What makes a movie cinematic? What does a film have to do to earn the term ‘spectacle’?
These were just some of the questions that danced through my mind while watching Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero – the latest animated film from the Dragon Ball Z universe (for which the makers have gone all out with a sprawling worldwide theatrical release). In India alone, it is in the original Japanese version, both in Hindi and English. Let the record show that I chose the English dub. While the original Japanese version is arguably the “right” way to handle this franchise, I grew up with the English version and that’s exactly how I know these characters.
For fans, like me, of this universe and these characters, we’ve watched the show — one of the greatest, most influential action-madness-animated series of all time — countless times. Not to mention the subsequent hit-and-miss factory movies that have popped up over the years (Dragon Ball Z: Bojack Unbound, Dragon Ball Z: Broly – The Legendary Super Saiyan, Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection ‘F’ and more).
Who among us hasn’t walked around the house with Kamehameha as children, or wanted to put our hair up to almost ridiculous lengths? Or did we wish we could scream with the required blood vessel burst intensity to erupt into golden flames? Or did we at least imagine ourselves in this universe as a Z-warrior?
So, aside from the obvious return to a simpler time and a nostalgic cannonball back into this fantastical world of flying humans, androids, Saiyans and beyond, what justifies a Dragon Ball Z movie being made for the big screen? It’s a question I’m still thinking about. But was rediscovering this universe in IMAX a satisfying, even thrilling end to a long week for this fanboy? Speaking of both me and my inner 12 year old doing backflips for two hours straight, yes.
In terms of timeline, Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero takes place after Z and before GT. Gohan is fully grown and his young daughter Pan is three years old. This is a post-Cell post-Majin Buu world and Gohan has since dropped out of Saiyan training, instead opting to work on his academic research, leaving the protection of the earth to Piccolo, Vegeta and Goku . Except that both souped-up big hitters Goku and Vegeta are training aliens with Lord Beerus (the cat-faced villain you might remember from 2013’s Dragon Ball Z Battle Of Gods).
And, of course, a new threat emerges that requires a response from Saiyan. The Red Ribbon Army is back (one of the enemies the young Goku defeated in Dragon Ball and returned years later as the employers of Dr. Gero – the evil genius who created the androids and Cell). As the opening voiceover tells us, the Red Ribbon Army is now led by a man named Magenta who is out for revenge after Dr. Gero and Cell have been destroyed. Magenta gets the even smarter grandson of Dr. Gero, Dr. Hedo, is released from prison and forces him to create a series of even more powerful androids for him to take out the Z Warriors.
To answer the earlier question of how director Tetsuro Kodama is trying to make this a legitimate big screen watch – the animation style is more three-dimensional than the original series, giving the characters more depth (visually). But it’s still close enough to the visual style of the show to feel familiar. What makes something cinematic on a storytelling level? Is it plot meaning? Dish? Bet? Well, there’s not much to say for the latter two, as a new villain emerging who literally has the power to destroy the entire planet is essentially just a Tuesday for these folks. Likewise, a feature film is also unlikely to bear the same impact and weight as the Cell, Frieza, or Majin Buu sagas. That’s why so many DBZ movies over the years have continued to visit (and revive) old villains instead of offering new ones.
Instead, what Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero does well is a self-conscious tribute to this world and its legacy. It’s a mostly conventional story, but in its telling story, writer Akira Toriyama (creator of the original series) throws in plenty of winks, Easter eggs, and references our way of making this feel more substantial and meaningful than a few more episodes of the show. .
In a world of tired sequels, forced franchises, and unfair reruns, Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero is optimistic, healthy fan service at its best. From checking in at Dende (Guardian of the Earth) to stocking up on Senzu beans to, of course, summoning Shenron to grant three wishes, we get a heartfelt whistle-stop tour of this universe and its beloved inhabitants. Every character gets its moment. Even Krillin (now a cop) gets a badass Destructo Disk-evoking beat.
But Super Hero is primarily a Gohan-Piccolo story. With Vegeta and Goku a world away and powerful new villains to fight against, Piccolo makes it his mission to try to rekindle Gohan’s potential and awaken the dormant cells. I have to say it’s a risky choice by the creators to let this not be a Goku-focused story, but one that ultimately feels fair.
But Super Hero doesn’t always live up to the shows’ rich legacy. First, the action isn’t as sharp or impressive. DBZ’s glorious, lengthy battle scenes are legendary, and here director Tetsuro Kodama and his animators try to throw us into the middle of dogfights with mixed results. For example, the Goku-Vegeta sparring match during their training often feels fuzzier and more disoriented than dynamic and slick.
Likewise, Super Hero’s build – Piccolo’s discovery of a new threat and his efforts to get the band together – more effective than the reward – is the actual final showdown. While it’s packed with crowd-pleasing, tense moments (and familiar faces), the final showdown doesn’t get the time it needs.
Instead, the most notable feature of Super Hero is, surprisingly, the humor. Like most anime stories, DBZ was always crazy, but I don’t remember it being that funny. Super Hero is both silly funny and meta, making it funny to entertain oneself.
For example, when Piccolo finally manages to contact Bulma in an attempt to get her to reach out to Goku and Vegeta to face this new evil, she simply replies, “Don’t tell me, is this going to be a big deal”? Or even the fact that Bulma has been secretly using the Dragon Balls for years to summon Shenron to wish… cosmetic improvements. Perhaps the funniest line of the film is that Bulma asks for another, to which the mighty Shenron replies, “Your buns are perk”. I laughed more than I should have.
The result is a DBZ movie that’s a lot funnier than badass. While I wish it wasn’t so light on the kind of long, swag-driven battles with exhausted warriors at the end of their rope fighting against all odds, Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero is a heartfelt tribute to these characters. And the first, I hope, of more to come.