Like “Death Note” before it I didn’t really intend to do a series of posts on “My Hero Academia”, which is indeed a series I talk about quite a lot. But, like then, I have more to say about the subject, and hopefully you will find it interesting as well. I am going to be discussing this fight as if you’ve seen the show up to this point, so if you haven’t, or haven’t read up to the end of the Overhaul arc in the manga, I suggest you do that before reading ahead.
I contend that the fight with Deku and the villain Muscular in season 2 of “My Hero Academia” is one of the most underrated in the series.
Personally I would put it above Deku vs. Bakugo 2 and the Stain fight in terms of sheer emotional impact (personally I thought Deku vs. Bakugo was too short, and in any case while the stakes were personal, which is why they worked, they also weren’t high – our hero loses, after all).
It isn’t as good as All Might vs. All for One or Deku vs. Todoroki, and I’m still unsure where I’d rank Deku vs. Overhaul (which was done very differently than the typical “My Hero Academia” fight), but the writing and construction of the fight is arguably the best of all of them.
No really, I’ll explain.
Deku vs. Muscular faced a problem: Nobody knows who Muscular is. We’d never met him before and haven’t met him since. He shows up, we learn (don’t even see) that he’s done bad things, and then he disappears from the story. Every other major fight mentioned above doesn’t have this issue: They all feature villains or antagonists previously established as threats in the narrative to greater or lesser degree (if not threats to society, legitimate threats to our hero in a one on one battle).
And there’s another issue. The best fights tell a compelling story; the problem is, this really doesn’t tell us anything about Deku we didn’t already know. We know that Deku would put everything on the line to save someone else. So what can this fight explore besides “Who can punch harder?”
To get around these limitations Horikoshi takes a couple chapters to set up the character of Koda, a young, bitter kid disillusioned with heroes and hero society after his parents died protecting people from villains – and at the hands of Muscular, no less. HE gets the character arc that works itself out through the fight, with Deku literally shattering, through pure strength of will and selfless desire, Koda’s view of heroes and hero society.
The addition of a narrative that’s worked out through the fight turns what is really a one-off filler fight into an incredibly moving and inspiring moment, one of my favorites in the whole series. It’s a very subtle trick most people probably didn’t register, but it’s absolutely brilliant writing.
And it gets better. Deku actually DOES have a character arc in this fight!. We just don’t know it yet until his much later fight with Bakugo. Seriously!
“My Hero Academia” has always emphasized that there are two sides to being a true hero, and especially, to being the Symbol of Peace that Deku is meant to become. One must be the selfless desire to save everybody – a quality Deku has in spades. But the OTHER half of this equation is the desire to achieve victory at all costs, which is something Deku struggles with.
This is partly due to the abuse he received at the hands of Bakugo as a child. Deku has repeatedly been told he’s worthless scum his entire life, literally better off dead than alive, and by someone he at one time considered a friend. While he had a mother that showed him sympathy and kept him sane he never had a father to teach him how to properly respond, and clung to All Might’s ideals as a way to find direction in his life.
So it’s not really surprising that Deku would die in a heartbeat if it meant saving someone else. His whole life he’s been told that’s all he’s good for, and while the desire to one day be a hero gave him enough of a purpose to avoid total despair, he still doesn’t see anything of value in himself beyond that desire to save people.
Like a lot of the characters in “My Hero Academia”, there is a lot more going on under the surface of Deku’s characterization than what first meets the eye. He fits a common shonen archetype, yes, but he’s more than just the archetype and through his flaws and motivations turns into a real, fleshed out individual that you can’t help but root for.
But I digress. Back to the Muscular fight.
For all of his flaws, Bakugo has that side of the Symbol of Peace that Deku lacks: The desire to win at all costs. Despite Deku’s current thinking on the subject, this is a necessary component of being a hero, which Deku will soon discover in the Muscular fight.
In the climactic (and gorgeously animated) moments of the fight, Deku begs Koda to run as Muscular slowly crushes him. His life flashes before him: He thinks of his mom. He thinks of All Might. His vision starts to fade…
Until he’s hit with a spurt of water. Koda hasn’t left. Muscular takes a moment to give Deku a bit of a reprieve as he promises Koda he’ll kill him as soon as he finishes with Deku: His final mistake.
Deku rises from the ground, the electricity of One for All crackling around his skin, as he yells – in the subtitled version – “AS IF I’D LET YOU KILL HIM!” Using a two fisted attack he sends Muscular flying, leading to the stunned realization of Koda: That Deku was his hero. An incredible ending to an incredible fight.
Again though, there is more going on here than meets the eye. One might be forgiven for thinking this moment came out of nowhere, that Deku should have lost, but that doesn’t tell the full story. Koda not leaving is what finally leads to Deku’s realization that being a hero can’t just involve self-sacrifice: It also needs to involve victory. If Deku hadn’t won the fight – not just held off Muscular and given him time to escape, but actually won, forced Muscular into a position where it was impossible for him to be a threat anymore – Koda would have died. Bakugo understands this desire for victory intuitively, but Deku had to learn it.
The brilliant thing about this – the point I have been trying to get at this whole, long-winded time – is that the significance of this scene isn’t really made clear until the Deku vs. Bakugo fight later in the story. Take a close look at the fight, as Deku admits that his “image of victory” is of Bakugo:
Notice something? They show an image of the Deku vs. Muscular fight!
And what does Bakugo say at the end of it?
“Like I’ll lose!”
Sound like somebody? Just like during Deku’s defeat of Muscular, Bakugo shouts his defiance into the air, his refusal to accept that his opponent can hope to surpass him. It was this quality of Bakugo’s that inspired Deku to victory in the Muscular fight.
You can even say this is why Deku lost the fight with Todoroki: He focused his real efforts on “saving” Todoroki by breaking through his psychological barriers but didn’t have that defiant refusal to lose that characterized Bakugo, and is the particular quality needed to be successful at sports.
There is a lot more to say about the characters and character writing in “My Hero Academia”, but I’ll leave it here for now. I will merely opine that thinking of the show as nothing but a fun-but-dumb shonen romp does it a disservice. There is much more going on under the surface than is often appreciated, and the fight with Muscular is an excellent example of the skillful storytelling and hidden depth of Horikoshi’s characters.
The manga has kept up its quality throught the run and I can’t wait to see what comes next. In the meantime let’s take a moment to appreciate just how good we’ve got it right now!