Why Dragon Ball won’t die

Dragon Ball: Super Broly punches its way into anime hearts
Image: IGN YouTube

*This article contains minor spoilers*

In its twentieth cinematic outing, the anime feature-length film “Dragon Ball Super: Broly” has managed to rake in $22M+ over MLK weekend, grossing just over $88M worldwide. That’s not bad for a cartoon featuring disproportionately muscular men screaming at each other while their hair turns yellow. Or red. Or blue.

But despite how ridiculous this sounds on paper, according to these numbers, Dragon Ball doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, anytime soon.

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Why Dragon Ball (Still) Matters

The late ’90s were a simpler time: a time before “Pokémon Go” dominated smartphone games, before the internet coined the term “waifu, hell, even before English-translated mangas and graphic novels took up entire rows at Barnes & Noble. Before any of that, there was Dragon Ball. And some might argue it was because of Dragon Ball’s colossal popularity that terms like “anime” and “Pikachu” have now become household words.

Dragon Ball’s legendary acclaim is why Netflix adamantly sought the adaptation rights for “Castlevania,” “Death Note,” and “Cowboy Bebop.” It’s also why a famously selective Hollywood icon like James Cameron chose to co-produce the upcoming “Alita: Battle Angel.” Whether the latter will be considered “successful” upon its release isn’t the point—many others have shared their reservations about Robert Rodriguez’s (*ahem*) unique creative decisions.

The fact is, Japanese anime has ballooned beyond the niche subculture it once was into an American multibillion-dollar industry.

Why Dragon Ball Resonated with ’90s and ’00s Teenagers

To understand how Dragon Ball paved the way for anime adoption in America, one need not look further than it’s targeted audience of the time: teenagers.

The late ’90s might’ve been a great time for “The Simpsons” and “Doug,” but it offered teens very few options when it came to darker, edgier storytelling. Aside from the occasional serialized outliers, such as “Gargoyles,” “Batman: The Animated Series,” or “X-Men,” most cartoons comprised of self-contained episodes were written to conclude within a thirty-minute time slot.

The purpose of this episodic structure was two-fold, A) to showcase the protagonist triumphing over a throwaway villain, and B) to avoid alienating newcomers to the source material. The latter was especially important to sell toys to as many impressionable kids as possible. Hooray for merchandising!

Then in 1998, Cartoon Network creative directors Sean Atkins and Jason Demarco launched Toonami—an action franchise exclusively focused on Japanese animation, featuring English-speaking voice actors and a coveted after-school time slot. It was here that “Dragon Ball Z,” already a prominent success in Japan, debuted to a massive audience of American teenagers.

And for the majority of millennials too young to recall the likes of “Robotech” and “Voltron,” Dragon Ball was unlike anything they’d ever experienced.

On the surface, the premise was simple enough: powerful fighters defend the earth from other powerful threats—nothing really groundbreaking. But it was the way in which Dragon Ball told this story that hooked in an entire generation like no other cartoon at the time did.

How Dragon Ball Capitalized on Power Fantasies

Dragon Ball: Super Broly brings the second coming of Dragon Ball to N. America
Image courtesy of IGDB

Dragon Ball introduced viewers to a world filled with magical warriors, sure, but they were warriors who could be defeated, who bled and struggled and sometimes even died. This added an element of dramatic tension that was otherwise absent in other action cartoons of the time.

Retro baddies Skeletor and Shredder were evil (maybe?), but they were also campy and woefully incompetent; their schemes usually collapsing under the weight of their own ineptitude, or whatever contrived mechanic the writers pulled out of thin air. But that didn’t happen in Dragon Ball.

Dragon Ball heralded an age of God-like villains who committed gruesome atrocities at a mere whim, whose power seemed immeasurable and incomprehensible. From racist space tyrants to lab-engineered monsters, Dragon Ball’s formula centered on showdowns that were hyped with personal stakes and anticipatory drama—not unlike, say, professional wrestling. And in the same over-the-top, super machismo kind of way, it worked.

While there are more articulate individuals who have gone to greater lengths in breaking down Dragon Ball’s impact on American audiences, a key aspect of its cross-cultural appeal to teenagers is, undoubtedly, in its unabashed use of the power fantasy trope.

