Spoilers for Steven Universe Future, Steven Universe, and How to Train Your Dragon.
The Hero’s Journey is the most important—and most used—trope in fiction. It’s basically a catch-all term for the trials, tribulations, and challenges faced by the protagonist. It’s usually a very simple story told in three distinct acts over the course of a movie, show, or book series: The hero learns they’re special, they train under a wise master and/or masters, and eventually they defeat the story’s designated Big Bad. Roll credits. That’s how its been done since basically the beginning of fiction. But sometimes writers like to shake it up. Sometimes writers like to completely break apart the whole concept of the Hero’s Journey and examine every piece under a modern lens. And one of those sometimes was the show Steven Universe and—more relevant—the follow-up mini-series Steven Universe Future. Have you ever wanted to see the complete destruction of the Hero’s Journey? Well, here it is! Sucrose delivers.
The show actually sticks to the regular formula rather well in the first Act. Steven realizes he has a magical destiny—Connie even says it out loud just in case we’ve all missed it—and he trains under three masters—Garnet, Amethyst, and Peaaarl—before coming up against the Big Bad. But the show has multiple Big Bads, all leading Steven to the Biggest and Baddest. And how does Steven defeat the Ultimate Bad? By (huge spoiler) being himself and delivering the sickest burn in animated history. That’s one huge thing that separates Steven from most male protagonists. When it’s time for Steven to face his demons—both real and metaphorical—he uses his words, not his fists. In fact, Steven can’t use his fists because his Gem weapon is a shield. And there we have the entire crux of Steven’s character. In the typical Hero’s Journey, it’s all about getting stronger and thrashing the Big Bad. It’s all about physical strength and leveling up in combat. But Steven’s story is all about him leveling up in emotion. His powers are literally controlled by how he feels and expressing his emotions makes him better-equipped to face any threats that show up on his radar. And when Steven is faced with a villain he can’t talk with, someone who won’t listen to reason? Steven defeats them just by being Steven. He doesn’t compromise his morals and character development, even after being backed into a corner. Well, not yet. That comes later. The point is that Steven basically defeats White Diamond by wielding the strong sense of self-identity he’s built up over the seasons. This isn’t something we normally see in a Hero’s Journey. In fact, a Hero’s Journey usually comes with a distinct loss of identity. If the character starts out weak and unable to fight, they’re mocked by both the narrative and the people around them until they get stronger. They’re trained to be stoic, to repress how they really feel, to use the full extent of their power. Emotional growth tends to get a focus, but it’s never in the spotlight. If anything, it’s secondary. Just look at Harry Potter, the most famous example of this trope: Harry discovers he has a magical destiny and spends basically all of the books training to fight the Big Bad. The closest the series ever comes to making emotional growth an important part of Harry’s journey is in Book Five, when Harry is forced to learn Occulumency to prevent his mind from being compromised. Keep in mind that Harry is taught this by Snape, an emotionally abusive asshole who is using the skill mainly to help in his spying. And rather than focusing on emotional maturity, it’s all about Harry emptying his mind and using forceful methods to keep Snape out. So it doesn’t really count.
By the end of Future, Steven is suffering from some pretty bad PTSD and in desperate need of help after all the shit he’s gone through. This complete vulnerability is pretty much unknown in a Hero’s Journey, since the Hero’s Journey is usually supposed to involve some kind of emotional repression that somehow doesn’t totally fuck up the protagonist. We rarely get to see the results of all the trauma. At the end of the Harry Potter series, we see Harry and his new family. Is there any hint of trauma or PTSD or anything? Nope. Harry is perfectly happy because his scar hasn’t hurt in a long time. His journey is over, the Big Bad is dead, and he has a family. Everything is fine, even though Harry should be emotionally scarred and seeing a therapist at least twice a week after all the insane stuff he went through as a child. But in the short epilogue, Harry is showing no adverse effects to being betrayed, having a magical destiny basically forced on him from a very young age, living and fighting through a war, facing the most evil wizard in existence on a 1v1 battlefield, being targeted by the Ministry of Magic, having several of his friends die or almost die in front of him, getting slightly soul-sucked by Dementors, having his mind invaded several times, being possessed very briefly, almost torturing someone, living with his abusive relatives…and the list goes on. Laying it all out like that, it sure does sound like Harry’s “happy ending” really shouldn’t have been happy. Or at the very least, we should have seen a bit of his recovery and how he got to this point in his life. Was it therapy? Was it magical drugs? Probably the latter. And not seeing any of Harry’s trauma kind of undermines the whole narrative because it seems to suggest that Harry somehow