The long-awaited second run of One Punch Man, based on artist ONE’s acclaimed webcomic, premiered in April and wrapped at the beginning of July. The reviews were, to put it mildly, mixed. Other publications have covered the reasons for the decline in quality — changes in personnel, the shift in animation studios from Madhouse to JC Staff, the way protagonist Saitama has, of necessity, moved to the sidelines of the show, etc.
Still, the characters of One Punch Man are a lot of fun, and ONE’s world-building continues to be engrossing. Instead, the problems with the show’s second season have mostly served to highlight how great season one really is, and to show some of the seams of what the series can and should do. So let’s ignore the visuals for a moment, and think more broadly about what might have been.
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Leaving Tomorrow’s Problems To Tomorrow’s You
Pulling off a second season of One Punch Man was always going to be difficult. The premise of the whole series is, essentially, one big joke: What if the protagonist of a shonen manga was so strong that he could defeat any enemy with one punch, rendering all conflict meaningless? Saitama, appears to be — and is — a bald, stupid guy in a yellow suit that looks like a condom. But he’s also powerful enough that every enemy from intergalactic warlords to scientifically engineered giants to literal meteors fall before him with just one punch.
In theory, there should be no dramatic tension here at all — monsters show up, Saitama defeats them, and that’s the end of that. Instead, at its best, One Punch Man functions as a character study, exploring the ways that Saitama feels painfully, dreadfully bored. Rather than (solely) pitting Saitama against a bunch of monsters, the series pits him against enemies he can’t defeat with his fists: the bureaucracy of the Byzantine Hero Association — which he joins more or less on a whim — and the fickle court of public opinion.
It’s Discount Day At The Ass-Whupping Market
Think about it this way: One Punch Man has to balance a few different tones. On one hand, it’s a parody of shonen manga, which means that has to poke fun at the tropes of, say, Dragon Ball Z — and in order to be an effective parody, it not only needs to be funny, it also needs to have fight scenes that are cool on their own merit. A parody that doesn’t have mastery of the target genre’s original tropes is just toothless. You have to, on some level, believe that there is some degree of danger, or at least that the fight is compelling enough to keep watching.
On the other hand, One Punch Man needs to have some psychological complexity, lest Saitama and the other characters become painfully uninteresting to the audience. In the first season, this largely came from Saitama exploring his own sense of malaise. But in lieu of giving Saitama a new conflict to overcome, season two has expanded outward, to characters ranging from the villainous hero hunter Garou to telekinetic benchwarmer Blizzard to blasé martial artist Suiryu.
The first season of the show, animated by Madhouse, is a masterclass in keeping all of these plates spinning, effectively depicting the kinetic, intense nature of the fight scenes while deploying expert comic timing in the ways those fights abruptly come to an end. Consider Saitama’s fight with Carnage Kabuto, an early monster encounter in which Saitama’s “big mistake” is forgetting to go to the supermarket on discount day.
This scene contains all three of the threads that make up One Punch Man. Carnage Kabuto is a fun, grotesque monster, and the fight really does feel like it could devolve into straight-up, more or less compelling Naruto action or whatever — except that ONE, and Madhouse, are content with just teasing how cool that version of the fight could be, pulling back at the last moment to focus on what really matters: getting a good deal on vegetables. The laser-focus is instead on the moment of comic release — Carnage Kabuto’s body violently exploding while Saitama screams about his grocery store mistake.
What Happens To A Punch Deferred?
The second season of One Punch Man can’t quite nail moments like the Carnage Kabuto fight. Its focus is much broader than the first season, spreading outward from Saitama to depict a series of fights between heroes, members of the insurgent Monster Association, and Garou. With so many more plates to juggle, it’s not surprising that some of them end up crashing to the ground.
With Saitama relegated to comic relief, no one is able to step up to center the show. Two of the new characters do have somewhat satisfying arcs — in particular, the “Strongest Man On Earth” King, an S-Class hero who has accidentally taken credit for all of Saitama’s hero work. But even he doesn’t quite grip our attention in the same way Saitama does.
King initially appears to be (and is) a comic relief character, introduced in a scene where he runs from a bathroom in order to escape a monster. But through repeated video game sessions with Saitama we get a sense of what makes him tick, and how scared he is of eventually having to do a real fight. By the end of the season, the cowardly King willingly starts to weaponize his reputation, putting his life on the line by luring away a giant metal centipede that looks like Leto II from God Emperor Of Dune in order to save a city of civilians.
There’s also some potential thematic continuity between Saitama and Garou that doesn’t get explored much. As we learn more about Garou’s life, it becomes clear that he’s always identified with monsters, largely because he hates the way popularity determines who the heroes and villains are in a given story. He’s reacting to a rigid societal understanding of what you might call the natural order of heroes and monsters. This is exactly the sort of thing that unintentionally structures Saitama’s life in his dealings with the Hero Association — and it gives Garou a disdain for the trappings of heroes versus monsters that could have let One Punch Man remain gently mocking, had it been made the core of the season.
Narrative Frustration Threat Level Dragon
Either of these characters could have been treated like Saitama in season one, delving deeper into a world that bewilders them more than it threatens them, allowing One Punch Man to retain its empathy for its characters while also feeling comfortable using them for gags.
Part of the problem is, of course, the visual hiccups in the season. It feels like enough to say that the timing of the jokes and the earnest moments alike in One Punch Man needs to be extremely specific, and that most of season two shirks that responsibility in favor of feeling like it’s just checking off the boxes of all of ONE’s panels.
In trying to cover all of these fights and check those boxes, the One Punch Man anime has in part shirked its responsibility to its characters. Its eyes were too big for its stomach, shifting between tones like a driver who doesn’t know how to operate a stick shift. One Punch Man works best when it’s bemused, poignant, and badass all at the same time. Without that balance, it’s just a simple series of unserious punches.