All Might vs. Superman: How Our Heroes Are Different

by Nik Freeman,

Superheroes are extremely popular right now. Regardless of how you feel about the trend of a new comic-based movie or television series premiering every five minutes, it's undeniable that cape-wearing do-gooders currently dominate pop culture. One of the latest products from this genre is My Hero Academia, an anime based off the Weekly Shonen Jump manga by Kōhei Horikoshi. My Hero comes fresh on the heels of another popular superhero anime, One-Punch Man, which debuted just six months prior to very enthusiastic reception.

Despite both running in the English version of Weekly Shonen Jump, the two superhero series couldn't be more different. My Hero Academia centers on a group of teenagers who attend a special academy to learn about being superheroes by using their special abilities. It's everything you might expect from a Shonen Jump adventure series - lots of action focus with regular moments of comic relief and a generally optimistic tone. The protagonist, Izuku Midoriya, is friendly, hard-working, and always willing to throw himself into danger to protect those who need his help. Like many Jump series, the plot is focused on its young protagonist's pursuit of his dreams.

One-Punch Man, on the other hand, is a parody of superhero comics. It's focused even more on action and humor than My Hero, but its humor has a cynical tone. Superheroes spend just as much time jockeying for position amongst themselves as they do combating threats to the city. The protagonist, Saitama, is very open about his ambivalence toward protecting the innocent, he just wanted to become a superhero for personal thrills, and he even tends to get bored of heroism a lot of the time. The humor mostly comes from his indifference toward titanic threats and the ease with which he dispatches them. In short, Saitama is just as apathetic about his superhero role as Izuku is passionate about it.

However, despite their giant differences in terms of tone and outlook, My Hero Academia and One-Punch Man share many elements of worldbuilding. In both stories, superheroes are a regular part of life. Many gain celebrity status through their heroic acts and use it to acquire fortune and fame. Each series features a massive organization dedicated to registering superheroes and regulating their activity, which even includes assigning ranks to heroes based on their strength and accomplishments. Both organizations also grant heroes their official names - My Hero allows heroes to choose, and One-Punch Man forcibly assigns them. Before joining these organizations, prospective heroes need to prove themselves worthy of being licensed professionals. In My Hero, the hero-training high school U.A. instructs students on how to master their abilities and handle public life as a superhero in general. In One-Punch Man, the process is not quite so rigorous, but prospective heroes must still pass an exam to prove they are physically and mentally capable of handling super-duties.

It's interesting that these two series have such different approaches to the superhero genre, but still share this core element, because the idea of any governing body regulating superhero activity has been the center of conflict in many recent American superhero works. In the latest DC movie Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman does not trust Superman, believing he will not always use his powers in humanity's best interest, while Superman distrusts Batman's flagrant disregard for the law in his own actions. The tension behind their different views on how each other's powers should be controlled eventually erupts into combat. The new Marvel film Captain America: Civil War explicitly features the Avengers being split into two factions because some of their members support government oversight and others oppose it. Now I'm simplifying the premise of both films by leaving out the specific and personal details behind each hero's catalyst for war, but both share the same philosophical differences between main characters. In both cases, the ultimate hook is that two popular heroes will fight each other, prompting moviegoers to pick sides in their battle.

But in the two hit Japanese superhero series, this matter of regulation is treated completely differently. It's simply an accepted part of the setting, and characters who do not submit to this regulation are paid little to no respect. In One-Punch Man, heroes who fail an official registration are treated as delusional lunatics, even if they successfully save the world multiple times. Saitama decides to get registered despite not caring if he receives glory for his actions - he simply goes along with the process because it's part of being a true hero in Japan. There is a conflict in My Hero Academia over the matter of superhero regulation, as an alliance of villains rises up in opposition to how superheroes are restricted by the law. But this conflict is very different from those portrayed by Marvel and DC. In American superhero stories, the faces of anti-regulation are Superman and Captain America, two of the strongest symbols of good in superhero history. In My Hero Academia, the face of anti-regulation looks like this:

So while American superheroes debate whether or not a commission of overseers should have a say in their actions, Japanese superheroes seem to be in agreement that they should be regulated and anyone opposed to that is crazy. Unsurprisingly, if you pose a similar real-life equivalent of that question to the same two groups, they'll likely react in similar ways. As many have observed before me, superheroes are akin to modern-day Greek gods. Despite being superhuman, many of their attitudes and conflicts reflect their creators' real-life culture. Superheroes reflect the values and hopes of the world they originate from, while supervillains represent their fears and insecurities. Sometimes the real-life meaning represented by superhero metaphors can even change over time - anti-mutant prejudice in Marvel Comics has been a story element for decades, and as times have changed, it has been used as an allegory for racism, homophobia, and basically every form of bigotry in an evolving world. Even characters and storylines that are not deliberately symbolic are often influenced by the beliefs of their creators.

