The greatest pillar holding up the entirety of Japanese manga series My Hero Academia is All Might. He represents a classic superhero archetype and is at the heart of the series' core appeal. Imagine Superman filtered through the lens of shonen #manga and you have All Might.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate #Superman. But he is a very difficult character for many writers to work with. For years people have accused the Man of Steel of being boring, saying he’s just too good and perfect, and because of this he’s the least interesting character in the DC Universe.
He’s not as cool as someone like the dark and brooding Batman. The easiest tactic that many creators have used in some of Superman's modern incarnations is to try to make him a brooding, edgy mass murderer who snaps villains' necks, slams warlords into concrete, or literally rips the Joker’s heart from his chest.
The Problem with 'Edgy' Superman
Earnest sincerity is perhaps the most difficult thing to sell in our post-modern cultural landscape, seeing as how it can often be accused of cheesy schmaltz.
That’s not to say there haven’t been great Superman stories. Writers like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Max Landis have all offered compelling variations on the character. But that brings me back to All Might and what makes him such a wonderful inversion of the archetype that the public has largely thumbed their noses at.
If All Might was just the all-powerful, super-strong demigod beating up the downtrodden villains of the world of My Hero Academia, he wouldn’t be as good of a character as he is. No, the secret sauce to All Might is quickly revealed in the very first episode of the #anime.
The Truth About All Might's Appeal
We learn very quickly that his muscled form is just a facade. That his true form is a scrawny skeletal man barely clinging to life as he perpetually hacks up blood. His years of superheroics have taken their toll, with parts of his body literally torn out of his chest. He’s lost most of his stomach and a good portion of his lungs. He’s living out a miserable existence as his mutilated body refused to keep up with his formerly cheerful physique.
All Might's muscled physique is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Toward the beginning of the series he can barely hold his superhero form for more than three hours a day. But this is the component that makes him so interesting. All Might is introduced to us as a being fighting a battle not against some epic villain, but against his own failing body. And it’s a battle he’s never likely to win.
Giving #superheroes limitations and weaknesses is always a great tool to help increase drama, and All Might’s limitations and real form serve as a ticking clock for tragedy. His greatest strength and biggest weakness is the fact that he will never give up or back down. His inability to let go of his status as the symbol of peace means that he is always fighting against his limitations and health.
What Makes A True Manga Hero
As a longtime fan of shonen manga, nothing gets me more hyped than seeing a character pushed beyond their physical limits. To see them put their values on the line as they become battered and blood soaked, forced to push forward against insurmountable odds. It’s something we see all the time in the genre, but only the really great manga authors are capable of pulling off this trope.
Most of the time we see the lasting consequences of an especially brutal bout taken away within a few seconds. A character can break all their bones, sustain critical life-threatening injuries, but after a few bandages they're good to go.
That’s not the case with All Might. His power is one that is continuously fading. His actions are painful and have drastic consequences in the long run, with the time he can maintain his muscle form decreasing with each strenuous bout.
But still he persists, his unwavering commitment to his responsibility as the symbol of peace is what makes him go above and beyond the typical Superman-style strongman archetype. The fact that the same passion still brims within the dark hollow eyes of his skeletal form is what makes him such a beautifully tragic hero as well as the best mentor figure you could ever ask for in a shonen manga.
All For One Vs One For All
This all culminates in my favorite scene in the manga thus far, one that I can’t wait to see studio bones animate. Later in the series we see All Might come into conflict with his immortal rival, the man who’s Quirk-stealing ability is indirectly responsible for creating his superpower, "One For All."
Simply known as All For One, he is the great villainous mastermind behind Tomura Shigaraki. All For One comes to save his apprentice from a full-scale hero raid and the two titans finally clash.
All For One is everything you could ask for in a final boss villain. He’s got a bitching suite. He’s got that awesome mask which just screams dark overlord. He has multiple Quirks that he can stack together to create absolutely ridiculous attacks. He’s basically the satan of the My Hero Academia world. Not only does he pose a physical threat to All Might, but he also attacks him mentally, goading him with debilitating revelations about his past.
As the fight wears on and city blocks are leveled, All Might’s strength begins to waver. His real form is exposed in full public view. The world is shocked to see him revealed as an emaciated skeleton. His eternal fiery rival Endeavor is enraged to see the true form of the man he could never surpass. But as the shock dissipates there is a lone woman amid the rubble. She starts to shout, “Don’t lose, All Might, please help!” Then the crowd erupts in a chorus of cheers.
“Win, All Might”
“You can do it!”
“We believe in you!”
All that is good and right in the world is resting on All Might's shoulders and even though the power within is a dying light growing ever dimmer, he pushes himself beyond what his failing body can muster to land one last blow — and he triumphs against the ultimate evil. But with this last show of strength his power vanishes forever, bringing about an end to the symbol of peace.
This is what takes All Might beyond his generic origins. The fact that he is perpetually fighting against the dying light of his body and the faltering limitations of his powers are what make him a figure worthy of the Superman mantel. The best heroes aren’t the one’s who murder and maim their opponents. They're the one’s who risk life and and limb for something greater than themselves. There’s a reason why people still remember the train scene from Spider-Man 2. There’s a reason why Captain America standing up to Loki in the #Avengers is the first scene where that movie really starts to click.
This is the ideal of heroism that has not been degraded by post-modern deconstructive cynicism, but the kind of heroism that, while unrealistic and often tragic when seen in the real world, serves as a greater ideal for our less-than-ideal selves to strive for. That is why All Might is the hero we deserve and the one we need.
Do you have a favorite anime or manga character? Sound off in the comments below.