This post was delayed for a while as I struggled with the way to put my thoughts to paper regarding the reasons why I avoided Gurren Lagann, and my rebuttal to those who believe certain things about it. I can't avoid the fact that no matter how much I enjoyed Gurren Lagann, there was a time when I avoided the series because of the attitude of its fandom. It's embarrassing to have let myself be affected in that way, especially when I discovered that the series didn't embody the attitudes others thought it did.
Many, many other nerds viewed Gurren Lagann as, by turns: an attempt to bring manliness back to the mecha genre; an antidote to the angst that apparently pervaded the mecha genre; an antidote to Neon Genesis Evangelion; Simon as an antidote to Shinji Ikari. And so on.
Hence, a perfect storm: I am naturally suspicious of anyone who thinks "manliness" is under siege, I am against fans acting as though they are owed an antidote to anything they didn't like, and I damn love Evangelion and Shinji Ikari, both of which have become something of sacred cows for me over the years. Not enough for me to think they should be sacred to others, but enough so that they are deeply engraved into my brain, and anything that is purported to be an attack on them would give me pause in checking out.
And, after watching Gurren Lagann in full, my impression is Gainax was just making the series they wanted to make, something possessing no deeper agenda than to be crazy-fun. I can see how Gurren Lagann could have become those certain things to fans watching, but I don't think it was the intention of the creators for it to be these things, nor do certain interpretations stand up when you look at the series closely.
Kamina and several other characters may rant about "manliness", but it's not some kind of broader statement by the creators about the mecha genre or modern society. Instead, the writers are just echoing sentiments from other boys' adventure shows without really thinking about them, or about the contradiction when there are several female characters involved in combat, proving there's nothing exclusively male about perseverance in the face of adversity.
I'm really glad Gurren Lagann never went any deeper with that focus on "manliness" because, well, "manliness" is a bunch of bull. The first thing I think when I think "manliness" is posturing, loudness, and excessive concern with one's reputation. How else can you put it? I don't believe that "manliness" is just a way to describe the ½ of positive human traits that belong only to men, because there's no set of values just good for one gender. Nor is it a set of rules for men to follow to be a decent human being, for that also needs no special name.
Actually, worrying over the "manliness" of current robot cartoons sounds just like code for worrying about manliness in culture, which is also ridiculous. There is a HUGE culture of pushing male insecurity about being "manly" enough, and pretending the opposite is willful blindness. I don't want that crap in my animu.
I also haven't watched every mecha show ever made, but I'd be hard-pressed to believe there is such a pall of angst on the genre that someone conceived a deliberate response to it. Like all media and genre, I'd imagine the popularity of certain motifs comes in cycles, with nothing dominating for any notable length of time. From my end, angst is hardly a cancer that is killing mecha anime.
Also, since Gurren Lagann is all about being in your face, if it wanted to be about reclaiming a "lost" manliness/be the killer of the mecha genre's chronic angst, it would tell viewers very loudly. But Gurren Lagann doesn't play that game. It just tells a fun story, and doesn't have an agenda.
It would also be very hard for a series to turn out this good if its genesis was showing up other cartoons rather than telling its own story. For this reason, Gurren Lagann is probably a series created out of sheer love of mecha action, not out of any hate for anything. It wants to create something for itself, not to look down on another thing. It's particularly ludicrous to think Gainax would want to create an "antidote" to Neon Genesis Evangelion, a work that put the studio on the map and continues to make them gobs of cash.
The argument is that the characters of Gurren Lagann push forward in the face of despair, while the characters of Evangelion freeze, or earn nothing when they try to fight. This is one of the more developed arguments I've seen. But the plot of Gurren Lagann is completely different from Evangelion's, and the characters are never placed in any similar situations. A very general difference in series-wide "character" between the two shows does not make their relationship oppositional. Gurren Lagann would have had to have a glut of very similar situations to Evangelion's that turn into their opposites in order to prove itself a rebuttal.
The truth instead is that Gurren Lagann derives several story elements from Evangelion, but these end up with similar outcomes. For example, the Anti-Spiral race is revealed to have shut itself away in a mindless collective to avoid gathering too much destructive energy, and this is positioned as the thematically wrong thing to do, standing in stark contrast to the heroes' individuality and life.
However, this shutting away is not analogous to the final actions of Evangelion's main characters, but instead to those of SEELE. The status of the Anti-Sprial sounds a lot like Evangelion's Instrumentality, and Instrumentality was also positioned as the "wrong" thing within its series, the product of the nominal antagonists, and what Shinji eventually breaks from. It might not be as clear or as glamorous as the way Simon breaks from the Anti-Spirals, but it is more similar than different. Hell, both sequences include a "Normal Life AU Interlude" that the characters escape from, reinforcing the similarity rather than opposition between the two series.
Evangelion also wasn't all 'bout despair to begin with, so when Team Gurren defies the Anti-Spiral, they are doing so in the name of Gurren Lagann's own themes, not to attack what would be a strawman version of Evangelion. Gurren Lagann echoes Evangelion, not to judge Evangelion, but because productions from the same studio would inevitably share motifs and elements in common.
Simon being intended as the anti-Shinji I don't buy, either, and for pretty much the same reasons I don't see Gurren Lagann as designed to be an antidote to Evangelion: both characters have far too little in common. They both come from the same "reluctant hero" wellspring, but if Simon was intended to be an anti-Shinji, there would be a lot more parallels than just timidity/insecurity and a vague physical resemblance.
For example, when we first meet Simon, he has already grown up with Kamina as a positive influence in his life, and is an orphan, while Shinji has initially no one at all, before his bastard of a father calls him back. Already the two characters start off in different situations which have a deep effect on how they already act. Starting from those different points, Simon and Shinji are just vaguely similar character types who happen to go in different directions. That Simon looks a bit like Shinji is just Gainax copying itself again, and copying without a value judgement involved.
This is all not to forget that the idea of series/characters needing an "antidote" is ridiculous. Since no one involved with Gurren Lagann has expressed disdain for Evangelion, the idea of an "antidote" for the series being needed seems to have sprung from fans' dislike. Not enjoying the original works are fine, but being arrogant enough to say that the creators must surely have hated things as much as they did, and so this later work must be a "rebuttal", is really petty. For the third time, why would Gainax even bother or care?
I don't know why I let the fandom effect me the way it did, when it's so obvious in hindsight that Gainax had no reason to attack its own. Gurren Lagann obviously won't surpass Neon Genesis Evangelion in my estimation, but it's still a good show. I haven't connected as deeply emotionally with Gurren Lagann as I have with Evangelion, and the flaws I mentioned before do bring the series down. But it was hellishly fun to watch