Liking the Dragon Ball franchise can be encapsulated in watching your favorite character change over time. As a kid, maybe you liked the too-cool Trunks, the boy-bandish time-traveler who appears from nowhere to hack apart the latest villain like he was nothing. Maybe you liked Krillin, the underdog monk trying to keep up with the non-humans he’s found himself running with. But for me, Piccolo has been a favorite as I’ve aged out of Dragon Ball’s target demographic. The bone-dry Namekian doesn’t just have a cool villain-to-hero origin or the capacity for Black viewers (like Jordan Calhoun, whose memoir notes the character’s codedness in its title) to read the alien as compelling representation, he also stands as a bastion of seriousness and responsibility in a world where the child-brained Goku runs the show. He’s thrust into babysitting duties for Goku’s offspring, becoming far more of a father figure than that goofball could ever be. He’s fed up, enjoyably so, yet always comes back for more. Just like me, watching Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero, a movie that finally gives Piccolo his day in the sun.
As Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero (redundantly named because series creator/screenwriter Akira Toriyama forgot the main title when coming up with the subtitle) makes Piccolo (Christopher Sabat) its protagonist, it also consigns itself to themes of cascading legacies. This affects its heroes, villains and us, reflecting its source material’s specifics—-the generations of death-defying fighters descending from Bardock to Goku to Gohan to Pan—and serialized form. If you’re unfamiliar, think of it this way: Rarely do you go too long without Batman fighting an escaped Arkham resident. Sometimes Robin takes up the mantle, figuratively or literally. Super Hero follows (super)suit.
Here, the blasts from the past are the high-tech, Nazi-like Red Ribbon Army. Updated for 2022 and the alt-right’s links to business-friendly conservatism, the organization hides behind a pharmaceutical company and adopts a mobster aesthetic of shoulder-padded suits, chomped cigars, tiny mustaches and massive pompadours. One of the more amusing twists of Super Hero is an early retelling of the Dragon Ball Z Cell Saga from the antagonists’ perspective—a story of aliens and opportunists combining their strength to take out humanity’s greatest creation…even if said creation was a power-mad bio-android.
Neo-Red Ribbon kingpin Magenta (Charles Martinet) convinces Dr. Hedo (Zach Aguilar) to help him rebuild the Army. Magenta is the son of the late Commander Red; Hedo is the superhero-loving grandson of Cell creator Dr. Gero. Hedo’s caped android creations, Gammas 1 and 2, reflect his fanboy immaturities and ironic willingness to buy into the very thing his fake heroes would hate. In a world of Punisher-loving cops, devoted MCU sycophants and doxing DC fans, this framing is a searing little ki blast. Even more relatable, Piccolo spends most of his time trying to convince everyone else around him of the threat’s seriousness.
Super Hero is familiarity on top of familiarity, but with slight tweaks in perspective and style. The most immediately noticeable difference is the morphing of its 2D characters into CG-rounded 3D models more reminiscent of cutscenes from Dragon Ball FighterZ than the anime. Shaded more broadly and moving with a weightier step, they stand out as if the environments have rejected them as foreign objects. Director Tetsuro Kodama first made use of this style in 2018’s Dragon Ball Super: Broly, in which he helmed a few CG sequences that supplemented its more traditional animation. That film’s ambitiously wild blend enhanced its title character’s over-the-top berserker style; Super Hero fully adopts the 3D look to lesser effect. It allows for camera-swirling combat—punctuated in one memorable fight with splashy comic sound-effect balloons—-but it’s underutilized and distracting as the detailed character movements seem disconnected from each other and the world around them. If those models form the basis for a new asset library at the Dragon Ball crew’s disposal, I bet they’ll eventually allow for some much-needed visual innovation. Not so much here, in what feels like a trial run.
