Wednesday, June 28, 2017

This Is Why I Can't Have Nice Things

I think it's been over a year since Steven Universe dispatched Jasper as an enemy, but I end up thinking about that final battle at the Beta Kindergarten a lot. It's one of those frustrating situations where I understand why the creators went the direction they did, and it makes a lot of sense, but I still wish they'd done it differently.

Jasper has, with the exception of that one time when Lapis punched her over the far horizon, lost to group efforts, especially to fusions. Garnet, Stevonnie, Alexandrite, and in the final battle, Smoky Quartz. And it infuriates Jasper, because she thinks of it as a cheap trick, weaker gems combining to make a stronger gem. None of the Crystal Gems could defeat her alone, so they gang up on her.

Jasper misses that the Gems can fuse as effectively as they do because they care about each other and want to help each other out. They do fuse because it helps them in battle, that part is correct, but it works because of their shared connection outside battle. They're trying to protect each other, not smash people.

For Jasper, it's strictly about power. Even when she tried fusion, with Lapis, it was from a desire for revenge, because she felt desperate, and she tried to force Lapis into it, only for Lapis to turn the tables on her and trap them both at the bottom of the ocean. Eventually Jasper took control, but it was never a particularly stable fusion, with both gems working in concert. It was always one personality dominating the other. From Jasper's perspective, it made her stronger, that was the important part. But despite wanting others to fuse with her whenever she starts to lose, she never drops her scornful attitude. She mocks a corrupted gem as deserving its fate, locks it in a cage, but then tries to force a fusion on it when she gets desperate. And is surprised it doesn't want to stay fused with a tormentor who made no attempt to understand it or treat it as an equal. For Jasper, fusion is a way for her to get what she wants, period, and that's why it doesn't work out. For the Gems, fusion is an expression of the feelings they have towards each other, creating a being who is each of them, but also an individual of their own. Jasper still wants to be Jasper, even when fused.

And Jasper buys in fully to the rules of Homeworld. That she exists to serve the Diamonds, that she's how they made her, and you are not to go outside those bounds. To do so, by choice or forces outside your control, is unforgivable. So she's defeated by Amethyst, Steven (who Jasper thinks is just Rose Quartz in a bizarre form), and Peridot. Amethyst was supposed to look like Jasper, but was in the ground 500 years too long, and came out smaller. Rose rebelled against the Diamonds, and has now willingly changed her form to this short, curly-haired pudgy thing. All of that is against the will of the Diamonds, as is the existence of Earth itself. Jasper is ultimately "poofed" by Peridot, who wasn't supposed to have any powers once she lost her limb enhancers, but has turned out to have telekinesis over metal. She figured that out after Steven and Amethyst tried to teach her to shift her form, in either case, moving outside the bounds prescribed by the Diamonds.

So the story of Jasper's defeat played out really well, on a lot of levels. And yet, I was a little disappointed, because I had hoped Amethyst would be able to beat Jasper on her own. She'd been trounced in their previous fight, battered, humiliated, poofed, and ultimately had to be rescued by Stevonnie, when she was supposed to be protecting them. Jasper had poked at all of Amethyst's insecurities about being flawed, or weak, inferior because she didn't come out the way she was "supposed" to. Meaning, like Jasper. Which also serves to remind Amethyst she was originally meant to be a soldier in the war against Rose and the Gems, rather than on their side, and it was mostly dumb luck she emerged after the war was over*.

Still, while Jasper has the raw power advantage, it's expressed in a fairly limited war. Jasper is the Juggernaut, or the Rhino. Straight ahead, smash what's in your way with overwhelming force. Her weapon is a big helmet with a ram on it. She doubtless has the capacity to shape shift, but outside the Sonic the Hedgehog-like buzzsaw move she and Amethyst both employ, it doesn't seem to be a technique she employs. Amethyst has her whips, which have a variety of uses, and shape shift readily, into a variety of forms, up to and including a functional helicopter. She's not supposed to be able to fly - Jasper can't**, it was one of the things she liked about being fused with Lapis - but she certainly does. That seems like a heck of an advantage to have in a fight.

I hoped that Amethyst would leverage her particular strengths, combined with a greater focus (and Jasper's overconfidence), and hand Jasper her butt. Settle some questions she had about herself, deal the bullying villain a good beatdown. No such luck. Amethyst's best hits could barely scratch Jasper, whereas Jasper could send Amethyst flying with an ordinary kick. It was every fight in a shonen anime between the scrappy, try hard supporting character and the extremely gifted asshole villain character I've ever seen. Nice try kid, but effort and being clever will never win over raw physical talent. Hell of a message to send there, but I guess if one was sick of "plucky underdogs triumphant" sports movies - maybe I should have just typed "sports movies" - I could see it striking a chord.

That's a jaundiced take on the whole thing, I know. I just know that sometimes you have to get things done on your own. The show is right, there's nothing wrong with working together or leaning on a friend. But sometimes that isn't an option, and what we're faced with can't be put off until some help can be rustled up. Not really the story Steven Universe is trying to tell, and normally, that doesn't bother me. In this particular instance, though, I'd have liked to seen it.

* I don't think it's ever been said outright, but I wonder if Amethyst worries about if she can measure up because she didn't fight alongside Pearl, Garnet, and the others in the rebellion. She never had the chance to prove herself in that struggle.

** Actually, I'm not sure about this. She did something close to flying while fighting Garnet on the spaceship. Zooming towards her at a great speed without her feet touching the ground. But she was definitely excited about being able to fly while fused with Lapis, so I don't know what the official ruling would be.

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