Saturday, January 2, 2021

My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising

While modern juggernaut My Hero Academia doesn’t show any signs of stopping anytime soon, the current hiatus with the anime, at the time of this writing, necessitated catching up with the story through the manga. This turned out to be a good choice, since the series’ second feature film, Heroes Rising, takes place within the manga’s timeline. Although I missed the limited US theatrical screening, I did obtain the film on Blu-ray and watched it as soon as I could. Overall, it’s an improvement over the previous film, Two Heroes, but a specific element of the finale left me scratching my head.

Heroes Rising takes place after the Meta Liberation Army arc, specifically during a two-month timeskip, which at the time of this writing is manga-exclusive. During this timeskip, U.A. High’s Class 1-A has been sent to the remote Nabu Island as part of a safety program where they serve as the island’s temporary heroes until they find a permanent replacement. While on the island, Izuku Midoriya (Justin Briner) and Katsuki Bakugo (Clifford Chapin) meet Mahoro Shimano (Dani Chambers) and her brother Katsuma (Maxey Whitehead), the latter of whom wants to become a hero. Despite promises to the contrary, a group of villains eventually arrive on the island, led by Nine (Johnny Yong Bosch), a villain who cans steal Quirks like the notorious supervillain All for One.

Setting the film during a timeskip was a smart choice, since it allows the events to occur without disrupting the story as presented in the manga. Considering the previous film, Two Heroes, also took place on an island, I couldn’t help making the observation that setting a side story on an island is a rather convenient way of isolating its events. Anything can happen on an island and the main story wouldn’t have to acknowledge it if it doesn’t need to.

That said, like its predecessor, the story of Heroes Rising is well-written and, for the most part, fits in very well with the established canon. Class 1-A gets their time to shine on Nabu Island, as we get to watch them working together as real heroes both in a more low-key environment and during the increasingly tense and climactic encounter with the four real villains, where they each give it their all. The villains themselves feel genuinely threatening, especially the seemingly unstoppable Nine, which makes the inevitable victory against them feel satisfying and earned. Everyone also feels in-character, which can lead to some great laugh-out-loud moments that are even weaved pretty naturally into the extensive fight against Nine.

Nine's power to steal Quirks feels genuinely threatening;
L-R: Nine (Johnny Yong Bosch), Izuku Midoriya (Justin Briner)

Heroes Rising also has some of the best animation in the entire series, with fluid movement and more expressive faces than the anime would allow. Each character’s quirk also gets more screentime than in the anime, which allows more room for impressive demonstrations that push the animation further than before. As the tone gradually shifts, along with the lighting, you hear the voice actors show a great range of emotion as the heroes of Class 1-A work together against the villains.

All of this builds up to an absolutely phenomenal climax that features striking visuals that only a theatrical budget would allow. While previous scenes featured familiar musical cues from the anime, the final moments of the fight against Nine gradually eliminate all sound except the original music, which highlights both the animation and the emotional weight of the scene. It’s truly impressive and I’m glad they went that route.

However, as much as I loved the film, I had a couple issues. On a minor note, the film makes a big deal about how Nine can wield up to nine Quirks at once, but we only ever see him use six, none of which are explored beyond what we see in their first appearance. It doesn’t really help that for most of his fights, he spams the same two Quirks, occasionally mixing in another when backed into a corner. Nine also came off as a way for Class 1-A to fight All for One without actually fighting All for One, even if the in-universe explanation also added to the lore.

Explaining the other, more major, issue means addressing the elephant in the room. From my understanding, the story of Heroes Rising includes elements that mangaka Kohei Horikoshi originally intended for the series finale. I wasn’t sure how going in, but I really felt it during the lead-in to the climax and the way Midoriya and Bakugo defeat Nine. If the film didn’t end the way it did, then I’m not sure how I would have felt if Heroes Rising really was the grand finale to My Hero Academia, as even though the core idea felt fitting, I would have felt a little cheated based on what Midoriya says in the opening narration of the series. As it stands, the way the film writes itself out of the potential series finale felt muddy. Without spoiling anything, I at least felt they could have handled it better than they did.

It’s also worth noting that Heroes Rising isn’t very beginner-friendly. While it does try its best at establishing the setting and I’m sure people unfamiliar with the series could still enjoy it, the character relationships and some offhand references would make more sense for those who have, as of this writing, kept up with the manga.

There’s a lot to like about Heroes Rising, especially for existing My Hero Academia fans. However, the muddy ending raises some questions of its own and the film could have done a better job developing Nine’s powers. I’d still highly recommend this film and I’m still curious about the future of the series.

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