[Hello all and welcome back to Weeb Analysis where this month we’ll be looking at the latest installment in the definitive anime series, Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero. Weeb Analysis is a monthly column dedicated to analyzing new anime and seeing which titles are true classics in the making and which ones are worthless shlock not worth your time. The question now stands: is Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero worth your time or not?]
Warning: This article contains full spoilers on Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero. If you have not seen the film yet, please go see it and then come back to read it.
If you are a fan of anime, then you should know what Dragon Ball is. I don’t feel the need to go into a long-winded explanation of what exactly the series or any of its sequel series (whether they be of the Z, GT, or Super variety) are. While One Piece may be the highest-selling manga series of all time, it doesn’t have the sheer cultural dominance that Dragon Ball has, at least here in the West.
I, like many anime fans my age, got into the series via Toonami, watching Goku and his friends defeat a constantly escalating series of all-powerful baddies. I’ve seen the series, played the games, read the manga, watched the parodies: I’ve seen it all. I don’t have any claim of super devotion though. I just like the series a fair bit, though it’s one that definitely has its flaws and set a lot of Shonen tropes in place that you either love or hate. It defined what it meant to be a Shonen anime and every series since then has a little bit of Dragon Ball DNA in them.
Enter Dragon Ball Super. The sequel series to Dragon Ball Z sparked a resurgence in the franchise after well over a decade of recycling and rehashing material ad nauseum, but that material hasn’t been perfect. No matter how I look at it, the series, both the anime and the manga, just come across as continuing the franchise simply because it needs to go on. This has been a problem with the series since the conclusion of the Cell Saga, which was rumored to be author Akira Toriyama’s original ending of the series, but his editors wanted the franchise to continue. Since then, the series has had diminishing returns with its only saving grace being immaculately animated fight scenes.
That series continues once more with the next continuation in the franchise, Dragon Ball Super: Super Heroes. We at Flixist published our review of it last week, and it wasn’t a glowing one. We gave it a 4 out of 10 and cited a lot of issues with its plot structure, its animation, and its regurgitation of prior plot threads from the series. Now that the film is officially out and people have seen it, it’s time to go into more spoilers with it and give it more of an analytical examination. I agree wholeheartedly with our review despite not being the one to write it. However, I think the problems with the film go deeper than what we said and paint a picture of a movie that tries to do everything but fails at most of it.
So let’s address the elephant in the room; the animation. Is it bad? Honestly, no, not really. There’s an argument to be made about whether or not it looks better or worse compared to earlier, 2D series, but bear in mind that most anime series, and even the previous film, used 3DCG. It was used sparingly, but it was used nonetheless. The fact that it’s used as much as it is here is a bit weird though as there was nothing wrong with how the animation was done in Dragon Ball Super: Broly.
We can basically draw two scenarios from the style change. The first one is a fairly innocuous one; the film was made with 3DCG because it fit the style of the movie better. The director, Tetsuro Kodama, claimed that it was the only way to capture the speed of some of the new characters, though I personally find that claim dubious. Just watch any scene from the Jiren fight in Dragon Ball Super to disprove that claim. The other option, which I find the more likely one, is that the film has a smaller budget, and using 3DCG was an experiment to see if Toei Animation could maximize profits at a cheaper cost. While we don’t know the budget of Super Hero, Broly had a budget of around $8.5 million and I’m willing to bet that Super Hero hovers a little less than that.
I will say that the style actually matches the tone that the movie is trying to go for. Most of Super Hero isn’t an action film. Outside of the final fight and a few blink and you’ll miss them fights, there is hardly any action at all in Super Hero. If you were someone who grew up watching Dragon Ball Z, it was probably a bit of a bummer to see so much of the movie revolve around a lot of comedic scenes. In fact, the sheer number of comedic moments in the film may have been a bit overwhelming. There certainly is an effort to try and make Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero lighter in tone than other Dragon Ball movies. But that’s not inherently negative.
Dragon Ball started out as, and always will be, a comedic action series. The original series has a ton of lighter and fun moments that put a focus on comedy over action. Whether it be Oolong wishing for panties, the existence of the Pilaf Gang, most of the Red Ribbon officers with their unique gags, and Krillen defeating an opponent in the Budokai Tenkaichi with cartoon logic, Dragon Ball has always been a series spawned from comedy. It slowly lost that focus as King Piccolo became an antagonist and the series transitioned to Z, but Super brought back those comedic elements to admittingly mixed results.
