REVIEW: My Hero Academia, Episode 2, “What It Takes to Be a Hero”

New episodes of My Hero Academia are on Funimation.com: episodes premiere Sundays at 5:00 AM, English-language dubs on a one-month delay Wednesdays at 9:00 PM.


Writing about Episode 1 of My Hero Academia, I pointed out how subsequent episodes would address issues of ability and disability in superhero tales. Those topics start getting attention here, as Izuku’s lack of a superpower is compared to the injury All Might has that will lead to the loss of his own superpower.

 

“Dreams can become reality. By the way, I forgot to mention that this is the story of how I became the greatest hero.” 

Those are the last lines of “What It Takes to Be a Hero,” the second episode of My Hero Academia. I did not notice the past tense used in the narration for My Hero Academia. The episodes are spoiling the ending before we get there. Given that the lines come from the non-superpowered Izuku (Japanese: Akeno Watanabe; English: Justin Briner), it is indicative of this series’s intense idealism surrounding the superhero story. The benefit that this episode has, similar to its first outing, is, first, that it doesn’t lose sight of just how depressing the feeling of powerlessness is for Izuku, so that his closing statement loses any implicit arrogance and concludes this episode with hope; and second, that it is a statement in an episode that does not overlook realistic physical limitations for superpowered individuals, even approaching questions about disability and prejudice, that allows the story to resonate well beyond narrow-minded assumptions about the superhero genre.  

The series is about a world in which people with superpowers are in the majority–80 percent of the global population–while characters like Izuku are in the minority. These superpowers, or “Quirks,” allow characters to come in all shapes, sizes, and appearances, emphasized by the rapid-fire images shown of the supporting cast in the opening title sequence, whether featuring the large and burly All Might (Japanese: Kenta Miyake; English: Christopher Sabat), or even characters who are invisible, have amphibian features, or have birdheads. When the physical variety in appearance is obviously accepted in this world (and where such abilities are given far more accessibility options than our own, with larger doors and smaller doors to accommodate superheroes of all sizes), then it becomes those without Quirks, whom we would call “normal” in our world, are actually not the norm and in fact ostracized, as when Katsuki (Japanese: Hobuhiko Okamoto; English: Clifford Chapin) repeatedly bullies his classmate Izuku.

The episode begins with a recap of Episode 1, in which Izuku, as a child, admires All Might’s superheroism. “It’s alright,” All Might tells the people he rescues, “because I am here.” In answer to the question posed by this episode’s title, “What It Takes to Be a Hero,” it is not the presence of a superhero mentor like All Might. Rather, and without the irony this phrase can take, everyone’s a hero in their own way, and for Izuku’s origin story, it shows that his heroism starts not with a superpower but with courage.

Courage has been a topic tackled in numerous anime series as a superpower on its own–with some series doing a better job than others, as when defeating the Big Bad at the end of Soul Eater with a punch of courage tends to be anticlimactic, albeit philosophically sensible. And courage is integral to enough superhero stories: Steve Rogers’s innate courage allows the Super Serum Formula to manifest as a body-enhancing transformative substance to become Captain America, and the abilities of the Green Lantern Corp are centered around courage against fear. Whereas that idea of courage as a superpower compromised the finale to Soul Eater and risks becoming cliche in comics, My Hero Academia gets this idea out of the way from the beginning and grounds it in more realistic terms and with obvious limitations. This episode is effectively Izuku’s origin story, so might as well get through the cliche and onto the good stuff.

Izuku has courage, which will help him on his quest to be a superhero, especially coupled with his obvious intelligence, having researched battle strategies for so long. But like Mike Wazowski in Monsters University, brains aren’t enough to reach some goals. When “grounded in reality” is now anathema to me concerning superhero stories, I appreciate that Izuku can still get in a few punches against the slime monster but, in the end, he is not going to defeat that beast single-handedly and without superpowers.

But before we get to whether Izuku can become a superhero (spoiler: yes, he can), Episode 2 balances the heavy weight of Izuku’s obvious sadness over his childhood to add in comedy, built around this episode’s revelation: All Might is not all as he appears.