wasn’t effected by everything that happened to him. And that’s impossible, because even a grown adult would have been seriously messed up by going through all of that in just seven short years. Harry was eleven when he first almost died and younger than that when he was being abused by the Dursleys. And yet the Harry we see at the very end of the series has a happy family and doesn’t seem at all concerned with the fact that he’s passively working for the same Ministry that tried to smear him when he was a teenager. If Harry has any trauma, we never see it and we instead get the impression that he is somehow a one hundred percent well-adjusted person. Because of course there had to be a happy ending. That is an important part of the Hero’s Journey: the Happy Ending. Everything works out, the dead are mourned, and ultimately the survivors go on to live their best lives. While writing that kind of ending is perfectly fine, it’s also unintentionally deceptive. Because the emotional state and the consequences of trauma are important aspects of the hero narrative, especially for male protagonists. Male protagonists don’t often get to experience trauma in a significant way within the narrative. Lasting physical effects are there to show how strong and badass the male protagonist is, while all lasting mental effects are ignored. Are there any hints of—for example—Harry freaking out every time someone points a wand at him and having horrible flashbacks to that intense final fight? Or Harry having nightmares about the fact that he basically died? Of course not. Because that would disrupt the Happy Ending. This is mainly because we actually don’t get to see Harry’s life in the interim or his recovery. We jump straight to the next stage of life and we don’t get a good look at anything that happened between then and now. Basically we go from all the bad and traumatic pieces of the story straight to presumably after Harry has recovered and is living his best life.
Steven Universe does the exact opposite. We see how much Steven is hurting in Future, how much all of the messed up crap he’s been through has destroyed his mental state. And most importantly, we see how much worse off he is because he’s been repressing his negative emotions. Rather than being stoic and violent being painted as positive traits for a fictional male hero, Steven’s descent into violence is directly connected to how bad he is at processing his own emotions at this point in the narrative. When he finally embraces his full power and lets himself go, he ends up hurting someone he cares about and causing himself further trauma. Steven ultimately learns that all emotions—positive or negative—need to be in moderation. Ironically, Future actually gives us some elements of the typical Hero’s Journey, specifically Steven leveling up his strength. Except the Big Bad is Steven’s own emotional problems and the only one he ends up “defeating” is himself. It’s more realistic because there are real consequences for Steven being forced into this magical destiny from a young age. Rather than giving us a happy ending where everything works out perfectly in the end, Steven realizes that he needs to move on to the next stage in his life if he really wants to grow. He leaves everything and everyone behind, giving the entire finale a kind of bittersweet feeling. Imagine if at the end of the Harry Potter series, Harry had decided he was sick of the wizarding world and its various flaws—most of which were directly responsible for Voldemort’s rise to power—and distanced himself from it, leaving all of his friends behind so he could deal with his trauma. A bittersweet ending to the series that actually addressed the main character’s emotions. Steven manages to get something that very few well-known male protagonists ever have: a chance to grow and heal after being repeatedly thrust into traumatic situations since he was very young. Open-ended endings are one thing, but a resounding Everything is fine feels very fake and almost like fan service at the end of the story.
A good companion to this is How to Train Your Dragon, one of the first examples of a male protagonist using empathy and emotional maturity to defeat a Big Bad. Rather than becoming stronger through combat, Hiccup learns the truth about dragons by refusing to attack and instead befriending the scary murder beast. And the scary murder beast turns out to be a lot less scary and murdery than Hiccup was led to believe. Rather than being punished for his “weaknesses”, Hiccup is rewarded for being sensitive and understanding. This is such a rarity in fiction that it’s worth pointing out. And in another unexpected bit of role reversal, the female love interest—Astrid—is the violent “brute” who needs to be taught empathy by the kind and sensitive male main character. The movie kind of off-sets some of its more bold and genre-defying elements by leaning into a few tired tropes, but it’s honestly not one of the worst offenders and it’s a wonderful subversion of the normal Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey is very much rooted in traditional masculinity, based around this idea that a boy’s journey into manhood involves leveling up physically, scoring an attractive girl, and suppressing his “weaknesses”–i.e. his normal human emotions—so he can defeat the Big Bad. In almost any other series, Steven would be the comic relief or “sidekick” character who exists to make the Hero look manlier by comparison.