Spend enough time as a Batman fan, and something strange can happen: you start liking other characters too.

I know, it’s crazy!  Batman’s the coolest.  But sometimes… sometimes it’s nice to see someone else get the spotlight.  Not at the expense of Batman, of course, but in his stead.

That’s what the new film Batman: Soul of the Dragon is like: a movie with Batman, but not a movie about Batman.  Bruce Wayne plays a fairly substantial role, but he’s a co-lead at most, and honestly more of a supporting character.  For this movie is more about Richard Dragon for most of its run-time, with Lady Shiva and Bronze Tiger playing large roles as well.  It’s a solid ensemble of which Batman is a part, but not the whole.

And honestly?  I kind of love that, for as much as I’m a fan of Batman, I’m even more a fan of DC Comics.  So you give me a 1970s-set kung-fu movie with some of the DCU’s best fighters, I’m going to take notice.  Even though I don’t particularly have a strong connection with Richard Dragon, Lady Shiva, and Bronze Tiger, I’m am completely down with a story that features that trio.  Throw some Batman into the mix and baby, you’ve got a movie going.

Like most good action movies, the plot for Batman: Soul of the Dragon is… let’s say “straightforward.”  Ultimately, it’s about Dragon, Shiva, Tiger, and fellow former student Bruce Wayne teaming up to defeat kung-fu treachery.  It’s a simple story, and that is more than okay, because we’re all here for the cool fight scenes, right?

Right.

But really, the story isn’t deep, but it’s engaging right out of the gate, with an opening scene that is reminiscent of a James Bond film’s cold open, if Bond was an Asian martial arts master played by the Chairman from Iron Chef America.  There are no less than eight things that I like in that sentence, and we’re barely five minutes into the movie.

That leads into the opening credits, with some pretty funky theme music.  It’s kind of a missed opportunity, because in keeping with the Bond inspiration it would have been cool if the credits had a song with vocals to go with the horns and wah pedals, but it still fits the movie and is plenty of fun.

Over the next eighty or so minutes, we get two things in almost equal measure: lots of action, and some surprising cameos.  The action makes complete sense, what with this being a martial arts movie and all, and practically every scene is energetic and engaging.  That’s helped in no small part thanks to the animation style, which has some lean, clean character designs and vibrant backgrounds.  Quality of the films aside, one of the main complaints I had with a lot of DC’s animated output over the past few years was how overly busy the characters looked, with all sorts of lines across their faces and piping covering the costumes.  It was an aesthetic choice that I personally wasn’t a fan of, so seeing some designs that are simpler in all the best ways was refreshing.

Batman’s design in particular is awesome, blending the 1970s look of a Neal Adams or Marshall Rogers drawing with some of the early work of Bob Kane.  The wider ears on the cowl in particular look like they came directly from one of the Batman comics of 1939, and based on what Bruce Timm said about the process of designing this look, that’s exactly what they were going for.

Plus, you can never go wrong with the capsule belt and yellow oval in my book.  I’m easy to please.

The pleasing designs lend themselves well to the overall animation style, as they look good whether the characters are just standing around or engaged in fights and wrecking ninjas and stuff.  Director Sam Liu is a veteran of the DC animated library, and his confident direction is evident in nearly every frame.  It looks simple, lean, and clean, but not cheap.

What really impressed me the most, though, was the sheer number of recognizable characters they managed to include in the story.  Besides the four main protagonists, there are appearances from King Snake, Judo Master, O-Sensei, Cheshire, Lady Eve, and even Silver St. Cloud.  As a massive fan of the Strange Apparitions run from Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, I was positively delighted to see Silver, as she’s my personal favorite Bruce Wayne love interest of all time.  She’s only in the film for a few minutes, and she and Bruce don’t exactly part on the best of terms, but still!  Silver St. Cloud!  In an animated movie!  That’s amazing.

You know what’s really impressive, though?  The main antagonists in the film are Kobra.  And I still had a blast.

See, save for maybe Deacon Blackfire or Trigon, you’d be hard pressed to find a villain who turns me off faster than Kobra.  I’m just… generally not interested in anything Kobra does, because it all seems to be the same story each and every time: take over the world, find the Naga, and reincarnate. Not necessarily in that order, but definitely with those three elements.