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 10.13.47 PM

Due to an injury inflicted by a supervillain, All Might is effectively disabled, no longer able to maintain his One for All super-strength and girth, his respiration compromised and losing all of his stomach. That the attack did not kill him is impressive, or perhaps some old-fashioned comic book/anime science. Looking at All Might’s emancipated appearance, appearing like Old Man Yu-Gi-Oh, his clothes barely hanging onto his body, I cannot help but read something symbolic of the effects of what we see cancer do in our world, eating away at All Might’s body as well as his confidence.

And seeing All Might lose his girth as well as his “fearless smile” causes Izuku’s confidence in his idol to waver and lead him to assume that, no, a person without a Quirk cannot be a superhero. This point is reinforced when All Might admits that he cannot yet imagine “a hero […] without power” and encourages Izuku to be realistic even in his dreams, repeating a point made already by other adults in Izuku’s life.

But All Might also establishes this episode’s moral: a hero may have to risk their life for others. When the slime monsters captures Katsuki, his dialogue is fixated on his own escape and his explosive show of power. In contrast, Izuku, the child he has bullied for so long, attempts to rescue him, without superpowers. Katsuki’s powers, based on fire, actually cause collateral damage and require superheroes to evacuate bystanders. Katsuki is trying to save his own life; Izuku is risking his life for Katsuki. And he knows this, prompting his silent rage at episode’s end where, even upon receiving praise for his abilities, he cannot shake off the shame that a Quirkless weakling like Izuku saved him–and that shame characterizes for subsequent episode. It is then suitable that Katsuki’s powers over fire is so far treated as destructive, more akin to, say, Pyro from X-Men than Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender.

As friends pointed out in discussion, the relationship between All Might and Izuku has some parallels to that between the wizard Shazam and Captain Marvel: an adult mentoring a child on abilities that they may in no way be prepared to handle.

In older interpretations of Otto Binder’s (well, C. C. Beck and Bill Parker’s) Captain Marvel, which functions as a wish fulfillment story–the child inheriting superpowers to be a superhero himself–there is celebration in Billy Batson’s innocence allowing him to embrace the superficial joy and heroism of having superpowers. In more recent readings, there is the shock that someone ostensibly as experienced as Shazam would give powers to a child, especially one who is contending with homelessness and being an orphan, and think that the transition would not be overwhelming, or the assumption that a child is probably less likely to have the maturity to handle such abilities. Justice League Unlimited manages to use Batson’s innocence not as a weakness but as a reason why he tries to be so responsible with his powers, identifying that maturity has far more to do with experiences, however few they are, rather than age and adulthood.

With only two episodes completed for My Hero Academia, it is jarring to see All Might instantly trust Izuku to have his powers. In another series, this would seem like a moment initiating someone on the road to darkness, akin to how Star Wars handled Anakin Skywalker and now may be handling Ezra in Rebels. It also could reveal a vanity to All Might that, rather than let his abilities die with him, he must seek a replacement. Again, in another series, this could be much darker, such as how there is a question whether legacy characters such as Bruce Wayne and Hank Pym let Terry McGinnis in Batman Beyond and Scott Lang in Ant-Man take on their mantle to do good in the world, or out of a desire to let their legacy persist beyond their lives, even if that means living vicariously through their mentees and hence sapping them of their agency. Given All Might’s over-the-top personality, heightened especially in the English dub by Chris Sabat’s acting, it’s a potential, albeit largely unsupported, reading.

My Hero Academia gets close to acknowledging these potential pitfalls, with a reversal: it hardly seems like All Might is pressuring Izuku to define himself as an extension of his identity and powers, whereas Izuku, the young fanboy, is the one who decides to model his costume on All Might’s. It really is a series that is trying to make All Might the seasoned veteran who is not pressuring Izuku to follow his path, and it is a series where Izuku is going to start out as All Might Junior before finding his own path: his own costume, his own interpretation on All Might’s powers, and likely a set of goals with some difference from All Might’s. It helps that Izuku having to face the Slime Monster’s attack on Katsuki changes his reaction to superheroes: they are not part of a spectacle, but usually engaging in dangerous behavior to protect others, not simply to put on a show.

I also have to consider that All Might thinks he has lost his Quirk as well. His advice to Izuku, therefore, is as much him admitting he thinks he has failed–which makes it easier to accept that of course he would give such pessimistic advice to Izuku, only to reverse it at the end of the episode when he realizes his own sadness and perceived disability. But that is the problem: the show is demonstrating this limitation as if it can be overcome by willpower alone, and that may not be applicable for this fictional universe’s rules. Or it is my problem of reading this series within the context of what it can say about superheroes as representative of ability.  

