It’s always hard to take a piece of a whole and evaluate it separately. The 'Dragon Ball' saga, spanning a vast and continuing manga, alongside hundreds of television episodes - spread across four individual incarnations of the name, with corresponding movies and television specials - is a compelling example of just such a quandary. It is virtually impossible for a newcomer to properly perceive, let alone appreciate, the nuances of detail and storytelling within an odyssey of such bloated proportions. What we are left with then is pure aesthetic worth; loudness, prettiness and the unique gloss of animated tinsel. As such, if one disconnects one’s brain and simply gawks at the crash, bang and wallop of the thing, is there sufficient heft to be worth your time?
Taken as a single, one-off story with both dramatic and thematic intent, Dragon Ball Super: Broly (2018) possesses merit. The story arc of Broly, the eponymous antagonist, is compelling, and his journey of forced survival in the face of paternal abuse, manipulation and betrayal is sufficiently primal and capably conveyed. Broly is a child of the Saiyans: a brutal and powerful warrior race, who nonetheless find themselves under the boot of the even more maniacal galactic warlord, Frieza. The subjugated Saiyans are his most efficient soldiers, owing to their innate fighting instincts and constantly evolving strength. Though Frieza’s power far outstrips any individual Saiyan, he comes to fear their numerical advantage, and without looking to spoil anything for the uninitiated, chooses to address his concerns in a suitably genocidal fashion.
So how does Broly factor into this? Well, let’s just say that from a story perspective, I’m reminded of the adage concerning a hill, some excrement and its predilection for downwards momentum. The introduction of the central characters takes place almost half a century before the setting of the film, and at that time Frieza sat atop the proverbial pyramid of power. Several levels down we find the king of the Saiyans - King Vegeta III - a proud and inflexible monarch. Upon discovering that Broly, the infant son of a simple Saiyan soldier named Paragus, possesses greater potential than his own son and heir (the imaginatively named Vegeta IV), King Vegeta has him exiled to a planet where he will almost certainly be killed during infancy. Paragus sets out to save his son, but not out of love or loyalty to him; vengeance against the king is his ultimate motivation. Paragus also shares King Vegeta’s fear of Broly’s power, and uses the harsh, inhospitable landscape - upon which father and son find themselves indefinitely stranded - as an excuse to raise his son into a supremely powerful, silent barbarian, with a limited concept of morality. So despite being overwhelmingly powerful (and ostensibly evil), Broly has spent his whole, unpleasant life at the bottom of an interstellar barrel.
If the price of your ticket is to be paid in the typical currency of the overzealous anime smash-mouth, consider yourself well and truly stamped.
Thus when the film finds its not-even-remotely-important excuse for bringing Broly and our heroes together, battle ensues between them and an atypically complex and morally ambiguous villain. Broly’s journey, and the origins of his rage and power, represents the substance of the story, but in the end such details are minutiae, once the fighting commences. Dragon Ball (1986-1989) fans - and this goes quadruple for ‘Super’ fans - are invariably keen on long, dramatic and highly elaborate fight sequences, and Broly does not disappoint in this regard. Thanks to the era of advanced CG-assisted animation techniques, the film is able to deliver fisticuffs on a positively vast scale. It is truly monstrous in scope, and if the price of your ticket is to be paid in the typical currency of the overzealous anime smash-mouth, consider yourself well and truly stamped. It is completely ridiculous and at times, folly to the naked eye, but it is never less than appropriate to the setting. Alas, this for me is where the problems begin. As I was watching the film in the cinema, it occurred to me that Frieza - the character Akira Toriyama designed to be the Devil of Dragon Ball Z (1989-2003) - had been softened to such an extent that he was functioning as little more than the film’s (admittedly efficient) comic relief, and to me at least, that just feels wrong.
I am a massive 'Dragon Ball' fan; Dragon Ball Z, to be more specific. I have invested emotionally, intellectually and financially in Akira Toriyama’s creative zeal, and it has been a constantly rewarding experience. Yet something about this film - and Dragon Ball Super as a series - leaves me feeling rather hollow. Dragon Ball Z was designed to be more serious and action-orientated in tone than its predecessor, the original ‘Dragon Ball’, which was much zanier and more humorous in its execution. ‘Z’ was a sequel series, telling the continuing story of Goku and his friends; most of whom started out as enemies before seeing the error of their ways and ultimately becoming allies. In terms of melodrama, Shakespeare has nothing on Dragon Ball Z. The fights could be interminable, and whole episodes would elapse with characters essentially doing nothing beyond having a staring contest, whilst talking about what you’ve already witnessed. It sounds absurd, and frankly it is, yet this peculiar formula of fighting, humour and emotional investment has seen Dragon Ball Z continuously embraced by successive generations. It is a perfectly daft journey through the cream of Japanese creativity and imagination, and concludes itself in a fitting manner that left this writer at least, sated and content.
Prior to the creation of Dragon Ball Super, there was an earlier attempt to continue the story, in the form of the misbegotten Dragon Ball GT (1996-2003), but sans Toriyama’s explicit involvement, it was shunned as inferior by the fanbase. Super carries the mark of Toriyama, and having watched it, there’s no doubt the humour is adequately pitched and the battles are grander than ever. Yet somehow, the whole thing feels overdone. There were landmark moments within Dragon Ball Z, such as Goku’s original transformation to the ‘Super Saiyan’ form, in his original battle with Frieza, or the implacable Vegeta’s decision to assist Gohan during the Cell Games. 'Z' had a marvellous knack of peaking at just the right moment, having wound you up fit-to-burst with anticipation in the interim. 'Super' does not possess this gift. It features endless battles with innumerable transformations, all occurring constantly. The previously established formula, though polished by time to a high sheen, has become unavoidably repetitive, and the emotional investment is no longer repaid because there’s no true growth; you simply transition listlessly from one scenario to the next, with the latest loud bang or death being your cue to react. All the dramatic stuff, which Dragon Ball Z always excelled at making relevant, is little more than a prelude for the fighting and explosions. It is Dragon Ball for the attention deficit generation.
To any 'Dragon Ball' fan more willing - and perhaps a little less jaded - than me, it is manna from the Eternal Dragon.
As a series, Dragon Ball Super is curiously unimaginative, with most of its major storylines being recycled from 'Z' or more bizarrely, from itself. Case in point, Dragon Ball Super: Broly is actually the fourth Dragon Ball film to feature a version of the Broly character. Three of the fifteen Dragon Ball Z films incorporated the character, but as most of the 'Z' movies exist in something akin to a parallel universe, Super’s incarnation of Broly is the first canonical version of the character. That’s a big deal to all 'Dragon Ball' fans. Controversially, the film brazenly retcons several other aspects of established dogma to suit the tone of Super’s ‘new’ story. The film even takes the time to directly reference the non-canon Broly films, whilst being casually ironic about their ambiguous existence. At times, it’s like something akin to a post-modern parody-come-remake! Despite these observations, I should stress that as a fan, I find a lot of worth in the new Broly, I just don’t see the old twinkle in the eye anymore. The magic is for me at least, missing. Of course, it goes without saying that the film is of no value whatsoever to anyone not intimately acquainted with the labyrinthine, four decades-old Dragon Ball mythos. However, to any 'Dragon Ball' fan more willing - and perhaps a little less jaded - than me, it is manna from the Eternal Dragon. Again.