Batman: Soul of the Dragon
Batman: Soul of the Dragon is a team adventure that serves as an R-rated animated love letter to 70s exploitation entertainment. (The studio sent me a review copy; I otherwise likely wouldn’t have watched it, as I’m not a fan of the period martial arts movies that inspired it.)
We’re introduced to Richard Dragon (Mark Dacascos) during a mostly wordless James Bond-ian heist sequence. We spent a few minutes figuring out whether it was retro or modern day, until the bad guys showed up in sideburns and leisure suits. The black turtleneck and pants our hero was wearing are timeless, after all (as are the bikinis of the babes on the yacht he escapes to).
To start the main story, the “globe-trotting super-spy” has come to enlist Bruce Wayne’s (David Giuntoli) help, but he has his “own scene going on” running a nightclub under his penthouse, apparently. He’s also bummed, as in spite of his trendy sideburns and big collar shirt, Silver (Erica Luttrell) has just broken up with him, claiming “there’s still a part of you I just can’t reach — some dark secret, something you’re hiding from me.” I only understood the background of this character and her conflict because I’d read reprints of the original comics. It’s not relevant to much else, though, so someone on the creative team must have been a Silver fan.
Richard’s presence leads to a flashback of Bruce in a mountain monastery in Nanda Parbat (which led to me wondering if Deadman would be making an appearance — spoiler: no). That’s where he first met Richard, and we also meet the other four students that studied martial arts there at the same time: Shiva (Kelly Hu), the best; Ben Turner (Michael Jai White, who also played Bronze Tiger on Arrow), who is seeking control of his temper (disappointing to see the angry black man cliche); a woman named Jade (Jamie Chung); and Rip Jagger (“a dedicated war hero, now looking for peace”, Chris Cox).
Most of these are Denny O’Neil creations, which makes sense, since he was the peak 70s Batman writer. He passed away last year, and the movie ends with an “In Memory of” card. You can see more of the characters in this trailer:
The instructor, O-Sensei, is voiced by James Hong in a wonderfully sarcastic fashion, providing wisecracks to contrast the “wise man of the mountains” stereotype. Various flashbacks to this setting and group of characters are interspersed as plot elements or characters are introduced into the primary story, which of course involves everyone teaming up to stop a huge threat.
Seeking a sword means going to find Shiva, who’s now “head of organized crime in Gotham’s Chinatown” (instead of all the other Chinatowns), which leads to a bunch of fights and a car-and-motorcycle chase. The creators do seem to have worked hard to include all the expected genre elements. Music is very period, as well.
In contrast, as usual for this series, the animation is nothing to write home about — competent, workable, not particularly stylish, choppy movement — although they do seem to be depending on visuals more than in some of the other animated movies. The choppiness is particularly obvious during a scene meant to show Dragon powerfully walking down the sidewalk, where instead of his flowing gait, we see him alternately shifting his shoulders forward in jerky fashion. It works only if you’re aware of what they’re trying to invoke. They clearly worked hard on the martial arts sequences, however.
Turner’s dialogue is cliched: calling Bruce “fool”, saying “this is bullshit!”, bragging about “whooping somebody’s ass”. His character improves later on, when he talks about his time as the Bronze Tiger. Our favorite saying was “What the funky hell”, which I thought about using as a title for this post.
Dragon keeps teasing Bruce about his outfit (the Batman costume), and by the time he puts it on, three-quarters of the way through the movie, it’s unnecessary. This isn’t that kind of story (although the “hero’s” presence is why it got made). There’s no need for Bruce to put on a mask and cape, and it stands out from the others, making him look silly. I also found the ending unsatisfying, unless it’s intended to set up for a sequel.
“Batman: Raw Groove” (30 minutes) starts with a history lesson about Vietnam, protests, and the loss of optimism to provide context for the period that inspired this movie. A history professor talks about hopelessness leading to an inward view and driving interest in martial arts and mysticism. Executive Producer Bruce Timm participates, as does screenwriter Jeremy Adams, but most of the others are students of martial arts or 70s movies.
Timm echoes my thoughts, saying “The challenge for us was to put Batman in this movie. Frankly, my favorite parts of this movie don’t even have Batman in them. They’re parts where it’s just Bruce Wayne and his sideburns and his bell-bottom pants handing out with Richard Dragon, just fighting ninjas and stuff.”
I was pleased to find out that the work of Cliff Chiang influenced the design! The sound effect section is also insightful, where someone shows how they made classic fight movie noises with vegetables. Overall, this piece gave me a greater appreciation for the influences on the movie and what people enjoy about them.
“Producer Jim Krieg’s Far-Out Highlights” (18 minutes) features him in a constrast-stitched leisure suit talking about how we’re all on a journey. Bruce Timm, Sam Liu (director/producer), Adams, and Wes Gleason (voice director) participate as well in what was originally a sneak peek for this project. As a result of the timing, much of the art is preliminary, showing storyboards and the like.
The first half is interesting as a lightweight behind-the-scenes. The gag with Krieg talking old-school runs dry long before he’s done.
There’s a sneak Peek of Justice Society: World War II (8 minutes) framed as a fake newsreel with Krieg in costume again, this time as a 40s radio broadcaster. Stana Katic plays Wonder Woman with a noticeable accent, with Liam McIntyre as Aquaman, Matt Bomer as the modern Flash (who’s presumably the bridge as he time travels back to meet the JSA), and co-writers Meghan Fitzmartin and Jeremy Adams. The team consists of leader Wonder Woman, Black Canary, two Flashes, Hawkman (Omid Abtahi), and Hourman (Matthew Mercer).
There are also previews of Superman: Red Son (11 minutes) and Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (8 minutes), as well as the requisite episodes from Batman: The Animated Series: “Day of the Samurai” and “Night of the Ninja”, which are also martial arts-themed.