How did Dragon Ball depict this? With rage-screaming and planet-destroying energy blasts; with asinine power levels that shift tectonic plates. Also, glowing, multicolored hair.

And that’s not a dig. Not entirely.

While Dragon Ball’s appeal undoubtedly centered on wanton violence and destruction, it’s also hard pressed to imagine the sluggish pacing, the recycled animation, and the cringe-worthy dialogue went wholly unnoticed by its audience.

Instead, what kept teens devoted to the show was the impending catharsis of watching heroes turn the tables in mid-combat by exploding with rage power. Deus ex machina colorfully illustrated by an exciting new transformation…or some game-changing technique conveniently learned off-screen (looking at you, spirit bomb.)

To say that people follow Dragon Ball for its nuances of writing would be akin to watching porn for plot—yeah, technically it’s there (sometimes), but it’s not the focal point.

Faults aside, Dragon Ball did give teenagers a theme to resonate with, a subject matter that so few other cartoons broached so bombastically. Through its characters’ struggles and sacrifices, teens learned that failing didn’t necessarily equate to failure, that there was no shame in trying again when a goal wasn’t attained. Viewers watched as the heroes grew from their mistakes, pushed themselves to discover new heights, and learned to embrace new challenges.

For teenagers who knew little else outside of cartoons like “Beavis and Butthead,” this was nothing short of transcendental.

How “The Original” Broly Stacks Up Today

Today, the original 291 episode run of “Dragon Ball Z” likely won’t win over anyone who missed the boat the first time; the show’s technical flaws and shallow concepts have certainly not aged well (something Team Four Star humorously subverts with their net-famous abridged series), so it’s fascinating to see that Dragon Ball continues to garner tremendous appeal with its divisive revival series, “Super.”

Enough anyway, to warrant a limited release in actual movie theaters—an honor granted to very few anime features in North America.

In a nutshell, “Dragon Ball Super: Broly” features a retconned version of (arguably) the most popular non-canon villain in the Dragon Ball franchise. And by the way, there are a lot.

But despite his immense fan following, Broly was never a particularly complex villain; his motives never extending beyond his desire to kill Goku, Dragon Ball’s lead character, or Goku’s immediate family. That’s literally all there was to him. See Goku? Kill Goku. And, mind you, prior to this latest outing, Broly was the primary villain in three separate films from 1993 to 1994.

While Broly may have lacked the arrogant charm of the space warlord Frieza, or the menacing presence of Perfect Cell—two of Dragon Ball’s more iconic baddies—what he did possess was a Dwayne Johnson-esque physique and a nearly limitless power source that amplified with his rage (think an anime version of the Incredible Hulk.)

And that was fine back then. Broly was an unstoppable rage monster who blew up entire planets because Goku made him cry once when they were infants. (Yes, seriously.)

But in 2019, that sort of laughable character motivation doesn’t quite work like it used to.

Over the past decade, there’s been an emerging trend of more complex villain archetypes in Hollywood blockbusters. Gone are the days of paper-thin, mustache-twirling evildoers who want to conquer the world for the sake of…evil doing.

While audiences probably don’t need an expository backstory for every silver screen antagonist, if media trends are anything to go off of, it’s certainly becoming more prevalent. Villains today seem to fare better when they have well-written motivations that intrigue as well as mystify, and maybe sometimes even resonate with some of society’s darker inclinations.

Marvel Studios seems to have caught on with this trend as well, featuring more humanized, sympathetic villains in Phase Three of their cinematic universe. Ghost from “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” Killmonger from “Black Panther,” and yes, the purple mac daddy of them all, Thanos of “Infinity War” fame are all, by traditional literary standards, considered antagonists…but are they truly villains? Depends on your perspective.

In fact, there are compelling rebuttals that argue Thanos is actually the protagonist of the latest Avengers outing.

How “Dragon Ball Super: Broly” Reflects a Shift in Culture

Today, we live in a world where technology and social media has given rise to deepfakes and “fake news”—a glorious age of misinformation.

