Attack on Titan may be well into its third season, but it still remains one of the most talked-about blockbuster anime series around. Admittedly, I’ve been somewhat lukewarm on the show, slowly cooling after the bombast and twists of its first few episodes. While I love its premise, and think it succeeds at crescendoing climaxes, I find its complete lack of subtly or restrain frequently off-putting. Normally I would be able to put up with this as long as the rest of it was structurally sound, but I think its primary three characters, mystery beats, and pacing can be problematic as well. However, Season 3 has somewhat changed my opinion on the previously mentioned problems, and while I wouldn’t describe it as a complete 180, I think I’m enjoying the show more than ever.
As of today GameRVW, the site I’ve been writing for, will be expanding to hosting articles about TV and film. As a result you can expect me to cross-post from there much more frequently. Check out my full thoughts on Season 3 of Attack on Titan here.
3 thoughts on “How Attack On Titan Season 3 (Partially) Addresses My Three Biggest Problems With The Series”
(I hope it’s okay for me to leave this comment here; if you’d rather have it on GameRVW, I can move it on request)
I really liked this review, and I appreciate your willingness to remain critical while giving the series a chance to improve. It can be occasionally frustrating or alienating to have major issues with a work of media that seems universally lauded. I’m certainly no stranger to that, at least – I don’t like My Hero Academia and I think FMA 2003 is vastly superior to Brotherhood. So it’s refreshing to see a nuanced take on Attack on Titan that’s critical without devolving into edgy contrarianism, and I agree with most of your points, to a degree.
That said, Attack on Titan is still one of my favorite (ongoing) series. It pretty much single-handedly brought me back into watching anime (for better or for worse) back in 2013, and I don’t think that’s an isolated incident. Attack on Titan was one of two series that I believe contributed to a huge revival of interest in anime to a young adult/college audience in the west in the early 2010s – the other being Sword Art Online, which is a huge pile of shit, to be blunt, but nonetheless influential. Attack on Titan could not have premiered at a more perfect time – Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead were at the height of their popularity, its darker tone felt novel to Western audiences who had largely grown up with the kinda stuff that aired on Toonami, and the kinetic, less-shoneny choreography of the battles led to action scenes with a lot less chaff and a more visceral connection to the combat.
The success of those initial episodes could only have been so strong in that ephemeral period of time, where high-octane melodrama, gore, and shocking twists set discussions ablaze. It might seem cheap, but I think the show took calculated measures to take advantage of these strong emotional reactions – the crescendos of action that you identified, in particular, often serve to knock the protagonists back down or reveal a new threat, just as things were starting to look up. This is best personified in the stretch from episodes 1-5, but it happens in smaller doses throughout early series as well. And since the plot and characters started out rather simple, the show benefited immensely from its bombastic direction – it likely would’ve been a dud without that, but again, plenty of great movies get by on the same execution. Since Isayama’s artwork in the early parts of the manga was pretty… uh… not good, the animators really picked up the slack to make the action sleek, and everyone else involved in sound, music, etc gave it their all to make things as exciting as possible.
But I think they knew this couldn’t last, and that the novelty of subversion and darker content would eventually wear off. They had a winning formula that drew from Berserk, Evangelion, zombie films, and war dramas, webbed together with Spider-Man action scenes, but they couldn’t maintain momentum on shock value alone. They wisely decided to transition away from this pattern once they had a sizeable audience hooked, and began focusing on more nuanced character development. Even as far back as season 1, Attack on Titan pulled off some impressive arcs for its secondary characters – Jean goes from being your standard rich kid bully archetype, the kind destined to be Titan food, to a conscientious leader who looks after his own in a time of crisis – and he eventually acts as a body double for his old (twice). And even though we’re given only snippets of information about Annie’s backstory and motivation, there’s quite a lot of subtlety in her interactions and execution of her plans that renders her a surprising amount of pathos. This model continued into the subsequent seasons, as you pointed out, with gag characters like Sasha getting more development than you might expect, Ymir going from a literal background character to one of the most enigmatic and complex figures in the story, and Reiner proves an amazing foil to Eren, giving the villainous conspiracy a more human face.
