Finally coming to American shores is Funimation Films’s latest theatrical event, My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising, the second theatrical release for the widely popular My Hero Academia anime series. First released in December 2019 overseas, the film’s inspired by the over-200+-chapter manga which bore out an anime with currently four seasons and one previous 2018 feature film (Two Heroes), all of which follow a group of high school students learning how to be superheroes in a society where 80% of the population has some form of ability. While American audiences might jump immediately to something more like Marvel’s X-Men series, given the age and focus on superhuman abilities, the anime focuses more on the ideals of heroism and virtue that fall in line with the way of the warrior. It’s not the ability to punch through sheetrock that makes you a hero, it’s knowing when not to and understanding that saving lives comes with a cost. Time and again, My Hero Academia finds clever and surprising ways to raise the stakes in every story, all in the pursuit of its grand theme: what does it take to be a hero?
The students making up Class 1-A at the prestigious hero school U.A. have not had an easy time at any point of their education. In their first year alone they were involved in repeated attacks from the League of Villains, placing many of the students in life-or-death scenarios. While the students consider each conflict another test of their potential, the general populace is beginning to lose faith in the practices of the school. In order to protect them while continuing their education, the faculty of UA send the entire class to the remote Japanese island Nabu where they can serve as a local hero agency until a proper pro hero is installed. Titled their Hero Work Recommendation Project, it’s a fairly idyllic job as the small island mainly needs help with recharging car batteries, beach antics, and assisting villagers with getting from one place to another. All of this changes when a powerful new villain and his three partners arrive with a targeted agenda. Without back-up from pro heroes or assistance from the UA faculty, Class 1-A has never been in more danger.
To be upfront, this reviewer was not familiar with the series beyond the name when the opportunity to review appeared. Wanting to have some context before trying to understand the events of Heroes Rising, I put on the pilot episode via Hulu and ended up unintentionally jumping down a rabbit hole. The anime focuses on a world saturated by heroes, but, more specifically, on a young boy, Izuku Midoriya, who wants to be a hero but wasn’t born with any superpowers, called Quirks. Midoriya becomes the audiences’ gateway to the hero world and the ideal proxy for the journey: he possesses all the traits of someone born to be a hero, an innate goodness that inspires others to raise their game. Heroes Rising applies much of the same thinking as the anime, resulting in a theatrical experience possessing just about everything fans of the anime could want out of a standalone story. Having anime series writer Yousuke Kuroda create the script and director Kenji Nagasaki of both 65 episodes and Two Heroes certainly helps with carrying over all the things audiences love in the entirety of Class 1-A. Considering the narrative places Class 1-A on their own for the first time since starting their academic journey into professional heroism, there’s already a sense of danger that comes from operating without guidance or supervision. This group of talented, tenacious heroes-in-training have faced many challenges, yet there’s something different about Kuroda’s story that still offers surprises and honest moments of terror for our heroes. The kind of moments that will surely leave longtime fans shouting in their seats or simply out-right stunned from the emotional impact of Kuroda’s tale.
If you’re not familiar with the anime My Hero Academia, jumping straight into their second theatrical release Heroes Rising makes connecting with it emotionally harder but is easy to follow narratively. As with the anime, Heroes Rising utilizes flashbacks or overlays footage from previous adventures overtop conversations so that the audience is always in step with the narrative. This helps new audiences to track the variety of characters more easily (a difficult task considering 20 characters make up 1-A alone), and to understand the stakes of the story before it begins in earnest. To assist with focus, much of Heroes Rising centers on the series lead Midoriya (voiced by Daiki Yamashita in Japanese, Justin Briner in English), his childhood friend Katusuki Bakugo (voiced by Nobuhiko Okamoto in Japanese, Clifford Chapin in English), and the villain Nine (voiced by Yoshio Inoue in Japanese, Johnny Yong Bosch in English). While there’s still plenty of inclusion of the many fan favorites within the series, the bulk of the narrative weight falls on these three. The true delight for longtime fans of all iterations is seeing Midoriya and Bakugo in action, as the polar-opposite duo rarely see eye-to-eye. Their complicated past is plainly addressed in Heroes Rising, whereas audiences jumping in may only notice their competitive nature. This, again, speaks to the ability of the film to craft a strong narrative that universal audiences can follow, even if they can’t connect as strongly as those already invested. Another area of excitement for fans comes in the form of Nine making his anime debut, though so much of his story is integrated into the narrative here that it may feel more truncated and less fleshed out. This tends to make Nine less of a person and more of an obstacle, which isn’t in keeping with the characterization of the My Hero Academia world. Everyone, even the villains have stories worth exploring, yet Nine is not offered the same.
If there’s anything to gripe about, it’s that the events of the film seem largely inconsequential to the events of the anime. The characters do reference past events and the film does provide the usual flashbacks the series utilizes to help remind audiences of things forgotten or unknown, all of which enables the audience to track events with relative ease no matter their knowledge coming into the film. This is good. Except that the film itself doesn’t look to offer anything that might influence future events, making the experience both incredibly satisfying as a fan of the anime, while also being almost entirely without narrative weight. As typical with My Hero Academia, there are several moments of extreme distress which Kuroda never cheapens by shying away from the more brutal aspects of heroism. Heroes Rising pushes Class 1-A further than they’ve ever gone and, if you’re all in with them by the time of the big climatic battle, you’ll feel the weight of it. Except all the terror seems to be erased by the end of the film. It’s not that a happy ending is undesirable, but the series makes a point to highlight the consequences that come from the kinds of repetitious fights between heroes and villains. Heroes Rising, however, seems content as a one-off, a capsule story that is not likely to have much bearing on future seasons of the television series or potential films. This is especially troublesome as the narrative choices within Heroes Rising builds toward something so mind-blowingly amazing that long-time fans will explode from their seats at the sight, only to discover that it was all spectacle and no substance.
Despite what appears as inconsequential event, Heroes Rising represents an opportunity to see what Class 1-A is capable of without a safety net. In this, the film succeeds by remembering why audiences have fallen in love with the characters to begin with: it’s all about true heroism. It’s about recognizing that winning doesn’t have to be the end game in order to save people, but that saving people is how you win. It’s that you don’t have to destroy yourself in the process, but doing so can be an admirable sacrifice. It’s that no one person is so important that they should control the rest. Class 1-A sports some of the most powerful beings on the planet. Instead of clamoring for control, they trust in each other’s capabilities, respect each other’s strengths, and recognize that they are stronger together than seeking to compete. In this regard, manga creator Kohei Horikoshi’s original work is honored most of all as fans of his creation revel in the kind of visual entertainment that simultaneously shakes mountains as it rattles our souls. Nagasaki’s deftness with the medium will, indeed, induce more than one “oh, shit” moment from audiences, but it’s not the display that has audiences return for new adventures. They do for the same reason Horikoshi’s series bears the mantle “Go beyond. Plus Ultra!”, a statement meant to push the students past their limitations. I would argue that as each story in the My Hero Academia anime pushes the limits of the characters, it also pushes the audience to consider their own. That is why audiences invest so deeply in Midoryia and Class 1-A. That is why the story matters more than it may appear. That is why you don’t want to miss the chance to see your favorite heroes rising.
My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising will screen in limited theaters beginning February 26th, 2020. Advance ticket sales available beginning January 31st, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.