Batman: Soul of the Dragon
Studio: Warner Bros. Animation
Runtime: 83 minutes
Rating: R (for violence)
Release Date: January 12, 2021 – Digital; January 26, 2021 – 4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray
Synopsis: Renowned animation producer Bruce Timm takes the Dark Knight back to the 1970s for a supernatural-laden martial arts extravaganza in Batman: Soul of the Dragon! Set in the midst of the swinging 1970s, this Elseworlds adventure finds Bruce Wayne training under a master sensei. It is here that Bruce, along with other elite students, is forged in the fire of the martial arts discipline. The lifelong bonds they form will be put to the test when a deadly menace arises from their past. It will take the combined efforts of Batman, world-renowned martial artists Richard Dragon, Ben Turner and Lady Shiva, and their mentor O-Sensei to battle the monsters of this world and beyond!
The ensemble cast features a core group of actors playing martial arts students-turned-heroes in David Giuntoli (Grimm, A Million Little Things) as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Mark Dacascos (John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, Iron Chef America, Hawaii Five-0) as Richard Dragon, Kelly Hu (Arrow, X2: X-Men United) as Lady Shiva and Michael Jai White (Spawn, reprising his role from Arrow) as Ben Turner/Bronze Tiger. Their mentor O-Sensei is voiced by James Hong (Big Trouble in Little China, Blade Runner). Josh Keaton (Voltron: Legendary Defender; Green Lantern: The Animated Series) is featured as Jeffrey Burr, and additional voices are provided by veteran voiceover actors Grey Griffin, Chris Cox, Erica Luttrell, Robin Atkin Downes, Patrick Seitz, Jamie Chung and Eric Bauza.
Sam Liu (Reign of the Supermen, Batman: The Killing Joke) is Producer and Director of Batman: Soul of the Dragon, utilizing a script by Jeremy Adams (Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge). Producers are Jim Krieg (Batman: Gotham by Gaslight) and Kimberly S. Moreau (Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: Red Son) and Sam Register are Executive Producers. Michael Uslan is Executive Producer.
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Batman: Soul of the Dragon Animated Feature Review
By James Harvey
Bold, confident and a little unconventional, Batman: Soul of the Dragon is a 1970s-heavy martial arts romp that’s as genuinely enjoyable and fun as it is action-packed. Even with a few minor shortcomings, the Bruce Timm-produced movie offers a legitimately intriguing and interesting take on the Batman and his world. With a swagger all its own – and a vibe that’s pretty unique from the previous titles we’ve gotten from the DC Universe Movie line so far – strap in for a brash, slick animated feature that mixes spy games, kung-fu action, cheese, and capes and cowls into an unexpectedly groovy treat that fans will truly get a kick out of.
Right out of the gate it’s clear that Batman: Soul of the Dragon is going to be something a little different from the regular Caped Crusader-focused solo outings (if the 1970s-esque Warner Bros. Animation opening logo wasn’t clue enough). The film opens with a cold open straight out of an old-school James Bond movie, right down the pacing, fisticuffs and dramatic exit (and check out the George Lazenbry look-alike). After discovering that a cult has uncovered an item it needs to unleash an ancient, world-destroying evil, Richard Dragon searches out Bruce Wayne and a group of fellow martial artists he trained with decades ago to help avoid the utter devastation of mankind.
As usual, spoilers will be kept as light as possible.
Time and time again, Batman: Soul of the Dragon subverts expectations and drops surprise after surprise – and that’s even with going into the movie with a basic understanding of the plot. Guided under the skillful pen of Jeremy Adams (Justice League Action, Supernatural, Teen Titans Go! vs Teen Titans, among countless other projects), his focus on character-driven action makes every story beat and twist work. Yes, there’s plenty of action to be had, but none of it would work without Adam’s deft use of exposition and pace to link crucial character moments scattered throughout the movie. And as it expands into an ensemble piece, as Dragon gradually recruits his former allies to his cause, Adams manages to dole out legitimately interesting insight into nearly each member, creating characters that feel believable and lived-in, even with the fantastical situations they find themselves in.
Adams also pens, maybe, one of my all-time favorite ‘Bruce Wayne training’ moments, maybe ever. Keeping this as spoiler-free as possible, Wayne and O-Sensei are discussing the impossibility of a task in front of them during a flashback sequence, and how Adams brilliantly connects O-Sensei’s lesson to the Batman’s future mission, and how the film itself cuts from that sequence to ‘present day’ in such a stirring fashion – thanks in part also to the scene’s stunning score – makes that moment hit unexpectedly hard. Adams knows that Batman’s true strength isn’t that he’s the smartest guy around who’s always prepared, it’s his stubborn drive and determination. While this entire film is a total ball, that scene is an all-timer.
And while it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to call Batman the film’s main character – despite the hero’s name in the title – by no means does that mean he’s neglected. Here he simply shares the spotlight with a group of other great DC Comics characters, ones who never really get the spotlight, and the movie is all the more better for it. It actually helps establish how different, driven and angry Batman is, and how damaged he truly is, in comparison to his fellow students. David Giuntoli, who voices the Dark Knight here, effectively depicts the duality brewing in Batman with a deceptively complex portrayal of a man struggling with accepting who he really is.