And I think its through these lenses that other themes come into focus – namely, the humanizing of the alien Other – whether they’re monstrous invaders or simply bullies or weirdos. All of this informs Eren’s journey, as he starts out as a deeply disturbed, aggressive, and pathologically violent individual, even before the Titans arrive. His sense of justice involves deliberately dehumanizing his opponents to justify his anger and violence – he does exactly this with the robbers who kidnapped Mikasa, vehemently denying that he had killed anyone other than beasts in disguise. Eren never feels trauma or guilt for this, because he’s justified it in his own delusions. I think that the fact that Eren maintains your typical shonen protagonist’s boundless “can do” attitude, unwilling to ever give up, is meant to be disturbing, as he seems to often repress the complex reality of situations in order to motivate his actions. He swears vengeance on behalf of humanity against the Titans, but humanity seems to be something you have to qualify for to him. This makes Eren the ultimate tool in an elaborate game of fascist chess – his jingoistic attitude proves easily manipulated by the military and government, These qualifications for humanity get muddier after revelations about his Titan power, as well as that of his traitorous friends (Annie, Reiner, and Bertholdt). And true enough, as the seasons progress, Eren’s been forced to acknowledge the greater complexity of the world around him, as have his peers. Armin even admitted in the third season that they aren’t good people anymore. Even after the coup against the shadowy monarchy, the Survey Corp/Scouting Legion has proven itself similarly brutal and conniving – they ALSO engage in ruthless torture, as one MP blatantly points out, enable a puppet on the throne, and urge soldiers to give their lives for a cause they don’t properly understand (wonderfully parodied in the propagandist anthems that made up the first two OPs and ESPECIALLY the third one). Eren’s growth has not only involved him learning to cool his head (which we saw demonstrated in the Reiner fight in season 2), but also in coming to terms with the lies of his world, the flaws of his friends and loved ones, and the humanity of his enemies. What I’m saying is that Eren’s development has indeed gotten better and better as the series has gone onward, but that’s been part of process building on the show’s thematic text, rather than a sudden change in trajectory for his character. In season 3, we’re just seeing all of this stuff come home to roost.
Although I do have to disagree to your criticism the pacing of the mystery, as I’ve found many of the careful hints left by the writers to be enticing without being frustrating – usually, one revelation leads to a new question or two, but there’s consistently a sense of progress. But you’re not the first I’ve heard raise this complaint, and I think the issue might’ve been worsened by the unreasonably long gap between seasons.
I think there’s one season in the second season that best summarizes the show’s evolution in its approach to mystery and overall presentation of drama. The execution of Reiner and Bertholdt’s uncovered treachery is done so elegantly that it really shows how far the show has progressed – Reiner candidly admits his true identity while off-screen, being talked over by someone else. Like the first season, this scene tries to tie the audience’s shock with the characters’, but goes about it in a completely different way, prompting a double-take and confusion. I think that’s where much of the show’s continued strength comes from – it’s adapted its presentation to both changing tastes among its audience and the natural tonal and thematic shift of the narrative.
As someone who’s read the manga but doesn’t want to give too many spoilers, I think you’re going to like the direction of Eren’s character as the series continues. It’s headed into darker territory, but of a more mature nature, dealing with disillusioned and fatalist heroes, rather than an exploitative focus on carnage and death.
I’m very glad that you’re enjoying the series more now, and I encourage you to stick with it, as I believe there’s a lot more to it than one might initially guess. Thank you very much for the insightful article!
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Hey Hunter, I have no problem with you commenting here at all, and thanks for the lengthy, well thought out response as always! I think you make a lot good points, particularly about the development of Eren. In retrospect, it feels like the first season of AoT was intentionally ironing out the more fascistic elements of the scouts and the government they served, making their actions palatable by contrasting them with the dire world they live in. I can’t help but think of Starship Troopers, an outright parody of this sort of governmental system that sacrifices individuals at the altar of patriotism. While in both worlds humans face an existential threat, we see that the cost of victory in these cases is basically that society loses it’s soul. Eren is emblematic of this. In the beginning he is nothing but pure anger, and as you pointed out he was willing to dance to the tune of the military as long as they gave him a vehicle for his revenge. But slowly over the course of the show, particularly this season, it has become clear that he is waking up from that delusion. I feel like the point at which he had completely reversed on motivations for joining the scouts regiment was in episode 46, when he looks back at the city and realizes the enormity of what he’s protecting. This also makes it clear that it doesn’t seem like the point of the narrative in the early days was to glorify this military, but to setup for this contrast that makes us question its legitimacy. As for the mystery beats, that may just be a point of personal taste. During season 2 some of the allusions to the wall cult and that business felt like the pacing was hurt by adaptation, as they kept piling on questions, which compounded with the mountain of precious significant questions. I haven’t read the manga so I can’t say for sure if the long wait times in between seasons was the catalyst for it not working for me or not, but that would definitely make sense to me. There’s still elements of its bombastic style, and the occasionally overbearing nightmarish state of this world that undermine some moments of emotional nuance for me, but after the poignant and beautifully delivered personal stories of episodes 47 and 48, I feel like most of my issues with the series failing to deliver subtle moments have subsided. It’s quite a bummer that we have to wait until next year to see more of this adaptation though…. And again, thanks for the feedback man, that was great food for thought, and it certainly makes me appreciate be trajectory of the show that much more. Also SAO stinks!
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Yeah, I’ve made the comparison to Starship Troopers quite a few times myself. And yes, it’s a shame that the production schedule is so troubled, but hopefully it’ll be for the best if it ensures that the next arc comes out well.
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