[The following review contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
In light of Dragon Ball’s enduring popularity—indeed, the franchise’s cultural relevance only seems to be growing, considering the unprecedentedly wide theatrical release of its latest feature film—it’s easy to forget how much of its overarching narrative was shaped by editorial interference. Whenever the villain of the week raises the stakes by powering up into his “final form,” or the rules of the setting are abruptly altered in order to once again miraculously revive Son Goku from what should have been a permanent death, or the humorous tone suddenly evaporates in favor of yet another explosive battle, it’s usually the result of the publisher “encouraging” author Akira Toriyama to return to the proven—i.e., profitable—formula.
So it feels like Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero is sending a very intentional message when it makes its central antagonist a puny, spineless, unrepentantly corrupt corporate executive that is singularly obsessed with creating a bigger, meaner, stronger version of Cell. Especially when the derivative bio-android turns out to be incapable of speech and devoid of personality; it simply screams incoherently and mindlessly obliterates everything in its path.
This meta-commentary permeates the movie’s entire plot, which deconstructs many of the series’ recurring tropes and clichés. Both the audience and the characters, for example, are accustomed to Goku and Vegeta arriving just in time to vanquish the indestructible foe du jour and save the day. Here, however, the two Saiyan warriors are too preoccupied with their training to answer the call to adventure, forcing Piccolo—everyone’s favorite grumpy green grandpa—to literally beat his fellow Z Fighters out of their complacency. And because the remaining available heroes are all either past their prime or out of practice (or, in one case, an actual toddler), they must learn to rely on tactics beyond brute force—including stealth, deception, infiltration, subterfuge, and good old-fashioned diplomacy—if they hope to prevail against the resurrected Red Ribbon Army.
Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero is far from perfect—the story is bloated with fan service and exposition, the quality of the computer-generated animation is inconsistent at best, and even the title is awkward and cumbersome—but it earns points for departing from convention. In an industry that tends to enforce predictability, it dares to take some real risks. I admire that irreverence; it’s what allows blockbusters to evolve, thus exceeding viewers’ expectations.