20/20 in 2020 Article: Our blog’s theme for this year is “20/20 in 2020: Setting Our Vision on Christ.” Throughout the year, we’ll post articles which relate to this theme, which encourages you, our readers, to turn away from the world and toward the Holy One. Enjoy the post below, which is part of our yearlong series.
United States of Smash! Among the joys of these recent Christmas days, there is one particular blessing I cannot share with many people, lest they think me crazy: It came to me a couple weeks ago, just before Christmas, when watching the combat—both interior and exterior—involving Boku no Hero Academia´s “Red Riot” with my little siblings. There were discreet signs here and there these past few years, but now I think I can say it safely: We have won a 34-year-old war. That is, I think we are beyond Watchmen (the original) now, gentlemen. The glory of heroes is back, and better than ever. And I think this is wonderful news.
Let me explain this convoluted mess of a statement. For those who do not know, “Red Riot” is the 72nd episode of Boku no Hero Academia, a popular, colourful and clever shōnen currently in its fourth season. It tells the story of a society where 80% of the population is born with some kind of superpower, and with the progress of young Izuku Midoriya, an aspiring superhero, and his classmates, acquiring and perfecting their abilities and going up the various ranks of the superhero guild, in this world an established and respected profession.
Much of the show deals with the number one hero, the Superman analogue Toshinori Yagi, codenamed All-Might (don´t worry, no secret identities here), called the Symbol of Peace and whose superpower is name “One for All.” Toshinori, who has been compared to King David by our writer Mdmrn, is as much a referent for his people as the famed king was, and fulfills a similar role of victor and defender (except he is not a ruler). He is kind of a Galahad, or a Cid Campeador, or a reverse Voldemort: an inspiration, a force of good so powerful and relevant that he is part of the life of every particular person, every family, every kid, not as an unmentionable fear, but as a sign of hope, and his ideals and code of conduct have become the cornerstone of his profession—perhaps of his entire society. He is a professional hero, the professional hero. Yet, he is human, and therefore fragile. He is not perfect. He knows he will not last forever. All this has every kind of fascinating implications the show is never afraid to explore.
As a lifelong fan of the superhero genre, it is no wonder that I am enjoying the story this much, and for many reasons. There is its feeling of adventure and wonder; the masterful way its world achieves the simultaneous strangeness and familiarity with ours that is so difficult yet so essential to this genre; its myriad of colourful and compelling characters I never tire to learn about; its freshness, even innocence; its clever use of wildly different superpowers interacting, cooperating or colliding to advance the plot in a way that makes sense (this internal or secondary realism, if you will); the scope of the challenges; the well-paced timing of the Bildungsroman aspect; its comedy—this is a funny show, yet knows when to be serious; the way it deals with the political, the funny, the sociological or the darker implications of what is telling without flinching or putting on an ackward smile (or dogding the question)l and, above all, the unrelenting hope and honesty with which it deals with its main themes, heroism and maturity, would touch me deeply by themselves: Altogether, they make BNHA a joy to watch.
But even further, I think it shows the way out and above a difficult conundrum in which the superhero genre has fallen into: how to deal with the implications (maybe “the controlled demolition” would be more accurate) which Watchmen and, to a lesser extent, Frank Miller´s The Dark Knight Returns, two Cold War works, which attacked in an artsy, deconstructionist, simultaneously philosophical, theological and psychological, Quixote-like (in this forum, I´d say Madoka-like or Evangelion-like) way every premise of the superhero tale. The points they made could not easily be ignored, and so the world of the genre comics changed.
How? Well, it became darker, more ambiguous, more desperate, more attentive to the consequences, sometimes openly immoral. Robin II, Jason Todd, died a gruesome death. Batman´s back was broken (for a time). Superman died (for a time). The antihero grew. In time, there was a Civil War at Marvel, and an Identity Crisis at DC. Fear of superheroes, paranoia and persecutions of various kinds grew in fiction. It seemed to be experimenting with all kinds of formulas, from the return to the past to fully embracing the existential cynism and angst, to experimenting with various solutions, sometimes achieving triumph to a point, but never lastly or in a general way (in my view). The X-Men franchise, DC´s Kingdom Come, its Art Deco TV shows and Young Justice, Nolan´s Dark Knight trilogy, the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the works of Grant Morrison try to provide a satisfactory answer to the political, philosophical, psychological or spiritual consequences of the critique of superheroism at Watchmen. DC is explicitly confronting it in its current Doomsday Clock comic series. Anime has is own response to Watchmen: it is called Concrete Revolutio, and it is a mixed bag.
The problem is, of course, that a Watchmen—much like Eva or Madoka or Don Quixote—was necessary. It was a problem of maturity of the genre: in time, the established premises, the things that don´t fit the narrative, the darker possibilities, the social and political implications, the philosophical objections, everything calls to be explored, perhaps questioned, perhaps confronted, perhaps deepened. The truth of the matter calls for it. Evading it leads you into the infamous eight-degree syndrome: Authenticity is the condition for hope, while lies ultimately lead to desperation.
Yet, the other half is that mere cynism and bitterness are not a valid answer either. Those who pretend it is, sometimes with superiority and satisfaction, will see again and again a disconcerting rebellion of the public: Superheroes, as noble knights, as teens piloting mechas, as magical girls, point to some truths of the human heart which will not die. Defensive mechanisms will arise, a ray of hope will still shine trough the greatest of tragedies. Deep down we know that one day, the hero will be back. This hope is ultimately fulfilled in Christ, and through Christ, in us, and all good stories, broken as they are, point to Him.
