Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero is a bad and confusing name for a movie and without some context and knowledge of the franchise, it’s probably a very confusing movie to watch. Characters make deep cut jokes and wave off important plot points that were explored in dozens of episodes of the anime, but for fans–even casual Dragon Ball fans–Super Hero is a rewarding comedy filled with impressive action sequences that all comes together to be the best Dragon Ball movie since 2013’s Battle of Gods.
After more than 35 years of Dragon Ball content, you can only watch your favorite impossibly powerful heroes punch new impossibly powerful villains so many times before you roll your eyes and open up Twitter on your phone. The wonderful thing about this current era of Dragon Ball, and this movie in particular, is that the keepers of the franchise (which now extend beyond its original creator, Akira Toriyama) understand that. Characters still punch each other very hard and send them careening into the sides of cliffs and follow up with energy blasts, but just as much time is spent on the strange family dynamics that have developed among the ever-growing cavalcade of aliens who could kill you by giving you a hearty slap on the back.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Super Hero is it is not a story about Dragon Ball protagonist, Goku, and his best frenemy, Vegeta. The two appear in the film, but only to acknowledge why they aren’t around to help with the latest threat. Super Hero is primarily a Piccolo movie which is a welcome breath of fresh air. Piccolo has always been liked by fans, even in his villainous days, but in the modern era of Dragon Ball, he has become a favorite turning into a father figure to Goku’s son, Gohan, and a grandpa figure to Gohan’s daughter, the adorable Pan. Watching Piccolo embrace the roles to train Gohan’s three-year-old daughter and chastise Gohan for being too busy to pick up his daughter from school is both heartwarming and hilarious.
The main threat in the film–the thing the heroes have to punch really hard–is the resurgence of the Red Ribbon Army, care of the evil Dr. Gero’s grandson, Dr. Hedo. The Red Ribbon Army is a fun callback for fans of the original Dragon Ball and it also affords the rare opportunity to hear what the outside world thinks of the Dragon Ball heroes. Despite their frequent world-saving efforts, no one really knows who they are, and it’s fun to hear the bad guys theorize where they came from and justify why they feel the heroes need to be defeated.
Plenty of fights happen in Super Hero, but the humor and frequent acknowledgement of Dragon Ball’s strange, but thoroughly defined, logic is what makes it so fun to watch. Piccolo not eating food, collecting the wish-granting Dragon Balls to make inconsequential requests, and trying to figure out if going Super Saiyan fixes bad eyesight are all topics of discussion. For longtime fans, it’s fun to dive deep into those strange ideas and Super Hero makes plenty of room for them.
Outside of the narrative primarily focusing on Piccolo, the other big surprise in Super Hero is the new art style. Dragon Ball across all media (with the exception of the video games) has always been hand-drawn. Occasionally, and distractingly, during the combat climax of fights in recent films, characters inexplicably switch to 3D models, and it’s jarring and never looks right. It is always easy to spot and looks out of place, but Super Hero has, for the first time in Dragon Ball history, gone completely 3D. Longtime fans are probably prepared to cross their arms, pout, and reminisce about the good old days over the updated look, but the new direction works. The action feels much more consistent than it has in recent years, and it’s fun to see the franchise try something different. The hand-drawn look of classic Dragon Ball is still lovely, but the new look works exceptionally well, too. The film thankfully avoids combining both of these styles. With that said, not every character works with the new style. Goku and Vegeta don’t translate particularly well to 3D. They’re ultimately a small part of the new movie so it’s a minor distraction that they don’t look as good as Piccolo or Gohan, for example, but it is odd that arguably Dragon Ball’s most important characters look the roughest.
The combat is flashy and impressive in the new style, but after more than 35 years of fights, Dragon Ball has hit a point where it is struggling to outdo itself. The stakes are high during the combat making it intense, but it hits a point of abstract color swirling where it’s difficult to track what is happening. To be anything less would admittedly feel like a step back, but I did find my eyes glazing over a bit as hair changed colors and reached new anime heights and the screaming got louder. It becomes too much at a certain point, but thankfully it only really gets excessive near the end.
Dragon Ball has always made room for humor between its serious combat encounters with real world-ending stakes, but Super Hero presses its thumb down on the funny side of the scale, and it’s the right call. The action combat is impressive and looks great in the new style, but it all feels familiar. I’ve seen all the heroes throw out energy blasts hundreds of times, but watching Piccolo awkwardly use a cell phone and work with a three-year-old to trick bad guys feels new and fun. The combat gets a little excessive during the final third of the film, but the overall emphasis on humor and exploring Piccolo’s relationship with Goku’s extended family makes Super Hero one of my favorite Dragon Ball films.