A Certain Scientific Superheroine: Misaka Mikoto as an Homage to Superhero Comics
The back cover of the second volume of the A Certain Scientific Railgun manga reads: “With great power comes loads of fanservice,” a clear reference to Spiderman’s iconic mantra. While the Railgun anime ramps up the fanservice, it also cements the series as a true superhero(ine) story. Railgun’s characters, setting, and conflicts all could have been lifted straight out of a prototypical superhero comic, and this leads to numerous similarities in terms of tropes. We have a bit of a battle ahead of us, so let’s level-up and figure out where Railgun takes influence from the likes of Batman and Superman.
There’s no better place to start than with the titular character: the third strongest of the Level 5’s, the ace of Tokiwadai, the Electric Princess, the Railgun, Misaka Mikoto (onee-sama). And that name of hers is where her superheroine roots begin. Batman is the ‘Caped Crusader’ and the ‘Dark Knight’, while the Flash is the ‘Scarlet Speedster’ and the ‘Crimson Comet’. These heroes’ abilities are so impressive and their actions so prolific that the public assigns them titles based on those powers or actions. Misaka is no different.
But that’s a bit shallow—what about Misaka as a character? It goes without saying that Misaka is a super-powered heroine, but what separates her from every other action anime protagonist?
Most importantly, Misaka is a vigilante—specifically, a dangerous vigilante. In the very first scene of the anime, we see her wild use of her powers knock out traffic lights and nearly crash a tour bus. Her electricity constantly causes damages to the city, even knocking out a power plant once, causing a city-wide blackout. As such, she is often chastised by the residing law enforcement in Judgment (though never convicted). Here we begin to see a connection to Silver Age comic books such as Spiderman and later titles of Batman. Although superheroes protect the public, they are not backed by the public like police are. Superheroes are typically not granted the authority to legally fight crime, oftentimes because the actions they must take are difficult to justify in the eyes of the public.
In terms of supporting characters, we can consider Kuroko as Misaka’s sidekick. Kuroko resembles Batman’s Robin in many respects, bringing humor and order to a hero that may otherwise lack those traits. Misaka can’t proceed with destroying the Tree Diagram until she knows that Kuroko will do her duty as a member of Judgment and arrest Misaka for it. Like Robin and other sidekicks, Kuroko is a capable hero in her own right, just not as capable as the one she supports. Kuroko provides support to Misaka on both the emotional and crime-fighting battlefronts.
Uiharu and Saten both fill prototypical tropes as the brains-back-home and the damsel-in-distress, respectively. Uihara’s ‘hacking’ provides Misaka with access to encrypted Level 6 Shift info during the Sisters Arc, and camera feeds or data from Judgment on numerous other occasions. It’s a bit unfair to condemn Saten to the damsel-in-distress role, but she certainly plays the part during the Level Upper arc while in a comatose state. She does grow as a character from there, but more on that later. We could compare Uihara to someone like Batman’s Lucius Fox, and Saten to anyone from Lois Lane to Mary Jane.
Let’s hold off on the ‘supervillain’ characters until we talk about conflicts. For now, let’s explore the setting. Railgun’s Academy City is as representative of the series as Gotham or Metropolis are for their stories, partly because it’s so identical to Gotham or Metropolis. In typical superhero convention, all of the world’s crime seems to have congregated in one city—the one city our story happens to take place in. Academy City can be viewed as a sort of combination of Gotham and Metropolis. It borrows the scientific experimentation of organizations such as Metropolis’ S.T.A.R. Labs or LexCorp, as well as the corrupt government and law enforcement officials of Gotham. The result: corrupt state-sponsored experiments such as the Level 6 Shift Project.
Like Metropolis, Academy City is portrayed as a scientifically-advanced and mostly wealthy city. That wealth is the primary reason so much research is conducted in these cities. But that’s just the (seemingly) good. As Frank Miller said, “Metropolis is New York in the daytime; Gotham is New York at night.” While Gotham’s gangs far outnumber Academy City’s, they as a collective pose a similar threat to Gotham’s sense of order as the Skill-Out gang poses to Academy City’s. Beyond that, Misaka battles most of her thugs/enemies in alleyways and construction sites—exactly where Batman fights all of his. Maybe that’s just a necessity of crime-fighting in the city, but the fact that these two stories share a narrative necessity just further proves their similarity.
So we have our heroine, her affiliates, and her city—now what does she fight? First and foremost, this wouldn’t be a superhero story if the protagonist didn’t beat up a stream of no-name baddies to prove her strength and sense of justice. Railgun is no exception. In fact, Railgun might go overboard. The whole first episode is dedicated to exhibiting Misaka’s powers on a group of random thugs dumb enough to commit crime in a city guarded by superpowers (criminals aren’t much smarter in comics). The beginnings of several other arcs, plus the start of Railgun S, spend time on similar displays. However, this is useful in canonizing a trope we’ll discuss in a bit.
After the exposition-fodder, we meet a series of main villains, many of whom can’t seem to stay in jail. For the purposes of comparison, let’s divide villains into the categories of the psychopath, the retributionist, and the mastermind.