So whatever laws you would theoretically put in place to define what a superhero can and cannot do might also reflect your opinion of when it is appropriate to use extreme or deadly force to resolve conflict. When should Izuku, Saitama, Superman, and Captain America be permitted to use their superhuman strength, and how much force should they be allowed to use? What checks and balances should be in place to ensure that they use their powers responsibly? What conditions would disqualify them from being allowed to use their powers? Should benevolent heroes be allowed more freedom to use their powers for good, or would trusting them too much create a threat to people's safety? Obviously, there are no real-life examples of superhero laws to answer these questions. But if you instead consider how the United States and Japan have approached gun control laws, you start to get an idea of why DC/Marvel superheroes and Shonen Jump superheroes exist in such different settings.

The USA and Japan are about as different as it gets in their treatment of firearms. In Japan, citizens are not allowed to own guns of any kind, while in America, the ability to own guns is one of the foremost rights afforded to all civilians. There are many regulations and clauses that provide exceptions to both laws - Japanese citizens can own and use some types of guns, while American citizens are not allowed to own some types or carry them in certain places - but the two nations approach the matter from completely opposite angles. As a result, Japan has one of the lowest guns per capita counts in the developed world, while America has the single highest, the only nation that possesses more than one gun per citizen.

Now before anyone gets worried that this is all going to turn too political, I'm not here to claim that either nation is doing it better or worse than the other. The point is just to illustrate how different people are, well, different. America and Japan's starkly different attitudes toward guns are rooted in their different cultures and histories. Going back to the Greek gods comparison for a moment, consider Ares, the god of war. Many Greek myths involving Ares depict him as a cruel barbarian, but also a coward who would flee to Olympus after suffering the smallest of wounds. These first stories regarded him with contempt, but Ares was viewed very differently by the Spartans, who considered him a model soldier, and his Roman equivalent, Mars, was considered great and valorous, among the most important gods in the Roman pantheon. When you consider that Sparta was the most military-based of the Greek city-states, and that the Roman Empire conquered many territories over the course of centuries, these more positive interpretations of Ares make perfect sense. A symbol can represent the same thing to two different cultures, but get depicted differently based on how those cultures feel about it.

For the United States, ownership of firearms has been an integral civilian right since the founding of the country. Following the Revolutionary War, people were distrustful of a powerful central government. Firearms were - and often still are - seen as a means to prevent the government from overstepping its bounds and betraying individual rights in America. That attitude is almost unique to the United States, so it seems appropriate that the anti-regulation view in DC/Marvel stories is defended by the patriotic faces of Captain America and Superman. In contrast, there are few positive moments in Japan's history associated with the use of firearms. Strict gun control has been a constant in the nation, enduring through multiple governing regimes across hundreds of years. The last major regime change occurred after the end of World War II, which left Japan so devastated that a new law was written decreeing that it would never declare open war again. For one nation, guns are associated with the ability to fight for personal freedom when all else fails; lacking that association, the other nation focuses on their negative, dangerous qualities.

These differing attitudes toward guns reflect our feelings on superheroes not only in terms of existing laws, but even how the public feels about those laws. Gun control in the US has been a matter of political discourse for decades. It's an incredibly divisive issue, constantly a point of contention among politicians, lobbyists, and just ordinary citizens who disagree. Some consider it essential to preserve the right of citizens to bear arms, while others argue that the deaths caused by guns outweigh the value of that right. There are seemingly endless opinions on gun control issues, with no end to the debate in sight. But in Japan, even gun enthusiasts support strict gun control, that guns should only be used for hunting or sport, never for self-defense unless you are a licensed officer of the law. Sure, there are a number of people calling for lighter restrictions on guns, but it's hardly a predominant movement pressing for the ability of every adult civilian to own firearms.

This is why in Batman vs. Superman and Civil War, superheroes are treated as a relatively new concept - it's a means to introduce a sharp division of opinions into the story. Nobody really knows what to do about superheroes yet, and they even fight one another because there's no consensus opinion on the right approach for government to take. Just like with guns, some believe that superhuman powers can be used to protect the innocent and combat staggering threats, so restricting those powers would be wrong; others believe that those same powers used irresponsibly could cause great harm, so they need to be controlled properly. Confusion and disagreement are the status quo, whereas in My Hero Academia and One-Punch Man, society has had more time to adjust to the existence of heroes and superpowers, and they've already decided what to do about them. There was a time in that setting where the same confusion existed, but that story is not the one being told, because it doesn't resonate with Japanese society's modern relationship with dangerous force. Japan is concerned with different issues right now, and so are its superheroes.

Heroes - super or not - are defined by the values they represent. Our ability to root for heroes is dependent on how much we can identify with what they represent and how they fight for it. When creators come at their stories with different values, the heroes they create will inevitably be different from each other. Superheroes are the most symbolically charged type of hero, accomplishing tasks that normal people can't, because they are not bound by the limits of humanity. When these far more powerful figures represent different ideals, they also contrast with one another far more sharply. Japanese superheroes, even if they're modeled after Superman, might not stand for truth, justice, and the American way. Instead, Izuku and Saitama represent values like humility and dedication to self-improvement. By examining the values of our favorite heroes, we can gain insight into how we feel about the cultures around us.

So who are your favorite superheroes from America, Japan, or anywhere else in the world, and why? Let us know how you feel in the forums!

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