Character Arcs: Izuku Midoriya and Redefining the Shonen Underdog

“I’m no longer the useless Deku who can’t do anything right… I’m the Deku who gives it his all!!”

So there’s this show called My Hero Academia. You might have heard of it. It’s been one of the most consistently awesome shonen battle anime since it’s debut in 2016, and helped redefine the genre for a new generation of anime fans. While the series is mostly known for its epically over-the-top action sequences and its inspiration from American superhero comics, I think what really makes the show work is its quirky and lovable cast of characters. Everyone has at least at least one they love (Tsuyu/Froppy is my personal favorite), but I wanted to write about today is our main boy Izuku Midoriya. I think his character is fascinating, and helps redefine what we think of as being the archetypal shonen hero.

SPOILERS for the first 3 seasons of My Hero Academia upcoming! (I’m not discussing anything in season 4 or later in the manga for folks who aren’t caught up yet, but you really should catch up. It’s hella good.)

Shonen anime has had a ton of memorable spiky-haired protagonists over the years, from Naruto to Hunter x Hunter’s Gon Freecss, but almost all of them owe a huge debt to the big daddy of all classic shonen heroes, Dragon Ball‘s Son Goku. Akira Toriyama based Goku on Sun Wukong from the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, a trickster monkey king with superhuman strength and the ability to fly. Like his literary counterpart, Son Goku is a superpowered warrior with a comedic streak. He loves to eat, and he is so, so dumb. Despite his goofy exterior, though, Goku is hot-blooded as hell, incredibly loyal to his friends, and terrifying to face in combat. His character archetype is a great fit for kid-friendly action series about growing up, making friends, and persevering through whatever obstacles life may throw at you, and Dragon Ball‘s enormous success has made Goku’s character archetype popular in the shonen genre for decades now.

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And in Dragon Ball Z, Goku also kicked off the trend of absentee anime fathers so… yay for that, I guess?

What makes Midoriya stand out from the bunch is how little he has in common with Goku and the “Stock Shonen Hero”, at least at first glance. Far from being a hot-blooded, dumb jock character, our boy Deku is shy, socially awkward, and a huge nerd. He mutters to himself when he’s nervous and looks like a deer in headlights whenever he tries to talk to a girl. In the beginning of the series, he has no friends and is bullied by his childhood friend, Bakugo. And while Goku was naturally gifted with superhuman strength in a world of ordinary people, Deku starts out with no superpowers in a world full of them.

But he does have a few things in common with Goku, Gon and the rest of the great shonen heroes: his grit and determination to save people, no matter the odds. We see this as early as episode 2 where he, despite having no Quirks and no chance of winning, rushes in headfirst to save Bakugo. It’s an inspiring moment, not just to the audience but to his own hero, the loving Superman/Captain America homage All Might. Moved by the boy’s selfless bravery, he decides to name Deku as his successor and give him his quirk, One For All, giving Deku the chance to truly be the hero he has always aspired to be.

Starting the first of many times that Deku, and I, just lost it and started crying hysterically

Of course, that is only the beginning of Deku’s journey. He needs a lot more than a famous friend and the most powerful Quirk to be a hero. For the first season and a half, Deku can’t even use One For All without shattering half the bones in his arm. His lack of experience using his quirk forces him to play catch-up with the more “gifted” students in class 1-A, like Bakugo and Todoroki. And his youthful idealism is at odds with the hyper-capitalistic world he lives in, where heroes have to spend as much time making endorsement deals and promoting their “brand” as they do rushing into battle and saving innocent bystanders. While many shonen heroes like Goku or One Punch Man‘s Saitama have godlike power and status from Episode 1, all of Deku’s victories have to be tearfully, painfully earned. In the end, it’s not his Quirk that makes him a hero, but his selfless desire to help those in need.

And over the course of the series, we see that the aspects of Deku’s personality that previously held him back actually help to make him a stronger, smarter, and kinder hero. His geeky tendency to carry around notebooks and write down every superhero’s abilities show his uniquely analytical mind, which allows him to outmaneuver opponents with more strength and experience. And his status as a dorky social outcast actually makes him incredibly empathic, even to those who hate him at first. Who didn’t get emotional when Deku sacrificed everything to save Koda, a boy who despised all superheroes, at the end of the Forest Arc in Season 3?

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His fight with Muscular was straight fire!

So why would this change? Why, after the shonen protagonist formula became so successful, would creator Kohei Horikoshi want a hero who was so different from the norm? While I couldn’t find a ton of info about the author, seeing as most of it is only available in Japanese, I did find that while creating My Hero, Horikoshi was initially inspired by another teenage superhero who struggles with insecurity, self-doubt, and the responsibility that comes with great power. Yeah, there actually are a lot of parallels between Deku and Spider-Man! They even fill similar roles in their respective universe, as the lovable underdogs in a team full of rich and powerful supers.

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I know, I’m just as surprised as you are

Inspired by the unlikely success of our favorite web-slinging friend, Horikoshi created a superhero origin story that resonates with both kids and adults, in Japan and all over the world. And I think what makes Deku work as a hero is that he is so relatable. Sure, most of us can’t fly or shoot lasers from our bellybuttons – but I’m sure everyone who’s read or seen My Hero has felt insecure, weak, or lonely at some point in their lives. Deku’s insecurities make his character more grounded, even when the story involves all kinds of crazy superpowers. Deku’s struggle to overcome his flaws gives him a character arc that anyone, no matter their age or country of origin, can understand and cheer for.

And it’s not like Horikoshi abandoned the shonen hero archetype altogether – in fact, the character that most embodies the hot-blooded antics of Goku or Naruto is not Deku, but his rival, Katsuki Bakugo. Bakugo is hotheaded, loves to fight, and was born with an ultra-powerful explosion quirk – but he’s also a ruthless bully, and makes Deku’s life a living hell for seemingly no reason. His hotheadedness is often shown to be self-destructive and limiting of his true potential, and could easily lead him down to the path of outright villainy if not for his strong moral compass and desire to be like All Might. It’s not until the end of Season 3 that Deku and Bakugo begin to understand the truth behind their differences – a hero needs both Deku’s selfless desire to help others and Bakugo’s selfish desire to be the strongest in order to succeed in this world.

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Though they will probably never stop fighting anyways

I can relate to Deku a lot as a character. I was a shy, sensitive, nerdy kid. I got good grades in school, but I was socially awkward and had a hard time making friends. I was bullied a lot, but I always tried to be kind to others and stick up for other kids who were being mistreated. Seeing someone struggle with the same insecurities that I did in school become not just a hero, but the greatest hero, is incredibly empowering and validating. And Deku’s soaring popularity has inspired a new generation of shonen heroes, like Demon Slayer‘s Tanjiro or Emma from The Promised Neverland, who are equally compassionate and wear their hearts on their sleeves. My Hero Academia has changed the game in shonen anime, and a big part of that is how much it showed that you can cry or doubt yourself and still be an amazing hero.

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And I didn’t know where to put this in the post, but his mom is amazing and deserves all the love she gets in the fandom.

Phew! That was 1500 words spent analyzing a cartoon character in a kid’s show. I would love to know if you’d like this kind of in-depth character analysis from me in future posts, either from My Hero Academia or another great anime series. Let me know, and have an awesome day 🙂

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