22nd Jan2021

‘Batman: Soul of the Dragon’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Features the voices of: David Giuntoli, Mark Dacascos, Kelly Hu, Michael Jai White, James, Hong, Eric Bauza, Jamie Chung, Chris Cox, Grey Griffin, Josh Keaton, Erica Luttrell, Patrick Seitz | Written by Jeremy Adams | Directed by Sam Liu

Now this is my kind of Batman movie! Part James Bond spy thriller and part Bruce Lee-esque martial arts movie, Batman: Soul of the Dragon is very much like the Batman books I grew up reading. Set in the midst of the swinging 1970s, this Elseworlds adventure finds Bruce Wayne training under a master sensei. It is here that Bruce, along with other elite students, is forged in the fire of the martial arts discipline. The lifelong bonds they form will be put to the test when a deadly menace arises from their past. It will take the combined efforts of Batman and world-renowned martial artists Richard Dragon, Ben Turner and Lady Shiva to battle the monsters of this world and beyond…

Batman: Soul of the Dragon feels very much like a street-level hero style story infused with supernatural elements – the kinds of stories that stuck in my mind as a kid reading Batman comics. I always though that Batman, given that he did not have powers, was more human than traditional superheroes and as such his villains always felt more supernatural and otherworldly than more modern “powered” super villains. In fact this film reminded me very much of the 1981 Batman annual I still cherish too this day – a dark and gritty tale mixed with a supernatural element: in the same vein as Swamp Thing #7, which was collected in the aforementioned annual. Of course thats also because the other stories in the 1981 annual come from Dennis O’Neil – who clearly had a major influence on Batman: Soul of the Dragon; especially given that so many of the characters in this animated movie were created by him too!

Of course it doesn’t hurt that Batman: Soul of the Dragon also feels very much like a product of 70s martial arts exploitation cinema – another genre that is close to my heart. That inspiration begins with the 70s Warner Bros inspired opening WB Animation logo, ad continues with characters that look like Bruce Lee (Richard Dragon), Jim Kelly (Ben Turner) and there’s even a bouncer that looks exactly like Bob Wall’s character Oharra from Enter the Dragon! The 70s inspiration is so on point that, modern animation quality aside, this film, thematically, wouldn’t feel out of place on the shelves of an early 80s video store alongside a myriad of badly-dubbed kung-fu flicks.

In terms of animation, Batman: Soul of the Dragon is more simplistic than a lot of the Batman animated DTV films that have come before it. In fact it looks more like the hand-drawn, angular-chinned heroics of the The Batman cartoon (which director Sam Liu worked on too) than the overly-slick CGI animated features of the past. Yet for all that the animation is just as detailed, just as solid and… given all the martial arts, just as fluid and fast-paced. Given the 70s-stylings of the film the choice to use a more simplistic style of animation gives this more of an air of period authenticity. What also gives the film authenticity is the choice of voice acting – with a stellar line-up of actors taking the lead here, including action movie stalwarts Mark Dacascos as Richard Dragon; Michael Jai White as Ben Turner/Bronze Tiger, a role he also played in the live-action Arrowverse; and Kelly Hu, no stranger to DC properties having also appeared in The CW’s Arrow, who voices Lady Shiva. And as if those names are big enough, the legendary James Hong (Big Trouble in Little China) as the gangs former teacher, O-Sensei.

With a groovy soundtrack, superb voice acting, great animation and a strong story, Batman: Soul of the Dragon is easily my favourite animated Batman movie in a long, long time. More like this please WB Animation!

**** 4/5

Batman: Soul of the Dragon is out now on Digital. The film comes to DVD and Blu-ray on February 15th.

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