But no, this movie is so fun and breezy that I barely rolled my eyes when Kobra first showed up.

You can’t have a good animated film without a good cast, either, and Warner Bros. have assembled a strong team to bring these characters to life.  David Giuntoli is a solid enough Bruce Wayne, making him a bit of an outsider when interacting with his allies.  I think that’s the right way to go here, as even Dragon, Shiva, and Tiger see Bruce as “the spoiled rich guy,” even if they have genuine affection for him.

Kelly Hu is also solid as Lady Shiva, though she doesn’t have as showy a role as some of the other characters.  It’s Mark Dacascos as Richard Dragon and Michael Jai White as Ben “Bronze Tiger” Turner who make the biggest impression, the former in particular because he’s effectively the lead of the movie.  Dacascos brings a confident charm to Dragon that doesn’t teeter into true cockiness and arrogance, as he’s confident in his abilities but has enough humility to keep himself centered.  Considering Hu and White have played their respective characters before, Dacascos slides so easily into his role that you’d think he’d been voicing Dragon for years.

White might just be the standout, though, because… well, he’s Michael Jai White.  Whether he’s the gangster Gambol in The Dark Knight or the title character in Black Dynamite, he has a commanding presence.  As evidenced in Black Dynamite, he’s also hilarious and just oozes charisma, which he brings to the role of Bronze Tiger.  While he has history with the character, having played him in live action on Arrow, this is a more playful take on Turner.  Yeah, he’ll still mess up some dudes, and he gets plenty of chances to do so, but he’s also… how do I put this?

He has more of a personality beyond just “super cool karate dude.”  I mean, he is a super cool karate dude, but he’s got some layers too.

The other notable member of the cast is prolific actor and national treasure James Hong as O-Sensei.  Much has been written and spoken about Hong having the most acting credits to their name of anyone in Hollywood, and if you’ve seen him in anything (and you have) you know what you’re getting from him.  He’s spry and playful, while still commanding respect and bringing a certain level of gravitas to the role.

As much as I enjoyed the film, I do have a few criticisms and nitpicks.  Like I said earlier, as awesome as the opening scene was, with the whole “Richard Dragon as James Bond” motif, it would have really set the tone to have a full-blown theme song over the opening credits.  Not a big criticism, but one I wanted to note.

A few things that actually bugged me have to do with the rating, because there was no need for this movie to be rated R.  It’s an example of doing it because you can, not because you should, and it doesn’t even earn the rating.  It’s violent and gets genuinely intense and even scary at points, but it’s no worse than any other DC animated film.  The profanity sprinkled throughout the script is of the “we’re doing this because we can” variety.  I’m not saying this movie needed to be safe for the whole family by any means, but making it inaccessible to anyone under 17 was an odd choice.

That brings me to my main gripe about the movie, which is the final act.  Overall, it’s really strong and keeps up a strong pace and sense of energy up until the final frame.  Some of the action does get repetitive toward the end of the film, though, and Batman makes a choice that honestly should have bugged me more than it actually did, but I’ve just kind of become numb to it.  Without revealing what it was, you can probably guess by my dancing around it, and the movie is pretty quick to “fix” the problem and provide an acceptable justification otherwise.  Still, even in a Kung fu battle against ninjas and supernatural forces, they could have written a different resolution.

That said, the end of the movie is awesome in its open-ended nature, so all is forgiven.  It’s surprisingly bleak, yet still has a tinge of hopefulness.  I was genuinely surprised at how the movie ended, in the best possible way, and it shows that some actual thought was put into the screenplay as writer Jeremy Adams didn’t resort to a clean, pat ending.

Overall: Batman: Soul of the Dragon doesn’t quite reach the levels of Batman Ninja or even Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but it’s close and a strong movie on its own.  With a strong voice cast, smooth animation, excellent pacing, and a funky score, this is one of the strongest animated films to come out of the DC stable in quite some time.  If this is an indication of the direction  these films are going, we’re in for some quality productions in the future.

SCORE: 8.5/10

Batman: Soul of the Dragon is available on digital platforms, Blu-Ray, and other physical media on Jan. 26, 2021.


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