Although superheroes are often considered a particularly American creation what with Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man originating from the land of red, white, and blue, superheroes have appeared in comics and other media all over the world, from Mars Ravelo’s comic universe in the Philippines to Super Inframan in China to the masked wrestlers of Mexico. Japan, too, has become well-known for their slate of superheroes, and indeed, with Golden Bat, Japan arguably created the first comic book super hero, having appeared in the paper theater kamishibai well before Superman debuted in 1939. Of course Japan has had many superheroes since then, including such notables as Ultraman, Kamen Rider, and the Super Sentai series, but more recently a super hero series largely inspired by Western hero trends—the My Hero Academia franchise, which started as a serialized manga in the Weekly Shonen Jump manga magazine, and blossomed out into an animated television show, movies, and more. The particular focus of today’s review is the second My Hero Academia movie, My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising, which was released in 2019 in Japan and is receiving a run in theaters in the USA courtesy of Funimation Studios.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, the basic idea is very similar to the 2005 comedy superhero teen flick Sky High, a tale of a high school for superheroes. My Hero Academia similarly follows a bunch of youngsters with an assortment of peculiar and impressive powers, which in this universe are called “quirks,” which seem to act like random mutations, similar to the X-Men franchise, or Rising Stars, or, heck, even Midnight’s Children if you want to get literary. The main character, Deku, did not naturally inherit his quirk, but was given his abilities from a sort of Superman-esque defender of justice character known as All Might after Deku showed his bravery and self-sacrifice and showed himself worthy. He soon joins the greatest superhero school, U. A. High School, where he competes with his rival, hothead Bakugo (who has exploding sweat), and also meets many other aspiring heroes, such as optimistic Uraraka (telekinesis), conflicted Todoroki (fire and ice), straight-laced speedster Iida, and many others.
The manga has been going for some time, with 25 collected volumes so far as of this writing—not counting the spin-off manga like My Hero Academia: Vigilantes. The animates series, too, has had four seasons. All that may sound like a lot, and it is—but you don’t really need to read and watch all of it in order to enjoy My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising. Personally I have read over half of the manga, and I saw the first movie, My Hero Academia: Two Heroes, but even that amount of knowledge is not strictly necessary to enjoy this movie—though it certainly helps, if for no other reason than to familiarize yourself with the characters. Most of the above information is quickly summarized at the beginning of the movie to catch up latecomers so they can enjoy the movie.
But what is the story of this particular movie, then? Well, sketched out roughly (with some minor spoilers), the story goes like this: A super-evil guy named Nine is on the loose, and he wants to basically destroy the world and remake it in his image along with his goons, Slice (a woman with knife-like hair), a guy who looks like a mummy and can use his wrappings to grab things, and a sort of chimera-man. Nine has stolen the quirks from others and is insanely powerful, but the power is deteriorating his body, and so he needs to get a healing quirk to balance himself out. Meanwhile, our heroes (basically the main cast of the franchise all together) are sent on a special mission to Nabu Island to practice their heroing in a real-world setting. But just as Deku, Bakugo, and the gang are getting used to helping old women across the street and fixing motorbikes and the like, Nine and his super-powered baddies arrive and start causing chaos, searching for their needed quirk. Deku and the other students must do their best to stop the new villains, and the resulting action is absolutely insane as the fate of the world (as always) lies in the balance.
One of the biggest problems with these movies is that they are often treated as mere side-stories that never affect the events of the main comic/TV show, and there is a sense of that in this movie, too. The villains are new and relatively self-contained in the movie, and I was always wondering if any of the action here would reflect in any way on the greater story of MHA. However, unlike many movies that scrupulously avoid anything that could affect the greater storyline, Heroes Rising has some… very surprising twists towards the end that may later impact the franchise in bigger ways. It’s too early to call—but suffice to say that at least one of the twists will probably be having fans squealing in their seats.
The new villains, too, are pretty cool, even if their motivations are cliché as can be. Deku and the others in his class feel true to their origins, and it’s really fun as ever to watch them interact and perform various feats of daring-do—even if in the end I felt like character development largely took a backseat to spectacle and epic clashes. I also appreciated that the pervert character, Mineta, isn’t quite as creepy and awful as he often has been in the past—at times he really ruined the comic for me, but here, while he is still chasing girls, at least he isn’t trying to spy on girls while they are changing clothes, etc.
And the action often is incredibly frenetic and exciting and bombastic. Nine is truly frightening with a vast array of nigh-unbeatable powers that enables him to just stroll through town and deflect all attacks from multiple heroes with barely any effort. For me, it was a great way to get my blood going because I wanted to see the baddie get his comeuppance, and the action ramps up until it explodes into a phantasmagoria of sheer unadulterated spectacle by the end.
However… I often felt… disappointed in the action just the same, despite how well it was animated and how kinetic and frantic the individual sequences are. Often I felt like there was no real strategy to the most of the fights, and everything just boiled down to the heroes getting smashed back, then screaming and punching harder the next time, then getting knocked back and… rinse and repeat. The best fights I think have a lot of narrative heft, but also showcase actual skill and tactics on the part of the combatants. I think Naruto did this particularly well. Heroes Rising’s fights often just feel like a series of flashy attacks without the thoughtfulness that makes a fight (for me at least) really interesting.
Still, for the fans, there is a great deal to enjoy here. The writing is fine, the characters each get their chance to shine, the action is crazy, there are some surprises, animation is quite good. While Godzilla fans might be disappointed that Godzillo doesn’t show up at all in this one, anyone who appreciates a decent superhero flick will probably have a good time, even if it all feels a little bit shallow. Overall, a fun time at the movie theater if you are into this type of comic-book craziness on the big screen.