Warning: this editorial will contain unmarked spoilers for the Evangelion Rebuilds, especially 3.0.
Saying Evangelion 3.0 was divisive is like saying One Piece is long. 2.0 was hugely popular, and for good reason. It kept a lot of the strong character psychology and mech fights that made the original series one of the most popular and influential anime of all time, but filtered out a lot of the dense philosophy, occasionally frustrating character development and dated animation that made the original one of the most controversial anime of all time. Rei stood up for herself, Asuka was far less caustic and Shinji began to show some initiative, or at least attempt to do so. The way 2.0 ended, the Rebuilds actually had the potential to surpass NGE and even the preview at the end showed promise. It makes sense that everyone had huge expectations going into 3.0, and a lot of people, myself included, ended up confused, angry, or some mixture of the two. This isn’t going to be an actual review as much as me looking at what made 3.0 so controversial and how it might have become that way.
The first notable thing about 3.0 is that the story is barely coherent. It’s told entirely from Shinji’s point of view, so it makes sense that it would be confusing for a while since he had been asleep for 14 years. Being vague to mirror Shinji’s confusion is a perfectly fine way to tell a story as long as basic plot information and character motivations are explained eventually. 3.0 does none of that. The first third of the movie isn’t as much a story as a bunch of things happening. Shinji wakes up aboard a giant ship called the Wunder. Everyone treats him like an enemy. The ship is attacked by an unknown group. Misato reveals that they’re now part of a group called WILLE and fight against NERV. The ship transforms and starts flying in a scene that would be cool if they explained what was going on. Nobody tells Shinji anything, so he goes with a Rei clone that came to take him back to Gendo. All of this happens in the first 30 minutes or so and it feels like they skipped a movie. Evangelion has always been hard to understand, but it usually at least gives enough information for the audience to figure things out on their own. 3.0 leaves the questions of how WILLE formed, who actually attacked them, why the ship transforming was such a big deal and why everyone was so hostile to Shinji (I know he almost caused Third Impact, but the film never gave enough information to figure out if that was why they suddenly hated him) completely unanswered. Being cryptic is one thing, but not telling your audience anything is just bad storytelling. This is exactly why so many of us were disappointed with it. What ultimately saves the movie is how it develops Shinji.
Shinji is understandably upset once he realizes that he almost destroyed the world and all his friends hate him, so his growing friendship with Kaworu makes sense. Kaworu himself seems to genuinely care for Shinji and wants to help him get back on his feet. Shinji takes comfort in that and ends up defining himself by how much he can help Kaworu. Characters only defining themselves by external things instead of finding their own self worth is one of the central themes of Evangelion, and 3.0 handles it excellently. Their relationship is ultimately what saves the movie and is why a lot of people still like it. I was annoyed at it for much of the runtime, but the way it developed Shinji is why I don’t think it’s actually a bad movie. As for why 3.0 ended up as such a mess, I think it can be attributed almost completely to writer/director/The Evangelion Guy, Hideaki Anno.
Evangelion has always been heavily influenced by Anno’s emotional state. NGE was originally intended to be a fairly standard monster of the week mecha show, and that’s how it was for about 2/3 of the show. What changed was Anno’s onset of depression, which was also when it got noticeably darker and more introspective. The Angel fights began to take a backseat to the characters dealing with their issues, most notably Shinji’s depression. The entire climax of the TV series was Shinji overcoming his depression, and it’s clear that that was what Anno was most interested in.
After working on 3.0, Anno described losing his sense of purpose and questioning what he was doing with his work. After finding out that he hadn’t been able to save Rei, Shinji had similar feelings, questioning whether he had ever been able to do anything good while piloting the Eva. Anno’s mental state has always influenced Shinji, and it’s clear that 3.0 is no exception. The focus on character over plot explanation is the movie’s biggest flaw, and it’s pretty clear that Anno’s own struggles were what influenced this. The movie would have been much better with a more coherent plot, but the characterization and the way it connects to Anno’s personal struggles ensures that 3.0 is at the very least interesting. Even when it’s not good (and some parts of Evangelion aren’t) Eva has always been interesting, and 3.0 is no exception. I don’t know if 4.0 will be able to recover from this, but it’ll definitely be interesting regardless.