The longstanding problem with theatrical movies for popular ongoing anime shows is that they’ll inevitably end up being mostly okay. By their nature, they don’t — and can’t — affect the course of the series. Movies for shows like Pokémon, Naruto, Bleach, and others sit in the weird space of owing their existence to said series and of being essentially non-canonical, expensive pieces of fan-service.
My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising does little to break this mold. The second theatrical movie for the popular superhero anime series (the first, My Hero Academia: Two Heroes, hit theaters in 2018), Heroes Rising is an impressive piece of fan-service with beautiful character work and some of the most inventive and dazzling fight sequences that the series has ever seen. But a recycled plot and villain threaten to doom the film to the lower echelons of forgettable anime movies. Luckily the character-driven drama and a summery slice-of-life premise, which takes Class 1-A of U.A. High School to a remote fishing island as part of a new temporary hero program, makes Heroes Rising a worthwhile watch for even the casual My Hero Academia fan.
Set some time after the conclusion of the currently-airing fourth season of My Hero Academia, Heroes Rising follows Class 1-A as they’re sent to Nabu Island as a temporary stand-in until the peaceful island gets assigned their own hero. The heroes-in-training are delighted to be working as official heroes, even if most of the work is mundane drudgery like repairing tractors or working as lifeguards. Except for the hotheaded Bakugo, who stalks about the island looking for a villain to fight, the students are delighted to please the kind Nabu Island villagers, who bring the kids all kinds of gifts, groceries, and farm produce as thanks for their deeds. Our kind-hearted protagonist Deku is, naturally in his element, his outsized compassion inspiring the island’s cutest aspiring hero, a shy young boy named Katsuma whose mischevious older sister Mahoro hates heroes. These two are the central figures of this film (who will likely never show up in the proper series), as Katsuma’s Quirk becomes the target of the film’s Quirk-stealing villain, Nine.
One of the winning elements of My Hero Academia is its colorful cast of characters who, in addition to having some truly unusual and hilarious superpowers (called Quirks in the series) make up own of the best ensembles of recent shounen animes. Shounen anime, aka anime geared to boys, have long prospered based on the likability of their alternately badass/brooding/all of the above supporting characters — some even usurping the popularity of the protagonist. Naruto perfected the shonen ensemble with its diverse group of characters surrounding its title character, while My Hero Academia expanded on that, creating a harmonious group of wacky supporting characters that still don’t outshine our main hero, Deku. But as a result, the classmates of Class 1-A often get pushed to the background during the series in favor of Deku’s arc. The great success of Heroes Rising is how it brings the spotlight back to the UA classmates we fell in love with (except for Mineta — the goofy pervert character is decades out of date and I hate him).
We get to spend more time with these characters in Heroes Rising than we have in months, and it’s wonderful. Frequently threatened as they are in the series, it’s refreshing to see Class 1-A thriving in harmony at the beginning of Heroes Rising, which unfolds more like a serene Mamoru Hosoda slice-of-life film than a superhero flick. And no character benefits more from the spotlight than Bakugo, who was introduced at the beginning of the anime series as the violent, ill-tempered rival to Deku’s aspiring hero, but has faded to the background in recent arcs. Heroes Rising finally digs into Bakugo’s perceptive and pensive side, which the series has touched on but never elaborated on, raising him up as Deku’s foil and reluctant partner once again. It is Deku and Bakugo who lead the charge in protecting Mahoro and Katsuma, and Deku and Bakugo who end up nearly killing themselves in the fight against the overwhelmingly powerful villains of the movie.
But while the wary kinship of Deku and Bakugo is a boon to the film, the villains are pitifully bad. Nine is a blatant rip-off of the series target All For One, right down to the character design and the Quirk-stealing powers, which remain oddly vague throughout the film. I think some of them have to do with dragons? Or weather? Either way, Nine and his group of minions couldn’t be more lazily-created by series writer Yôsuke Kuroda. Even his mission — to create a “new world” in which the powerful will rule — is so clearly half-assed that it’s almost insulting.
It’s a good thing that Kenji Nagasaki, stepping up from directing episodes of the anime series, directs the hell out of Heroes Rising. Nagasaki makes use of the bigger budget for the film, kicking things off with a thrilling CG-aided car chase that feels like it’s been plucked out of Ghost in the Shell. And he proves himself adept at balancing the tranquil tone of the first half of the film with the gonzo action that My Hero Academia is known for. And oh, that action. I’ll admit, I’ve been a little checked out of My Hero Academia lately, whose fight sequences in recent episodes have begun to feel redundant. But Heroes Rising‘s fights are rippling with the pure adrenaline and pulp that embody My Hero Academia as the outsized anime reflection on American superhero comics. The climactic fight is breathtaking in its depiction of an earth-shattering fight that nearly rips its heroes from limb to limb, set to a discordant twinkling piano. But that climax is even more awe-inspiring in its shattering of the status quo and the dynamic between Deku and Bakugo…before it neatly sweeps all of those changes under the carpet.
In the build-up to its epic, outrageous climax, My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising looked like it could have been a game-changing anime film — until it wasn’t. With its clumsy write-off of all the events that occurred over the course of the film, which includes a convenient bit of memory loss, Heroes Rising doesn’t add much to its original series or to the overall landscape of anime movies. But you will be watching that big fight scene on YouTube over and over again.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
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