A refreshingly joyous ode to dads and a classic franchise’s lighthearted side
Some spoilers, I guess
The awkwardly titled Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero managed to cut right through this grouchy old fan’s general disinterest in the Shonen Jump Big Get Together film and put a big warm smile on my face every couple of minutes. For those keeping count, we’re at 21 animated Dragon Ball movies, and the most recent, Super Hero (series creator and here screenwriter and character designer Akira Toriyama just plain forgot the newest phase of the franchise already has a “Super” in the name) distinguishes itself as a giant love letter to the sillier side of the worldwide hit. The previous theatrical installment, the also surprisingly excellent Broly (2018), focused on myth-making, chronicling (and in places frustratingly rewriting) the origin story of series protagonist Goku and the fall of the Saiyan race, along with reintroducing the once movie-only and generally not considered “canon” for whatever that’s worth, villain. Broly took a more serious angle, with an undertone of tragedy, and presented itself as an epic, zeroing in on Goku and Vegeta’s struggle against an unstoppable wall of fury and muscles. It’s one of the franchise’s high points for dudes screaming and punching each other through mountains, but it can be a little much. Super Hero flips this by immediately shoving main event headliners Goku and Vegeta off to the sidelines and allows many of Dragon Ball’s often underutilized cast to shine by not only stealing scenes but carrying the entire movie on their shoulders in a comparatively lighthearted adventure. It’s a wonderful reminder of Dragon Ball’s more absurd quirks and nearly 40-year history.
While not technically a legacy sequel by Hollywood standards, there is no new wave of protagonists engaging with the heroes of the past while forging their own story (though I fully expect Pan to carry one of these movies very soon); Super Hero is very much about the legacies of older generations and new iterations of well-worn ideas. It also relies heavily on your history with the franchise and fondness with this cast to really sing. Their little idiosyncracies, evolving relationships, and decades-old gags (Piccolo is still without a proper driver’s license) are all on loving display. However, it is to the point where I don’t know how this one will go over with new viewers. More than enough exposition and montage to get someone who maybe hasn’t thought about the ins and outs of Android development or the Cell Games in a minute back up to speed is here, but to the uninitiated, it could simply be overload.
Thankfully, I’ve had Dragon Ball seared into my brain from an early age, starting with Funimation’s original “Rock the Dragon” version. Over the years, it’s gone from the most incredible thing in my universe to thinking it’s a relic best left in the past, to more recently coming to fully realize the charm of Goku and his ever-growing collection of buddies is evergreen. So when Super Hero starts digging deep with a fancily animated trip through young Goku’s battles with the Red Ribbon Army that recalls the styling and colors of the original 1980s series or those stoned-faced squat guy character designs present in Toriyama’s earliest manga one-shots (did Dr. Slump’s Suppaman get a new job?), my brain just lit up. Broly joins a long line of villains turned pals, finally earning a spot as one of the gang, and he’s working on his anger. I hope Toriyama has him show up to eat snacks and play video games in future installments. Fanservice, yes, but it’s top-shelf stuff.
Picking up sometime after the Super TV series and a little bit before the finale of the original manga/Z (they’re still very slowly approaching the point where they have to address GT), Super Hero sees Magenta, the son of the long defeated Red Ribbon Army’s leader General Red, team up with Dr. Gero’s grandson, Dr. Hedo, to revive the villainous organization’s world-dominating aspirations spearheaded with new technology. It leans heavily on lore to get to a new wave of Androids to fight, but Toriyama’s screenplay injects it all with a great sense of personality and character. Magenta is a stock short guy overcompensating Napolean type, like his father, but there’s a fun mafia flavor to him that, at least in English, Super Mario himself Charles Martinet has fun with. Hedo is torn between his mad scientist temperament, apparently hereditary, and a love of the capes, striking poses, and the call of justice of superheroes. Naturally, his two creations, Gammas 1 and 2, are similarly caught in the middle of a sense of right and wrong and less than noble orders from above. I’m especially fond of the pair, with Toriyama’s design sense selling them at a glance with old-fashioned ray guns and flamboyant outfits, complete with visible to others sound effects. They instantly presented themselves as characters I wanted to see hang out with the rest of the cast. They’re good guys but a little mixed up, and they’re a lot of fun to watch.
With Goku and Vegeta off training on Beerus’s planet, it falls to Piccolo, one of anime’s great father figures, to face this new threat and rally the troops. And it is a Piccolo movie for most of the runtime; the gruff Namekian with a gooey heart of gold truly is the backbone. He’s long been there to get beat up and signal it’s time for Goku to swoop in, but he pushes everything along here. He goes on a stealth mission, cobbles together a kidnapping, gets a brand new transformation, and continues to mentor Gohan after all these years, along with his cute-as-button daughter Pan, who already packs a wallop at three years old. And Toriyama injects a metric ton of character-based humor into everything from Piccolo begrudgingly using video chat on a meowing cell phone to training Pan, who is still struggling to learn to fly and slowly filling his Spartan house with stuffed animals. Paired with the bookish and out-of-practice Gohan, Super Hero is a dorky dad movie through and through, jam-packed with treats for long-time fans, and I couldn’t get enough. Turns out, at heart, I’m still a sucker for all of this.
