Batman: Soul of the Dragon
"Batman: Soul of the Dragon" is an original story set in an alternate 1970s in the vein of the Elseworlds comics. The terrorist group Kobra threatens the world as they strive to unleash the snake god Naga. Richard Dragon discovers Kobra's plans and reunites with Bruce Wayne, Lady Shiva, and Ben Turner to achieve their collective destiny and prevent the apocalypse as they come to terms with their former teacher's sacrifice to stop Naga's arrival several years prior. Don't worry, it's not just another Batman movie. Warner Bros. Animation knocks out the new year with a martial arts-blaxploitation-spy thriller-supernatural mash up love letter.
Richard Dragon discovers something alarming while on a spy mission in the French Riviera and recruits Bruce Wayne to his cause because of a shared connection back to their days training in Nanda Parbat a few years prior. The enemy quickly learns what is going on and dispatches assassins who obviously fail. Kobra arrives in full force just as Richard and Bruce find Lady Shiva and a big fight and chase ensue. Ultimately, they can't prevent Kobra from running off with the second key component in their plan, Shiva's Soul Breaker sword. Bruce, Richard, and Shiva head off to find the fourth classmate, Ben Turner. As Bruce recalls more and more Nanda Parbat, things come to a head with the revelation that The Gate is a portal to a demonic snake god known as Naga, then their mentor O-Sensei makes the ultimate sacrifice and gives up his life to stop Kobra's plan. The betrayal and deceit of the past builds up the personal and global stakes in play. The foursome seemingly thwarts Kobra but a surprise turn seeds Naga's arrival in a recognizable host body. Completely out of their league, they turn the tables of Naga and send him back to his dimension but someone must sacrifice their life to close The Gate...
The movie opens with a big super spy mission set piece for Richard Dragon and while it was a grand love letter to James Bond and action packed, I found the movie really picks up when Bruce and Richard find Lady Shiva in Chinatown and once the world of Soul of the Dragon is properly set up. Fans to the DC Universe line know that a recent trend with the movies is to use a marquee title like Batman or Justice League to spotlight another character. In this case, Soul of the Dragon is an ensemble piece with 4 equally important leads: Richard Dragon, Bruce Wayne, Lady Shiva, and Ben Turner. It seemed like this was going to be a Richard Dragon story, but in my opinion Shiva shined a bit brighter than everyone else. The writing and voice acting really compliment each other and the chemistry felt really natural. Even some scenes that I am usually leery about such as car chases looked really slick here. The 3D models didn't seem as clunky or bare bone as past movies. The recurring flashbacks with O-Sensei as well as his own design was a lovely nod to the "Kung Fu" series and accentuated the overall movie. I completely prefer this structure to a more linear story. It and the pacing neatly built up the twist of Rip's true allegiance, Jade's fate, and the purpose of The Gate. And so many awesome one liners and zingers. "I am the weapon" and "I have a cape" were my top favorites! Ben's "Burn Baby Burn!" made me chuckle. Also loved the bit with the "Bronze Tiger" line in the cargo plane. Fight-wise, Lady Shiva's fight scenes did not disappoint. They were all as amazing, stupefying, and meticulously boarded and detailed. Honorable mention for Richard outsmarting King Snake then one inch punching him.
Joachim Horsely's music was an excellent presentation of the 70s that correctly distilled the more dated material. At no point does it get really cliche other than Richard's strut. As I mentioned before, the voice cast really gelled well together on screen. David Giuntoli delivered a unique and appropriate gravitas for both Bruce Wayne and Batman, Michael Jai White tapped into Shaft, Superfly, Jim Brown, and Jim Kelly for his new take on Ben Turner, Mark Decascos infused Richard Dragon with a quiet but cool confidence and a lot of heart and soul, and in my opinion, Kelly Hu stole the show with her new take on Lady Shiva. Josh Keaton was a surprise hit as Jeffrey Burr. I tend to remember him for his protagonist roles so when he voiced a villain in this one, the approach and tone he took with Burr was a shocker. The good kind. James Hong was really entertaining as the lovable O-Sensei and while they had smaller roles, Erica Luttrell as Silver St. Cloud, Jamie Chung as Jade, Chris Cox as Rip Jagger, and Patrick Seitz as King Snake recorded a lot of memorable scenes. Silver must have been on screen for like 3 minutes? And Erica Lutrell just gives such a powerful and dramatic performance. I wanted to follow Silver and see what she did for the rest of the movie! And Jade. Jamie Chung made her so spunky and adorable, it was a shame when it became apparent she wasn't showing up in the present day scenes. While the character designs take Bruce Timm's DCAU style as a jumping off point, the design crew of Aluir Amancio, Dusty Abell, TJ Collins, Tina Duong, and Jon Suzuki really crafted the look of Soul of the Dragon into its own world. Studio MIR really stepped up to the challenge of animating all that martial arts fighting.
