Superhero parodies have been around for nearly as long as superheroes themselves. In their various forms, they have mocked, celebrated, condemned, and course-corrected the state of comic books and super hero fiction, at times all at once. The rise of globalization and the information age has contributed to the cross-pollination of superheroes and the satirical takes on them among different cultures, yielding unique and astounding results.
In this era of geek property multimedia dominance, where superheroes are figurative and literal Serious Business, it is perhaps more important than ever to have an element of satire and ludicrous parody that keeps things in proper perspective. I've recently become smitten with a serialized comic strip turned animated series from Japan that answers this call to action. In these trying times where even our greatest fictional heroes are falling prey to darkness and destruction, there is a hero out there that we both need and deserve. Who could it be? Believe it or not, it's One-Punch Man!
One-Punch Man centers on a hero by the name of Saitama, an ordinary man by most measures who dons the incredibly goofy looking costumed persona of One-Punch Man to defend the Earth from evil. As his name suggests, Sataima's power is an almost incomprehensible level of superhuman strength that allows him to defeat any opponent with a single punch. Right from the start, One-Punch Man skewers the Anime Otaku obsession with never ending power leveling and narrative power creep, as well as the universal fanboy obsession with hyper-stylized action heroes in gritty overlong bloodstained battles full of masochistic sacrifice. One-Punch Man appears in a flash and disposes of enemies as quickly as he arrives, faster than the time it takes for a normal hero to spout off a cool one-liner or for a villain to finish his melodramatic monologue.
You would think that this one-note joke premise would get old immediately, but what makes One-Punch Man so effective is the breadth of material it parodies, digging deep into the wells of Japanese pop culture, Shonen Manga, Anime cliches, and the tropes of western superheroes. The very first scene of One-Punch Man is a prime example of this pop cultural excavation, which involves a super powered alien invader directly modeled after the race of Nameks from the popular series Dragon Ball Z, voiced by the original actor behind the famous super villain known as Frieza. This is analogous to the legacy cameo casting of actors from previous Superman iterations such as Annette O' Toole, Dean Cain, or Helen Slater into newer Super-properties. Though of course, unlike the 20+ episodes it takes to defeat Frieza, Saitama obliterates the villain faster than you can say "cold open". In One-Punch Man everything from obscure Saturday morning breakfast mascots to the DC/Marvel Pantheon to Akira Kurosawa is revered and lampooned in equal measure.
Despite being a comedy, One-Punch Man manages to establish dramatic stakes and a real sense of danger thanks to its handle on tone. In this fictional universe, most of Earth's inhabitants reside on a super-continent delineated into geographical zones, designated by letters of the alphabet (City A, B, etc.) The planet is under constant attack by mad scientists, rampaging Kaiju, intergalactic conquerors, and all manner of existential threats. Yet in the face of such constant danger, there is a heavy dose of the mundane which counterbalances the dread. After all, if you live under the constant threat of total destruction, and there was nothing you any normal person could do to stop it, wouldn't it make more sense to live out your life like any other normal day? In this regard, One-Punch Man turns the monster of the week concept on its ear, making it feel more like a day at the office, which is ultimately what every long form superhero serial really comes down to. The threat is always real, but the recontextualization of that threat into the mundane every day life goes a long way.
With that ever present threat understood, it is established that Saitama can and will kill as necessary, but he will just as often show compassion and mercy in any given situation. Unlike other overwrought superhero stories packed with heavy ruminations on vigilante justice, One-Punch Man shows Saitama to be a practical, reasonable and (mostly) responsible individual. Just the same, when his super-heroics seem to go overboard, he is taken to task for the collateral damage caused. At certain points he is misconstrued as an outright villain, while others see him as a fraud appropriating the feats of other heroes as his own.
Interestingly, Saitama expresses being "a hero for fun" as his main motivation, but his good nature shines through when it really counts despite his off-putting demeanor. At one point, after vanquishing a fierce monster who had defeated a multitude of heroes prior to his intervention, Saitama chooses to proclaim that his success was due to the other heroes "softening up the bad guy" (even though it's clear to us that they were completely ineffectual), rather than having the populace lose faith in the selfless heroes who put their lives on the line. This subtlety in strength of character is something all too often overlooked in super heroes stories. There is great emphasis on very broad binary good versus evil conflicts, but One-Punch Man shows that these smaller interpersonal struggles and expressions of humility are just as important to the integrity of a true hero.
One-Punch Man handles its comedy and drama with an even hand, but where it really stands out is in its spectacular animated action sequences. This seems paradoxical, given a hero who can win in an instant has no need for protracted battles. Even so, there is always at least one action centerpiece in every episode that is organic to the ongoing story and which yields a meaningful outcome. And compared to other anime stories packed with filler episodes, the conflicts are straight and to the point, almost always being completed in a single episode. Best of all, there is always a sense of pure fun to all the action, even when the consequences are most dire. In a beautiful manifestation of mission statement and metaphor, the final blow and the punchline are one in the same.
It's interesting to see that what started out as a one off experimental web comic has struck such a chord with fans and anime detractors alike, though it should be acknowledged that the outpouring of support for the original work led to published print and animated adaptations that put serious artist and animator pedigree behind the projects. It's great to see that even in the age of toxic fandom, fans still demand and support quality stories filled with positivity, while still getting their fill of classic high-flying comic book action. One-Punch Man is overflowing with references and call backs for the most die hard of fans to dig into, but even if you aren't a fan of anime or obscure superhero lore, One-Punch Man is a burst of fresh air that just might be the thing you didn't even know you were looking for.