Kamen Rider W is very good; it has a solid cast of characters and offers a strong mystery. The villain plots work well, and it is endearingly socially conscious in a way that is unsubtle without being patronising. At the end of the day, behind much of the superhero bombast, it is an action series about cool, all-action detectives trying to stop an organised crime gang selling drugs on the streets. Except the drugs are magic USB sticks that give you the power to become a supervillain, and the heroes have a cool bike, transforming armour and a dubious CGI go-kart full of gadgets.
There’s obviously a lot of ham here, a lot of neat, merchandise-led slickness. It’s often slapstick in a way that could be annoying, episodes build to fights by franchise requirement, but it does what it does engagingly. It sticks closely to a two-episode format, which offers a solid way of pacing the episodes. Introduce the problem of the story, introduce the villain, have the moment of revelation about what is going on at the halfway point, and then use the second episode for working out how to solve the problem and doing it. I have yet to feel an episode needed less time, nor indeed that a story arc has been rushed. They are not usually complex stories, but they are sincere and build on the basic formula of “the villains have sold someone a supervillain drug, how will they be stopped” often by playing more on the reasons why, or giving the side-characters a bit more identity. I particularly liked the birdman two-part episode; it was not quite the melodrama of the haunted car one, or the broad silliness of the disappearing pastry chefs, but it feels a good example of how W uses its setup well.
The plot is a usual organised crime messing in society one; an athlete going through a rough patch is offered the ability to turn into a powerful birdman, she accepts and it causes all manner of problems as her friends also start using the power for at first fun, and then evil. It’s the whole cycle of power corrupting, and the risks of taking the easy route – and it of course ends with a family reunion, and the bird alter-ego destroyed. But it sums W up very well; the villains are nothing more than drug pushers, the monster is someone – or in this case multiple people – exploited by them, and the heroes do a bit of detective work to get to the bottom of it. There is also a little bit of the overarching A-plot about the gang itself, with the stylish but slightly not-cool-with-this villain Nazca deciding to put the city he loves before the mafia’s needs, and putting aside his disagreement with the heroes to help them out.
Making the villains the group of people not only pushing the ability to tap into your inner monster but also people with such mastery of that power they are a level above most users – and making their human forms extremely rich celebrities including a beloved radio presenter justifies how they can be so untouchable. The heroes aren’t strong enough to fight them as monsters or expose their criminality even when they do work out who is evil. It’s another one of the neat touches in W that keeps the scale low-key but also explains why the status quo can go on as it does. Something I like a lot about Kamen Rider Kuuga is the inhumanity of its villains, their arrogant, Predator-esque ritualised killing. There is something of that in W, albeit through a very different filter. Again the monsters are sent out to do whatever they do out of a personal motivation, with a very specific mindset and methods, and they are specialised to cause havoc. The detective angle works here; the villains are serial criminals with a specific MO and calling-card (for example the Violence monster always telephones his victim before doing a crime, or the Sweets creature only targets pastry chefs).
This is like how in Kuuga one monster might focus entirely on one school year, or another public swimming pools with names starting with a specific sequence of letters, and it adds a sort of intimacy and structure to the story. Everything becomes a puzzle, the villain has a purpose and a ritual, and so it feels more interesting than vague, aimless destruction. And, indeed, the monsters are optimised for doing things specifically related to carnage and crime, rather than being strange gimmick things intended – it feels – to simply defeat or lure out the hero. Perhaps the other reason I am comparing Kuuga and W is both are tied closely to investigation and police work; the police in Kuuga want to help and be helped by the superhero who can take on the mass murdering mutants terrorising the city, while W’s heroes are private investigators looking for missing people, stalkers and so on. Thus to keep this angle of how the heroes work, the villains in both series are framed as criminals rather than forces of nature. And W does not skimp on the investigation; it may often use it as a vehicle for character comedy, but nevertheless the heroes set out to interview witnesses, go undercover and stake out crime scenes.
In considering why I would recommend W I realised I that while I liked the action, and found the way the heroes change forms through fights rather than having one form for one problem to be interesting and dynamic, I am happy even when the fight in an episode is not all that interesting or new; often what is more interesting is the ways in which the criminal gang deal with their clients, the ways the heroes interact and what spin is put on the drug-pushing angle. The haunted car two-parter is an interesting one in this aspect; the “monster” is a woman in a coma, who was hit by a car at the moment she first transformed into her alter ego. The monster aspect of her continued to live on, possessing the car and hunting down the people who hit her. But her initial intention was to hunt down the man who had two-timed her using the power. Misdirections like these, or broad comedy episodes (often with a charming heart, like the dancing one or the cake one) keep the formula fresh far better than a steady stream of visually dynamic fight scenes or new combat gimmicks.
If you are looking for something that is a solid, entertaining superhero story that has all the aspects you might want from Kamen Rider but with a freshness that does not rely on knowing what the norm is to feel interesting and novel, W is a very good pick. And similarly, while W is funnier, more gimmick-driven and has a wider range of villain plots, if you like its focus on criminal monsters and investigation, make your next port of call Kuuga and also get a pretty neat story about a hero trying to avoid descending into chaos for your money.