As mentioned above, the opening scene is a homage to the opening of the James Bond's "The Living Daylights" right down to Richard parachuting onto a random yacht and romancing the women on board. The movie draws from several Bond films that released between the 60s and 80s. The man in the tuxedo gambling in the casino whom Richard takes a finger print of matches right up with the George Lazenby James Bond from "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" and Richard Dragon's safe-cracker gadget is a cross between the ones Bond uses in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" and "You Only Live Twice." The title sequence is a homage to Maurice Binder's titles for "Live and Let Die" and "The Man With the Golden Gun" down to the smallest detail like the text rippling and font. 'Kobra island' seemed to be loosely based on Scaramanga's island in "The Man with the Golden Gun." The prostitute's death by cobras scene has the visual DNA of a scene in "Dr. No." The Batmobile's wheel spikes and the ejector seat are swiped from Bond's Aston Martin in "Goldfinger." Even the Kobra helicopter using a magnet to pick up Schulengenfaust's car is from "You Only Live Twice." Hat tip to Revelator at Anime Superhero Forums for identifying the Bond references. Speaking of Schlangenfaust, if you remember the "Richard Dragon, Kung-Fu Fighter" comics, his design is a dead ringer for the villain known as The Swiss. King Snake totally looked one of his early comic book looks but I couldn't help but see him as Chuck Norris at the end of "Way of the Dragon." Richard may look a lot like Bruce Lee in this movie but his look is based on cover art from Dennis O'Neil's original Richard Dragon novel that predated the red haired Caucasian Richard in the comics. There were a ton of "Enter the Dragon" nods from Richard's black suit in the opener, tricking the bouncer like Lee did to the Australian on the boat ride, the underground fighter using the broken bottle was like O'Hara's move before Lee killed him, the death stomp, and of course, Richard using Bruce Lee's one inch punch move on King Snake. Ben founding a martial arts school also mirrored what Williams did in "Enter The Dragon" and actor Jim Kelly in real life. O-Sensei definitely looks like Keye Luke's Master Po from the 1972 "Kung Fu" television series. The first meeting between O-Sensei and Bruce in the flashback instantly took me back to the candlelit flashbacks in "Kung Fu." There was even a "Man from U.N.C.L.E." nod slipped in at the end with Richard's communicator pen! If you're not a nut about James Bond or martial arts movies, don't fret. This may all have gone over your head, but it's not a required reading deal and doesn't weaken the greatness of the movie. It's just a really nice bonus and perhaps an extra treat to look up online after watching the movie.
The homages last all the way to the finale. As mentioned in a special feature, the ending is a hat tip to endings of martial arts movies like "The Chinese Connection" though I would guess to the uninitiated, the ending would be incorrectly decried as a cliffhanger. The ending in of itself was a brilliant metaphor for the movie's theme of sacrifice and unity. Everything O-Sensei told them comes full circle. He did make the right choice to take them in and train them. The Gate was always their destiny as he hinted at in the flashback when they were eating. And in the present, they have come to accept the Gate is their shared destiny. They found each other, went to the island to stop Kobra, fought off Naga, and they all volunteered to go through The Gate to take down Naga and his army once and for all. The four of them completed each other. The power of four is a recurring theme in literature, numerology, and mythology. The idea in some cultures how four is a sacred number. Like the Four Domains: Spiritual, Emotional, Physical and Mental. You can see Ben is the Emotional domain because of his anger issue and the compassion he showed to his young student. Bruce is the Mental domain because of his parents' murder and how driven he was like when he punched the stone or fighting Ben. Physical is Shiva because she is literally a living weapon which was evident when she killed people with her bare hands. Dragon was the Spiritual domain because he was the one who could resist Naga's temptation and attempt to possess him and he was felt the loss most because he loved O-Sensei like a father. Plus, it was probably a nod to when Bruce Lee understood what "smashing the image" meant at the end of "Enter the Dragon." The ending was also a great example of this how movie really leaned well into the Elseworlds component of it being a one-off story and they could take a risk. By comparison, the Gotham by Gaslight and Red Son endings were too safe. The message of "together, you can accomplish anything" is something we can all understand and connect to.
