The League of Villains speeds down a mountain highway with heroes in off-brand Ford Mustangs in pursuit, trading gunfire and blasts of flame. Just as their truck careens off a cliff side – enveloped in flames by Endeavor, the new #1 Hero – the villains and their cargo are whisked away. Their cargo, as it turns out, is a new villain: “Nine (Yoshio Inoue).” He and his crew strike a dramatic pose. Thus, the audience is assured that My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising won’t be an extended beach episode.
Far off the coast on the idyllic Nabu Island, we join the extended beach episode in progress. Thankfully, it’s more restrained than that. Instead of basking bikini clad in the sun for Mineta (Ryô Hirohashi) and his sweaty cohort, (almost) everyone is hard at work. We see them handling the sort of low-level tasks that seem unusually appropriate for fledgling heroes. Nabu Island’s needs are simple, but their resident hero retired. This presents a training opportunity for UA High’s Hero Class 1-A. Without any support from professional heroes or UA faculty, they’re left to handle the depleted batteries and lost pets plaguing Nabu Island’s residents. It’s exhausting work that isn’t particularly entertaining to watch, making it easy to sympathize with Katsuki Bakugo (Nobuhiko Okamoto). He refuses to do anything beyond patrolling for villains.
It’s through these simple labors that we finally learn the movie’s stakes. Nine is a Quirk thief, and he needs a blood type specific healing Quirk possessed by a young boy living on Nabu Island. Obviously, Izuku Midoriya (Daiki Yamashita) has already formed a bond with the boy, Katsuma (Yuka Terasaki). Katsuma’s sister, Mahoro (Tomoyo Kurosawa), fears the dangerous world of heroes and villains. She’ll be the one to win over. Bakugo watches from the sidelines, sharing the dreams of Izuku and Katsuma but burning with too much masculine pride to express it.
Eventually, Nine and his villain squad make landfall, laying waste to Nabu Island in their hunt for Katsuma. The squad – Mummy (Kôsuke Toriumi), Slice (Mio Imada) and Chimera (Shunsuke Takeuchi) – vary pretty widely in the threat they pose. They all feel derivative in a way that’s less of a wink and more of a shoulder shrug. Chimera, at least, is a lot of fun to watch. He has all the potency of his mythological inspiration. My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising gives hints of an ideological motivation for his violent devotion to Nine. Slice is just another redhead with prehensile weaponized hair. Mummy wraps things in his bandages turning them into a horde of puppets. This strongly evokes the Naruto villain Sasori but with none of the strength.
Mostly, these characters are the sideshow to give disparate squads of UA students opportunities to show their skills in planning and teamwork. It’s fun to see them outmatched. Thus, they have to rely on one another while using the full extent of their abilities. However, the heart of the film beats in the classic shonen rivalry between Izuku and Bakugo.
The strongest moments are when Deku and Bakugo are clashing, commiserating and cooperating. Their relationship has felt so secondary in the show’s story line for so long. It’s truly refreshing to see them play the hits here and even break some new ground. While their classmates are dealing with the rabble, Bakugo and Deku face off against the impenetrable Nine. Their clash is the climax of the film. Thankfully, it fully delivers on the visual spectacle and emotional manipulation I want from a fight in My Hero Academia. There are shocking, gripping moments that really exploit what’s exciting about a rivalry between fated youths. These moments call back to the earliest days of their heroic ambitions. Even though their opponent is ultimately a knockoff All-For-One, he serves as a suitable obstacle for these boys to surmount together.
All of that feeds directly into a disappointing ending for My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising. A shonen series getting a movie with lasting narrative impact is unusual enough as to be unexpected. My attitude walking in – to borrow words from Carl Brutananadilewski – was, “It don’t matter. None of this matters.” These movies are an opportunity to play on some unusual character pairings or juice some existing character dynamics. Simultaneously, more time and money is dumped into the animation. However, they’re rarely drawn from the main story or expected to contribute to it. Still, ending with a character just conveniently forgetting the pivotal moments of their adventure feels extremely cheap. These are things they could have easily remembered without bringing up in conversation later. There was no need to showcase their abundantly apparent pride and thinly veiled honor (yes, I’m talking about Bakugo), let alone stoop to a brief bout of amnesia.
Wiping the slate clean at the end is expected in a story like this, though. The more surprising disappointment is Nine and company. If there’s one thing I expect from these sorts of villains, whether in manga, a TV show or a movie, it’s a tragic backstory underpinning their ideology. Chimera offers the thinnest slice of motivation. Meanwhile, Mummy and Slice are just kind of there. To cap it off, Nine gives the most boilerplate villain speech about destroying the world so the strong can rebuild. It falls completely flat. He doesn’t even have the sinister charisma of his forebears, All-For-One and Tomura Shigaraki (Koki Uchiyama).
Nine’s actions throughout My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising are dictated by his need for healing. Even before the League of Villains amplified his abilities, using a Quirk would injure him. This similarity to Izuku is never explained. The root of this inherent weakness is never explored nor how it would feed into a worldview of “only the strong may survive.” There’s just a void there, and all that’s offered to fill it is essentially, “I’d like to intentionally do Mad Max now, because.” Villains from the worst filler arcs are given more pathos. Still, he’s grist for the mill, and what a mill it is.
This review was originally published 2/24/20