Midway through the first season of My Hero Academia, there’s a brief simple scene in which well-known hero and first-time teacher All Might tries to talk to Bakugou, a student with as much talent as he has temper. Bakugou is the superpowered equivalent of the high school honors student come college freshman who only just realized that everyone else at his college is as smart as he is and he’s going to have to study for the first time in his life in order to keep up, and he’s not handling it well. All Might, who is accustomed to being a heroic figurehead and dealing with the press and public and not at all accustomed to being a teacher, tries the same approach with Bakugou. Inspirational music swelling in the background, he launches into a motivational speech about how Bakugou is young and still has much to learn-
Only for Bakugou to interrupt him, tell him off, and leave. The music cuts abruptly. The motivational speech – All Might’s default way of addressing people – has failed. “Man,” All Might thinks, privately and sincerely, as Bakugou walks away, “being a teacher is hard.”
And that’s when I stopped liking My Hero Academia and absolutely fell in love with it.
The world of My Hero Academia is one in which nearly the entire population has a naturally occurring genetic mutation that manifests itself as a superpower, or “quirk,” and those gifted with especially powerful or unique quirks can become licensed super heroes. Izuku Midoriya, our protagonist, is one of the few born without any quirk whatsoever; despite that setback, he still dreams of becoming a hero himself, inspired by the world’s #1 hero and the symbol of justice, All Might. If this sounds like every other “scrappy underdog battles against overwhelming odds in pursuit of his goal” premise you’ve ever heard, that’s because, at it’s very core, it is.
But execution is everything, and execution of that premise is where My Hero Academia sets itself apart from the pack. Most long-running shonen (read: action-adventure) anime tend to have one or two super powerful/interesting leads and treat everyone else as side characters, there for color commentary and little else; My Hero Academia breaks this mold by treating every single member of its thirty-plus-characters cast as an individual. Nobody is two-dimensional, or throwaway, or unimportant. Sure, some characters do get more development than others, but even the less developed characters are still treated as people, with their own goals and dreams and flaws. Most anime – and most TV shows in general – can barely manage this with a main cast of ten or fewer people. The fact that everyone in My Hero Academia – teachers and students, heroes and villains and civilians alike – gets some measure of development, and that all of it feels natural, is nothing short of boggling. The fact that nearly half the cast is female, gets just as much to do as the guys, and are never relegated to Damsel In Distress status makes this level of development even more satisfying.
Speaking of development, the story of My Hero Academia is a tightly-written, ever escalating narrative that starts out with Midoriya’s underdog struggles and, as the world unfolds for the viewer, slowly adds more and more layers. By the end of season two, Midoriya’s story is entwined not only with the individual stories of his classmates, but also with All Might’s history as a hero and a villainous conspiracy that’s been lurking in the shadows for years and is only just starting to reveal itself. The world and the story develop in tandem, so while Midoriya is still the central focus for the narrative, My Hero Academia is unafraid to pull the camera back on a regular basis and reveal how outside events and other individuals’ actions are shaping that central narrative and vice versa. Rather than fall back on the endlessly escalating and increasingly pointless overpowered fights that bog down many a long-running shonen series, My Hero Academia weaves a complex but easy to follow story, allowing lore and history to develop naturally and never forgetting its central focus. It’s not necessarily about powering up and getting stronger; it’s about knowing your strengths and discovering new ways to apply them.
Admittedly, my favorite aspect of My Hero Academia – and the one that sets it apart from so many other shonen anime with teenage protagonists – is that it actually remembers that it’s about school. An inordinate amount of shonen anime set in modern day with teenage/high school protagonists rarely remember that, provided that your plot doesn’t involve said protagonists gallivanting off to an alternate dimension, school is a huge part of most teenagers’ lives. Most shonen anime – even ones that start off as school-flavored anime before they take a hard left turn into the fantastical – tend to only show students attending class once in a blue moon, and often only have them at school so they can stand dramatically on the roof at sunset and have character-building moments. After a certain point, most series just drop the idea of school altogether, giving the impression that their teenage characters have either dropped out or have a whole lot of spare time. (Anime whose main characters are delinquents get a pass, as not attending classes is a character point.)
By contrast, My Hero Academia embraces its high school setting. Sure, everyone has superpowers and there’s a villainous plot unfolding, but that doesn’t change the fact that these students are here to learn, even if half of that learning is focused on better controlling their powers and becoming an officially licensed hero. Teenage characters may be heroes in training, but they’re also worried about passing their semester finals and studying equally hard for classes heroism as they are for algebra. This series is about high school students and takes place in a school, and it will not let the audience forget it.
What’s more, My Hero Academia perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to teach. There’s nothing more terrifying than getting up in front of a bunch of kids and realizing that you’re about to affect their lives for better or for worse, so you’d better do your best to make sure it’s for the better; there’s also nothing more disheartening than imparting what you believe to be an important life lesson, only to see it completely discarded by your intended audience. This ability to convey actual teaching experiences stems from the fact that teachers, like every other character in the series, are treated as individuals, not just plot devices or knowledge machines in front of the classroom. Every one of them has a different teaching style and different goals. All Might, a very experienced hero and very inexperienced teacher, contrasts starkly with Aizawa, the class’ main teacher, known for being exceedingly difficult but very effective – the sort of teacher whose class is hell while you’re taking it but which you’re grateful to have taken after you’ve graduated. The two of them butt heads in terms of personality and teaching styles, but they still respect each other as colleagues in the classroom and in the heroism field.
Essentially, what makes My Hero Academia great is its heart. It’s a story about hope and humanity and determination in the face of setbacks, and no matter how sprawling the story gets or how many new characters it brings in, it never loses sight of that main idea. It’s a fun, enthralling, heartfelt series that I wish I’d had in my anime repertoire when I was growing up; regardless of your age or what genre of anime you prefer, I cannot recommend it enough.
My Hero Academia seasons 1 and 2 are available on Funimation, Crunchyroll, and Hulu. Season 3 premieres on Saturday, April 7th, and will be available dubbed on FunimationNow and subbed on Hulu and Crunchyroll.
— Katie Cullen