One of the most common complaints about Superman is that he’s boring because he’s too powerful. I don’t buy into this at all; I think that, if you know what you’re doing, you can make Supes’s power level into the very thing that makes him compelling.
One Punch Man is an illustration of that principle.
Meet Saitama; an ordinary salaryman who decides to take up heroism as a hobby, since he loves nothing better than to challenge himself. Somehow or other, he ends up becoming so insanely powerful that he can defeat any foe with only one punch, meaning that, by the time we meet him, hero work has becoming boring and frustrating for him; like a video game where he’s stuck on god-mode with infinite ammo. He ends up more or less going through his days in a stupor, trying to muster the energy to keep himself going while dreaming about facing an opponent who can actually give him a decent fight.
One day he crosses paths with an earnest young hero named Genos, a cyborg seeking vengeance on whoever destroyed his village and whom Saitama more or less stumbles into taking on as an apprentice. Together they enter the official hero organization and begin moving up the ranks and tackling bigger and bigger threats, though to his frustration, none of them prove the slightest obstacle to Saitama (it gets to the point where the camera cuts away when Saitama faces the monster of the week, since we all know what’s going to happen).
The central joke of the series, of course, is that Saitama is really just too darn powerful, which results in a lot of gleefully over-the-top results when the monsters explode into gory chunks when he hits them. The show also finds various creative ways to show off his insane strength, as when he carves a hole in a mountain just with the wind off of one of his punches (though a particularly funny gag has him taking on a single mosquito, which proves to be one of his greatest challenges).
Once he enters the official hero ranks, in fact, Saitama proves so powerful and so disinterested that he soon gains a reputation as a cheat or a fraud; it’s all so easy for him that people suspect he’s not really doing any of it and he gets no credit for his heroics. This further frustrates him, as one of the main reasons he entered the program in the first place was so that people might finally start to appreciate him.
Two things stood out to me about this series. The first was how they managed to keep his victories satisfying, even as he’s never in the slightest danger at any point in the story. Mostly this is done by making the monsters as smug, as boastful, and as brutal as possible. We see them tearing through civilians and the other heroes, while laughing and giving grandiose speeches about how terrifying and unstoppable they are. Then Saitama shows up, they laugh at him, and…
(I also appreciate that Saitama spares enemies who surrender or admit defeat)
A late-season two-part storyline about a sea monster is particularly good in this regard. We see this thing beating hero after hero, each of whom is fighting his hardest, but can’t cause any serious damage to this smug, arrogant creature. Then, partway through the battle, he finds his way to a shelter for civilians and proceeds to try to kill them all for no reason, even spitting an acid glob at a little girl for no other reason than that she was cheering for the heroes. The good guys are pouring everything they have into stopping him, but he just keeps coming, keeps knocking them around almost without even trying. Genos is the only one who even seems to give him a challenge. Then, just when things are at their worst, Saitama shows up and lets the thing have a free shot at him without any effect before…well, doing what he does.
The show lets us experience that sense of desperation, of hopelessness, and of just how hateful the monster is. It shows off what is basically an unstoppable bully preying on helpless innocents and then just as things look hopeless, it confronts him with a hero that he has absolutely no chance of defeating. We know that the good guys have won and the day is saved the moment Saitama arrives, but the monster doesn’t, and so we get to enjoy the prospect of him gloating while knowing he’s about to get his comeuppance.
This sequence also shows off the other aspect that stood out to me. As noted, the other heroes throw everything they have against the sea monster, all to no avail. Then, after Genos has been beaten and is about to be killed, one final hero shows up: Mumen Rider, the Cyclist for Justice! He is literally nothing but a guy on a bike, and not even a particularly skilled or strong guy on a bike. He shows up to a fight with a monster that has recently shrugged off blows sufficient to vaporize a skyscraper, and he throws his bike at it. He then takes it on in a one-on-one fight to try to save the cowering civilians and his crippled fellow hero.
