At this point, it’s safe to say that one of the things Attack on Titan will be remembered for the most is Eren Yeager’s radical shift in characterization.
This doesn’t refer solely to the fact that he has become an all-powerful Titan that uses his size and influence to crush humans underfoot though. Instead, it refers to his becoming the type of person that treats others as lesser than him and who forces his will upon others to strip away their freedom. He has become the tyrant he railed so hard against, and does so in the name of ensuring his home and those he cares about remain free for the foreseeable future.
The fact that Eren ends up playing this role continues to be one of the biggest points of contention among fans of the series. After all, Eren’s turn toward extremism takes him from being the series’ problematic hero to acting as one of its most despicable villains yet. Even if the story leads toward a moment of redemption for him, it’d be understandably difficult — if not impossible — for fans to make peace with the fact that he chose to become a genocidal maniac in order to achieve his dreams.
And yet, there’s an integral facet of this subject that get’s overlooked far too often. It’s key to the discussion surrounding Eren’s rise and fall, and to better understanding why he moves toward taking the actions that he does.
As for what the topic is, it basically boils down to this: Eren could never have made a “right” choice in Attack on Titan, because he represents the flawed morality of the show’s world.
From the get-go, Attack on Titan has never been a story that lends itself to neat and tidy resolutions for conflicts. Though it may be a Shonen series, it isn’t afraid of steeping the morality of its world in shades of grey.
Its characters may strive to be good and pure, but most every one of them is flawed and driven by less than altruistic motivations. They aren’t indomitable forces of optimism; they’re human beings who wish to stay alive and take care of the people closest to them by any means necessary. They’re willing to take actions that could be considered abominable if it means protecting what’s theirs, and they’ll buy into horrible ideologies if it helps them maintain the sense of safety and security their lives are built around.
Worst of all is that there isn’t some quick and easy solution to fixing this. Even in a world with giant monstrosities and individuals who are able to manifest magically-powered meat mechs, its people are just as capable of being ugly and cruel as real world humans are.
It’s a radical departure from the usual Shonen view of people being good at heart and only needing to be nudged toward doing what’s right by a plucky hero. This isn’t something the series is subtle about either. The third season shines a spotlight on this very subject through Hange and Levi’s torture of the Military Police member Sannes, who warns them that they’re doomed to become the villains of someone else’s story in due time.
And he’s the proof of this. Like them, he once acted out of loyalty and the desire to keep his home safe from conflict by any means necessary. This allowed him to pretend that his actions were just, and that whatever he and his allies did was for a greater good. These motivations led him to do terrible things, and to go down a path which would ultimately make him the antagonist others saw as a threat to their freedom and safety.
His road to hell was paved with good intentions — just as Hange, Levi, and the rest of the Scouts’ paths are. And the only thing standing between them sharing Sannes’ fate is a shift in public opinion.
It doesn’t take long for Sannes’ predictions to be proven right. The very next season shows how the original Scout Regiment has been painted as the villains by the loyalists who follow Eren’s ideology of prioritizing Paradis Island’s safety, even at the cost of the rest of the world. Their attempts at maintaining peace and seeking a better solution cause the rest of the island to paint them as a threat, and they wind up imprisoned or hunted as enemies of the people despite doing what most would view as right.
Which brings us to Eren. Though he may be positioned as the hero for most of the story, he’s not driven by some altruistic desire to save the world. He’s driven by hatred and anger, originally toward the creatures who killed his mother and destroyed the peaceful life he knew, and later toward the people of Marley that villainized and dehumanized Paradis Island to the point of trying to wipe them out with Titans.
Even after gaining the omniscient view of time by coming into contact with the Founding Titan and seeing the true scope of what the Titans’ existence does to the world, his motivations aren’t magically made better. He still wants to protect what HE values, and what HE holds dear, first and foremost.
He’s the exact type of hero the world of Attack on Titan would create, and represents its morality to a T. It’s no surprise, then, that he would declare war on the rest of the world, and ultimately trigger an apocalyptic event in the form of the Rumbling. Doing so was the only way for him to protect what he valued, and so he went with the option despite its consequences.
It’s a terrible choice, but also one which the rest of the world’s inhabitants would be willing to make in a heartbeat. His choice, while on a much larger scale and more widespread, is in line with what Marley did via their military campaigns using the Titans and what they planned to do to Paradis Island in order to protect themselves.
Does this make Eren’s choice the right one? Not remotely. If anything, it shows how limited his and so many others’ scope of view for the world and its problems were, and how the morally grey viewpoints of most of its characters were only ever going to lead to disaster. The inherent selfishness of those that inhabit Attack on Titan’s world, while realistic, could only result in a disastrous calamity the likes of which Eren enacts.
Which is kind of the whole point of the series: even if an action is taken for a reason that one could argue is right in some way, the ends don’t justify the means. Those like Eren who are willing to sacrifice the many for the few aren’t redeemable, and will only sow more pain in their drive to do what they think is right.