In Batman, the Joker is the quintessential psychopath—a villain who commits crimes motivated purely by madness or a love of chaos. The psychopath doesn’t desire to gain from their crime; they are evil because they either find it fun or they simply don’t care about society or their victims. In Railgun, Therestina Lifeline and Accelerator both fit this type. Therestina would ignore Academy City’s destruction (and her own death) in order to satisfy her obsession with the First Sample and the Level 6 Shift.
Whereas Therestina is the obsessive psychopath, Accelerator is the apathetic psychopath. Life as the strongest esper and the subject of endless scientific research has left Accelerator a sociopath. He feels nothing about the deaths of 20,000 clones, and is only interested in finding a distraction from boredom and testing the limits of his power. Granted, Accelerator does find ‘redemption’ later in the series.
The Penguin and Scarecrow from Batman could be considered retributionists. The Penguin and Scarecrow were both bullied as children, and spiraled into a villainous lifestyle after seeking revenge on those who wronged them. This villainous revenge and the question of if the means justify the ends are the essence of the retributionist. Kiyama is the easy pick for a retributionist in Railgun. Her methods—creating an esper network with the Level Upper—are unjust, but her cause is nobler. Because Academy City won’t grant her access to the Tree Diagram to save her comatose students, Kiyama pursues illegal means to right the wrongs of Academy City’s corruption.
The mastermind is the ultimate villain, focused on a higher goal like world domination or omnipotence. I’ve talked about Batman too much, so let’s talk about Superman’s Lex Luthor instead. Luthor is intelligent, but—more importantly—he has financial, and therefore political and legal, power. Battle against the mastermind isn’t just a battle of brawn, it’s a battle of brains and political clout. In Railgun, this is simply Academy City itself and the many scientists and government officials in charge. The people in charge are the ones who clone Misaka and spawn the Level 6 Shift Project in search of godlike power. The most impactful arc of the series, the Sisters Arc, begins because of a group of mastermind villains, most importantly Kihara Gensei.
That’s a lot of similarities, from heroes to villains to setting and beyond. However, superhero comics aren’t just about protagonists and antagonists and settings. The heart and soul of superhero comics resides in superhero tropes. These tropes are what set superhero comics apart from any other action narrative, and they will be the deciding factor in whether Railgun is superhero-esque. We’ve mentioned some tropes (such as the damsel-in-distress and beating up thugs in alleys) and some tropey elements (such as our categories of villains), but that’s not quite enough. Let’s find some tropes that have the attitude of a superhero comic.
Misaka doesn’t wear a costume, and she doesn’t have a secret identity. Actually, she wears the opposite of a costume—a homogenous school uniform. Yet, she does wear shorts under her skirt because it’s “easier to move” and supposedly because it keeps her from worrying about a wardrobe malfunction. I’d argue that’s somewhat of a costumey distinction… More seriously, if we consider the usual function of superhero costumes—to conceal identities—we can find a moment of similarity. In her most destructive efforts of vigilante justice, destroying the facilities involved in cloning the Sisters, Misaka does don a unique outfit for the purposes of hiding her identity.
Not quite convinced about tropes yet? I don’t blame you, but there’s more.
When you think of Superman, you probably also think of kryptonite and some city-dwellers pointing at the sky and talking about birds and planes. Well, Railgun certainly has its equivalent of both. The superhero’s ‘one weakness’ is a trope borrowed from early epics (think Achilles’ heel), but a defining feature of comics nonetheless. The Capacity Down sound wave is as debilitating to Misaka as kryptonite is to Superman. In the moments when the superhero is downed by their weakness, the less super need to save them. During Railgun’s Poltergeist arc, Saten is the one character not affected by Capacity Down, and the one character that stops Therestina’s self-destructive plot.
As for the now-canonized “Look up in the sky, it’s a bird…it’s a plane…it’s Superman!” trope, Railgun matches foot-for-foot. Whenever random criminals realize they’ve been messing with Misaka, they begin to ramble about a certain electromaster from Tokiwadai. Incidentally, the two best examples of this come at the start of each season. Moments before Misaka fires her signature railgun, the baddies remember the “strongest electromaster in the city.” As I mentioned earlier with Misaka’s long list of names, her crime-fighting prowess has earned her a place as a cultural icon in this fictional world. That prowess is canonized in the form of a tropey call-sign that signals her arrival, just like Superman.
And that’s really where Railgun solidifies itself as a proto-typical superhero story. Misaka isn’t just a heroine or protagonist, she’s an icon to the people of Academy City, just like Batman is to Gotham and Superman is to Metropolis. Beyond parallels in plot or similarities in setting, Railgun is a superhero story because it acts like a superhero story. It’s titled after the superhero. Everyone in Academy City knows the superhero. Misaka fights for justice and to create a peaceful place for her friends to live. Railgun is a celebration of a person who uses their powers for good—to protect their home.
Of course, Railgun has its own unique flare for every trope, conflict, setting, and character it shares with superhero comics. How could it not? It’s an anime adaptation of a manga spinoff from a Japanese light novel. Though, there may be an argument that Robin is as attracted to Batman as Kuroko is to Misaka…
Potential fanfiction aside, Misaka could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Batman and Superman any day.