So, why do I think we are at the other side in BNHA? The answer lies in a concept which is particularly relevant to us Christians: kabod, the concept of “glory”.
You do not hear much about glory these days. What does it mean? Fame? Honor? Splendour? Professional success? Some kind of radiance and light? Nowadays it is quite uncommon to hear the word unironically, but it was not always so. It used to be a part of life. A history book about World War One records the words of the Belgian Bassompierre: “If we are to be crushed, let us be crushed gloriously”, and finds it necessary to add: “[i]n 1914 “glory” was a word spoken without embarrassment.”
What is glory, then? Certainly, it is something like radiance or light: It is the the beauty, the strength, the attractive, the coolness, the splendor, the impacting greatness of what is good. In itself, it calls for applause, for admiration and honor ,and for gratitude. It can inspire you to develop your own potential and achieve your own greatness. The glory of things and people makes us feel what is valuable in them: In Genesis we are told how God saw the things He had created, and saw that they were good. To be in glory is to be yourself and yet be great, to be accepted and admired by your people. David was a glorious king among the Israelites, and Toshinori is glorious among the future Japanese. Their strength shines before them, and they know it helps those around them. Our Lord lets this light shine from Him in the Transfiguration, and the Apocalypse (as Manga Majesty portrays in vivid colours) tells us that it will be so for us too in Heaven, in a way beyond our imagination. Thus, rightly understood, the glories of Earth are signs of hope, incomplete as they are.
But as all the noblest impulses of our fallen humanity, the thirst of glory can be disordered and become a source of self-enclosure and corruption, undermining itself. What is valuable can be falsified. What is good can be a source of sinful pride, tempting one to create a glorious world and cut ties with God. People can be manipulated, threatened or bribed to cheer. Just as the wise may become dumb for believing that they know everything, the glorious may become drunk with their own glory and forget the truth about themselves, and those who thirst for glory can idolize it, separating it from its inner meaning.
Watchmen is ultimately the story of something that seems valuable, cool and wholesome when it has become a big obstacle for a full, truly human life in harmony with oneself and the world. Without spoiling too much, I will say that its world is a world without Olympic Games, because its people feels that superhuman feats make human feats meaningless. It is a world where the all-American superhumans have aggravated the Cold War, where the establishment they support is invincible, where police goes on strike and pirate comics are read for evasion.
For all its hope and its innocence, Boku no Hero Academia acknowledges this. “All men are not created equal,” it starts, before telling us the story of a mere human in a superhuman world, a pariah without powers that are a metaphor for all human power, technology, and ability. And yet, our protagonist is not resentful. He sees the world without the bandage of hate. He can even see and admire the glory even in his personal bully, Bakugou, yet he opposes his injustices. He is a fan of Toshinori, much like Tim Drake was to Batman. We don´t know anything about his father, which seems to have abandoned his mother. He receives his power after having known what is to be frail and abused, like Spider-man and Steve Rogers. He works hard, and various limitations of his power ensure that he is forced to use it cleverly. He is a humble hero who understands both his responsibility and his limits, even if he defies them to save those around him, hoping against all hope that he will make it.
BNHA certainly speaks of glory without embarrassment while being well aware of its limits, and in doing so, it creates a world where gratitude is the cornerstone of social relationships, and the Fourth Commandment is upheld. The society has certainly grown complacent because of the achievements of the heroes, but Midoriya and his classmates are not. Heroes, even those in high ranks, may be abusive monsters, anti-social freaks or superficial and vain celebrities, but there are true heroes.
There is a path of maturity which does not renounce to challenging or questioning, rooted in a big hope, a thirst for justice, and a feeling of gratitude, a humble and powerful “Even so!” which reminds me of the combination of the strengths of childhood and adulthood which was my favorite element of Erased. There is a prodigious strength which comes from becoming a part of a living, mysterious story which changes you, inspired by the ideal of saving everyone.
We are coming to see what happens when things turn dark, and “Red Riot” pointed it out to us in a very hopeful way. So hopeful, in fact, that it seems to me that every question has been answered. The hero is not God, not in the slightest, but he carries a powerful sign of hope. Its power, its vocation, does not come from his own merits, yet it requires all of his cooperation and effort. As Serial Experiments Lain says, “Everyone is connected,” no matter how far you run. And true heroes are not afraid to bow, to learn restraint, to take responsibility, to grow. The good is good, but it is also in construction, and mere power and ability cannot quite suffice. The path of the superhero has become a path of maturation and service. And everything feels renewed.
Who watches the watchmen, then? Who gives us reason for that unflinching, difficult hope that we will be saved, that the fight is not over, as fragile as we may be, as complex as the world may become? How can we look with renewed wonder all which is beautiful and luminous in this world, yet evade the temptation of idolatry, work for the prosperity of Babylon without adoring the statue of Nebuchanezzar, like Daniel? The One that never changes and will never become corrupted, the one from whom we have received everything that is good and who always judges according to justice. To Him, ultimately, belongs all the glory, because everything that is glorious points in some way to Him. Generation after generation, He is our Glory, the Glory of Israel and of the world. And He shall glorify His name, again and again, so we have every reason to fight for justice and the salvation of each person, hoping to see it anew: with God, all things are possible. Plus Ultra!