Nothing is as black-and-white as it once was. Our news, our podcasts, our twitter alerts and Facebook notifications, any piece of media we consume could potentially be tampered with, altered, or otherwise filtered to distort or obscure the objective truth. In other words, we are living in a world muddled in shades of gray: no clear heroes, no clear villains—just differing perspectives and people claiming to see a line in the sand.

Akira Toriyama, creator of Dragon Ball, seems to acknowledge this in this latest iteration of the fan favorite Broly. For the first time since Dragon Ball’s original run, Toriyama has penned a complete script (whereas in the revival series, “Dragon Ball Super,” he merely provides character designs and overarching plot suggestions).

Now, the formerly one-dimensional Broly has been retconned with a defined place in the canon storyline, a sympathetic backstory, and justified motivation for wanting to fight. These strategic additions add new personal stakes for the inevitable showdown that ensues between Broly and our titular main characters, Goku and Vegeta—kind of.

Unfortunately, because of Dragon Ball’s exhaustive series run, its characters’ abilities have scaled into the absurd. Whereas Goku began his humble journey completing milk runs while wearing a fifty-pound turtle shell, now he can fly and destroy planets and somehow survive fighting in the cold vacuum of space. Oh, and he can teleport. Literally anywhere in the universe, apparently.

Needless to say, dramatic tension is sort of lost in a fight when audiences know the main character can withstand being punched through mountains. Mountains, plural.

“Dragon Ball Super: Broly’s” saving grace though, is that it’s ultimately not Goku’s story. In a narrative ploy reminiscent of “Avengers: Infinity War,” Broly’s hardships and heartbreaking history take center stage, painting him more as a tragic protagonist than a mindless brute. In that sense, it’s hard not to dread his fate as he engages Dragon Ball’s idiotic iconic lead character in a fight to the death. For the first time in Dragon Ball history, we don’t want the hero to win.

And that’s a neat trick to pull for a 30-some-year-old cartoon.

Sorry, Dragon Ball Isn’t Going Anywhere

As of January 29, “Dragon Ball Super: Broly” has pulled in more than $28M and currently holds an 83 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

For added context, “Glass,” the anticipated Shyamalan sequel starring Hollywood A-listers Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, and James McAvoy competed with Dragon Ball over MLK weekend and won out by earning a hefty $47M, despite a rotten score of 26 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

So what does this tell us?

For one, Dragon Ball has always boasted a significant fanbase. From its initial 1984 debut in Japan to its divisive revival in the form of 2015’s “Dragon Ball Super,” Goku’s face has become practically synonymous with action anime (or anime in general in the United States.) “Super: Broly’s” relative success in the box office shows that even thirty years after its original conception, Dragon Ball still holds considerable appeal for thousands of viewers.

Perhaps more importantly, “Super: Broly” demonstrates creator Akira Toriyama’s willingness to reinvent his villain archetypes to suit a modern audience. While Toriyama did not write any of the original scripts featuring Broly from 1993-1994, his reimagining (and subsequent retcon of established canon) of Broly’s character shows that he is, at the very least, aware of what his audience wants.

Upcoming Dragon Ball FighterZ game
Image courtesy of IGDB

With the recent iteration of “Dragon Ball Super” on hiatus as of March 2018, and no official word on its continuation as of January 29, it’s hard-pressed to think Broly’s latest outing won’t in some way indicate to network executives that there’s still profit to be made. This is especially considering the runaway success of “Dragon Ball FighterZ,” a AAA video game title that sold over 2.5 million units in May of last year. Several Dragon Ball characters are also slated to appear in the upcoming video game “Jump Force in February 2019, adding further longevity to the series.

Like it or not, Dragon Ball doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, anytime soon. Whether it can ever achieve the same following it had in its glory days, however, seems unlikely. Dragon Ball may have paved the way for anime to infiltrate American audiences, but today, its shortcomings are overshadowed by a plethora of competitors that offer tighter scripts, more interesting visuals, and more rewarding character explorations.

“Dragon Ball Super: Broly” indicates that the Dragon Ball property, if continued, may still have some tricks up its sleeves. For now, the movie itself was a great way to relive the “glory days” without any real commitment, like revisiting an old friend who refuses to grow up.