Fictional stories often focus on remarkable people. Often times, they’re so remarkable that they’re larger than life. This isn’t a problem, at least not most of the time. But it can make the more regular people in that setting seem sort of… lacking. Like they can’t affect the world because they aren’t wrapped in plot armor.
Attack on Titan makes that very issue a central theme of the story. Its primary three protagonists, Eren, Mikasa, and Armin, are all remarkable in one way or another. Eren has his incredible determination, Mikasa has her insane strength, and Armin has his razor-sharp mind.
And then there’s Jean Kirstein.
When he’s first introduced, Jean seems like your typical asshole rival character. He doesn’t share Eren’s hot hatred for Titans. Nor does he share the same trauma said creatures caused. In fact, Jeane had a fairly comfortable and normal life. He didn’t join the military to fight monsters, but to earn himself an even cozier place within the inner-most wall. He’s just the kind of person who made Eren the most angry; thus, he was the kind to make the audience most angry, as Eren was, at that point, the character we knew and sympathized with.
Then the Titans attack and Jean’s whole life gets turned completely upside-down. His ass is thrown straight into the fire. Suddenly, he is forced to experience the same horrors that made Eren into what he is.
But he doesn’t crack under the pressure. Rather, to his own shock, he steps up and takes charge. He doesn’t shrink away from the sudden horrors; he grits his teeth and tackles it head-on.
It’s in this battle that Jean’s character arc truly begins. He’s seen first-hand the horrors of the world and he’s learned the hard way what will happen if nothing is done about them. Like it or not, he now knows that Eren, hot-headed and reckless as he is, has a point. And he can no longer sit by and do nothing.
Even if he so desperately wants to.
This is what makes Jean such a compelling member of the group. He doesn’t want to be in any of the situations that he’s caught up in. All he wants is to sit by and relax, to live a cozy life. Several times throughout the story, that very thing is offered up to him, practically on a silver platter. But each and every time, his conscious all but forces him to do what he thinks is right.
There are even several points where those very morals are challenged. Take the first half of season three. For the first time, Jean has to fight other people, not Titans. The very people he’s put his life on the line to protect are now trying to kill him, and he has to kill them right back. But he hesitates; to do so would betray the morals that made him who he is.
But even then, Jean doesn’t entirely give up. Even after his reluctance to kill nearly cost him his life, he still did what he could to prevent bloodshed. That part of him has stayed true all the way up to the final arcs of the story. It’s this particular aspect of Jean that saved the lives of both Gabi and Falco, even after the former murdered one of his closest friends.
By all accounts, Jean is not a remarkable man. He isn’t some chosen one, like Eren. He isn’t an unstoppable monster, like Mikasa. And he isn’t a mastermind, like Armin. Jean is just a man. A man who tries to do his best to make the world better, even when he just wants to put his head down and escape the madness.
If that ain’t heroic, than I don’t know what is.