Attack on Titan's first season never really sat right with me. A series more interested in cinematics (orchestrals, screaming aplenty) than it did in conveying a message or allowing its audience to care for the characters beyond whatever grisly death they inevitably succumb to. It was loud, its presence ever more so, and so I distanced myself from what seemed standard action movie cuisine.
After over three years of silence, its second season comes as something a bit more surprising. It trims away its grimy, cacophonous exterior and presents something, somewhat, more refined. The killing has found a purpose. The world the characters inhabit possesses some semblance of depth. There exists a story with a direction, which is exactly why it will disappoint fans who were expecting it to perpetually wander amidst blood and steel.
To be sure, Eren and crew killing (and conversely being killed) is a formula that proved moderately entertaining in the first season, if only mindlessly so. But a second season? A third? Would it still be exciting, or would people begin to tire of it? I was in the latter camp, and so I find myself glad the goalposts were changed altogether.
That's not to imply that all of AoT's flaws have been erased. The characterisation remains a sore spot for the series, with Eren continuing to scream nonsense at the top of his lungs, incapable of anything but being a hot-blooded child who is somehow the centrepiece of everything in the world. There's nothing to his character except his being angry all the time, which is why I make no intentions of defending his presence.
So who is there to defend instead? Mikasa and Armin, the two other primary characters, while less frustrating and less offensive to listen to, don't possess much that wasn't already immediately apparent. They are flat, as are the side characters, so numerous and disposable that I found myself Googling the name of one of the story's new villains because I couldn't for the life of me remember who they even were. Other characters-- Sasha-- are so devoid of character that the only thing they are defined by is the quantity of food they eat. And while the second season gives you marginally more reason to empathise with them throughout their numerous backstory scenes, it still remains difficult to care much about the fates of any of them - a significant issue in a story centred upon war. It is why I never thought much other than "ew, gross" and "wow, that sucks" when any of the characters (of which there were dozens) were chewed, dismembered, and/or squished by abhorrent-looking humanoids.
This is why I think the best way to appreciate Attack on Titan is to focus less on the pieces, and more on the board itself. Attack on Titan's setting is genuinely fascinating, and uncovering its secrets is likely to be the greatest delight for viewers unsatisfied with mere violence. While walled-off communities on the verge of extinction isn't entirely new to anime (Space Battleship Yamato went there in 1974, and Macross in 1982), the massive scale of the cities behind the walls creates ample room for an animated (yet ever so bleak) world to exist. Discovering how the world's agriculture functions, its geography, the state of politics within the Castle, the cultists' activities, and the design of the soldiers' Vertical Manoeuvring Equipment is some of the most fun I've had with an anime in this year or last. More Attack on Titan isn't exactly a proposition that gives me thrills and tingles, but books and other media focusing on its world is something I would absolutely be interested in. A rich setting it is, and with the scale of the world now extending far beyond the walls, there is almost limitless potential. Potential, I suppose, which will probably never extend into its largely mediocre story.
A mediocre story is still a step up from last season, perhaps. The violence is now more of an accessory to the plot, rather than the inverse, which allows things to follow down a more linear road instead of one winding and circling around ad infinitum. Eren and his allies, as well as his enemies, now have a mission that extends beyond survival. There are antagonists excluding the Titans mindlessly chewing every fleshy thing in sight, which creates a more interesting dynamic, certainly, as the villains are treated as human beings rather than mindless lunatics bent on world destruction, as is seemingly the case in nearly every anime that has ever existed. Some fans may be disappointed that they aren't given a villain to detest, but I've always been of the opinion that a conflict in which no true 'good' and 'bad' side exists is a more compelling tale to tell.
The second season's highlight is no doubt its halfway point, a twist so suddenly and casually revealed that it is natural to doubt one's ears, provided you hadn't already guessed one of their blatantly obvious identities well-beforehand. The ensuing fight scene is neat, as it carries a level of emotional weight so lacking in anything that existed previous. But the extent to which some people have been praising the scene, as though it is the craziest and most "epic" thing that has ever appeared in anime, is certainly without much merit.
(It also deserves to be mentioned how downright silly some scenes can be, such as when Armin and Mikasa 'emotionally' eat their rations upon the wall. Moments like this make it considerably harder to take everything else seriously.)
The production quality of Attack on Titan's second season is a minor downgrade from the first's, a fairly disappointing detail when considering the three-year wait and shorter-than-expected episode count. The aforementioned reveal doesn't hit as hard as it should when one of the villains, who is supposed to be menacing, is suddenly given the cheap CGI treatment. The fight scene fares better, with its eyes moving and monstrous fist pausing in slow-motion, but by that point the damage the first impression has created is irreversible. Mediocre animation for AoT may very well be stellar in contrast to the average seasonal anime, but standards are different here, and the ballpark much larger.
If loud orchestrals are your jam, then things have not changed all too much between 2013 and 2017. The music is still loud and climactic, and the opening, while not quite as memorable as the first two, is a solid addition to the series from both a visual and musical standpoint. But if you're a bit like me, and don't exactly enjoy noise constantly pumping into your eardrums, then Attack on Titan can be a great way to receive a headache. And this is coming from someone who listens to The Money Store on occasion.
It would be a lie to claim I didn't enjoy my time with Attack on Titan. But I am uncertain how much of that is a result of my fascination with the setting, and what, if any of my enjoyment pertains to the actual anime. To claim Attack on Titan is something of great critical merit isn't something I could do without being disingenuous. Decent? Certainly, and a noticeable step above the turgid Hollywood fare its first season was, with the introduction of new antagonists and an actual, tangible story. But for those who waited years for more Titan slaying, I do start to wonder: were they ever really giving the rest of the medium a look?