While we may live in a world without superpowers, we’re certainly no strangers to stories about them. Tales of superheroes and worlds with several powered people have been around for all of human history. It’s no surprise that anime make use of those same sorts of stories. The artform is unique; unlike live action, it only finds limits in what someone can reasonably draw and animate. Anime is perfect for fiction because authors can create every part of it from nothing. Plus, artists can combine what they observe in the material world with what they imagine in a fantasy one. My Hero Academia is one of the best examples of building a world with superpowers and adding incredible layers of nuance to it.
My Hero Academia is unique in that the vast majority of people in it have powers, or quirks. Additionally, not all of those quirks are equal. Some are merely cosmetic, some are more similar to the classic “super powers” we see in Western media, and some are more of a hindrance than a blessing. This gives the anime room to analyze how quirks engage with the world. Moreover, it gives the anime a chance to make structural observations that question how real-world motivations react to fictional powers. I personally have seen many anime where more than a few people have special abilities. But none where the distribution of power quality and distinctiveness is so wide.
Among newer action anime, My Hero Academia does not get nearly enough credit for this. Viewers tend to watch it for its amazing fights but don’t praise the worldbuilding supporting those fights. If anything, having a greater appreciation of that context makes each battle and every character even more interesting to watch grow.
My Hero Academia weaves quirks into society primarily using bureaucracy and integration into the public eye. Much like any authorized use of force, heroes are incredibly regulated. Schools are few, licenses exist at multiple stages, and countries have their own standards. Multiple pro heroes are able to start their own agencies and PR is incredibly important. This is different than three other kinds of bureaucratic or government response we see in a lot of other power-based shows.
In mutant-minority series, like X-Men, people with powers are a subspecies of humans. As a result, the political element to the story usually is a general notion of mutant rights. Characters fight for recognition as people. Conversely, in My Hero Academia, quirks are common, meaning the story tackles responsibilities and roles since rights are a given. With anime like Dragon Ball, there is a large disconnect between real-world elements of the story, like governments, and its characters. Finally, for shows like Fairy Tail, the integration into global government structures is there, but the time period is not. Modern pressures and needs are unique. Adding them to the story complicates a lot.
As a result of its contextual mix, My Hero Academia gives itself a lot of footing to explore. It combines the natural fantasy element of powers with the inherent complexity of the real world. Even the most powerful students in UA Academy’s top hero course face practical limits if they fail a hero exam. The anime even goes out of its way to show the risk of a hero school’s operation halting when parents and the public are concerned about safety. This is something that adds a lot of realism to what would otherwise be an all-action show.
My Hero Academia fervently embraces the reality of unequal quirks. While some heroes are able to twist their seemingly useless quirks into powerful ones (and the series’ main quirk, One for All, originally was a useless quirk), many are not. This results in visible frustration for those who feel weak, even serving as the underpinning of some of My Hero Academia’s criminal enterprises. Moreover, the way quirks mix and combine over time makes them more and more powerful. Two quirks with complementary traits combine in a child, making the resulting quirk more powerful each generation.
This has an eventual risk of heavy power escalation, something the show’s characters refer to as Quirk Singularity. Under this theory, quirks will eventually be too powerful. Humans will be unable to reckon with the godlike power of the few. This theory is something quite prescient; the series’ main villain is a strong example of it. On top of that, it’s not a sort of timeline a lot of shows engage with. The pathological nature of power and villainy in My Hero Academia’s society, especially as those with powers struggle to reconcile their abilities with a society that only valorizes the chosen few, makes everything feel a lot more compelling.
This struggle is central for both heroes and villains alike. Series protagonist Izuku Midoriya / Deku is given his power precisely because he acted heroically despite having no powers. His power carries a tremendous burden and is difficult to control, making him a natural growing underdog. Others with powers and impulses unsuited for society have the opposite reaction, making them natural foils for Deku and highlighting the show’s dark side.
Perhaps the darkest side of these quirk interactions is the intentional mixing of quirks. This practice of selective breeding occurs via “quirk marriages” in which a couple is arranged such that their powers can mix into powerful offspring. One of the series main characters, Shoto Todoroki, and his father, hero Endeavor, were the main focus of My Hero Academia’s Season 5 premiere. Shoto, as the result of his abusive upbringing, has struggled since the first season to decide for himself what his tremendous power means to him. His abusive father, now elevated to the position of number one hero, has to confront his past as the world shines a light on him.
When this arc first was published in the manga, fans had mixed reactions. Many disliked the idea of Endeavor possibly being redeemed for his actions or praised for band-aid solutions. But I think this misses the point of his arc entirely.
The viewer isn’t meant to watch Endeavor fully redeem himself or objectively fail to do so. Rather, what is important is watching him try, irrespective of what the result is. Hell, even Shoto struggles to decide for himself what level of forgiveness is appropriate. Throughout the current anime story and the current manga story, there is a constant push and pull or forgiveness, shame, and begrudging acceptance. The ambiguity is intentional, and it’s meant to reflect a level of desperation, pain, and love that only comes when powerful feelings of love and responsibility blend with tremendous power and short-sightedness.
My Hero Academia is already well into its newest season. With the reveal of more characters’ quirks and more villains preparing to make their move, it’s obvious the series is preparing for a lot. While the fights to come will be absolutely beautiful in animated form, I think this anime deserves credit for what happens between the fights. Underneath all of the eye-catching sakuga animation and clip-worthy punches is a landscape with amazing detail. It’d be a shame if fans ignored it in favor of the action that is only good because of it.
All images via Crunchyroll