It’s accessible for people who’ve never watched Dragon Ball — and it’s a nostalgia paradise for those who have
This review of Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero originally ran in conjunction with the movie’s launch in Japan. It has been updated and republished for the North American theatrical release.
Originally set to be released in Japan in April, the second Dragon Ball Super movie, subtitled Super Hero, was delayed until June 11 after Toei Animation became the target of a ransomware attack. But if there’s a silver lining in what must have been a nightmare situation for the production company, it’s the fact that the new release date put the movie right round the corner from Father’s Day. That made Super Hero feel just a little more special, seeing as the film celebrates one of the most popular father figures not just in the Dragon Ball-verse, but in all of anime: the alien-slug warrior Piccolo.
It’s actually surprising that Super Hero’s release wasn’t planned for Father’s Day all along, since the movie not only focuses on fatherhood, but also seems to have been specifically made for parents who’ve been too busy to keep up with Dragon Ball past the 1990s GT series. That’s the great thing about Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero — it requires zero knowledge of the 2015 revival series Super. It’s a 99-minute nostalgic throwback to the original Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z anime. Even people who’ve never watched a Dragon Ball show only need to know this to enjoy the film: There are alien warriors who sometimes go looking for magic orbs that grant wishes. They scream a lot when they’re fighting. They sometimes change color when they get stronger. That’s basically it.
Directed by Tetsuro Kodama (who also worked on the first Dragon Ball Super movie, Broly), the new film takes place at some point after the Granolah Saga in the Super series manga. Super Hero acknowledges the events of Dragon Ball Super via a few scenes featuring Goku, Vegeta, Beerus, Whis, and Broly. But their appearances amount to little more than obligatory cameos. They have absolutely no relation to the main plot, which focuses on Piccolo and his (effectively) adopted son Gohan going up against a huge blast from the past: the Red Ribbon Army.
Supposedly defeated by Gohan’s biological father Goku back in the 1980s, the evil organization made something of a comeback in DBZ, as escaped Red Ribbon Army scientist Dr. Gero unleashed a series of android creations on the world. In Super Hero, the RRA has risen from the ashes and recruited Gero’s genius grandson Hedo (incidentally, both their names mean “vomit”) to help them take over the world.
There’s more to the plot, including the surprise return of a familiar villain in an unfamiliar form, plus a whole new chapter in Piccolo’s characterization that will hopefully carry on to the Dragon Ball Super series and future movies. But on the whole, the stakes here feel incredibly low compared to DBS, which has seen gods of destruction, characters fusing with the Earth, and entire universes being erased from existence. By contrast, in Super Hero, Dr. Hedo is shocked by the mere fact that aliens exist. His concern seems so quaint. But this dialed-down scope is actually one of the movie’s biggest strengths.
Think of Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero as a breather film. It’s a respite from massive storylines with all of reality on the line, and a chance to sit back, relax, and enjoy some Dragon Ball nostalgia. The only interruption in that dynamic is Super Hero’s use of 3D animation, a first for a Dragon Ball movie. The style gives the film an unfamiliar look reminiscent of a Nintendo Switch game. But it’s a small price to pay for the story the audience gets in return.
Super Hero’s unquestioned star is Piccolo, long hailed by Dragon Ball fans as one of the best anime dads ever. He’s the one who sacrificed his life to protect Gohan in the past. (He got better.) He’s the one who showed the most concern for Gohan’s safety during the Cell Games Saga. And he’s the one who worked with Gohan during the Universe Survival Saga while Goku was off doing his own thing.
Yes, Piccolo’s love for Gohan has often been of the “tough” variety, especially when they first started training together. But in a world full of beings who can blow up entire planets, Piccolo did the best he could to prepare the boy for the challenges of life, which is more than the absentee Goku ever did. These themes continue in Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero, where Piccolo still cares for the adult Gohan and even acts as a mentor to Gohan’s daughter, Pan. The Piccolo and Pan scenes are incredibly cute, but the Gohan-Piccolo relationship is still the real heart of the movie.
Two scenes in Super Hero illustrate their relationship perfectly. In the first, Piccolo devises a simple strategy to raise Gohan’s power level, showing a keen understanding of how his stepkid’s mind works. The second comes near the end, when Gohan has to make a choice that could honor either Goku or Piccolo. Naturally, he goes with the latter, because he’s smart enough to know the difference between a father and a dad, which is who Piccolo is at his core. That’s why Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama does the smart thing with the script here, showing off Piccolo’s non-warrior side, like how he lives and interacts with his found family on his off days.
But this is still a Dragon Ball story, so it isn’t all nostalgic throwbacks and lessons in superhero parenting. The movie has no shortage of humor, midair battles, and energy blasts, set against the backdrop of expansive locales. On paper, the settings and fights here shouldn’t compare to the galaxy-sized canvas of Dragon Ball Super. But Kodama uses every animation trick in the book to make, say, one building feel like one of the hugest things in the entire Dragon Ball franchise. Appropriately for a movie with two uses of “super” in its title, everything in this DB film looks and feels supersized. It’s a ton of fun to watch on the big screen.
Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero is now rolling out globally in theaters, and opens in the U.S. on August 19.