My Hero Academia is a shonen anime – meaning the show is aimed at teenage boys. By most standards, it would be submitted alongside shows like Dragonball Z and Naruto. However, after 130 episodes, it’s now clear that this show is less like a shonen anime or the typical cloak comics that helped inspire it and more like the ultra-mature, ultra-violent superhero deconstruction series The Boys by PrimeVideo. Not because it’s trying to be transgressive and gross, but because it’s trying to get us to think a little deeper about superheroism’s impact on the world.
My Hero Academia is set in a world where most of the population has evolved what the series calls “quirks,” or genetic evolutions that essentially function as superpowers. We are coming almost two centuries after this phenomenon began, to a time when superheroes are as commonplace as cops. While heroes are worshiped now, the show often hints at a time when quirks were less accepted.
The show follows a young high school student named Izuku Midoriya (hero name Deku), a superhero nerd who wants more than anything to follow in the footsteps of the world’s greatest hero, All Might. There’s just one problem: Midoriya is among the 20% of people who were born without a quirk. The series begins as a wish-granting show in which Deku inherits a superpower from All-Might and must learn how to use it while attending a school for aspiring superheroes, UA Hero Academy.
As the show progresses, Deku struggles to control a power his body was not conditioned to use. And as he grows in power, his experiences become more harrowing, threatening his personal safety, the well-being of his friends, and the stability of society at large. At this point, the lens through which the story of My Hero Academia is told begins to pull out and question the role of heroes in society.
A major event begins around episode 100, pitting a massive force of heroes against a villain conspiracy aimed at discrediting and destroying “superhero society”. The event involves the deaths of a number of heroes and villains, but also the destruction of several cities, thanks in part to a powerful villain who can decompose anything he touches. While the heroes manage to prevent the villains from carrying out their full plan, the damage is considerable as cities are destroyed and trust in the heroes eroded. The villains exposed the weaknesses of Japan’s many heroes on the national stage, and also exposed some of the less-than-moral subterfuges the heroes used to uncover the villains’ schemes.
Chaos follows as society is forced to reckon with the destruction the heroes wreak, as well as their moral ambiguity and instrumental role in society. To make matters worse, countless super-powered criminals then escape from the offshore superhuman prison (similar to The Raft in Marvel’s stories), leading ordinary citizens to feel the need to defend themselves, with increasingly destructive consequences. Meanwhile, superhero after superhero announces his retirement from active duty.
The remaining heroes are then put in the difficult place of figuring out what it means to be a hero, both to oneself and to society. Those still willing to level up are given bottles and bricks or have resigned themselves to working in the shadows to protect people they loathe. Meanwhile, the villains who narrowly stopped them hatch even more destructive plans.
In Prime Video’s The Boys, the heroes are far fewer in number but just as revered. However, The Boys begins in a more cynical place than My Hero Academia. After the main character Hughie’s girlfriend is killed by a ruthless superhero, he tries to uncover the violent nature of her unchecked power, only to find her corruption runs much deeper than he thought. He then teams up with the titular boys to put an end to injustice in the hero system.
Both shows are very interested in the idea of superheroes and their role in modern society, not only as protectors but also as rulers and wildly destructive forces of nature. Both shows take an unwavering look at the destruction that corrupt or careless heroes can wreak on the world around them while fulfilling their role as “heroes.”
In the latter part of Season 5 and the current Season 6 of My Hero Academia, the show moves away from Deku’s story to give us some background on its main villain: Shigaraki Tomura. As a boy, he is raised by an abusive father who despises heroes after feeling abandoned by his superhero mother. However, this does not stop Shigaraki from yearning to be an upright cloaked Crusader himself. Unfortunately, when the boy’s Quirk manifests, his powers are terribly destructive; he accidentally breaks up the family dog, his beloved sister, and his parents, all the while screaming an increasingly soul-wrenching scream — it’s hard not to have sympathy for a character we’ve only seen as an unrepentant killer until now.
Another villain, Twice, is able to replicate indefinitely and pledges his loyalty to Shigaraki. Yet while he spends his time dealing with villains, his intentions feel heroic; His main concern is finding friends he can feel safe with and then protecting them. However, in season five, a hero kills him to keep him from overrunning society. Through both Shigaraki’s childhood and Twice’s death, My Hero Academia forces audiences to grapple with the idea that good and evil aren’t entirely black and white.
The Boys’ A-Train, on the other hand, is a speedster and a member of the Seven, the world version of the Justice League or Avengers. From Hughie’s point of view, A-Train is nothing more than a corrupt murderer, but when his heart begins to fail due to performance-enhancing drugs, we begin to see how the world has failed him. He would do almost anything to stay in the seven because he feels like nothing without them. Even when he knows what they’re doing is wrong, he’s afraid to side with them. Then a hero, who sees himself as some sort of super-powered beat cop, begins attacking black people whom he suspects of criminal activity despite all the evidence. Although A-Train wants to slam him for his behavior, he is forced by his PR people to ignore his blatant racism, even as he digs into his ideas and soul. Things finally culminate in a terrifying sequence where A-Train grabs the D-Tier hero and drags him onto the sidewalk at top speed, shredding him alive at the cost of his own career and life.
Though The Boys starts from the idea that heroes are inherently violent and dangerous, and My Hero Academia begins from the perspective of a wide-eyed hero fan who gets his wish for superpowers fulfilled, both series push ever deeper into the questions of value of heroes and the consequences of their collateral damage and the way that affects people.
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