This article contains spoilers for My Hero Academia in its discussion of the series’s villains.
My Hero Academia is a wonderfully over-the-top series with memorable characters and high-octane action set pieces. It follows Izuku “Deku”’ Midoriya, a boy who lives in a world populated with superpowered beings. He was born without a superpower (“quirk”) of his own, but after a chance encounter with his idol, premier superhero All Might, Midoriya is entrusted with an incredible quirk. From there a wild adventure begins. However, a lot of mainstream superhero stories in recent years seem to have problems creating fully realized villains. So when I discovered My Hero Academia when it first aired back in 2016, I was awestruck by the story and the heroes, but what really brought me in was its villains.
The place to start is with All for One, a despicable and dastardly villain who wants nothing less than everything. He’s malicious, is touted as the very seed of evil within the world of My Hero Academia, and has connections throughout the history of both heroes and villains. He is literally the antithesis of the quirk All Might draws upon, One for All.
Even when he is seemingly defeated, he still has a death grip on the world, in the shape of Tomura Shigaraki. Shigaraki has lost so much because of the society that has been born from quirks. The legacy of his grandmother destroyed him before he was even born. So, when push comes to shove, he takes up the legacy of the very man who killed her. By becoming an unwitting tool for All for One, he continues the cycle of slow decay the world is trapped in.
While My Hero Academia does a sensational job with over-the-top villains like these two and their world-ending motivations, there is someone else far more chaotic. I am of course talking about Stain. Stain is perhaps the most influential villain in the narrative of My Hero Academia. This is because of what he represents: change. When he arrives on the scene, nobody thinks much of him; sure, he takes out a premier superhero, but it’s what happens when he is captured that cements him in infamy.
Stain states his reasoning for becoming a villain: He wishes to challenge the status quo. He believes that the heroes have become shadows of their former selves. They only care for sponsors; they’re decadent and bloated. The worrying element of this is he’s not completely wrong. And with that declaration, he stokes a fire in the tired, the lost, and the discarded within society. This new generation rises up and decides that now is their time.
One such character is Toya Todoroki — Dabi — who is perhaps my favorite character in My Hero Academia. There’s something about tragedy and a psychotic nature that just revs my engines.
What I’ve noticed about the heroes and villains of My Hero Academia is the theme of family, how family can shape a person and how their expectations can form a hero or a villain. Many of the most destructive villains are the ones who have been wronged by their families.
As the firstborn child, I understand the weight of expectations, and My Hero Academia has tapped into something all too real to portray the pain and horror within the latest part of its series. Within the horribly scarred body of Toya Todoroki is every firstborn child desperately trying to appease their parents, and when you don’t live up to those expectations, whether imagined or otherwise, it can be emotionally and physically crippling. There is something intimate about what drives Dabi. He doesn’t care about the world, and he has no great machinations. He simply wants to destroy the family that, he believes, rejected him. It’s phenomenal storytelling, told through a recognizable prism.
This latest arc of My Hero Academia has showcased the bizarre and the bold, with over-the-top action and visuals, but it’s the more intimate and heartbreaking stories such as Dabi’s that will be remembered. Through his villains, mangaka Kohei Horikoshi has put forward the ingredients that could create a despicable human being. Then by adding quirks that represent their scars, he gives their vengeance and their trauma an even more visceral gut punch.