Giuntoli is joined by an impressive array of voice talent, with every performance as solid as the next. Mark Dacascos voices Richard Dragon, whose pitch-perfect performance instills a wealth of charm, wit and reaffirms his character’s instant likeability. Also along for the ride are Bronze Tiger and Lady Shiva, voiced by Michael Jai White and Kelly Hu, respectively. White, as always, turns in a great performance, and bestows Tiger with a bit of a softer, more heroic touch for this slightly more optimistic, brighter take on the character, but he also gives the necessary rough edge to his performance for the flashback sequences. Lastly, Hu as Shiva absolutely absolutely steals the movie, time and time again, nearly every scene she’s in. Shiva’s straight-forward and deadly demeanor gives her this off-putting but confident air about her, which gives the movie some of its biggest laughs and coolest “cool” moments. Shiva’s “one finger fight” is a show-stopper!
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Continuing, James Hong as O-Sensei is a brilliant bit of casting. A talent with decades of experience – known for his work in Big Trouble in Little China, The Golden Child, Kung-Fu Panda and so much more – he’s in fantastic form here and never loses a step as Batman and company’s wise, humorous master from Nanda Parbat. Josh Keaton plays the film’s primary antagonist and is nearly unrecognizable as Jeffrey Burr, a cult leader with some unnerving predalitions. Voice director Wes Gleason pulls out a series of impressive performances across the board, producing undoubtedly some of the best works of his career from an immensely talented cast.
Among the nifty homages and nods to martial arts movies and comics past, Adams makes sure to give every single character a unique voice and, for the most part, interesting backgrounds and motivations. Character details are unveiled in a very calculated way in this movie, usually via flashback to underscore key plot points or character beats. Admittedly, the overall plot is perhaps a shade light, but that also appears intentional in order to give more screen time to the characters’ unique journeys and, honestly, it’s the right approach. If anything, Adams is simply adhering to the typical structure of a 1970s actioner.
The only detrimental slip-up in the script is a lack of any real definitive character journey for Dragon. Batman, Tiger and Shiva each get some insightful and/or interesting character beats, but not so much for Dragon. His background isn’t really given the same attention as others, almost as if the audience was introduced to Dragon in a previous movie and given his whole story there. By no means does that mean Dragon is wasted – he’s so likeable and charismatic – just that more could’ve been done to fully round out his character.
Also occasionally lacking is the animation, which while good overall, does come up short on occasion. There’s so much about the film that looks great – some legitimately gorgeous background work, the majority of the film’s numerous action beats, and especially the retro-infused character models. Aluir Almancio’s design work (you may know that name from previous DC Comics animated projects, plus a lengthy stint as an artist for Superman Adventures) is simply sublime. The slight accents he brings to the character designs really add a noticeable flare and arguably improve and boost the film’s Timm-esque look.
However, and this remains unfortunate because it’s out of the hands of the film’s creative team, the film’s budget does impact its overall quality. Director Sam Liu pulls in some of his best work to date here, imparting Batman: Soul of the Dragon with the feel and grit of a grungy 1970s kung-fu flick filtered through the lush and large cinematic lens of the modern-day blockbuster. He does such a great job, and has clearly put so much of himself into it, and it’s a shame that he’s somewhat hindered by a clearly tight budget. Some fight scenes aren’t as smooth, despite attempts to mask any shortcomings with visual effects, and character movements can be too jerky or jumpy at times. It’s not a major strike against the movie, but it is noticeable and at times distracting. The boarding, staging and choreography in this movie are all absolutely jaw-dropping, but they don’t quite connect 100%. There are moments that just don’t land as hard as they should because of the occasional subpar animation, but still, the film remains a total blast from start to finish.
Also a total blast is the absolutely incredible score by Joachim Horsely, who turns in one of the best soundtracks of the entire DC Universe Movie line to date. It’s a funky, cool and absolutely groovy piece of work that feels ripped from the 1970s-era it’s emulating. It digs its claws right in and doesn’t let go. There really hasn’t been anything else quite like it produced for these DC Comics animated features, and it so, so very much needs to be made available for purchase. It’s just that good.
And one little tease before wrapping up – there’s a cameo by an old 1970s love interest of Batman’s from the comics that long-time fans will seriously, seriously dig.
With its distinctive style and heavy rewatchability, Batman: Soul of the Dragon is one of those animated Batman movies that will undoubtedly become one of those staple recommendations, like Batman: Under the Red Hood, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and other titles before it. The cast and crew clearly poured their all into this movie, and the result is an oh-so-excellent Bat-homage to the martial arts movies of yesteryear which successfully captures that retro feel without overindulging or becoming tiresome. Packed full of thrilling fisticuffs, solid action, and a compelling script containing one cool moment after another, Batman: Soul of the Dragon is one of the most enjoyable, unique DC Universe Movie titles to date. Highly Recommended!
Please note that while Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided The World’s Finest with a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray copy of Batman: Soul of the Dragon to review, that had no bearing on the product’s final assessment. The author also purchased a copy of the film on iTunes for completion and comparison purposes.
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