By the climax of Batman: Soul of the Dragon, Batman teams up with Black Dynamite and a Bruce Lee stand-in to fight an army of ninjas and snake demons on a secret island to save their kung-fu master from an evil snake god.
If that isn’t the plot of a Godfrey Ho movie then I don’t know what is.
Batman: Soul of the Dragon
Director: Sam Liu
Release Date: January 12, 2021 (VOD)
DC Comics, as a company, rarely takes any major risks with its properties. As someone who follows its monthly comics output as well as its film efforts, if there’s one thing that DC will try its damnedest to avoid, that thing is change. Even after a cataclysmic storyline that results in the destruction of the universe, DC will find a way to downplay the events. Even if there’s a story where everything matters, it will still feel like the comic itself doesn’t. That’s why DC movies like Batman: Soul of the Dragon are so exciting to me. It’s an original Batman story set in the 1970s the feels like an homage to genre films of the era.
In the film, Bruce Wayne (David Giuntoli) gets a visit from his old martial arts buddy, Richard Dragon (Mark Dacascos), and learns that an evil group called the Kobra Cult has resurfaced after years of inactivity to try and revive their god. Bruce and Dragon have a vendetta against the group, so they assemble their old martial arts buddies Lady Shiva (Kelly Hu) and Ben Turner (Michael Jai White) to stop the group before it’s too late.
Batman: Soul of the Dragon is a lot of things, but most importantly: it’s a kung-fu movie. I know that I may not be the designated kung-fu master around here, but as someone who has a cursory knowledge of what makes a good kung-fu movie, I had a pretty fun time with what I saw. The animation for most of the fight scenes was solid, though the quality of the animation can become extremely choppy on the flip of a dime. Still, as long as the action is easy to consume, I can forgive some spotty animation at other non-essential points.
The point that’s probably going to be a make it or break it point for observers though is that Batman is hardly in this film. Over the 80 minute run-time, Batman appears in all of two scenes. Yes, one of them is the climax, but even there he feels like an afterthought, which is both disappointing and a relief. On one hand, Batman has been beaten to death by DC for well over a decade now. Having a movie focus on any other character besides him is welcomed in my eyes. On the other hand, it feels like a real waste since Batman primarily just stands on the side and scowls for the film. He’ll fight, and he’ll even kill some people here, but he feels inconsequential.
The film is predominantly split into parts, a sequence in the past focused on all of the martial artists training under O-Sensei (James Hong), and the Kobra Cult nonsense in the present. Make no mistake, the stuff in the present is absolute nonsense. Ninja snakes can never be taken seriously, especially when one of them walks around like a James Bond henchman. The flashbacks serve to actually highlight character motivations and flesh out who everyone is and by the time we reach the climax I felt like we got a sufficient look at all of the main cast.
The villains are all at least entertaining and the film relishes the opportunity to ham it up, like a sudden appearance by a group of ninja wielding axes, a blind, British kung-fu master who fights by smell, and a villain who is introduced to us by eating a rat. Just gobbling one down while he watches a prostitute get bitten by cobras. It’s cheesy on every conceivable level, but that’s entirely by design. The only way this movie could be even more 70s if it was filmed in live-action and shot like a mash-up between Godfrey Ho and Dolemite.
For as dumb as the film can be, it never quite hit a level where I was really enjoying myself. The best way I can describe my feelings while actively watching the film was that it was a great genre send-up but it was hampered by too small of a scope. By the time the movie really gets started, it’s almost over. It does what it sets out to do and once it reaches that point, it just ends and leaves you a bit dissatisfied. That’s especially true of the cliffhanger ending that promises such stupidity. How DARE you end the movie right before Batman and friends descend into an alternative dimension to fight demon snakes with kung-fu! HOW. DARE. YOU.
But when all is said and done, Batman: Soul of the Dragon is fine. It delivered exactly what it set out to do despite how limited that final goal may be. It was fun, which should be the primary goal of a movie like this. It wanted to be a fun send-up to features that regularly appear over at the Kung-Fu Corner and it delivers. No more, no less. If you’re looking for some alternative Batman fare, Batman: Soul of the Dragon is an alright place to start.