Gundam AGE is a failure, in multiple ways. First, it achieved abysmal ratings, beating Gundam X’s all-time low. I think this is well within the experimental nature of the show, where Gundam tried to become a children’s TV anime. I find it a shame because the first arc was pretty good, the second arc even better, but kids probably didn’t have the patience to stick around for that.
The second failure would go to the third and fourth arcs, or to Kio Asuno in general. Kio didn’t start off bad. He had a genuinely compelling dilemma whether to follow his grandfather down the road of Vagan genocide, or to find a way of fighting for himself. We now know that he followed the latter, in the worst imaginable way–Kio becomes Jesus Yamato, on a personal crusade to reconcile both Earth and Vagan in the battlefield.
No one ever truly stops Kio from this. In the fourth arc, when Kio was forced to truly kill someone, another person steps in and does it for him. Kio conveniently avoids a painful choice. Seric tells Kio to stop not killing the Vagans, because it also endangers their own allies. It goes way over Kio’s head, because he is the strongest X-Rounder and he could protect everyone from danger anyway. He is given special treatment, not belonging to the military at all. If he did, well Seric could’ve had license to shoot him instead.
All this is to further promote the stupid Gundam Message that War is Bad, Violence is Bad, and Stopping Violence Will Stop Wars. There wouldn’t be any trouble if we had a nuanced, smart execution of these themes, but Gundam all too often tries to dumb them down, doing its absolute worst for Gundam AGE. The fourth arc is particularly bad because all the other interesting subplots were shelved in favor of preaching to its audience, instead of trying to do cardinal thing asked of it: tell a good story.
Getting AGE’s bad parts out of the way, I want to affirm that there is still a lot to love about this show, especially in the great second arc. Asemu’s story is compelling in a way that Young Flit and Kio’s aren’t, because Asemu is a soldier. Asemu piloted the Gundam AGE-2, a powerful unit in itself, but he was still commanded by a superior, and was surrounded by teammates. This team setup places an immense weight on Asemu’s shoulders. He is responsible for his teammates and even his superior officier, so he cannot just run off and do things on his own. He is a great pilot in a great machine, but he is only a pilot, and the AGE-2 is only a machine, and neither are treated as a savior of humanity that recent Gundam TV has a tendency for doing.
Asemu’s relationship with his father is also very interesting–Asemu wants approval from the great Admiral Flit Asuno, who is a first-rate commander, engineer, and pilot rolled into one. But he wasn’t a very good father, and hoped to make a good man out of Asemu by being cold towards him, in the fear that showering him with attention would spoil and stunt his development. Asemu had to forge his own identity, to not live forever under the shadow of his father.
Zeheart is also at his most coherent in this arc, which isn’t saying very much, but he acted as a good foil to Asemu, and their team-up at the conclusion of the arc was one of the highlights of the entire show.
I think that Gundam AGE would have done better if the AGE-FX did not exist (to rob Kio of the agency to play God in the battlefield), the third and fourth arcs were meshed together without Kio’s X-Rounder values, and the second arc had been longer. There were some interesting subplots that didn’t have enough time to be resolved in a satisfying manner, and I would have wished for more squad dynamics with Asemu and his teammates.
There are a lot of things I wish for in mecha anime, and for Gundam AGE to have been a lot better is sadly one of them.