Anime does superheroes better
Anime does superheroes better. Although Marvel and DC Comics' takeover of TV and movies shows no sign of abating, two Japanese animated series — My Hero Academia and One-Punch Man — are approaching American superhero themes and tropes in ways much more interesting than anything coming out of the U.S.
Let's start with My Hero Academia, a manga-turned-anime series about a boy in a super-powered society who aims to be the top hero. This smash hit — it made the list of top-selling franchises in Japan this year, bumping shoulders with such international favorites as Pokémon and Star Wars — starts off on familiar ground. Similar to other popular animated series like Naruto, it tells an underdog story about a boy who overcomes his obstacles to be the best. In the world of My Hero Academia, almost everyone has a "quirk," or power, except for our protagonist, shy and studious Izuku Midoriya, who idolizes the number one-ranked hero, All Might. When Midoriya finally gets a quirk of his own, he enrolls in the top-ranked hero academy and trains to become a professional hero, fighting villains and making friends along the way.
But from the start, something about All Might seems oddly familiar. The strongest hero in My Hero Academia and Midoriya's mentor, All Might turns out to be a clear analog for such American comic book heroes as Captain America and Superman. (His attacks, in a hilarious call-out to American jingoism, are named after U.S. states and cities, as in "Texas Smash.") Donning a red, white, and blue costume and sporting a dramatic blonde mane, All Might looks like the quintessential American superhero. Yet there's something about him that's slightly deranged. Beneath that mane is a grin stretched so wide it's almost Joker-like, and his eyes are so black, they lend him an air of mystery at best and deviousness at worst. He is a caricature of America's obsession with its own power. And when the show reveals that the strength of All Might is waning, despite all his bravado and cheer, the gulf between America's perception of itself and reality only looks more pathetic. Superman temporarily weakened by kryptonite, this is not.
My Hero Academy also quietly dissects another one of the core ideals behind the American superhero: individuality. The show isn't really that interested in single heroes, but rather in how heroism is fostered through community.
The collective has never featured much in American superhero media. Even most team-ups — the Avengers, the Defenders, the Justice League, the Arrowverse crossovers — feel forced and glutted and are easily pulled apart by manufactured conflict or strife, allowing the individuals to strike out on their own whenever the studios require it. It makes sense, with our American sensibility so ingrained in the stories we tell, that the strength of a community is subordinated to the strength of the individual. Why should Superman need the Justice League when he's a nearly invincible alien who can fly and shoot beams from his eyes? Why should a literal Norse god team up with a tech billionaire, a spy, and an archer? The only reason is so the heroes can quickly defeat some world-ending evil — the new Steppenwolf, say, or Thanos — in an overstuffed battle royale so they can retreat back to their own franchises.
But My Hero Academia is different. It systematizes its superhero society, so that superheroes are schooled, licensed, and trained. Superheroism is even its own industry and job market. All of that comes with its own class structure and celebrity, and many of the villains thus rail against the commercialization of heroics. And unlike American superheroes' constant demonstrations of the virtues of vigilantism, there's no half-baked conflict between law enforcement and red-caped justice in My Hero Academia (in fact, the heroes and police work hand-in-hand).
So what about One-Punch Man? This anime series, based on a viral web-comic about a hero who can defeat criminals with just one punch, takes a more satirical tone on the genre. Unlike All Might in his bright, heroic ensemble, Saitama, the one-punch man himself, is a bald guy in an ill-fitting, cheap yellow jumpsuit.
One-Punch Man is a parody of the American, as well as the Japanese, superhero genre. But what sets it apart from American parodies like The Tick, Supermansion, or Freakazoid! is that it draws its humor not from the hero's incompetence or the bizarre circumstances he finds himself in, but by taking the idea of invincibility to the extreme and inverting it for comedic effect. So often do heroes beat the odds that many of them are basically immortal. Their abilities can even prove to be a little bit too extraordinary, burdening the writers of the stories with the task of coming up with villains and obstacles that can believably thwart them.
But One-Punch Man adopts that overinflated idea of greatness and takes it to its limit, featuring a hero so powerful that he's utterly unchallenged. Saitama does superhero work as a hobby but is often bored by his opponents. He's not particularly well-liked; even when he saves the day, he often receives no credit or gets criticized for the mess he's caused. As for the epic origin story, One-Punch Man eschews that too, poking fun at the "zero-to-hero" trope we see in Spider-Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and more. Saitama's only explanation for the source of his supreme strength is that he followed a pretty standard daily exercise regimen for three years.
Like My Hero Academia, One-Punch Man exists in a world where superheroes are common and one must apply for a license to become a professional hero. Unlike so many other superhero properties, which function with a repetitive, cyclical plot structure of a hero fighting and defeating one villain only for a stronger villain to appear, One-Punch Man has Saitama defeat some powerful baddies, yes, but it focuses more on the bureaucracy of the superhero system and Saitama's struggles to be recognized and earn a steady living. Saitama, who consistently beats aliens, giant gorillas, half-man-half-crab monsters, and enormous sea creatures, is thwarted by other, more ironically mundane problems, like scoring poorly on the Heroes Association exam or missing the superhero equivalent of Black Friday at the local grocery store.
The heroes of My Hero Academia take the Captain America-style purity and strength to one extreme, disavowing the idea that power is singular or limitless, while Saitama of One-Punch Man takes the Superman-style power to another, leaving behind the earnestness and high ideals for a humorous reminder that singular greatness isn't all it's cracked up to be.
When measured against these heroes, America's best and brightest on the big and small screens feel artificial — even a little boring. Perhaps it's time for the Justice League to take a break.