one punch man movie

(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

The term “superhero fatigue” is usually brought up and discussed when a new superhero movie hits theaters. Now that we have no superhero movies (or movies of any kind!) coming out for the next few months, many people are starting to miss having a big, bombastic action movie starring people with superpowers. In the meantime, you can always turn to anime to provide enough exhilarating fun to forget that you’re staring at your TV and not the silver screen.

This brings us to One Punch Man, one of the few shows of the last decade that managed to cross over to the mainstream, or at least as close to it as an anime goes. Just like its titular hero, One Punch Man the anime comes from an unlikely origin story. It is based on a webcomic from a no-name manga author that goes only by the moniker ONE. The story follows a young, bald, average-looking man called Saitama. He’s trained so hard that he’s become the strongest being in the universe, a man capable of defeating anyone or anything with just one punch (hey, that’s the title of the show!). Though he’s a superhero for fun, Saitama no longer finds any joy in doing what he does, his only wish is to face someone that can challenge him.                         

We’ve covered some heavy-handed shows in this column, so if what you need is a good laugh, don’t look any further, because One Punch Man offers all the thrills of a high-budget Marvel movie, but with an absurd amount of laughs not really found in the genre. 

What Makes It Great

It is often said that with anime you need to watch 3 episodes of a show before deciding whether to commit to it or drop it, but in the case of One Punch Man all you need is half the first episode. From its opening scene, the show takes what we know about both the superhero and the shonen genres, and turns it on its head. When a monster starts attacking a city and heroes get defeated, our only hope is a single hero named Saitama. He looks nothing like Superman, Iron Man, or even Goku. Indeed, he’s an average-looking guy, not really tall, talks with an awkward and not very commanding voice, and very much unlike Goku — he’s bald. Yet he moves at incredible speed to save a little girl, and also completely obliterates the monster with a single punch. But instead of throwing his fist up in the air to celebrate his victory, he falls to his knees and screams “Damn it!” because, once again, he only needed one punch to kill his enemy. 

There are tons of tropes and clichés normally found in superhero and shonen stories that One Punch Man subverts and pokes fun at, and it all starts with this one scene and this one guy who has grown so powerful he no longer finds any joy in life. It’s pretty much like the end of an RPG video game where you find that nothing can kill you and the game is no longer challenging, presented with a fair amount of Looney Tunes-like antics and physics. 

You would be forgiven for thinking such a concept is pretty limited and would get tired really fast. But despite knowing how every battle will end up, One Punch Man finds a way to subvert expectations and find new ways to make an indestructible guy kill monsters fun. This is mostly done by using Saitama as a plot device to help the show’s ensemble cast grow and develop. From characters who are inspired by seeing Saitama’s incredible feats of strength, or those who think he’s a fraud because there’s no way a guy can get that powerful with such a simple routine. There’s also the show’s focus on the mundane life of Saitama. Because he’s a hero for fun, his biggest worries are not what the villains are up to, or how to save the world, but how to pay rent and whether or not he can make it in time to the big sale at the supermarket, and the show manages to make the lack of tension work because it’s constantly providing laughs. 

Then there’s the animation. You know how shows like Gundam try to comment on the horrors of war, but end up making the robot fight scenes look so cool you end up wanting more despite how traumatic they are for the child pilots? One Punch Man goes the opposite direction. It uses a bit of an unconventional team of animators, grabbing freelancers from a variety of backgrounds that are masters of their different crafts to give us incredibly epic action scenes while constantly cutting away to Saitama looking superbly bored. That way it comments on how, where every other person on the planet would look at a fight scene like this and think “wow that is so cool” Saitama finds no joy in it because there is no challenge or difficulty. As Jacob Chapman said in his review of the first season finale for Anime News Network, it’s like if you take the nonsensical way every young kid tries to describe the big battle in a superhero movie, and turn it into reality. 

What It Brings to the Conversation

Though not incredibly deep by any stretch of the imagination (this is still very much a comedy, after all), One Punch Man does try to comment on heroism and what exactly makes a hero. During much of the first season, we see Saitama fight against incredible opponents and save citizens of various cities, only for the people to either credit someone else with saving them, or outright think Saitama cheated somehow. He pretty much takes a Batman in The Dark Knight approach and agrees to take all the blame, as long as people don’t lose hope in heroes.

That being said, the show also has something to say about a world where superheroes are organized. Unlike My Hero Academia where the vast majority of people have superpowers, here it is regular people with out of the ordinary skills, people with cybernetic augmentations, and a handful of superhumans that become heroes. But the way they are organized, with a ranking based on tests and popularity, means that certain heroes gang up on newcomers to prevent them from going up in the charts, which is not very heroic. Likewise, season two, though underwhelming animation-wise, does offer the closest the show has to an antihero. We are introduced to a guy named Garou, which essentially acts as the Vegeta to Saitama’s Goku, and wants to destroy heroes because he’s always seen monsters and villains as the underdogs, and the heroes as bullies. The show doesn’t spend too much time with this, but it’s an interesting subversion of superhero tropes, and of course, it comes with fantastically funny visual gags. 

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

Like My Hero Academia, you don’t have to know a lot about anime to get into One Punch Man, as its parodying of the superhero genre is universal enough that anyone can get into it. The jokes land incredibly well and the animation is gorgeous and hype-building. That being said, be warned that the show sadly does suffer from outdated racial and queer stereotypes that are completely out of place, but past that is a world full of epic fights, and one man who can’t catch a break.

Watch This If You Like: My Hero Academia, Kick-Ass, Deadpool

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One Punch Man is now streaming on Netflix and Hulu.

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