You Can (Not) Self-Insert
When I first heard about Mari, the new chick in the second Evangelion movie, I didn’t like her.
All of the descriptions I read made her come across as the antithesis of everything we knew about Evangelion. She was happy, but as far as we knew that happiness wasn’t a front. She was competent, but she wasn’t overcompensating. She was attractive, but she didn’t have personal issues that made her focus on her outward appearance. She liked Shinji, but it had nothing to do with biological encoding or seeing herself in him.
Everything about her made her sound like the quintessential fanfiction Mary Sue character. She was the sort of character that the writer creates in order to fulfill their fanboy/girl fantasies within the world of their favorite whatever series. She comes off as some sort of attempt by a fan to insert someone “well-adjusted” into the storyline and have them solve everyone’s problems, which is a well-honed tradition of the self-insert character.
Thing is, she merely tries to right all of the wrong within the Evangelion universe. While she has an impressive introduction that establishes her as someone different from the rest of the cast (She respects her Eva, wishes it well, and thanks it for its help, for one thing), her apparently attempt to brighten things up ultimately fails.
I’m thinking that all of this is thoroughly deliberate.
Her image and personality are only the beginning of her self-insertion. Not only is she constructed as the “perfect” character (smart, beautiful, powerful, knowledgeable of the other characters, etc.), she literally drops into the lives of the characters. The way most Mary Sue fanfiction stories are written, the character in question just pops out of nowhere to wreck their correctional havoc. It’s like someone figuratively dropped them out of the sky. The second movie does so literally by having her parachute in to “infiltrate” NERV and does so by falling into Shinji’s lap. They’ve taken the act of a fanfiction writer forcing a character into the story and turned that into a literal event.
The next time we see Mari, she’s trying to save the day. She arrives at the most opportune time, when Shinji is cowering, Asuka is near-death, and Rei is wounded, and essentially shows everyone how it’s done. Not only does she start to kick ass, she does so in ways that no one else knew possible. She taps into Unit 02’s abilities that surprise even Misato and company, taking the Eva to a level before thought to be impossible for a human pilot. And she does all of this with ease. Willfully controlling a berserking Unit like it’s childs play is exactly the sort of wish-fulfilling act that a fanfiction writer would do if they were indulging in the art of self-insertship.
The catch is that all of this is a set-up. Mari, like everyone else in the new Evangelion movies, is being placed in very precise positions in order to have them fail in an utterly glorious and futile manner.
While it initially seems that Mari is going to save the day and defeat the Angel at the end of the movie, her final combined assault with Rei proves to be a complete failure. Despite using every trick imaginable– despite literally fighting tooth and nail– Mari and her Mary Sue ways loses. All of her tricks prove to be just as impotent as Shinji’s cowering.
It all comes back to the movie’s subtitle: You Can (Not) Advance. The characters in the movies are making a concentrated effort to improve themselves. Through a combination of downtoning their faults (while still exhibiting them) and showing some progress in resolving those faults, the characters in the Evangelion movies are decidedly more competent and mature than their TV counterparts. Asuka’s insolence is downplayed and she comes to a degree of understanding with Misato and Shinji with a bit more ease. Rei shows more human-like behavior and takes a slightly more active role in her relationships with Shinji and Gendo. Even Shinji has improved, with his impotent cowering coming off more like rage and frustration with the world than sheer fear and simple daddy issues.
Despite all of these personal improvements, and despite the manifestation of Mari Sue, everyone ultimately fails. Asuka is overwhelmed by an Angel and nearly dies. Mari is throttled and Rei is devoured. And while Shinji pulls off a remarkable feat and channels his frustrations with the world in order to ascend to godhood and save Rei from the belly of an Angel, he gets his ass handed to him and his soul sent back to reality with one swipe of the Spear of Longinus.
Everyone’s failure comes from an outside source far beyond their control, unlike the TV series where failure ultimate came from their own faults.
The TV series explored the way people can be their own worst enemies, while the movies seem to be hitting on the idea that you can have everything in the world and still be subjected to terrible things. You can compare it to Job’s trials or the “dismal tide” of No Country for Old Men or Alexander and his Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
This is one of the reasons why I think the Evangelion are working so awesomely. They’re playing the same notes as the TV series and hitting many of the same narrative points, but the heart of the story is completely different. I wish more adaptations (book to movie, manga to TV series, whatever) were like this: Getting at the same ideas while hitting on completely different stuff at the same time.