Super Heroes feels like a direct homage to those earlier days of Dragon Ball. The focus isn’t on grand universal adversaries. The villains are a new incarnation of the Red Ribbon Army and are human. Sure, Magenta may have body augmentations, but he’s still a human at heart. Most of the conflict, like with the original Red Ribbon Arc, comes from our villains grossly underestimating the heroes and being defeated due to their arrogance. I also like the historical revisionism that Magenta tells Dr. Hedo in order to convince him to join him since we know all of what he’s peddling is false. However, Hedo doesn’t really care if it is or isn’t true since he just wants to build robots.
There’s a lot more comedic moments inside of Super Hero than that, and those are the moments that don’t really land. You can’t just lean hard into one genre and then expect to go back without any whiplash. The cartoon sound effects of Gamma 2 don’t gel with the world, Bulma using Shenron for cosmetic surgery seems forced, Gohan being oblivious to virtually everything is frustrating, and the list goes on. Frankly, it’s overwhelming at times how much the movie tries to undermine the severity of the situation. In a way, I kind of get it. The Red Ribbon Army were never the most serious of antagonists in Dragon Ball, so engineering a lighter conflict isn’t a bad idea, but they can’t have it both ways with suddenly implementing an end-of-the-world threat at the very last second after so much levity.
Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero tries to have it both ways with its comedy and action but they never gel together. As a matter of fact, they clash and never mix. When the final fight is happening and every character is getting involved, we get teased with an adult Gotenks, only for the fusion dance to fail and fat Gotenks is in the entire climax. I get why the gag exists, but when the film goes hard into action and removes almost all of the levity, including Gamma 2 sacrificing himself to damage the final villain, it just feels out of place. That’s how I would describe most of the scenes in this film.
There’s no greater supporting argument to this idea than how Goku and Vegeta are utilized. I assume the writers realized that if they were going to make Piccolo and Gohan the main characters, they needed some excuse to shelve Goku and Vegeta. Having them train on Beerus’ planet is… fine, I guess? It gets them away from the action, but their role feels completely perfunctory. They’re here to satisfy fans, have a fight scene when nothing is happening in the main plot, and remind us that Broly is canon.
Unquestionably, I love that the film makes Gohan and Piccolo the main characters. Okay, Piccolo is mostly the main character and Gohan gets dragged in for the final fight, but making these two the central protagonists really highlights the quality of their relationship. It’s a truth that’s been beaten the death in the fandom, but to paraphrase Yondu of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Goku may have been Gohan’s father, but he wasn’t his daddy. Piccolo raised Gohan, and seeing the both of them fight together as equals is amazing. It’s the perfect capstone to their relationship.
I even like how the film kind of replicates that original dynamic with Piccolo and Gohan via Gohan’s daughter, Pan. Unlike Gohan when he was a kid, Pan is spunky and is more interested in getting involved in superheroics. The threats she has to face aren’t as grave as what Gohan went through when he was a kid, but having Piccolo train her really does emphasize the character Piccolo is: a protective father to his surrogate kids. It also accidentally shows that Gohan is probably a bad dad just like Goku was, but hey, when has a Saiyan in this series ever been a good parental figure? The only way that this would have been a perfect circle back to those earlier days would have been if Pan was the one to deal the final blow to Cell Max.
Oh yeah, I should probably just rip off that band-aid and talk about the worst and most polarizing element of this film. Let’s talk about Cell Max.
In Dragon Ball Z, Cell worked as a villain because he was a culmination of everything the Z Warriors faced up until that point in the franchise. He had elements of every major hero and villain in him and he was created for absolute destruction. He was meant to be the ultimate threat to Earth, one that Goku couldn’t even defeat. What made him work as an antagonist wasn’t because of what he symbolized for Goku, but for his son Gohan.
Ultimately, Dragon Ball Z isn’t the story of Goku, but the story of Gohan. We see Gohan grow from being a meek little child who abhors violence to a teenager who still hates fighting, but knows he has to fight and kill in order to save the world. Goku died trying to end Cell, but Cell survived, and it’s up to Gohan to finish his father’s job or witness the end of the human race. When Cell is killed by Gohan, the world is saved, but Goku’s still dead. Since Goku was already brought back to life, that was it for him. No more second chances. Goku was no longer the savior of the world. It was Gohan’s time to be a hero and follow in his father’s footsteps.