I did have a few nitpicks. Just a few. While the majority of the movie was correct with its 70s beats, some were a little cringe worthy. I didn't really care for Jeffrey Burr's cliche introduction. It reinforces he is the villain and perhaps is a nod to his snake-like nature of 'playing with his food' before killing it, but it played up the villain trope too much. I think the only thing missing was a weird accent and mustache twirling. If I somehow had the power to change one thing, it would be to change up this post coitus scene. I'd go straight from Schlangenfaust in the hall to him finding Jeffrey seated in front of the torture chamber. And instead of the prostitute willing to go to a cult leader's creepy ass island, I'd have the gambler in the tux from the cold open already being tortured by the cobras. Schlangenfaust leans in and verifies everything he said about the casino debacle was true, yet Jeffrey still lets the cobras finish the man off. While the situations were understandable and this is an Elseworlds Batman, the neck snapping was a bit much. Yes, they were just monsters and O-Sensei was possessed by the big bad. It was just... someone at DC had to have balked at it. I was relieved to see disco had no presence in this movie but Richard's strut to Gotham Nights was... awkward. I was a little on the fence with the final battle and Ben and Shiva getting taken out pretty quickly leaving just Richard and Batman.
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment offers "Batman: Soul of the Dragon" as a 4K Blu-ray Digital combo and Blu-ray/Digital combo. Best Buy has an 4K Blu-ray Digital exclusive combo set with a Ben Turner figure. There does not appear to be a Target exclusive Steelbook. It is to be announced when it will be on the HBO Max streaming service. The featurette "Batman: Raw Groove," is 30:30 in length and explores the 1970s and the inspirations for Soul of the Dragon. It features crew members like Bruce Timm and Jeremy Adams and field experts like Michael Matsuda of the Martial Arts Museum. It's a comprehensive half hour featurette that I've been waiting to see for a long time. A bigger and better version of what has been in past releases. Producer Jim Krieg's Far Out Highlights is an entertaining expanded cut of the Soul of the Dragon sneak peek with extended and alternate scenes of Jim Krieg in his 70s persona. Krieg suiting up for the sneak peek and devising a character is an institution at this point and surely a spin off is in the works! The sneak peek for the next movie, "Justice Society: World War II" is 8 minutes, 7 seconds and previews a lot of the finished movie, animatics, and recording sessions alongside comic book art and real life reels from World War II. Co-writers Jeremy Adams and Meghan Fitzmartin set up the premise and hint at a new artifact possibly more destructive than the atom bomb. The emphasis of the preview is mainly on Wonder Woman, the leader of the JSA, but most of the main cast pop up. The art style looks to be a variant of the Otto Schmidt/Jon Suzuki design we saw in Superman: Man of Tomorrow and the finished footage looks simply smashing! The DC Vault appropriately presents Batman: The Animated Series' "Night of the Ninja" and "Day of the Samurai." While it makes sense because the semi 2 parter does relate to Bruce's past training in martial arts but it's a pity that Batman: The Brave and The Bold's "Return of the Fearsome Fangs!" nor The Batman's "The Butler Did It" were included. The Sneak Peak Revisited section features Superman: Red Son and Batman: Gotham By Gaslight. The trailers that play before the main menu are Batman: Death in the Family and Superman: Man of Tomorrow. The trailers on the menu are Deathstroke: Knights & Dragons, Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, and Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion's Revenge. But sadly, no commentary track. And still no new DC Showcase short yet. Still, overall, the special features was a solid spread this time around.
"Batman: Soul of the Dragon" is a riveting story with non-stop action, top notch animation, a strong and cohesive cast, and an out of sight score. Instantly one of the best in the DC Universe Animated Original Movie line to date. "Batman: Soul of the Dragon" is a highly recommended purchase.
Main Feature: 4 out of 5
Special Features: 4 out of 5
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5