Is it useful to talk about privilege in the sense of superhero narratives? Is the “us-and-them” fear of the unpowered of an apparently unelected and unaccountable elite a useful thematic line of enquiry? The idea of a majority being forced to recognise the existence of a marginalised group is a strong allegory, and using fear of the unknown and the different to highlight society’s irrational prejudices. Doubly so if the source of the power is random genetic chance. The argument perhaps becomes inverted when one is talking about self-made heroes like Batman or Iron Man; there, there is a very real case to be made for the idea of the superhero as a rich person setting themselves up as an extrajudicial force. Indeed, the arguments behind whether or not superhumans should be regulated and registered drive many narratives in interesting directions; ideas of registration as a means of control and oppression versus the opportunity to create an organisation that can work together to help each other and be supportive.
Is being a superhero inherently being privileged compared to others, because you are by nature a superior being (it rather comes in the name). This is an argument that also rumbles around science-fiction by way of transhumanism and cyborgs; does the very existence of people whose abilities are measurably better than others immediately create an irrevocably stratified society, and thus will problems come from inequality of access to this means of improvement? Where is this all going? Before I bring it back around to My Hero Academia, episodes 6-8 of which explore from a different angle some of these questions, I want to return to the Aim for the Top OVAs. Being a super robot pilot is, in many ways, like being a superhero. Haran Banjo in Daitarn 3 is pretty close to being Bruce Wayne or James Bond. Maito Senpuji is effectively a mix of Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark. You could reasonably argue Hiroshi from Jeeg is a superhero, he becomes the robot rather than piloting it.
And so this comes round to Nono and Noriko. Noriko’s arc is, in knowing homage to Aim for the Ace, a story of the underdog whose potential is hidden even to her until she is pushed to the limit by her coach. Except instead of sports, it is saving the universe. Much as I like the aesthetics and the loving homage permeating Gunbuster every time I rewatch it I end up frustrated with this narrative arc because it does not feel wholly right to me to simply translate all the archetypes of a sports story into a war story. I don’t hate Noriko because she cries too much in the first few episodes, or because she isn’t a warrior woman from the start, because the series is very much about someone’s growth from crybaby to saviour and if she was always strong it would make her moments of epiphany worthless in dramatic context. I just cannot quite gel any more with the way it uses that homage in a science-fiction setting and feel it is perhaps too deeply ingrained in it.
Diebuster is equally not perfect and does fail to land some of its big ideas, but on the other hand its ideas are a lot bigger and less easily reducible to “resolution, self-determination and the threat of impending death will help you bring out your true strength” so it works not only as a foil to its predecessor but as an attempt to (as I find myself so often saying) use the idea of piloting a giant robot to say something else. Thematically it is quite scattershot, ambling through classism, sexual self-discovery, vague anti-establishmentism through the usual giant monster movie idea that the authorities are blinkered to the wider problem, and so on. Perhaps it, too, simply ends with a moral message about self-determination – but it does so in a more intimate way rather than a Getter reference. It is definitely more immediately comparable to superhero narratives, and brings this argument back round to MHA. It is about a dwindling hero class of Buster Machine pilots trying to keep the memory of the old days alive while living in fear of their own irrelevance. Into this enters Nono, someone with no apparent talent, uncontrollable powers and no super robot. She spends a chunk of the series trying to find her powers and master them, and eventually does so to save everyone with the help of Lal’c. This is set against the interesting but ultimately poorly handled arc of Nichola, the traditional mentor figure who realises his impending irrelevance and becomes a villain rather than dwindling away. Here the series’ sexual themes are rather awkwardly melded with the superhero ones, with Nichola attempting to assault a woman in his moment of breakdown. I did not like this when Wings of Honneamise did it and I think Diebuster does not do a much better job of handling this topic. Here there are all manner of puberty and sexual maturity themes being explored but ultimately the whole sequence jars; Diebuster is unsubtle, brash and over-the-top, even when it is attempting to be serious, and so it is not perhaps the show to have such scenes. In episode 1 Nichola’s power is shown to include animating spermlike ships to do his bidding, aggressive masculinity and fear of no longer being the top dog is clearly shown as his arc, and yet I still think the end of his story does not suit the tone of the series.