But for this greater act of fan disservice (as many will see it), Super Hero offers equal acts of fan service: Appearances by the god of destruction Beerus and the big bad from the last movie, Broly; the gathering of the Dragon Balls and the summoning of Shenron; a Goku-Vegeta sparring match; the corny, juvenile humor that keeps Toriyama’s mega-macho fighters humble; and fights, fights, fights. Much of it is thrown away for gags, speaking directly to a fanbase that’s seen it all so many times over the course of multiple shows and 21 movies that none of it holds much narrative power.
That laissez-faire self-awareness regarding its own convoluted and repetitive mythos can lead to some amusing callbacks for longtime watchers, but it can also lead to underdeveloped character moments that rely on shortcuts and inference rather than story work. Piccolo and Gohan’s paternal relationship sees key symbolic, referential developments in the film’s climactic encounter (Special Beam Cannons, lost arms and seemingly-sacrificial grapples all play a part), but they’re dealt late and without set-up in a film that makes sure you understand so much of the other plot background. Yes, another hallmark of Dragon Ball also lays a low blow into Super Hero: Built-in narrative redundancy. Every 15 minutes or so, we get a little recap. Without commercials or a brief episode length to formally justify it, this technique feels less like crass padding and more like the movie snapping its fingers in front of kids’ faces to make sure they’re paying attention.
And sure, that’s Dragon Ball. Big beefy dudes yelling for a few episodes before hitting each other a few times, bookended by hammy narration and seasoned with winking (often perverted) silliness. It’s a small wonder that the film breaks the mold by allowing Sabat’s gruff delivery to lead the way, applied equally well to world-shattering conflict and almost-assimilation (Piccolo holding his cute-cased phone like he’s picking up a mouse by its tail is hilarious). Piccolo even gets a transformation to rival his Saiyan counterparts, though “Orange Piccolo” is about as underwhelming as its name. But it’s still refreshing to have him, rather than usual leads Goku and Vegeta, at the core of a story—even if the pair’s prominence in the franchise might have you questioning the “don’t worry about it” hand-waving that keeps the heavy-hitters away from Super Hero’s main fight.
By the by, that fight—eventually seeing an Avengers-like assemblage face Cell Max, a kaiju-like version of Semi-Perfect Cell—falls flat. Cell Max does a disservice to its namesake. Dragon Ball villains have always been best when their personalities have been as big as their power levels, and this thing is just a roaring, mindless menace. Whether it’s Cell’s suave arrogance, Buu’s childlike innocence or Frieza’s mincing Bond villainy, DBZ baddies have a certain standard to uphold.
But Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero was never going to be about its villains. It might have “Super” twice in its name, but it also has “Hero,” something that applies more to struggling single-dad Piccolo than any other character in the series. His thankless work is never done—cleaning up after his powerful friends, picking up their children from preschool, swallowing his past pride as his relationship to the world matures—but it can still be respected. For the older crowd still waxing nostalgic about weekday afternoons letting anime wash over them, it makes sense that he’d get his due in a movie that feels like another generational transition for the franchise. I’ve certainly seen myself go from excited devotee to grumbly onlooker, loving it as much for its flaws as for its abilities. Now the look of Dragon Ball is changing, and Super Hero represents its growing pains. But it also represents a willingness to look its longevity in the face and, like all long-running serials, see what passing the torch once again really means.
Director: Tetsuro Kodama
Writer: Akira Toriyama
Starring: Masako Nozawa, Toshio Furukawa, Ryo Horikawa, Y?ko Minaguchi, Mayumi Tanaka, Aya Hisakawa, Bin Shimada, Hiroshi Kamiya, Mamoru Miyano, Miyu Irino, Kyle Hebert, Sean Schemmel, Robert McCollum, Christopher R. Sabat, Monica Rial, Sonny Strait, Eric Vale, Kara Edwards, Jeannie Tirado, Zach Aguilar, Aleks Le, Zeno Robinson, Charles Martinet, Jason Marnocha
Release Date: August 19, 2022
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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