Later episodes also show where Izuku differs from All Might’s many other wannabe mentees, some who are trying to model themselves too closely on him, others using him as a foil or their antithesis. The benefit for Izuku, as shown in this episode, is that he really does not need just All Might as his role model: as All Might himself says to Izuku, “Even though I admonished you, I wasn’t putting what I said into practice,” that a hero risks their life for other’s survival. That makes the child a different sort of superhero, and, as cliche as it is, it demonstrates that problem with maturity: it is Izuku, the child, who also teaches All Might a lesson in heroism.

Even as the series does get close to acknowledging these pitfalls, it seems to avoid letting those questions linger: this is a show that wants to keep the action moving, showing off Studio BONES’s impressive animation and the exciting musical score. As well, the episode breaks up the looming moral quandaries to celebrate the more joyful aspects of the superhero narrative, such as heroes saving the day with little to no attention about the collateral damage, or the more comical aspects of its shonen genre, such as Izuku’s over-the-top screaming about All Might’s bleeding.

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 10.21.05 PM

The conclusion, in which All Might offers to give Izuku superpowers, still is a compromising message for the series. The hangup I have is that it is the equivalent of saying everyone can be a superhero. It’s a fine distinction that, just because anyone can be a superhero, does not mean everyone will be. There are roles that people will never be able to take on, and this fictional universe has emphasized that its consideration of what it means to be a superhero depends on having a Quirk.

However, while the characters in this fictional universe see superheroes as defined by abilities, the series itself refers to heroism in more conventional terms as regard the courage to face fears and help other people to make for a better world. Izuku’s willingness to rescue Katsuki, despite being a bully to him throughout his life, is what convinces All Might to train the non-powered child. And subsequent episodes do show that Izuku has to work out, physically but also emotionally and mentally, to earn All Might’s confidence and superpowers.

Stray Observations

  • The dub for Episode 2 premiered tonight on Funimation (free for non-subscribers next Wednesday, May 18, at 9:00 PM). Chris Sabat’s acting as de-powered All Might takes some getting used to. Whereas Sabat is a pro at hammy characters such as Alex Louis Armstrong in Fullmetal Alchemist, All Might powers at first sounds even in voice, lacking the kind of cool resignation I thought I heard in Miyake’s performance. However, at the end of the episode, Sabat brings the regret to the character, as All Might apologizes for his failings to Izuku.  
  • So, the slime monster looks like Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon, right?
  • I’m going to choose to interpret the bottle of Torrent as clever wordplay given how the Monster of the Week is a torrent of slime, or as an awkward reference to torrenting anime online. (Support the official release.)
  • I’m a little confused by Katsuki’s remarks about “getting caught” if he goes after “prey” at the arcade. Maybe his classmates wanted the supposed superhero to bully people for money? At least an interesting detail about Katsuki is that he seems like someone who is obviously not a traditional hero, while still holding some set of ethics. Even his shouting at the end of the episode for Izuku saving him feels less like the ramblings of a supervillain than a teenager embarrassed by his rescue.
  • Later episodes show other superheroes are aware of All Might’s injury, as he himself says here that he asked the injury be kept secret. I have not yet arrived at a point where his injury is revealed to students other than Izuku, however.
  • According to All Might, police officers are looked down upon for not having the skill set to handle supervillains. I wonder whether that detail comes into play in letter stories, or if we are just focusing on superheroes and not other forms of law enforcement.
  • The smoke looked a little dodgy from a long distance, as obvious CGI rather than the much better illustrated fire.
  • “Tatooin Shopping District.” Yeah, yeah, Star Wars references abound in this series. Wait until the training sequence, where the site is named after Dagobah.  
  • Mount Lady has only two sizes: normal and big. That’s a huge downside. Okay, pun aside, I do like that the episode sets up that superheroes are aware of their limitations. Like All Might’s injury, it helps so that the heroes are not overpowered.
  • So far, we have All Might with Texas Smash (without a Motorcity reference) and Detroit Smash. How much longer before other parts of the U. S. get their reference? Might as well toss in a Brooklyn Rage reference.
  • Nice touch showing Mount Lady using her giant size to shield bystanders.
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