Like the comic book universe upon which it is based, and the live-action films with which it shares its characters, the DC Animated Universe is at its best when it forgets about continuity. Batman: Year One; The Dark Knight Returns; Return of the Caped Crusaders; none of them worried about what the other DC animated movies were doing, and were vastly superior for it. The less said about Justice League: War and Batman’s ridiculous chin-strap, the better.
Thankfully, following the universe’s reboot in Apocalypse War, DC and WB have taken a back-to-basics approach, concentrating more on solo films and one-offs for the time being. After the charming Superman: Man of Tomorrow, it’s Batman’s turn to take the spotlight. Or at least some of it. This '70s-set martial arts movie returns Batman to the Denny O’ Neil / Neal Adams era of crime-fighting, dropping him into something akin to a lost Bruce Lee picture. It’s Batman Begins meets Enter the Dragon. Richard Dragon, that is.
Richard Dragon (Mark Dacascos) is an expert martial artist in a team which consists entirely of expert martial artists, founded by the Dark Knight’s mentor, the wise O-Sensei. Re-uniting with classmates Lady Shiva (Kelly Hu), Bronze Tiger (Michael Jai White) and… yes, Batman (David Giuntoli), Dragon hopes to stop a sssinister crime lord from unleashing an ancient evil upon the world. The Gate is a silly Maguffin, and none of the villains are afforded enough time or characterization for us to take it seriously. All Soul of the Dragon really cares about is the fighting. This, it does well, nipping from one snappily executed battle to the next with scarcely time for breath. It looks good too; although the animation suffers from that same blandness which has infected most of DC’s animated movies, its character design, retro outfits and slick moves set it apart from the rest.
Boldly, it positions Batman as the least competent fighter of the gang, getting his ass handed to him in almost every fight we see. It’s a neat change from the omnipotent Bat-god we’re used to seeing, positing a Bruce Wayne who is nothing without the cape and cowl. Batman’s true strength, it realizes, is his stubbornness and drive – not his being the toughest and smartest guy in every room. This isn’t really Batman’s story though, and one wishes that writer Jeremy Adams and director Sam Liu had reserved some time and character development for Dragon and the other fighters.
Soul of the Dragon is one of the most unusual DC animated movies so far. This is a Batman movie that doesn’t need Batman at all; a fun backdoor pilot for its cool and colourful supporting cast. Can you dig it?
Release Date: February 15th