Feature films from long-running anime like Naruto, Dragon Ball Z, and One Piece share some common traits: They ramp up the animation to levels exceeding the television series, create a rousing atmosphere by setting the heroes on a rollicking adventure, indulge fans by letting favorite characters have a shining moment, and feature a one-off story with one-off villains, some of whom are more memorable than others. A coherent plot is unnecessary, and events that permanently affect the landscape of the series are unwanted. But every once and a while, a movie will attempt to do it all—to give fans the fun experience they crave and create a story that has some significance, one that stays with the audience well after the watching is complete. My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising, the second film in the popular shounen franchise, attempts to do just that. It’s a bombastic adventure, hyperactive and non-stop, but is imbued with an emotional core and features a climax that could change everything about the MHA universe.
The movie, though, begins on a confusing note. After a mundane opening sequence involving the League of Villains (who are protecting a package that may not be connected to the remainder of the movie—I wasn’t clear on that point), the scene shifts to an island where the Class I-A students are at a call center of sorts responding to requests on behalf of “U.A. Hero Agency.” As the students run around serving as lifeguards and doing more menial chores, like fixing farm equipment, the picture becomes clearer: The class is partaking in a special project, helping out on a sparsely-populated, low crime island that recently lost its local superhero to retirement. The villagers are happy to have Class I-A around to assist, with the exception of Mahoro, a girl who tries to convince her little brother, Katsuma, that the students aren’t particularly helpful, and especially Deku. Little does Mahoro know that she and her brother will be counting on those same heroes to save them from the villain Nine, who wields extraordinary powers and is supported by a group of powerful subordinates and the League of Villains in his plan for social cleansing.
While the film’s setting and context are conventional, they also create conditions for an exciting showdown. Trapped in a closed space full of luscious geography, there’s nowhere to run for either hero or villain and no grown-up to come and save the day. The kids must rely on their powers and training to figure out how to counter Nine, whose abilities far exceed most of the villains they’ve faced thus far. But the heroes of I-A are likewise stronger than we’re used to. If you’re an anime-only viewer like myself, the power demonstrated by both the heroes and villains may surprise you: Nine and his gang, especially Chimera, surpass the strength of Overhaul, the main antagonist of the anime’s most recent arc, while the students have ramped up their own quirks with some revealing skills hitherto unseen. The upscaling in power, combined with plot points related to the Overhaul arc, places the movie at some point in the future (perhaps a couple arcs ahead of where the series currently is). The time jump is a little disconcerting, but also great fun; watching all the I-A kids (and I mean all of them) progress with their potential is thrilling, especially as they blow lots of stuff up.
Indeed, once it gets to the main fight sequences, Heroes Rising become an absolute adrenaline rush. While some characters are still relegated to support duty, many get to battle, and do so while paired on really interesting teams. Think Yaoyorozu and Aoyama are largely weak and ineffective? Think again. Wonder who would best be suited to work with Uraraka and her gravity power? Wonder no more—it’s definitely Sero. And what do you get when you put Ashido and Tokoyami together? Pure, superbad awesomeness, that’s what. These teams are as enthralling as the actual combat, leading to content that’s lush and full: character dynamics are explored, relationships are developed, and fight sequences unroll in all their glory, all at the same time.
And the stakes feel extremely high as well. I’ve sometimes been critical of My Hero Academia for what I perceive as a fear of providing consequences befitting of extraordinary storylines. That problem isn’t addressed on a substantial level in My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising, but an edge is brought to the proceedings by way of the big screen; the feature film provides viewers with something unexpected, that which is never animated on the TV series (perhaps due to censoring): blood. The kids get beaten to a pulp and no one is left unscratched or unscathed. It only takes a touch of red for the fights to suddenly feel more real, for the movie to become more exhilarating. The grittiness is welcomed, though it does occasionally create a dissonance when the realism of battle scenes intermix with shounen convention, as when Midoriya and Bakugou exchange banter instead of, you know, beating a vulnerable bad guy to the ground.
Speaking of Midoriya and Bakugou, they are the central characters on which the movie pivots. There’s one particular scene in the climax about which fans will be buzzing, a dramatic moment that is a most glorious idea come to life. When Kouhei Horikoshi, My Hero Academia’s creator, explained that this sequel is a “finale” of sorts for the franchise, implementing ideas he once thought would close the series, I believe he was referencing this specific event. I would have applauded such an ending, and imagine audiences will feel the same. I certainly know that they won’t only discuss this particular scene, but the perceived fallout of it as well, which though not unexpected, creates a denouement that impedes the momentum of an incredible second half, once again supporting the main issue I have with the series.
That MHA’s weaknesses ultimately peeks through, though, doesn’t fundamentally detract from the marvelous spectacle that is Heroes Rising. Shounen series are a paradox: They pour in action and emotion that create an atmosphere of ferocity and unpredictability, but are at heart the safest of series, too often unwilling to take risks in storytelling and be different. Their movies convey these facets even more mightily: bigger, louder, safer. My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising may not reinvent or add anything new to the genre, but it is fun, fan-pleasing, and above all, meaningful, a heightened and focused tale infused with the characters, superpowers, and heart that series fans have come to love. And indeed, viewers’ heart will be moved—that is, if the action doesn’t make their hearts stop first. Plus Ultra!