Now, in just about any other show, especially a comedy, the point would be how stupid and suicidally overconfident Mumen Rider was, and how ridiculous the whole idea of costumed heroes is to begin with. But not here. Here it’s one of the most heartfelt and moving scenes in the show, as the man stands up knowing full well that he will lose this fight, but he still gives it everything he has. Because that’s what heroes do.
The point, the show argues, is not whether you win or lose; it’s not about whether you succeed or fail. It’s about your willingness to show up and give it your all; to “muddle through” as one character puts it. The heroes are heroes, not because they always win, but because they always fight.
Saitama himself sums it up perfectly: “If the heroes run and hide, who will stand and fight?” You see what I’m talking about? The show is basically a parody, but it knows what real heroism is and it succeeds in making it appear truly admirable even amidst all the comedy and absurdity.
Then, after the battle, Saitama does something else truly heroic. I won’t spoil it, because it’s a great moment, but it’s a reminder that heroism isn’t just a matter of standing up to danger. Saitama’s physically invincible, for all we can see. But he can still be heroic by laying down his own cares, his own desires, and his own comfort for the good of others.
This, by the way, was what Captain Marvel was missing (well, one of many, many things): Danvers never makes a sacrifice, never gives up anything she wanted, never puts other people’s interests or needs before her own even once, meaning that her ‘heroism,’ such as it is, is purely a matter of her powers; because she can do things no one else can simply because the script says she can, so the ‘inspiring’ conclusion is that she realizes she has the power to blow up alien space ships without breaking a sweat. With One-Punch Man, that’s the premise and the question is how he can actually be heroic or even invested when he’s all-powerful, which leads to the question of what makes a hero in the first place.
Of course, the show is primarily a comedy, and a lot of the humor revolves around the show recognizing and having fun with its own absurdities. At one point, Saitama meets “the most powerful telekinetic in the universe!” And proceeds to comment, “you’re just throwing pebbles around. Anyone can do that.” One of my favorite moments has Saitama revealing the secret of his strength, which is so ridiculously anti-climactic that Genos starts angrily pointing out that it’s literally impossible that that’s the truth of his power.
Also a lot of humor comes from Saitama’s asocial, detached personality, especially in contrast with the earnest Genos. With his extreme power, Saitama often ends up getting preoccupied with seemingly meaningless details, such as when a monster bursts into his apartment and he punches its head off…because it broke his ceiling. This then becomes his primary motivation for the ensuring battle. Later, in the midst of a battle with an immensely powerful foe, he realizes he may have made a crucial mistake; he may have missed bargain day!
I also like the gags involving Saitama’s would-be rival Speed-of-Sound Sonic (“Who would have such a redundant name?”), a ninja for hire who, finding that his super-speed and ninja skills don’t work on Saitama, determines that he will beat him some day! Needless to say, though he always escapes with his life, it is rarely with his dignity. Meanwhile, Saitama really cannot be bothered and treats the whole thing as a minor annoyance at best.
There is also some more…off-color humor. Saitama and some of the other characters end up naked a few times when their clothes get blasted off. A character called ‘Puri-Puri Prisoner’ is a hulking, flamboyantly homosexual superhero who ends up naked every time he appears (nothing graphic, thanks to some strategic camera angles) and has a good deal of related humor (he is played mostly for laugh, though is a very powerful hero).
Of course there’s the gore factor as well, as Saitama’s punches turn his enemies into bloody chunks or splatters them into red smears against a wall, while the monsters themselves are often gleefully grotesque and produce effects to match. Basically, the content is something to be aware of before you go in.
Then of course, the whole story isn’t told in the first season, and there are some big threads left hanging and several characters who are clearly being set up for roles later on, but since I’ve only seen the first season, I can’t comment on what happens later on. Personally, I found the story I got satisfying enough as it that I don’t feel any urgent need to press on despite the poor word on the subsequent seasons. That is to say, the first season of One Punch Man is an excellent piece of work, both very funny and surprisingly heartfelt, and that’s good enough for me.