The story of Neon Genesis Evangelion is partly one of a creator who tapped into the zeitgeist of his viewers, who then began to travel along a path divergent from the very people that called themselves his fans. Anno Hideaki is not an isolated incident. Any time a creator makes a sequel and it’s considered to do more harm to the series than good by some (J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, Tomino Yoshiyuki and Gundam), there’s a sense that ideas and sensibilities did not align as well as they could have.
Of course, fans are individuals too. What one might call the general fan reaction to something is akin to an aggregate or a median of all of the different values that exist, and one might even argue that there’s no such thing as a singular “audience” or “fandom.” However, I think that’s a significant contributing factor to why it’s so hard for so many characters to achieve great success more than once, why there are so many flashes in the pan. Even when they’re attempting to chase their audience and please them, it doesn’t necessarily work out as they might hope. How likely is it for one person to tap into the collective feelings of a group, and do so consistently over a period of years?
Love ’em or hate ’em, this I think this situation is why production by committee/audience testing exists. If you want lightning to strike twice, why not try to find out as much information as possible? Why not try to approach the group mindset with a smaller group of your own? It’s safer and arguably more reliable.
The issue with this approach is that it’s more likely to discourage risk and experimentation. This doesn’t mean it can’t ever result in strong works, but the Mr. Plinkett review of the current state of the Star Wars franchise explains it well. Disney knows exactly what the fans love about their beloved far, far away galaxy, and will keep tapping that well for as long as they find if feasible. These can be favorite characters, changing trends in how people perceive media (gender and racial diversity), or something else, but rarely would a work like this try to challenge or anger its audience.
This, I believe, is the danger zone that Anno saw all those years ago as fan response to Evangelion became one that encouraged an objectification and consumption of its characters. That conversation is more complex than this post is going to get into (and keep in mind that I’m not necessarily against either side), but it keeps me thinking about the divergence of creators and fans.