The DC Universe gets a ‘70s makeover for Batman: Soul of the Dragon, a campy martial arts movie that’d be better without the Dark Knight himself.
There are many ways to skin a cat and a seemingly infinite number of ways to make a Batman movie, but that isn’t to say they’re all good ideas. Sam Liu’s latest venture in DC’s long-running animated line, Batman: Soul of the Dragon, is barely even a Bat-movie at all. Instead, it’s a period martial arts actioner full of secret ninja clans and snake monsters that makes the Dark Knight himself feel like a tagalong.
David Giuntoli’s nondescript Bruce Wayne feels out of place in the gang of fearsome warriors assembled by Richard Dragon (Mark Dacascos) to take on the terrorist organization Kobra and its ringleader Jeffrey Burr (Josh Keaton), even if Liu has made a considerable effort to graft a Batman Begins-style origin story onto it anyway. Richard, Bruce, Lady Shiva (Kelly Hu) and Ben Turner (Michael Jai White) all met as students under the enigmatic O-Sensei (James Hong) at a secretive mountain retreat, and reunite to tackle a thinly-sketched menace while grappling, literally and figuratively, with each other and indeed who they are.
So early into Bruce’s crime-fighting career, there is a sense of his dueling lives weighing him down, but Batman: Soul of the Dragon is less interested in any comic-y mythology than it is in a rich period of genre moviemaking, evoking everything from Enter the Dragon to Diamonds Are Forever to Shaft. Richard Dragon is a stand-in for both the international man of mystery archetype and a Bruce Lee analog, and the action-first approach leaves the lean 70-minute runtime feeling light on both plot and character, probably for the better.
The animation and music are where most of the fun is to be had since Bruce’s ‘70s do and the general style and tone of the era are consistent pleasures. A solid voice cast knows what kind of movie they’re in, even if it isn’t quite the outright James Bond pastiche the opening sequence suggests, and they’re more than willing to add some contours to the 2D characters that aren’t present on the pages of Jeremy Adams’ script. There’s no real development for any of them, though, and the sense of camaraderie is lacking, and it’s admittedly difficult to care why anyone is doing any of the things they’re doing. A lot of the blame for this can be placed at the feet of Batman, who seems to get dressed up in the costume at the urging of the others without any particular reason for doing so. The focus on him feels contrived; a better film would have excised his role completely and given Richard Dragon sole protagonist duties, but then again that better film wouldn’t have sold any copies, so what can you do?
Either way, Batman: Soul of the Dragon is heaps of camp retro fun, even if a generic plot and thin characterizations let it down some. Anyone in the market for a distinctly retro experience can’t go far wrong here, though anyone after a little bit more bite in their snake-monster escapades will be better served elsewhere.