Ever since Dragon Ball Z aired on Toonami in 1998, the animated adaptation of Akira Toriyama’s shonen series has stood as one of the most beloved anime in the west. It’s so popular that even though there hasn’t been a new episode of Dragon Ball Super since 2018, and the film Dragon Ball Super: Broly released that same year, the franchise has lived on largely due to the many video games from Bandai Namco and an extremely passionate fanbase.
There’ve been many films throughout Dragon Ball history, but as the first brand new film in four years, Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero feels like it’s bursting at the seams to finally arrive. It’s so happy to be here, and nowhere does it show more than in the presentation. Rather than continue the 2D art style that the anime is best known for, Super Hero goes for a stylized CG/3D look reminiscent of recent Dragon Ball fighting games. It’s a look that suits the franchise quite well. Whether it’s Piccolo (Toshio Furukawa in Japanese, Christopher Sabat in English) trying to whip Gohan (Masako Nozawa/Kyle Hebert) back into Saiyan shape or the lively newcomer Gamma 2 (Mamoru Miyano/Zeno Robinson) having comic book sound effects punctuate his heroic poses and attacks, Super Hero has a lot of charm and personality throughout its runtime.
It’s in the action scenes where the new look really shines. Director Tetsuro Kodama makes each brawl feel like they’d be the climax of most other superhero movies. And even in the few fights where characters aren’t flying all around the battlefield, those scraps still manage to feel big. The camera will swing around, or use wide shots to convey how larger-than-life these fights are, and with multiple superpowered characters of varying power levels on hand, Super Hero has plenty of variety in its setpieces. Watching Saiyans and Androids (and Krillin) beat each other up, often leaving an absurd amount of destruction in their wake, never stops being cool. Even a fight midway through between Goku (Nozawa/Sean Schemmel) and Vegeta (Ryo Horikawa/Sabat) that doesn’t really have any business being here feels worth the price of admission because the film just loves to be as bombastic as it possibly can.
And when it’s not delivering one superpowered fight after the other, it’s silly. Super Hero makes a great case for why Piccolo’s a fan favorite character, and he’s constantly funny throughout the film. Just watching him break his aloof demeanor as he reacts to everything around him is always amusing; and even when he’s not being used as a vessel for humor, the film gets some good laughs. A section during the film’s second act features funny background humor from Gamma 2 and fellow Android Gamma 1 (Hiroshi Kamiya/Aleks Le), and there are a pair of bits where Gohan’s daughter Pan (Yuko Minaguchi/Jeannie Tirado) appears to be in more danger than she actually is, but have funny payoffs. Other times, particularly towards the end as stakes start to ramp up, that humor can feel out of place.
Super Hero brings so much to the table visually, that it’s a shame that it can’t entirely do so narratively. After establishing at the start that the Red Ribbon Army from the original Dragon Ball series has been rebuilt and now ready to take revenge against Goku and the other Z Warriors, Super Hero spends much of its time not letting the villains have a comeback that they feel is in their grasp. As Piccolo tries to simultaneously learn what the reborn Red Ribbon is doing and get Gohan into proper shape to get in on the action, its primary villains Magenta (Volcano Ōta/Charles Martinet) and Dr. Hedo (Miyu Irino/Zach Aguilar) don’t have much to do except wait for such a moment when they have to pull out their big gun for the film’s climax. And this isn’t just exclusive to them: the Gammas have a fun rapport and look dynamite in the fights, to say nothing of how much life their respective voice actors give them. But the movie isn’t interested in these two very much from a character standpoint, which means the questions the film raises about what makes a hero, and what lengths one will go to protect those they love, fall flat.
This is the 21st Dragon Ball film, but it suffers from “First Movie” syndrome, where it feels like it easily could’ve been an arc of the mothership show, and not much would change. At 99 minutes, the film can feel like it needed either more time or a stronger structure. Or maybe it just needed more time to let its events breathe: the entire film takes place over the course of a single day, and with that timeframe in mind, it can be easy to notice that the film is just biding its time until it can blow everyone away with its third act megabrawl. Much of a visual stunner as it is, the path to getting to that point can feel arduous.
Super Hero is a relative fresh start for Dragon Ball Super, and seems to be taking refuge in that. On its own merits, it’s a solid film with a gorgeous animation style and an infectious energy that makes it hard to dislike. Its heart is in the right place, and for longtime fans, it’s certainly worth seeing. But as the Z Warriors have taught us time and again, you can always get stronger. Whatever the next film to follow will be, hopefully it’ll truly live up to the “Super” in the series’ title.
Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero will release in theaters on August 19.
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