From a storytelling perspective, no season of My Hero Academia has come close to the quality its second outing so confidently sports. Seamlessly meshing plot propulsion with character-enriching context, the show’s second season reaches a creative apex that its preceding and succeeding installments couldn’t. There’s something impressive (besides its gorgeous animation) about how it’s able to juggle so many characters with such ease; there’s a sure-handedness to the proceedings that never betrays any uncertainty about where it needs to go. But what cements the second season as the most memorable is not its characters or its action but how it challenges its do-gooders.

NOT YOUR AVERAGE TOURNAMENT ARC

The tournament arc, a storytelling habit verging on an anime trope, usually keeps its focus trained on the same thing: the strongest fighters doing the coolest shit. Many of these arcs devote little time to anyone else and completely ignore character development so that high-stakes action can reign supreme (lookin’ at you, Dragonball Z). But during its Sports Festival, My Hero Academia earmarks certain characters for both immediate and later development. Shinso, the brainwashing hero-in-training who marks his targets with innocent-sounding questions, exemplifies this perfectly (particularly when he returns in the manga). His misunderstood Quirk initially acts as a foil for Izuku Midoriya‘s glorified ability. The anime doesn’t hint at a comeback but it’s good that creator Kohei Horikoshi keeps him in mind when looking ahead.

Trumping every other moment in the season, though, is the game-changing match between Shoto Todoroki and Deku at the Sports Festival. It’s here that we come to know Todoroki. His refusal to use fire roots itself in hatred for his father, the Pro-Hero Endeavor. The show’s knack for unique origins is absolutely part of its draw and Todoroki’s traumatic past gives both rhyme and reason to why he denies himself the advantages of coupling his powers.

Some of the best, most emotionally charged square-offs in the show come out of this season, a head-turning feat considering how often it dropped jaws in its later episodes.

Other events of import may not pack quite as much “wow,” but they serve specific purposes that effectively establish their main players. Not only does Katsuki Bakugo take Ochaco Uraraka seriously during their match, but he also treats her like he would any other opponent. The show has never once been hesitant to remind viewers that Bakugo is Class 1A’s best fighter. And while his power-bolstered confidence is on full display here, it doesn’t rob her of her moment. There’s an intensity here that’s fueled by Uraraka’s mettle and on-the-spot thinking. A fine character moment in every way it can be.

STAINED REPUTATIONS

After Hero Killer Stain cripples him in a surprise attack, Tenya Iida‘s older brother Ingenium finds himself unable to continue his heroics. Devastated, Iida strikes out to exact revenge on the sword-wielding menace. With help from Deku and Todoroki, Iida wins the day and avenges his brother. It’s immensely satisfying, a stunning emotional payoff for Iida fans.

And then there’s Stain himself. His arc comes and goes quickly but his impact sends ripples throughout the villain community and inspires criminals such as Dabi to up their games. His philosophy galvanizes a new generation of baddies and causes prevalent, persistent trouble for our heroes. The transition from a forward-moving tournament arc to an intense exploration of heroes’ folly makes for compelling television and reinforces the fact that this 25-episode batch is the finest chunk of the series yet.

Stain’s idealogy affects Iida profoundly, even reaching a point where the hero-in-training considers refusing surgery on his injuries. Through his fight with the Hero Killer, he acknowledges that Stain had a point and that he won’t stop until he embodies the meaning of “hero.”

IIDA SEES RED

Iida arrives at this realization after forfeiting reason and succumbing to the fury and bitterness consuming him. Tormented by the notion that even a monster like Stain deemed him unfit for heroics, Iida finds his convictions shaken.  It’s an excellent reminder to ground ourselves in intentionality when something we’re doing isn’t working for us. That’s perhaps the greatest takeaway for Iida: to strive for elevation, especially if that means confronting his darker parts.

Contrastingly, Deku’s purity and unshakable belief in the symbolic heft heroes carry make him infinitely less interesting; he’s one of the weakest characters and that doesn’t change here. But the countless revelations/discoveries he experiences make his journey a worthy expenditure of your time. Unlike with his peers, there’s far more meat to what happens to him than there is to how he happens to others. But it’s in this season that Deku begins to test his limits, which usually results in a horrific injury.

With its fourth season complete and its fifth announced, My Hero is barreling forward at a breakneck pace. And with so much happening so quickly, it’s easy to forget how far it has come and what has been won (and lost) along the way. It may be eating dust but the second season represents a maturation of everything that makes the series the juggernaut it has been for years.

All four seasons of My Hero Academia are available on Crunchyroll and VRV.