I am a child of the early 2000’s and as such, I grew up during the heyday of Toonami. My after school days were spent more times than not watching the likes of Gundam Wing, Yu Yu Hakusho, and of course, Dragon Ball Z; and like every kid watching DBZ, I thought Super Saiyan was the absolute hypest thing in the world. However, as I get older, it becomes more and more apparent to me that that hype might have done unforeseeable damage to not only the series but to the entire shonen genre.
The very first time Goku powered up to Super Saiyan is a very special moment in the context of the series and in the context of the medium. Everything about the music, the emotion, and the logic of the power-up — the strongest fighter in the world tapping into a mythical level of power after seeing his best friend get annihilated by an evil despot — is awe-inspiring, which makes the later in-universe bastardization of the concept so much worse. When Trunks arrives from the future, it makes sense for him to be able to do it, especially after the revelation that he couldn’t until seeing Gohan get bodied by Androids 17 and 18. But then Vegeta learns how to do it, literally out of sheer will. And then Gohan, an actual child, can do it — granted at this point he’s seen a few people close to him die and is afraid he’ll see more, so there’s some merit to it. But the concept officially jumps the shark after the series’ 7 year time skip, in which Goten, Goku’s son that no one knew he even conceived before he died (again), and Kid Trunks, the version of Trunks that got to grow up with his father, are capable of doing it. This ability that used to be locked behind a wall of deep personal trauma, years of training and being “pure of heart” can now be done by children…because reasons. This retroactively makes that moment earlier on meaningless by removing all stakes from it. It’s effectively Syndrome’s plan from The Incredibles: in a world where everyone is super, no one is. By making Gohan, Vegeta, Goten and Kid Trunks all capable of hitting that level of power, the series is forced into a position to now not only make any and all future villains at the very least stronger than a Super Saiyan (which again, is a power level that used to be billed as legendary and unattainable and the strongest power in the universe), but also create ways for the heroes to beat these villains, which could have been interesting, but instead turned into just adding a number to the term and making an arbitrary change in power with minimal drawbacks.
Compare this to JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, a series that began its initial run a year after Dragon Ball. In JJBA’s third part, Stardust Crusaders, introduces the concept of “Stands”, powers that are unique from person to person, and although there are stands that are similar, no two are exactly the same (i.e. hero Jotaro Kujo’s “Star Platinum” and villain DIO’s “The World”), and later it is shown that Stands can be powered up, provided certain conditions are met. Having Stands and their abilities locked to people inherently makes the story more compelling. A hero who’s power cannot match in raw strength to a villain’s forces the story to be creative and come up with a way to defeat him that isn’t just being strong. Even Jotaro, a character who’s primary power is punching quickly, has to think on his feet and apply his power in a new way to be able to beat DIO.
In shonen anime that followed DBZ, however, the stacking of power-ups became more and more pronounced, most notably in Bleach, Naruto and in the recent follow up to DBZ, Dragon Ball Super. In Bleach, hero Ichigo Kurosaki gets no less than four special modes, each being effectively rendered useless by the next. Naruto’s titular hero gets upwards of ten, but gets somewhat of a pass, as the in-series explanation is the nine-tailed demon living inside him from birth, and the fact that he loses more and more control of himself with each new level of strength. Super, in true Dragon Ball fashion takes Super Saiyan to new lengths, inventing three new levels of it in two movies and just around 60 episodes as of the time of this writing: Super Sayian God, Blue and Rose have all made an appearance in the second follow up to DBZ and it would be fair to assume another would be on the way soon. Once upon a time, Dragon Ball Z captured the imaginations of a generation with its action and dire, fate of the world stakes. While that first one still holds true, the second fell apart over time, however the shonen genre still has life in it, and some truly inventive minds who can really capture that magic again at the forefront. But then again, maybe I’m just over analyzing things.