Despite its title, “Batman: Soul of the Dragon” is not a typical Batman movie. In fact, it’s not a Batman movie at all—it’s a loving tribute to the Bruce Lee films of the 1970s. The movie takes clear inspirations from Bruce Lee’s filmography, primarily “Enter the Dragon” (1973). The film stands out from the crowd of other direct-to-DVD DC animated movies thanks to its unique setting and excellent fight sequences.
Set in the 1970s, the film focuses on four of the greatest martial artists in the DC universe as they fight the evil Cobra Cult. Batman may get top billing, but the real star of the show is Richard Dragon, voiced by Mark Dacascos. While Richard Dragon is an actual character in DC comic books, his design in “Soul of the Dragon” takes after the legendary Bruce Lee. Everything from his appearance to his fighting style resemble that of Bruce Lee; he even uses Lee’s famous one-inch punch.
Richard Dragon eventually recruits his old friend Bruce Wayne, voiced by David Giuntoli, to help fight the evil Kobra Cult. Unlike many Batman films which take a darker approach to the Dark Knight, “Soul of the Dragon’s” portrayal of the caped crusader comes off as cheesy, and that’s a good thing. Rather than setting out to create an overserious narrative, “Soul of the Dragon” fully embraces its corniness, emulating the tone of the comic books of the era.
Joining Batman and Dragon are two legendary DC martial artists: Bronze Tiger and Lady Shiva, voiced by Micheal Jai White and Kelly Hu respectively. All four characters wear clothing and hairstyles appropriate to the time period: high collars, afros and bright colors work with the crazy plot and ludicrous action scenes rather than against it. Not only are the outfits era-appropriate, but the soundtrack is too. Composed by Joachim Horsley, the upbeat funky 70s-style music is the perfect pairing to the fight sequences.
However, the movie suffers from a lack of character depth and a convoluted plot. The main story about the Kobra Cult trying to resurrect a snake god fits the time period given the many dangerous cults that appeared in America during the 1970s. However, this is really just a motivation to unite the characters and an excuse for them to punch stuff. The movie runs for just under an hour and a half, but most of the run-time is devoted to fight scenes and leaves little room for character development. Most of it is done retroactively through flashbacks, which give much needed backstory for the cast and reveal their relationships. The film’s plot and characters rely on these flashbacks so much so that the plot doesn’t even make sense without them. While the flashbacks are tasteful and used with restraint, they do reflect that the storyline is rushed and the characters are less developed then they could be. That being said, at least the film doesn’t waste any time getting to the fight scenes.
Although the film has structural flaws, the outstanding fight sequences make it shine. There is incredible fluidity and personality to each fight scene. Kent Butterworth, the film’s animation timing director, did a great job with what could have been subpar animation. I find that many direct-to-DVD DC animated films have the bare minimum of animation quality. Instead the fight scenes seem fantastic yet grounded in reality.
While some of the scenes can get a bit more ridiculous, all the one-on-one fights are animated with amazing attention to detail. For example, when Shiva fights Rip Jagger (Chris Cox) in a flashback, she uses only one finger to defeat him. While this may seem an impossible feat in real life, the detail during the fight makes it seem plausible: Shiva uses Rip’s own momentum when he charges at her to power the throw. She uses her finger to grasp inside of his mouth to force him off balance and redirect his momentum in another direction. A key component of throwing an opponent larger than you is using their own weight against them. Getting the opponent off balance is essential, and controlling head motion is a good way to do that, given that wherever your head moves, your body tends to follow. While grabbing the mouth is a bit implausible, grabbing an opponent’s ear or even their nose can be an excellent way of controlling their movement.
The fights make up for the lack of character development. For example, Dragon fights a blind martial artist who uses hearing to fight, while Shiva fights a sword-wielding adversary. Dragon outsmarts his opponent by manipulating his sense of hearing to distract him, turning his opponent’s strength into his weakness. On the other hand, the more ruthless Shiva manages to shatter her opponent’s blade with her bare hands. Shiva’s style is aggressive, reflecting her ruthless personality, but is also refined and elegant, which showcases her peerless skill and form. In contrast, Dragon uses his opponent’s strengths against him, allowing him to weaken his seemingly impenetrable defense, yet he refrains from killing his opponent, unlike Shiva. This shows his character’s intelligence by finding a creative means of defeating his opponent, but shows that he is more merciful than Shiva. The film makes up for its reliance on flashbacks by developing its characters through their fighting styles.
“Batman: Soul of the Dragon” could have been another forgettable DC animated movie, with simple, cheap animation and a boring plot. Instead this weird combination of Batman and Bruce Lee mangages to be better than it has any right to be. It not only resurrects the Bruce Lee-era martial arts movies, but also proves that Batman doesn’t always need to be dark and brooding. Batman can be cheesy and still be fun and, above all, this film is undeniably fun. ‘Batman: Soul of the Dragon’—Bruce Lee and Bruce Wayne