This is why so many fans find the Buu Saga and Super overall to be a letdown. It makes the series into Goku’s story yet again. Goku is brought back to life and saves the universe. Goku unlocks the power to become a god. Goku fights in a tournament of gods and unstoppable fighters from various universes. Gohan, meanwhile, doesn’t even play second fiddle. He gives up fighting and whenever he has to fight, gets his ass handed to him. Not to the level of Yamcha, but he’s not a great fighter compared to everyone else.
I get what the purpose of the Cell Max fight was. It was an attempt to recapture that glory of the Cell Saga. A mindless abomination that looks like a gigantic Cell is destroying everything. Goku isn’t around to save the day. Only Gohan and Piccolo can do the job. It tries to mirror everything that the first climactic battle against Cell was. Sadly, it fails to even capture a shred of that thematic weight. It’s purely nostalgic imagery with a new coat of paint and hardly any substance. There’s no tension in the fight because we’re only introduced to Cell Max in the same scene he’s fought in. He’s a regurgitation of an idea that no one was asking for. Cell Max is the new Bio Broly.
But the film tries so hard to justify the gravity of the situation. All of the available Z Fighters can’t beat him. The new characters, Gamma 1 and Gamma 2, can’t beat him. So in the face of such strength, Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero, opts to go to its oldest well for its Deus ex machina: new transformations! Oh no, Piccolo and Gohan can’t beat this new baddie? Well, let’s throw out Orange Piccolo and Beast Gohan to save the day!
I’m torn about the introduction of Orange Piccolo. On one hand, I’m glad that Piccolo is able to get a new power to make himself relevant again. Granted, Piccolo was always able to stay as involved as he was in fights due to his ingenuity and intelligence rather than raw strength, but giving him a power boost was a well-deserved moment. However, I don’t like how it was handled. As if you couldn’t tell, the film plays fast and loose with retcons to mixed results (the Red Ribbon Army never died, Dr. Gero had a grandson, Dende could just upgrade Shernon whenever he liked), but having Piccolo tap into his true power in the same way that Guru released Krillin and Gohan’s power on Namek was clever. I can’t say the same for Beast Gohan.
The film tries to tap into the primal rage that Gohan felt in dire situations that allowed him to save the day at the 11th hour. This time it just manifests as a new transformation that does absolutely nothing for me. Again, what made the fight against Cell work was that Gohan was the maddest he had ever been. Cell killed his dad. Gohan was afraid to fight him. Android 16, who was a peaceful soul, tells Gohan to fight for life and save the human race before being murdered by Cell. This allows him to transform into Super Saiyan 2, the first person in the series to do that. Here, Beast Gohan is just a power-up. There is no great meaning behind it. It’s just a way for our heroes to defeat the villain without Goku showing up and it lasts for not even a minute. At least Orange Piccolo managed to stick around for longer.
The more I think about Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero, the more disappointed I am in it. After Broly, which is probably one of the best Dragon Ball movies if only for the fight choreography, this is such a shocking downgrade that I’m kind of dumbfounded. Hell, the other Dragon Ball movie where Gohan is the protagonist, Bojack Unbound, is better since it doesn’t attempt to be anything more than a fun, non-canon adventure with Gohan after the events of the Cell Saga. But this is canon. This is meant to be the next step of the franchise, and it’s not a step that I’m all too excited about.
It’s depressing, really, because the series has been having a good resurgence. Yes, Dragon Ball Super is unnecessary and doesn’t serve any real purpose other than more content, but it’s fun content. FighterZ has become a staple of the fighting game community, and the manga is being published again with Akira Toriyama writing once more. Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero isn’t fun. It wastes your time for about an hour of the movie with comedy that’s hit or miss before descending into a fight against a villain with no menace, only to be defeated by random power-ups. It’s everything that people dislike about the franchise in one film.
I hope you understand that this installment of Weeb Analysis served two purposes. First, it’s to tell you not to bother with Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero. It should have been obvious and even with the few bright spots present, they’re overshadowed by all of the inconsequential fluff. This installment was also me trying to express why it was so disappointing. I’m a fan of the series. It may not seem like it after I just tore this movie to shreds, but I do love Dragon Ball and I’ve always had fun with it. This was the first time in a long time I didn’t have fun with it. I wondered why that was, and I think I’ve made my point pretty succinctly. I want to have more fun with the series again, but that’ll have to wait until the next film releases or a new season of the show comes out. Not here.
January 2022: Anime of the Year Awards 2021
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