Fake it ’til you make it
Bruce Banner was hard at work on a weapon of mass destruction when he became a weapon of mass destruction himself.
Caught in the blast radius during a test detonation of a gamma bomb, Banner absorbed a massive amount of radiation. The result? The mild-mannered scientist gained the ability to transform into the Hulk—the massive, pants-shredding Avenger who Marvel fans like quite a bit when he’s angry.
Strip that origin story down to its component parts, and you’ve got the basic equation that produced at least half of Marvel’s stable of spandex-wearers: Average Person + Scientific Mishap = Superhero.
Spider-Man got bit by a radioactive spider. The Fantastic Four were exposed to cosmic rays during a spacefaring mission. Captain America, Wolverine and Deadpool are all the results of freaky body-altering operations.
Like the Hulk, All Might—the Number One Hero in My Hero Academia’s fictional take on Japan—undergoes a transformation when it’s time to fight crime. But I’m approaching the end of the anime’s second season—I’m not caught up yet, bear with me—and, so far at least, the series isn’t offering any explanations.
Buff, golden and confident when he fights crime, the muscular hero with yellow hair like owl eyebrows becomes frail, gaunt and quiet when he shrinks down into his secret identity, Toshinori Yagi. How this happens? *Shrug emoji*
We know that an injury has severely weakened All Might’s powers—a gnarly wound has left his abdominal area looking like a cracked windshield—resulting in his inability to maintain the form for longer than a few hours a day. But, we get no insight into how or why Toshinori becomes “The Big Guy” in the first place. This is especially puzzling given the fact that, in a flashback, we see All Might sparring with his mentor, Gran Torino, in command of his powers, but at a reduced size and stature.
Again, no explanation is offered for how any of this works. However, the show doesn’t always shy away from providing explanatory backstory. Ice- and flame-wielding hero-in-training Shoto Todoroki, is revealed to have received his dual powers as a result of his fire-bending father practicing eugenics—marrying his mother against her will to breed a doubly powerful heir.
My Hero Academia even offers explanations for other aspects of All Might’s powers. His quirk, One for All, is passed down, genetically, from hero to hero. Protagonist Midoriya receives the power by swallowing a strand of All Might’s hair. And in the show’s first episode, a doctor tells a young Midoriya that he’ll never have a Quirk because he has two joints, instead of one, in his pinky toe.
All that to say, My Hero Academia isn’t opposed to revealing the nitty-gritty of how its take on superheroing works. In fact, its approach to superheroes is deeply practical. While Western heroes are typically cast as vigilantes with shaky relationships with the government, the do-gooders of My Hero Academia are paid professionals. They attend what amounts to trade school, take on internships, put in time as sidekicks to established heroes, and eventually graduate to the big leagues. It takes its premise—that, in this world, being born with superpowers is the norm—and commits to it, building up the necessary infrastructure and imagining the ways the world would change to accommodate that kind of seismic shift in its populace.
That wholehearted commitment to the practical makes My Hero Academia’s reticence on the nature of All Might’s transformation noteworthy. In a world of hero agencies and internships and schoolwork, All Might’s transfiguration borders on the mystical.
This presentation allows My Hero Academia to Trojan Horse a surprising amount of pathos into the character. While heroes like the Hulk undergo transformations haphazardly to symbolize the uncontrollable Jekyll and Hyde duality of human nature—and do so with a ready scientific explanation—All Might transforms at will to illustrate the way that our best selves require a performance. It’s a performance that All Might struggles to keep up at times. He worries that he’ll run out of time like an actor worries they’ll forget their lines—that villains will learn that his true self is weak and exploit his inadequacy.
The fact that the same voice actor (Christopher Robin Sabat in the dub, Kenta Miyake in the sub) performs both—the “Have no fear, I am here” pronouncements of the hero, and the defeated mumbles of a man who’s past his prime—highlights that All Might’s superheroic self is just that, a performance.
And sure, that’s sad. But, there’s something encouraging in the way that All Might transforms into the Big Guy, and remains the Big Guy, through sheer force of will. Our best known heroes are sanctified, set apart as wholly other, special in perpetuity. Clark Kent changes clothes to reveal Superman, but he was always Superman underneath. But, All Might shifts from average to heroic to average again in the course of a few hours. What he is is altered, not just what he wears.
None of us has superhuman strength that comes out when we’re mad, or powers we can manifest after changing in a phone booth. But, like All Might, we do have the capacity to transform into our better selves. In comparison to other superheroes, My Hero Academia’s Big Guy is a testament to the idea that anyone can be their own hero. As All Might puts it, this isn’t about having a big ego—it’s about laughing to trick the fear, changing your behavior to unlock your power. And this isn’t just a show to put on for others. It’s for us too, a story we have to tell ourselves again and again about our intrinsic worth and strength until we believe it and finally go beyond, plus ultra.