Years ago, Bruce Wayne sought out those who could train him in his journey to become the avenging angel that would one day be The Batman. It’s now decades later and it is to Bruce that worldly, worldwide agent Richard Dragon turns when he learns that a link from the past may be coming back to haunt them both. Dragon and Wayne were just two of the students of O’Sensei, a monk who saw great destinies for his trainee warriors, but did not live to see those fulfilled. He seemingly perished defending the secret of the ‘Door’ and keeping back a powerful force from another dimension.
Now others seek to open it once more, so Dragon and Bruce must reunite with their fellow students, Lady Shiva and Ben Turner to ensure that never happens. However time has changed them all in one way or another and if opening and closing the door always requires sacrifice, who will be the last one standing?
There’s been plenty of Batman news over the last year with various incarnations getting the spotlight: Ben Affleck’s Justice League appearance, Robert Pattinson’s turn as a gritty caped crusader in THE Batman (now due next year thanks to COVID) and even rumours that we might see Michael Keaton back in the batsuit.
But now it’s time for the animated version to get some mainstream attention. The fortieth film in the sometimes overlooked DC Universe Animated Original Movies line – and the thirteenth to star Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego – is geared for an audience sophisticated enough to recognise the wider nostalgic elements as well as the obligatory derring-do. There’s an old-fashioned, old-school feel throughout – and not just because of the Bruce Timm animation being reminiscent of a pre-CGI age, the soundtrack laying down the 1970s beat and the sheer fashion tweaks, daddio. The opening sequences – with hero Richard Dragon infiltrating and safe-cracking mode and then going to exotic, stylised titles and credits pay unapologetic homage to all things Bondian. The subsequent mixture of martial-arts and eastern philosophies will delight Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon fans and those who remember David Carradine’s time learning Kung-Fu.
But in this ‘earlier era of the Batman‘ scenario there’s also a distinct ‘back-door-pilot’ vibe in the sense that while Richard Dragon is the ‘guest-star’ it’s all very much designed to put him centre-stage and allowing Batman / Bruce to play a supporting role in more ensemble proceedings. That doesn’t rob Batman of his earned stature and brand-recognition, but with the collective feel of him being only one of several disparate gifted students, this isn’t the Batman outing we’d normally see – it’s a team-up of sometimes unequal proportions.
In some ways this is suitable for most ages, though certainly not geared for very young audiences. Despite the traditional look, there is a more mature, brutal tone and hints of inferred darkness you wouldn’t have found in many of the animated Batman’s earlier years… here the characters actually bleed, there’s almost nudity/profanity (clipped to avoid upsetting anyone of a nervous disposition), the racial tensions aren’t wholly ignored and we have a villain demonstrating his sociopathy early by feeding a hooker to black mambas. Even the heroes slice and dice, snap necks, immolate their opposition and literally go for the jugular.
Cast-wise, it’s an impressive line-up of martial-arts and screen veterans. Mark Dacascos, one of the most reliable and engaging martial-artists working on western projects (and who has held that position for an almost impossible three decades) proves that he can always deliver the goods even when the animated kicks and choreography are more line-work than wire-work and, arguably, his Richard Dragon remains one of the most interesting characters throughout this release. The ever-impressive Kelly Hu expands her range of voice-artist performances to give us a memorable Shiva and Michael Jai White’s Ben Turner is clearly a homage to Jim Kelly. There’s also able support from the likes of veteran James Hong as O-Sensei and Jamie Chung (most recently seen in Lovecraft Country) plays Jade. David Giuntoli, best known for headlining cult series Grimm, is Bruce/Batman with enough gravel and sardonic wit to satisfy existing fans even if not used to the best effect.
Batman: Soul of the Dragon is a solid, fun outing, ultimately – and suitably – dedicated to Dennis ‘Denny’ O’Neil, one of the guiding hands of Batman‘s modern era, and an adventure that may not push boundaries but pushes all the right buttons as a homage to the classics, be they Batman or beyond…
Batman: Soul of the Dragon is released onto Blu-ray & DVD by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment and available now…