unsettling to all that could have been safely imagined."

I think Steven would sympathize with this view, given he keeps wishing emphatically for things to just remain static, for the story to be finally over. And when that turns out to be impossible, because once again his mom's left him a mess to clean up, he wishes fervently for things to just go back to the way they were.

Essentially, Steven wants to live like he's in a direct to video Disney sequel, or spin off cartoon with a hard reset at the end of each episode to enable syndication in any random order. He'd like very much for all of this to not mean anything. If the status quo could just get restored, that would be a big relief.

This is kind of a shitty attitude to take, though, even if it's an understandable one. The status quo of "happily ever after" is just as static, if not more so, than the spiral of reiterated trauma. At least in the other model there's some sense of forward, if twisting, motion. The villains in the Swan Princess movies, though, for example, simply reappear, do some evil stuff, reiterate the trauma, and then all that is undone at the end of the film.

Oh, and the villains die and get seemingly instantly forgotten. The Happily Ever After that constantly gets reasserted can only exist in a world where they don't.

This is why Spinel freaks out when it seems like Steven might be done with her. Well, that, and abandonment trauma. Spinel's got a lot of issues basically? But one of them is the fear that "happily ever after" cannot, by definition, include someone as bad as her, someone who wasn't good enough for Pink and seemed to be worth something to Steven only until he could get her to stop killing his planet. Steven wants to restore the status quo... but the status quo for Spinel was awful, full of pain and loneliness. For someone who has suffered greatly under an existing regime, it's no comfort at all when people wish for a "restoration of norms." What was normal was poison.

And what is normal, anyway? What's the proper point to return to? The one Steven finds most convenient? Spinel digs into this as well, questioning why, if Steven seems to like her earlier, dumber self so much, he doesn't simply leave Garnet in her reverted state? It's a good question. Steven would like very much to erase the trauma of the movie's story, but why stop there? Why not erase everyone's character development, all their trauma, go back to the beginning where Pearl was just a servant, Ruby a soldier, Sapphire a passive prophet, and Amethyst baby? Oh, and Spinel a cute, bouncy, funny, dumb toy?

The answer of course is that this outcome sucks, both for Steven and for us the audience. I've seen some criticism of the choice of reverting the Crystal Gems only to do a rapid reiteration of their central character beats, since it does appear to retread ground the show covered. That's the point, though: the things that happened in the show had meaning that can't be erased. Some of that meaning is hard, and painful. But that history is worth fighting for, because it makes these characters who they are. By challenging Steven on what point in the past he'd really be happy with, Spinel exposes the incoherence underlying his kind of petulant and self-centered demand for a return to an ideal state.

That still leaves us with some unresolved problems though. Is this all a serial narrative can ever be, either a hollow erasure of history at the end of each episode, or a perpetual treadmill where more and more damage accumulates? Either way, the serial narrative seems to demand an endless perpetuation of conflict, to keep progress from ever really being made. There's an appeal, faced with this endless process of ongoing disaster, to a Gnostic break, an escape from the whole reality of the story, an escape beyond a final, revolutionary "THE END." Hell, I think there's even real value to such a revolutionary story. I still think that the ending of Homestuck, most notably, is brilliant: positioning the narrative as the ultimate enemy, the story ends abruptly as the protagonists go through the door that takes them to a new universe, beyond our gaze.

...Except we can't help but look, can we? Because the story never REALLY ends, as the ravaging beam of our spectatorship makes clear.

So what is a hero to do?

Steven figures it out in the end. You have to change. Or, to step out of the narrative: your story has to make allowances for people's ability to change.

Steven realizes that the thing holding him back from restoring his powers is his own wish to just forget all his own character growth. Yes, the movie is a reiteration of his trauma. But it's not the same, is it? Because Steven is a different person than he was in the series. Before, he had a bad Princely habit of taking over for everyone else, as though he knew best and had to bear all the problems on his own. He felt he had to live up to Rose, be the hero he believed she was. But eventually his friends and family broke him of that habit, and he learned to acknowledge the sometimes pretty awful and self-absorbed things Rose did, growing beyond both of their character flaws. 

Here, Steven is much more able to let others take over if he needs help... but that doesn't mean he's reached the end of his arc, and has no further growing to do. He still is his mother's son in some ways: he's got a nasty habit of instrumentalizing people which is only broken in the final conflict with Spinel. (Remember, Spinel has already released all the toxins from her injector, so Steven going to talk her down doesn't have much practical utility beyond the simple goal of calming her down and helping her through her trauma and maladaptive response.) And, of course, he needs to learn that he still has things to learn.

It's not that things will be perfect or without conflict in the future, then, but that these conflicts might be dealt with in more healthy, productive ways. It's about finding ways of coping with the return of problems, even the recurrence of trauma that you'll impulsively wish to respond to violently, defensively. It's about building networks of support that make you more resilient and able to work through the problems you face.

So, from one perspective I think you could look at Steven Universe The Movie as a metatextual statement on the problem of serial fiction and its "happily ever after." Presented with two not great options of resets and piled up trauma, it analyzes their problems, embodies them in the narrative (through the reset scythe and Steven's final revelation), and comes up with a narrative alternative that can allow for the recurring struggles of seriality, while still asserting the possibility of recovery and growth. 

And yet, I'm not totally sold on describing this as just a metatextual statement on serial stories.

In a way this is actually almost like an inversion of metatextuality. Rather than attempting to say something about the metatextual nature of storytelling through a series of characters and their struggles, it's trying to say something about the struggles of these characters through a commentary on storytelling. Or, maybe it's doing both at once? This isn't merely a formal exercise, though, is the point. Steven Universe The Movie is absolutely an exploration of what it means to have a "happily ever after" in the context of an open-ended serial narrative.

It just recognizes that the ultimate open-ended serial narrative is the story of our lives.


This Has Been

Happily Ever After Never Ends

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1 comment:

  1. "This is a story with several happy endings. Its heroes are all doing well. They have not lived happily ever after, but neither are they slaves to panaceas, gods, neuroses, or kidnip. They have lived copingly ever after."
    -- Quinjin, beginning the final segment of the last chapter of James Morrow's The Continent of Lies (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984)

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