Dragon Ball Super: Superhero review | Optimistic and wholesome, it's fan service at its best

BySuchin Mehrotra
Aug 27, 2022 06:11 PM IST

Dragon Ball Super- Superhero review: Wholesome to the core and packed with nostalgia, it's a treat for any young or old fan of the franchise.

What makes a movie “cinematic”? What must a film do to earn the term “spectacle”?

Dragon Ball Super- Superhero review: The gang is all back.
Dragon Ball Super- Superhero review: The gang is all back.

These were but some of the questions that danced around my mind while watching Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero - the latest animated feature from the Dragon Ball Z universe (for which the makers have gone all out with a sprawling global theatrical release). In India alone, it’s out in the original Japanese, as well as both Hindi and English dubs. Let the record show I opted for the English dub. While the original Japanese version is arguably the “correct” way to engage with this franchise, I’ve grown up glued to the English version and that’s just 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 good vs evil action-frenzy animated series of all time - countless times. Not to mention the subsequent hit and miss factory line of movies that have cropped up over the years (Dragon Ball Z: Bojack Unbound, Dragon Ball Z: Broly – The Legendary Super Saiyan, Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection 'F' and beyond).

Who among us hasn’t Kamehameha’d around the house as a kid, or wanted to spike our hair up to near ridiculous lengths? Or wished we could shout with the required blood-vessel bursting intensity to erupt into golden flames? Or at the very least, imagined ourselves in this universe as a Z warrior?

So then, aside from the obvious throwback to a simpler time and a nostalgia-fuelled cannonball back into this fantastical world of flying people, androids, Saiyans and beyond, what justifies a Dragon Ball Z movie being made for the big screen? It’s a question I'm still pondering. But for this fanboy, was rediscovering this universe in IMAX a satisfying, even thrilling end to a long week? Speaking for both me and my inner 12-year-old who was doing backflips for two straight hours, hell yes.

Timeline-wise, Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero takes place post-Z and pre-GT. Gohan is all grown up and his young daughter Pan is three years old. This is a post-Cell post-Majin Buu world and Gohan has since retired from Saiyan training, instead choosing to work on his academic research, leaving Earth’s protection to Piccolo, Vegeta and Goku. Except both beefed-up big hitters Goku and Vegeta, are off-world training with Lord Beerus (the cat-faced bad guy you may remember from 2013's Dragon Ball Z Battle Of Gods).

And, of course, there’s a new threat emerging that requires a Saiyan-sized response. The Red Ribbon Army is back (one of the foes young Goku defeated in Dragon Ball who then returned years later as the employers of Dr Gero - the evil genius who created the androids and Cell). As the opening voiceover tells us, with Dr Gero and Cell destroyed, the Red Ribbon Army is now headed by a man named Magenta who’s out for revenge. Magenta breaks out Dr Gero’s even smarter grandson Dr Hedo from prison and forces him to make him a set of even more powerful androids to take down the Z Warriors.

To answer the earlier question of how director Tetsuro Kodama attempts to make this a justifiable big screen watch - for one, the animation style is more three-dimensional than the original series, giving the characters more depth (visually speaking). But it’s still close enough to the show’s visual style to feel familiar. On a storytelling level, what makes a thing cinematic? Is it plot significance? Scale? Stakes? Well, there’s not much to be said for the last two considering a new villain cropping up that literally has the power to destroy the entire planet is essentially just a Tuesday for these folks. Similarly, it’s also unlikely any feature film will be able to carry the same impact and weight as the Cell, Frieza or Majin Buu sagas. It’s why so many DBZ movies over the years have kept revisiting (and resurrecting) old villains rather than offering up new ones.

A still from the movie.
A still from the movie.

Instead, what Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero does well is to offer a self-aware homage to this world and its legacy. It’s a mostly conventional story, but in its telling writer Akira Toriyama (creator of the original series) throws enough winks, Easter eggs, and references our way to make this feel more substantial and meaningful than just another few episodes of the show.

In a world of tired sequels, forced franchises and dishonest rehashes, Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero is optimistic, wholesome fan service at its best. From checking in with Dende (Guardian of the Earth) to stocking up on Senzu beans to, of course, summoning Shenron to make wishes three, we get a heartfelt whistle-stop-tour return to this universe and its beloved inhabitants. Every character is given their moment. Even Krillin (now a police officer) gets a badass Destructo Disk-summoning beat.

But Super Hero is above all a Gohan-Piccolo story. With Vegeta and Goku a world away and powerful new bad guys to fight, Piccolo makes it his mission to try and rekindle Gohan’s potential and reawaken the Cell-beating powers that lie dormant. I gotta say it’s a risky choice on the part of the makers not to have this be a Goku-focused story, but one which ultimately feels honest.

But Super Hero doesn’t always live up to the rich legacy of the shows. For one, the action isn’t quite as crisp or impressive. The glorious, lengthy fight sequences of DBZ are the stuff of legend and here director Tetsuro Kodama and his animators try and throw us right in the midst of the aerial battles to mixed results. The Goku-Vegeta sparring match during their training, for example, often feels more blurry and disorienting than it does dynamic and slick.

Similarly, Super Hero’s build-up - Piccolo’s discovery of a new threat and his efforts of getting the band together - is more effective than its pay-off - the actual final face-off. Though full of crowd-pleasing, seeti-inducing moments (and familiar faces), the final showdown isn’t given the time it needs.

Instead, Super Hero’s most salient feature, surprisingly, is its humour. Like most Anime storytelling, DBZ was always goofy, but I don’t remember it being this funny. Super Hero is both silly funny and meta, making fun-of-itself funny.

For example, when Piccolo finally manages to contact Bulma in an effort to have her reach Goku and Vegeta to face this new evil, she merely replies "Don't tell me, is this going to be a whole thing"? Or even the fact that Bulma has been secretly using the Dragon Balls for years to summon Shenron to wish for…cosmetic enhancements. Perhaps the funniest line of the movie sees Bulma ask for another one to which the mighty Shenron responds “Your buns are perked". I laughed more than I should have.

The result is a DBZ movie that is far funnier than it is badass. While I wish it wasn’t so light on the kind of lengthy, swag-fuelled fights featuring exhausted warriors at the end of their rope fighting against all odds, Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero is a heartfelt ode to these characters. And the first, I hope, of more to come.

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