The Pharisees of My Hero Academia
We all love heroes. Be it superheroes on the silver screen or volunteers in our community, it feels good to honor those who accomplish great deeds. But what happens when heroes get in the way of true heroism? Are people still heroes if their admirable actions are just an excuse for vanity and profit? The answer, surprisingly, can found in both the parables of Jesus and the anime series My Hero Academia.
My Hero Academia started as a manga love letter to both American and Japanese comics. Within two years of the manga’s debut, animation studio Bones turned it into a popular series. Both the manga and anime take place in a world where most of the population has super powers, called “quirks.” Super-heroism becomes a full-fledged profession, with the best heroes becoming rich and famous. A student named Izuku Midoriya yearns to become such a hero. The problem is, he’s one of the few people born without a quirk. Just when Midoriya is about to give up hope, All Might, the world’s greatest hero, gives his power to Midoriya. Midoriya then enrolls in U.A. High School, a prestigious hero-training institution.
In one story arc, we come to learn that the professional heroes are not as noble as they seem. One of them spends the entire time policing his intern’s looks; another treats heroism like a business and refers to those saved as “clients.” Yet another spends the entire day modeling for commercials and photo shoots. It turns out many heroes take profitable side jobs to boost their popularity and pad their wallet.
This exploitation of heroism eventually creates Stain, the Hero Killer. Stain once trained to become a superhero, but became disgusted by the selfish ideology. Enraged, he began hunting down those who have corrupted the name “hero.” While his tactics are immoral, Stain’s critique is validated by My Hero Academia.
Stain’s greatest ideological victory comes when he is confronted by Tenya Iida, the brother of one of Stain’s victims. Iida is a U.A. student dedicated to true heroism, but the moment he sees Stain in an alley he succumbs to vengeance. Iida loses his straight posture, harsh shadows cover his face, and he becomes momentarily surrounded by red. Iida becomes so consumed with revenge he charges Stain without thinking. Stain, who has just finished wounding another hero, incapacitates Iida, points to the victim, and asks, “Shouldn’t you be worried about saving that guy?” The hero killer, in other words, offers a lesson in heroism.
What happens when heroes get in the way of true heroism?
The idea of false heroes is not foreign to the Bible. In Luke, Jesus tells the story of two people who pray at the temple. The first is a Pharisee, a respected teacher of Scripture, who prays arrogantly: “‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.’” The second man is the tax collector, who begs God to have mercy on him for being a sinner. Jesus says it was the tax collector and not the Pharisee who went home justified.
The Pharisee from Jesus’ parable is not unlike the professional heroes from My Hero Academia. He looks like a “hero” and has likely done many admirable things, but the Pharisee is still what Stain would call a false champion. We see in the Pharisee’s prayer that he was not offering thanks or even really talking to God. The prayer was just an opportunity to brag. Like the professional heroes in My Hero Academia, the Pharisee’s selfish motives invalidate his good deeds.
My Hero Academia, like Jesus’ parable, offers an alternative to the Pharisee. The alternative is not Stain’s violent rebellion, but All Might’s selfless heroism. Even though All Might is the world’s most famous hero, his fame is a tool for his heroism instead of the other way around. All Might’s ultimate act of heroism comes when he gives his quirk to Midoriya. As Midoriya gets stronger, All Might will get weaker. Instead of milking every moment of glory he can from his amazing power, All Might realizes it is time for him to hang up his cape. He sacrifices his own personal gain for the sake of an average student. This would be the equivalent of the Pharisee from Jesus’ parable giving his position to the tax collector.
As season 3 of My Hero Academia is underway, we’re learning if Midoriya will be able to meet All Might’s standard of heroism. Hopefully he can become better than the professional heroes that Stain despises. After all, the villain probably shouldn’t be the one making the most sense in a show about superheroes.