Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero powers through structural awkwardness with charm and style

Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero

Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero, the latest movie from the venerable shonen action saga grants a few of its fandom’s long-standing wishes by spotlighting two beloved but often sidelined heroes.

Alright, there’s only one way to start this off, so best to do it well.

*hem hem*

PREVIOUSLY, ON DRAGON BALL Z… Things have been looking up! Beerus, the God of Destruction, was so impressed by the heroic Saiyan warrior Goku’s strength (and Earth’s tremendous variety of delicious food) that he opted to spare the pale blue planet. The nefarious galactic tyrant Frieza returned from death, but his revenge was thoroughly thwarted—in part thanks to the once evil but long-since reformed Saiyan Prince Vegeta. Most recently, Goku and Vegeta stopped the pure-hearted but rage-prone Saiyan Broly from ruining the planet and himself. Peace reigns.

Alas, that peace will not last. When he was a child, Goku destroyed the bent-on-world-domination-and-getting-a-bit-taller Red Ribbon Army. Magenta (Charles Martinet, Volcano Ota), son of the Army’s leader Commander Red, vowed revenge. Decades later Magenta has found the weapons with which to take his vengeance: the believing-themselves-superheroes Gamma androids (Aleks Le and Zeno Robinson, Hiroshi Kamiya and Mamoru Miyano) and their creator, the brilliant-but-amoral-and-childish Dr. Hedo (Zack Aguilar, Miyu Irino).

Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero
Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero – Toei/Crunchyroll

With Goku (Sean Schemmel, Masako Nozawa) and Vegeta (Christopher Sabat, Ryō Horikawa) off-planet, saving the world falls to the former-Demon-King-turned-beloved-mentor-of-heroes Piccolo (Sabat, Toshio Furukawa) and his first student, Goku’s son Gohan (Kyle Hebert, Nozawa). If they are to succeed against the Gammas and the revived Red Ribbon, Piccolo must call upon all his considerable cunning, and Gohan must draw out all of his long-locked-away potential.

They’ll also have to navigate goofiness. The resurrected Red Ribbon Army being a legitimate threat to the world does not bar them from a being deeply ridiculous band of goons.

Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero is a good time, with two major caveats. The first is that while it is accessible to folks who are not big Dragon Ball fans, it is a film for Dragon Ball fans first. Piccolo and Gohan are lovable protagonists. But a big part of why Super Hero works is that they are the main characters in a Dragon Ball story for the first time in years, and Super Hero knows this. The same goes for the Red Ribbon Army, whose enmity with Goku and company goes back to the original Dragon Ball. A significant amount of Super Hero‘s weight comes from Dragon Ball‘s history, and while its story is solid, it will not play for a newcomer the way it does for someone who has followed Dragon Ball for a long while.

The second caveat is that structurally, Super Hero is hobbled by an extended mid-film check-in with Goku and Vegeta. While the interlude offers some charming character work and a fun fists-and-flight-only sparring match between Dragon Ball‘s heaviest hitters, it’s out of sync with the rest of the picture—sort of like how The Book of Boba Fett‘s “The Return of the Mandalorian” was a good episode of The Mandalorian…in the middle of The Book of Boba Fett. It’s distracting and frustrating, since Super Hero‘s main story is quite compelling—to the point that Goku and Vegeta, while beloved characters for a reason, are an interruption.

Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero
Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero – Toei/Crunchyroll

With those in mind, Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero really is a lot of fun. Piccolo and Gohan are a darn good buddy duo: the stern, dedicated mentor and the heroic, flighty student joined together by paternal love and shared experience. Of the two, Piccolo takes the lead as the picture’s overall protagonist. Sabat plays him well. When teaching Gohan’s daughter Pan (Jeannie Tirado, Yūko Minaguchi), he’s affectionately firm. When trying to get Gohan to be a more active parent and martial artist, he’s dryly exasperated. In battle, he’s cunning—even when befuddled by the Gammas’ superhero antics (complete with visible sound effects).

With Goku and Vegeta unavailable, the forces of good cannot simply wallop the Red Ribbon Army. Piccolo has to improvise, to look for new angles, to push his limits and then push past them. It gives him a solid story arc, one that will click even for folks new to Dragon Ball.

Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero
Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero — Toei/Crunchyroll

Visually, Super Hero is the first Dragon Ball film project to be primarily animated in 3D CGI (director Tetsuro Kodama directed the CGI sequence used in the climax of Dragon Ball Super: Broly, Super Hero‘s immediate predecessor), and it uses its new medium well. Super Hero‘s action is clear, colorful, and deploys Dragon Ball‘s varying modes (fist-to-fist clashes, superheroic brawling, full-on gorgeous psychedlia) with style.

Outside of action, Kodama and his team acquit themselves well. Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama’s screenplay bounces from character-based humor to goofball juvenile comedy and comedic action to a high stakes superheroic battle for the fate of the Earth. Aside from the sheer clunkiness of the Goku and Vegeta check-in, they handle all of it well.

Indeed, Kodama, Toriyama and company have made a darn solid film with Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero. I enjoyed it. Keeping in mind that it will play best for folks who dig Dragon Ball as a whole and the awkward interlude and there’s a lot to like here.

Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero opens in theaters on August 19th.

Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero trailer:

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