Has it ever been tougher to keep up with continuity in our favorite movies and TV shows? It seems any major franchise can, at a whim, change course and completely omit an unfavorable portion of its history. Sometimes its to start completely fresh, to reboot the material in a new parallel universe. Then there’s the more complicated version, where a franchise keeps its story in the same universe, but deletes a section of the lore where things seemed to go off the rails.
The latter is where we find Dragon Ball Super, the extremely popular relaunch of the Dragon Ball franchise. The new series’ most notable premise is that it has completely ignored the ill-fated, much maligned 1990s disappointment known as Dragon Ball GT. GT was perhaps a sequel too many during it’s time, as the writers (which did not include Dragon Ball series creator Akira Toriyama) were clearly bankrupt of fresh ideas, and relied heavily on the tropes and formulas created by Toriyama. Super revived the franchise in 2015, acting as a direct sequel of Dragon Ball Z and erasing the very existence of GT. However, the series thus far has honored the continuity of Z and the original Dragon Ball – until Dragon Ball Super: Broly.
Dragon Ball specials are a weird beast in that most of them are not considered canon in the main series. This is because Toriyama was not the primary writer for them, nor has he ever publicly made them canon. This changed with Dragon Ball Super: Battle of the Gods, which Toriyama provided the story for and is considered canon. So when Broly, the veiny and gargantuan Super Saiyan with major anger issues, was introduced in the original movie, his back story was never actually brought up in the manga or anime. This did not stop Broly from having breakout success – entirely because he has a cool, hulkish look. The mere existence of this new film, with a screenplay written by Toriyama, confirms that the old Dragon Ball specials as non-canon as it directly contradicts the original origin of Broly.
In this new film, we get a deep back story on the history between fan favorite villain Frieza and the Saiyans he ruled over. This includes King Vegeta, who believes his young son Prince Vegeta will grow up to become the most powerful Saiyan of all. That belief is threatened when he discovers Broly, an infant Saiyan with an insane power level. King Vegeta exiles Broly and Broly’s father, Paragus, to a distant planet. Paragus, angered, vows he will train Broly to eventually take revenge on the fellow Saiyans that wronged them. Fast forward to the present day, where Frieza is on a quest for the dragon balls for reasons that are so silly I can 100% believe Toriyama came up with them. However, Frieza eventually crosses paths with an adult Broly and Paragus, prompting Frieza to utilize the naive brute as an instrument for revenge on the his sworn rivals Goku and Prince Vegeta. This leads to Frieza bringing Broly to earth where he immediately confronts Goku and Vegeta, first challenging Vegeta in combat.
It can be awe-inspiring to see the action on the big screen. The film captures the kinetic, free-flowing, fast-paced style that Dragon Ball fight scenes are known for. As soon as Broly begins throwing haymakers with Vegeta, and eventually Goku, the battle zooms across not just the geography of the setting, but also the screen at break neck speed. And that is without a doubt the main draw of any Dragon Ball special, and in that area the film does not disappoint.
Where the film does come up short is its central story which doesn’t allow it to be elevated above the typical Dragon Ball special. There’s an attitude that the franchise has always been all action with no character or story – which is inaccurate. The original Dragon Ball series firmly established the characters’ psychology while balancing high drama with zany humor. The sequel series, Dragon Ball Z, raised the stakes and the ambitions of the characters, but also established deeper relationships that compromised those ambitions. The dramatic formulas that worked for Z eventually extended to perhaps the two best specials of the franchise – Bardock: The Father of Goku (1990) and History of Trunks (1993). Those created tragic circumstances to generate empathy for their protagonists – and Broly tries similar tactics, but isn’t nearly as successful. In Broly, we are encouraged to feel sympathetic towards our title character through the lens of two audience avatars – Cheelai and Lemo. Having befriended Broly on Vampa, the planet Broly was exiled to, they lament the rigorous upbringing that Paragus forced on his son. Broly never had a choice on what he wanted in life. He was forced to be a warrior dues to his father’s personal ambitions. While it’s easy to feel some sympathy for Broly, the issues remains is that he’s simply not a fleshed out character and this prevents us from fully investing in his pathos.
In the original origin for Broly, Dragon Ball Z: Broly – The Legendary Super Saiyan (1993), the character faced similar issues. In that version, Broly’s primary conflict with Goku was that, no joke, he harbored resentment for Goku because the latter wouldn’t stop crying when they were both infants, which disturbed baby Broly. That version of Paragus was also a psychopath that pushed his son too far to be a fighter. But it seems that both versions of the characters’ mythos have greater success in defining who Paragus is, when more focus should be put on Broly himself. We get that his actions are not of his own desires, and that his lack of agency is part of the conflict his father presents, but he is still too much of a blank slate to fully engage us as an antagonist. What we’re left with is a pretty entertaining villain of the month movie, reminiscent of Goku’s encounters with the likes of Lord Slug and Janemba.
With all of that said, I’m optimistic of where Toriyama can take the story next. There’s plenty of areas where the Broly character can grow, especially in his interactions with our protagonists. The world building in the early parts of the film are intriguing and add depth to events we already know very well, even if certain aspects (such as the characterization of Bardock) are depicted very differently from their original incarnation. The way events shake out leaves room for this particular arc to be continued in future films, but if so then Broly needs to be more dynamic. They’ve had 25 years to give this guy a character, and now that’s he’s officially canon it is imperative that they do so. I should never be able to compare a villain with this much fanfare to the likes of Lord Slug.