The anime series My Hero Academia just wrapped up one of its best arcs yet with a compelling and emotional story, and action as exciting and awe-inspiring as anything done by the MCU. Having just started a new story arc, and with a movie being released later this year, there’s no better time to explore the ways this show about a shy kid yearning to become a hero is turning the superhero genre upside down.
Note: Spoilers ahead
For the uninitiated, My Hero Academia is about a world familiar to X-Men fans, where instead of superpowered individuals being outcasts and an oppressed minority, about 80% of the world population has superpowers, called “Quirks.” These come in all shapes and sizes, from super-strength and gigantification, to smaller and seemingly less useful quirks like being able to levitate only small objects. Because people with powers are in charge, there’s enormous pressure for kids to develop Quirks. We follow Izuku Midoriya, a kid who spent most of his childhood being bullied for his lack of a Quirk, but that doesn’t stop him from enrolling in U.A. High School, the best superhero academy for future heroes.
One of the things the show does right is getting its characters into actual trouble when they use their Quirks outside of U.A. High School. Unlike the kids at Hogwarts, who are placed in mortal danger every semester and no one cares, or Charles Xavier’s pupils, who join the school’s special task force, Izuku and his friends are almost expelled when they use their Quirks outside of class and without a hero license. The school is on the verge of closing because of multiple attacks on the faculty and the student body, and in the latest story arc, the school has opened student dormitories to better protect the kids – though it is yet to be seen if they fare better than their wizarding counterparts. This show features an increasingly big cast of superpowered characters that feel like individual people and not just extras, in a way not seen in any other superhero show. Avengers: Infinity War had a massive number of cameos, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow gives the audience a superhero team of rotating characters, but U.A. High School is the closest to the feeling of family found in the pages of X-Men comics.
Because of the huge number of heroes, the rate of crimes committed by villains with Quirks is quite low. Despite this, My Hero Academia shows that the system isn’t perfect, and the show’s villains serve as a reflection of this imperfection. Every person has to register their Quirk as soon as it manifests, so every hero’s identity is public knowledge and tracked by the government. You cannot use your Quirk in public, not even at work, unless you have a government-issued hero license. Interestingly enough, there was no civil war over this, and no friendships dissolved only to be reconnected via a giant purple titan. By starting in a future where heroes are already public record, the show does a smart move of skipping the tired question of vigilantism and heroes who are above the law, which is every single show and movie about superheroes. There is even an implication on how the heavy regulations forbidding young people from using their Quirks made an impact on the number of villains, as they don’t get to let out their frustration or use something that, to them, is like an extra limb while growing up.
Though the show still focuses on the school side of things, the last two seasons have explored the question of what it means to be a hero who’s sanctioned by the government. In the world of My Hero Academia, the status of being a hero has been reduced to just another salaried job. We are pretty much living in a world where Syndrome from The Incredibles won and everyone’s super. Because of the overabundance of heroes and the government regulations, becoming a pro hero is now just a matter of studying hard, being lucky, and getting popular. As Izuku gets closer to graduating and potentially becoming a paid pro hero, he has come face-to-face with his own clashing ideals and the consequences of rushing into danger to do the right thing while breaking hero-regulations.
Heroes in the show’s present day are celebrities first, and even an apparently modest and introverted hero such as Mt. Lady panders to sponsorships and uses her popularity in the media to get ahead in the hero rankings (yes, there are Billboard charts for superheroes), even if her Quirk always leads to property damage and does more harm than good. Where the latest season of Luke Cage dealt with the inner struggle of a hero coming to terms with his newfound fame, My Hero Academia manages to go beyond that and look at the cultural and societal ramifications of such a world and how it can affect the very concept of heroism in an organic way.
In season two, it is revealed that Hero Killer: Stain was once an aspiring hero who turned into villainy after being disillusioned by heroes who went pro seeking fame and fortune. He kills pro heroes to “take the word ‘hero’ back” and return to the old idea of self-sacrificing heroes who don’t seek compensation, which in turn inspired villains to come out of the shadows and join the League of Villains. Though his methods were obviously wrong, the show (via Izuku) has started to question whether Stain has a point in his disdain of heroes.
Likewise, My Hero Academia has shown how living with superpowered people in your household affects young kids. In season three, we meet Kota, a young misanthropic kid who believes his parents abandoned him by choosing to work as pro heroes and dying on the job instead of taking care of him. He thinks villains battling heroes is just a popularity contest via death matches and blames society for allowing people to use their Quirks for violence.
Meanwhile, the recently-revealed backstory for one of the show’s main villains, Tomura, blames his villainous origin on his suffering in an incident as a kid where no hero came to save him. People who passed by never offered to help as they assumed that a hero would take care of it. It is easy to see how living in a world full of heroes made the citizens of future Japan overly dependent on them. Because heroes are government-sanctioned and the first line of defense, the police force serves simply to arrest the criminals that have been subdued by the pro heroes.
With constant comments of superhero fatigue, and superhero movies focusing on big stakes and world-ending events, it is refreshing to go back to stories about people with ideals and the longing of becoming a hero. While the world of My Hero Academia is as imperfect as the real one, having a protagonist who still believes everything can be solved with kindness and a smile can get you to fall in love with superheroes again.
My Hero Academia: The Movie premieres at Anime Expo this week, but you can check out the Funimation release later this fall!