When the seminal Chinese martial arts film FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (aka KING BOXER) arrived on US shores in 1972 it set off a tidal wave of “Kung Fu-mania” across the country that saw martial arts seep into all aspects of popular culture. This was especially true of that most American of art forms, comic books. There was an explosion of martial arts-themed characters from every major publisher at the time. Many of those characters faded into obscurity but a few hung on and were reintroduced over the years as the popularity of martial arts ebbed and flowed in the decades since that initial burst of popularity in the early 70s.
Some of the best examples of those enduring characters are the ones created by the late Dennis “Denny” O’Neil for DC Comics. These characters- Bronze Tiger, Lady Shiva, and Richard Dragon were all established in the mid-70s by O’Neil at the height of Kung Fu’s popularity in the mainstream. While they were admittedly mostly just archetypes of standard Kung Fu movie characters transported to the printed page, O’Neil’s clever and energetic storytelling allowed them to gain enough of a following among comic readers to become consistent background players in the DC universe.
With the release of the latest DC animated film from Warner Bros, BATMAN: SOUL OF THE DRAGON, those three characters take center stage alongside the company’s most popular superhero- Batman, a character Denny O’Neil is also credited with helping reinvigorate in the 1970s, for a period action film set during that time period full of bell-bottoms, funky guitar riffs, and (naturally) a whole lotta fists of fury.
The story of the film finds the “James Bond-esque” super spy Richard Dragon, now reimagined from a bland “white savior” martial artist into what is basically a stand-in for the legendary Bruce Lee, teaming up with his former training partners to protect an ancient artifact from a mysterious evil cult. His old training partners, of course, include Bronze Tiger (clearly drawing inspiration from Lee’s ENTER THE DRAGON co-star Jim Kelly), Lady Shiva, and Bruce Wayne (depicted here as early in his career as the caped crusader). The quartet go on globe-trotting adventure that sees them battling triad gang members, deadly assassins, and more in an effort to get the artifact back and keep the ancient evil it contains locked away.
BATMAN: SOUL OF THE DRAGON wants to be seen as a “love letter” to that 70s era of movies and comics. It opens with a red and black “WB” logo reminiscent of Warner Bros’ actual logo of the time period. It has a title sequence meant to invoke the opening of classic Kung Fu films like THE BIG BOSS, the soundtrack is full on 1970s-style funk, the dialogue is littered with references to various martial arts films, and the action is plentiful. Yet, the homage ultimately feels hollow and the shortcomings of the film nearly outweigh any of its strengths.
DC Comics animated films for a long time were seen as the “gold standard” of DTV animation but in the last decade the quality of the actual animation on display in their films has dropped considerably. The character designs in BATMAN: SOUL OF THE DRAGON, while not “bad” lack the detail and personality of those earlier DC films. The action scenes as well aren’t as fluid or intricate as those earlier projects and use motion blurring at times to seemingly hide that fact. When you compare the work here to another animated Batman film, such as 2010’s BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD which is also heavy on action, the difference in quality is glaring. BATMAN: SOUL OF THE DRAGON looks like an overly violent Saturday morning cartoon and not a prestige animated film worth paying premium VOD prices for. I’m not sure if this was the fault of budgetary restrictions on the production or poor choices on the behalf of director Sam Liu (SUPERMAN: RED SON) but it is not good.
Of course, unappealing visuals in a film can be overcome if the story is engaging. Unfortunately, the script by Jeremy Adams (MORTAL KOMBAT: SCORPION’S REVENGE) fumbles that aspect as well. It starts off well enough, with the characters dealing with things that would not be out of place in a classic “Golden Harvest” Kung Fu film; axe-wielding assassins, underground martial arts competitions, and cryptic Kung Fu masters for example but by the end of the film our heroes are battling mutants and demons from other dimensions and it just loses all the nostalgic goodwill it builds up in its first half. It isn’t helped by the fact that none of the characters are given much of a backstory or motivation beyond “this is a good guy” and “that is a bad guy.” I know these are pre-established characters but besides Batman, they are not well known by the general public. The film gives the audience very little reason to be invested in anything that happens to the characters during the course of the plot. It misses the point that the most fondly remembered films, even ones based soley around action, are the ones with characters the audience cares about.
One aspect where there are no issues with BATMAN: SOUL OF THE DRAGON is the voice acting. Every one does exceptional work especially the four leads: David Giuntoli (GRIMM) as Batman, Mark Dacascos (JOHN WICK CHAPTER 3: PARABELLUM) as Richard Dragon, Kelly Hu (X2: X-MEN UNITED) as Lady Shiva, and Michael Jai White (reprising his role from ARROW) as Bronze Tiger. They all have great chemistry together and keep the film working even as it flies off the rails almost completely in its fantastical second half.
Placing the character of Batman in a 1970s-era Kung Fu story is a solid idea. The character had some of his most defining moments during that time period and martial arts have almost always been a vital part of his backstory after all. I hope that the idea gets revisited again at some point because as it stands BATMAN: SHADOW OF THE DRAGON is an uneven, drab, and frustrating experience. The character of Batman, the voice talent involved, and especially the late Denny O’Neil (and his creations) all deserve much better than that. (2.5/5)