It’s also a huge homage and tribute to tokusatsu, special effects, and superheroes (OK, that part should be obvious). The hidden bad guy HQ built into a crater that takes so many cues from classic miniature sets, the supposed somewhat mundane alien invasion plot, the Gammas’ whole screen presence, the looming giant monster in the basement waiting to run amok in the third act. This movie speaks to no small amount of love for pulpy sci-fi, cheap plastic, foam rubber, and hand-drawn laser blasts. The admiration of tokusatsu’s simultaneous artificiality and earnestness burns so bright in Super Hero. There’s even a cool, extremely 1970s spaceship that could have come from any number of Toho productions or Yamato knockoffs you can only see part of in one scene. It does nothing, and I have no doubt it was meticulously and fully designed. And that’s all before the final secret villain lets out an energy defense blast straight out of Shin Godzilla. Toriyama has been in love with the flair and goofy qualities of Ultraman and Superman alike, to name just a few, for the entirety of his career, not mention the funky vehicles, props, and powers, and Super Hero is awash in all of it.
While certainly having fun with the past, Super Hero is also a big step into the future, being the first Dragon Ball movie primarily animated in 3D CG. Though this thought is coming over a thousand words into this post, it’s one of the first things you’ll notice. And it works, really well. Everything looks right, from the way they throw punches and energy blasts to the little sway of hair in the wind. You fall right into the flow as a natural extension of Dragon Ball’s iconic visual identity. Directed by Tetsuro Kodama, whose most common credit involves CG, including Broly’s, handles it all with panache. Naotoshi Shida’s storyboarding shows his decades of experience bringing Dragon Ball, One Piece, and many others to life through key animation. Heavy use of CG animation has been a hot topic of debate forever, and it’s always one of the first questions to come up. “How does it look and move?” is asked with a braced for the worst wince, and often the best case scenario is an “it’s fine, I guess,” damning with faint praise. So I’m happy to say that Super Hero easily ranks among the best I’ve seen to date, alongside recent standouts like Land of the Lustrous, Beastars, Lupin III: The First, and a handful of other productions that are beginning to shift the tide in perception.
Outside of a few wonky shots where some arms make people look like action figures and some little jaggy edges, it’s a slam dunk. Toei brought their A-game to this production, and it is frequently stunning how well they transition the hefty action and expressive character of Dragon Ball to 3D animation. There are more than a few breathtaking sequences to feast on here. I was initially pretty skeptical of the new direction after Broly showed off how an all-out (mostly) traditionally animated production could push Dragon Ball. Though within minutes, Super Hero was a reassuringly bouncy, stretchy cartoon full of life. And when it came time for the fights, it was showing off a mastery of the toolset using scale and complexity of movement that absolutely floored me. I’m more excited than ever to see where they go with it next.
Does Super Hero seem a little long and overstuffed, even at 100 minutes? Sure, the buildup takes more than it maybe should to get to the fisticuffs, and the final battle felt like it could have used one or two fewer beats. You could make a case for taking fewer detours or the need for minor tune-ups in the screenplay to get it moving a little quicker, but I think that misses Super Hero’s heart, which is celebratory and not interested in rushing the party. I’m pretty cynical about franchises waving familiar stuff in front of me, but there’s a truly rare warmth and sincerity here. It’s the kind of stuff that shatters a hardened “oh, I’m too old for this, I’ve moved on” attitude into a million pieces with a thunderous punch and affirms just how deeply these characters and humor have made their way into your heart. Super Hero doesn’t have the jump-out-of-your-seat rush of adrenaline that Broly sported, and it’s squarely aimed at older fans. Still, I can’t believe how wholly satisfied I am, having just walked out of this in 2022, almost three decades after first seeing Piccolo put Gohan through the wringer to prepare for Vegeta and Nappa’s arrival on Earth. Like the Gammas’ retro look and Magenta’s old-school mafia style, the thought that Piccolo, and Dragon Ball itself, may be a relic of a bygone age floated through my head. Super Hero meets this head-on, proving over and over again that some things are timelessly cool. I know IPs never die, and with nostalgia as our number one pop culture fascination these days, I try to remain vigilant to the lure of the past placating the present, but gosh, even after all these years, Dragon Ball sure is fun ain’t it?
Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero is licensed through Crunchyroll and is currently in theaters now, with a home video release presumably to follow