So what is Nichola’s arc and what does this have to do with MHA? The fear of irrelevance and the challenge an apparently unpowered individual presents to a powered elite should provide an obvious point of comparison; someone who has spent all their life being told they are the best, or at least in the running for being the best, ends up feeling upstaged by someone “undeserving.” In the end they snap. Watching the early school episodes of MHA put me in mind of this, just without the feeling that it was going to end quite so awkwardly as Diebuster. Once I saw in Bakugo the character of someone who had never been anything but the leader figure, the chosen one (in their mind) suddenly breaking down at the idea that the nobody they disdain was better than them in terms of character and ability, I saw some of Nono in Izuku. Destructive, barely-understood power the use of which is rarely controllable or useful. The outsider who through determination and a little good luck breaks into an inner circle and thus is perceived as a threat by the aggressive, masculine figure. And I think over a much longer series that is not trying to encompass a great deal of huge themes in a short, brash production MHA is far more likely to stick the landing of this very interesting arc without the need to resort to prurient shock scenes.
MHA is about heroes who are not very good at being heroes, from the bottom to the top. It is about a world that has a sort of complacency towards superpowers, where heroes and villains are a fact of life. The big questions of regulation and registration have, as I said in my previous article, been answered. I can’t help but feel in Bakugo’s early arc the audience are being shown the innate flaws in this system. Someone has gone their whole life being told they are special even among superiors; they don’t just have a superpower, theirs is very powerful. They are the natural leader among their friends because they are, ultimately, a bully whose tendencies are fed by society. And unpowered individuals in a divided society are the natural target for powered bullies to pick on. What you have here is a supervillain in their childhood, being sent to school to learn not to be evil. And what the school offers is a place where they are around only other powered individuals, where the moral instruction is kept back as something to be learned through osmosis and the central guiding figure is an irresponsible, black-and-white morality example of an older era of hero. Something that occurred to me by this point is of all the characters only one – Izuku – has a family of any importance. It is not far into the series, for sure, but it seems telling.
Families and “ordinary” social circles, the everymen and sidekicks, are vital humanising factors for heroes. Returning briefly to Ultraman GEED, the series would not work without the scenes of daily life that set the heroics in context. MHA is presenting a world where heroics are such a part of society the “best” powered children (for selective education stratifies from childhood) are put among powered peers and expected to learn by some vague osmosis how not to become immensely stratified. If there was an argument that superheroes are an unaccountable class, this would surely be it. Surround people who may well have been told all their lives they are “better” with only those like them, and wonder why they can’t deal with nonconformity or change. Thus Izuku and Bakugo’s fight works incredibly well in showing the flaws in superhero thinking; someone who all their life has been told powers make them better meets someone with humility and sees it as more of a threat than any number of actually powerful villains. The comparisons with Nichola are not exact, I do not in any way believe MHA is going to go down the same decline and moment of snapping with Bakugo, but I prefer to see this as MHA taking an archetype I found very interesting in imperfect, insensitive execution and using a longer format and a visual and thematic language itself freighted with big ideas of privilege and stratification to handle it better.
All this and I have not really discussed the specifics of the scenes of confrontation in episode 6-8, or what they reveal of All Might’s failure as a mentor, let alone a teacher. There is a lot going on here, a lot of the good stuff that superhero media at its best aims for, and I think in a simple story of – ultimately – a bullied kid finally standing up to the bully and seeking to reconcile with them it is handling ideas of fear of the marginalised better than some bigger-scale attempts. Ordinarily the bullied powerless kid given power becomes the bully themselves, it is the normal way media handles this (as if a drive for vengeance is inevitable). MHA has at its heart a hero who truly understands the moral duty of heroism and wants to reconcile and help someone avoid the path of evil, and is not afraid to paint its bully as not misunderstood, or justified, but the product of a prejudiced and stratified society who needs to learn a moral lesson.