Tanner McEveety ‘22 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
For the longest time, My Hero Academia seemed like the battle anime that could do no wrong. It was never beyond criticism or controversy, but it maintained a baseline level of quality that kept it in the spotlight for its first three seasons. But season four marked the beginning of a steady descent. All of the problems that the show had been blazing past before—overly long battles, overuse of dialogue and flashbacks, underrepresenting its female cast—suddenly caught up with it in the midst of an arc that, by all rights, should have been amazing. And unfortunately, season five continues this steady downward trend, especially in its first half. So where did things go wrong?
The first arc of season five consists of a series of very slow paced training battles between Classes 1-A and 1-B. Viewers of the anime have met some of Class 1-B before, but this occasion marks the debut of many new hero costumes and quirks, each of which is delightfully clever. Nearly all of the newly introduced members of the show’s massive ensemble cast are brimming with personality and charm, and the battles that take place are chock-full of that usual My Hero Academia goodness: intense strategizing, weighty reversals, and creative power usage. But the main problem with this arc rears its ugly head whenever someone wins or loses one of these battles: a lack of dramatic stakes.
In previous seasons, believable stakes were one of My Hero Academia’s strengths. They can be tricky to establish, especially when the main characters’ lives are on the line, because the audience knows it’s ultimately an empty threat. Important characters won’t die because otherwise, there wouldn’t be a story. My Hero Academia would sometimes get around this by threatening the lives of characters who could actually die without ruining the show’s larger narrative arc, such as mentor figures and side characters. But more often than not, it simply established dramatic stakes that were low enough to be believable, and even followed through on the consequences they threatened. It may be hard to worry that Midoriya will die, but it’s much easier to worry about him losing the Sports Festival, which he does, or losing in his sparring match with Bakugo, which he does, or failing to rescue Eri from her captor, which he does…at first.
So what are the dramatic stakes for these training battles? What do these characters stand to gain if they win, and what will happen to them if they lose? Absolutely nothing.
It is an utterly inconsequential school assignment. The only thing on the line is bragging rights, and there are maybe two characters who care about that: Bakugo, whose poor attitude towards competition has been painted as negative since day one, and Monoma, who was initially portrayed as a genuine threat, but has slowly devolved into a maniac whose obsessive rivalry with Class 1-A is depicted as downright comical. In fact, save for Monoma, there is no real rivalry between Class 1-A and Class 1-B. Most of them are quite friendly with one another. Ultimately, who wins and who loses is meaningless.
There is something on the line for Shinso, however. He’s chasing his dream of becoming a hero by sparring with those in the hero course in hopes of transferring in alongside them. It’s a compelling setup, but the problem is that there’s no clearly established finish line for him. The teachers say that they’ll make their decision based on his performance, but there’s no way to tell from his performance alone how close or how far he is from making it into the hero course at any given moment. Even though his team wins one battle and loses another, he ends up on the path to transferring anyway, so it’s unclear exactly what he was being judged on even after the assignment ends.
There are some stakes inherent to the sudden introduction of Midoriya’s malfunctioning quirk and the dangerous environment it creates. Not knowing what’s going on and how it might harm his classmates is genuinely thrilling after a long series of pointless fights. The onset of this new quirk-unlocking storyline is easily the most exciting thing to happen in the entire arc, which is why it’s such a shame it isn’t the main focus, only making a brief appearance at the beginning and the end.
Luckily, the season only picks up from there. The next arc involves Midoriya, Bakugo, and Todoroki doing a work study with Endeavor. It mostly focuses on their training, but also on the Todorokis’ difficult family life. Considering that the beginning of several plot threads that continue into this arc occurred at the end of the previous season, the overarching character stories end up feeling scattered and oddly spaced out. Plus, the training and character growth that Midoriya, Bakugo, and Todoroki experience feels a little too straightforward, especially compared to the clever results of previous training arcs, like Midoriya’s “Full Cowling” in season two. At the very least, the final battle is gripping and dramatic, forcing Endeavor to reevaluate his approach towards reconnecting with his family after a villain from his past puts his son in danger.
The final arc of the season, known as “My Villain Academia,” is season five’s obvious highlight. As the name suggests, it focuses on the League of Villains, who begin the arc struggling without the support of their patron, All For One. They quickly come into conflict with a group called the Meta Liberation Army, whose ideals of absolute freedom do not allow for a world in which the League of Villains continues to exist, beginning a murderous showdown.
What’s so unique about this arc is the way it gets the viewers to empathize with and ultimately root for the League of Villains. They’re usually terrifying psychopaths, and remain so even when looking in from their perspective. But several flashbacks demonstrate the unfairness and trauma that these characters have suffered from, highlighting the way that the hero society around them forced them into the margins instead of helping them. This is not treated as justification for their actions, but as the source of their fury. Forced to reach inward during these dangerous battles, several of the villains overcome mental blocks and emotional challenges, discovering new abilities and bolstering their confidence. They emerge on the other side of the conflict more powerful and dangerous than ever, making the prospect of future battles against the League of Villains even more terrifying.
However, a few problems do arise from the way that the anime rearranges the ordering of the arcs as they were in the original manga. It puts the work study with Endeavor first, before flashing back in time to “My Villain Academia.” Not only does this result in several important bits of content from the manga being cut, it also dampens the experience of both arcs. Instead of being introduced as a part of “My Villain Academia,” the Meta Liberation Army are first introduced during the Endeavor work study, where the lack of context makes them feel irrelevant and out of place. Since “My Villain Academia” comes after the Endeavor internship, the viewers learn of the ultimate result of the battle between the League of Villains and the Meta Liberation Army before they actually see it, killing the stakes yet again.
Season five is even disappointing from a production standpoint. None of the animation, sound design, or music is bad per se, but it lacks the same “oomph” as previous seasons. Big, bombastic final clashes with soaring music and incredible animation are something that My Hero Academia fans have come to expect from the show, and they are mostly absent in season five. Instead, there’s a small variety of excellent animation cuts scattered about and generally catchy backing tracks. It’s hardly a low budget or botched production, but compared to the highly detailed, energetic manga art and to previous seasons, it’s underwhelming.
My Hero Academia remains better than a lot of shows out there, but it seems to be losing its magic touch. There’s still hope, though, because the best thing about season five is how well it sets the stage for the future. With any luck, season six will be the moment that the series reaches inside itself, flashes back to its childhood, remembers why it wants to be a hero, and rises once again to its feet.