Back in 1993, Shonen Jump ran a popularity poll for its weekly readers, centering on Dragon Ball Z. This was during the Cell Games arc, and possibly the peak of the franchise’s popularity in Japan. In the poll, a young Gohan won, narrowly defeating face-of-the-franchise Son Goku. However, just 2 years later, during the inferior Buu saga and past the franchise’s blistering peak in sales, Gohan placed 6th in the same poll. Even worse, he garnered barely a tenth of the votes he amassed in 1993. Dragon Ball fans immediately know why there was such a disparity. Cell Games Gohan was a focused, intense, no-nonsense warrior. Buu saga Gohan was a dweeb, abandoning his Saiyan instincts to focus solely on studying, at his mother Chi Chi’s behest. Imagine a Peter Parker that’s barely interested in being Spider-Man.
You know who would love to see the old Gohan back? Piccolo, who once again is thrust into the thankless role of training an adolescent Saiyan. In Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero, Piccolo is tasked with basically being a caregiver for Gohan and Videl’s young daughter, Pan. He picks her up from school, and teaches her how to use her Ki to one day become a powerful fighter. Yes, just like Piccolo was Gohan’s original trainer, as opposed to Goku, Piccolo has now picked up the fatherly duties for Gohan’s own child. At least that’s one thing Goku and Gohan have in common. Once upon a time, Gohan was intended to succeed Goku as Dragon Ball’s lead character. But the character’s pivot to geekdom ensured that wouldn’t happen, as he represented much of what the fighting-obsessed fanbase had no interest in.
Using a bit of meta storytelling, Piccolo agrees with the audience and laments how Gohan has neglected his evolution as a fighter. He’s a domesticated Saiyan, which isn’t really a Saiyan at all. To make matters worse, Gohan now ignores his responsibilities as a father in favor of his research. Meanwhile, the remnants of the previously defunct Red Ribbon Army have emerged. Dr. Hedo (grandson of the late psychotic supervillain Dr. Gero) teams with Commander Magenta (son of the Red Ribbon Army’s Commander Red) to restore the army and resume Gero’s work of Android experimentation. The reformed army mistakenly identifies the Z fighters as a nefarious group of aliens who have been plotting earth’s demise for years, thus morally justifying the creation of Androids Gamma 1 and Gamma 2, intended to hunt down and slaughter our protagonists.
That’s the jumping off point for a cavalier, deliriously fun adventure that sees Super go back to old story beats, but with a brand new coat of paint. The most jarring thing about the film is the new art style, the most noticeable creative change we’ve ever seen in the franchise. However, it seems like a work in progress that hasn’t yet reached an optimal image. The film jettisons Dragon Ball’s 2D roots completely, opting for both 3D backgrounds and 3D character designs. But this implementation is hardly as seamless as a Pixar movie, as many of the film’s shots crossover into the uncanny valley. I believe the issue is the 3D character designs, which often just don’t seem like they match the backgrounds they’re placed in. It also doesn’t help that you can still see 2D lines on the characters, resulting in some weird hybrid where the characters are mostly 3D, but seem like they were cut out of a drawing with scissors.
In other animated films, we’ve seen fully 2D characters interact seamlessly with 3D backgrounds, and perhaps that’s the approach Super Hero should have taken. There are a several shots in the film where the characters appear to be 2D due to the camera angle, and in each instance the characters look more believable against their 3D backgrounds in those moments. To be fair, the new design absolutely works for the action scenes, which is what justifies the stylistic choice as the fight scenes sparkle in a movie theater. It’s when characters are just standing around and talking that they often look silly as hell. These moments look less like a movie and more like a video game cutscene. Regardless, the work-in-progress visuals still soar at times, and don’t distract from a very simple and engaging story.
As the new Red Ribbon Army commences their manhunt, it is Piccolo (seemingly the only Z fighter working on the clock on planet earth) that encounters the new threat first. After narrowly escaping death, the Namekian flies solo in his investigation of the new army, as our Saiyan friends (Goku and Vegeta included) are too preoccupied to help. In fact, with the exception of a short cameo, Super Hero sidelines Goku and Vegeta completely, putting the focus squarely on Piccolo and Gohan. In that sense, we have dual protagonists. This is an exercise in Piccolo’s persistence and resourcefulness, while putting an onus on Gohan to be more than just the bookworm. We also get some fun appearances from the likes of Krillen, Bulma, Beerus, and an unexpectedly humorous scene from Shenron himself.
If there are major criticisms of the story, it’s that the movie isn’t an easy entry point for new fans. Some scenes are bursting at the seams with exposition, most of which is used to summarize the characters’ history. But this franchise is 40 years old, and that is a lot of history – requiring you to know detailed arcs and storylines concerning both Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z. There’s even some references to the video games that sneak their way into the story. New fans won’t be entirely lost, as the story is still very simple. But they’ll miss a ton of nuance, including why it’s so dissapointing to see Gohan seemingly move past his warrior ways. Then there’s the issue of the movie’s big bad, which the villains consistently signal is Cell Max, a recreation of one of Dragon Ball’s greatest antagonists. However, Cell Max is a brute, robbed of the original Cell’s personality, charisma, and intellect.
Cell may be the smartest villain in the entire franchise canon; his replacement is a mute that offers nothing but grunts and groans, while having no defined goals as a villain. Dragon Ball’s feature length films have often been filler that is mostly divorced from the series’ narrative, yet the films have still utilized memorable foes such as Cooler, Garlic Jr, the Androids, and Beerus. Cell Max will not be joining the shortlist of great movie villains in the franchise. He’s the Doomsday of the Dragon Ball universe, a mere plot device. A shame, since the original Cell’s history with Piccolo and Gohan, and the emotional beats that could inspire, goes to waste here.
What persists is a colorful world full of eccentric characters. Piccolo, Gohan, Krillen, and Pan are all joys to watch. While the Gammas, Magenta, and Dr. Hedo are worthwhile antagonists who fit as the typical oddballs we see from villains in this universe. Although, I did get a little tired of watching Hedo eat oreos. Nonetheless, the film’s commitment to slapstick mixed with supercharged fight scenes make this a worthy adventure to see in theaters with friends.
It’s not as thrilling, hard hitting, or as well told as some of the franchise’s best movies/specials, such as Tree of Might, Broly: The Legendary Super Saiyan, or the emotive History of Trunks. But it keeps the Super brand above water in terms of quality, while returning a worthy hero back to his vintage self. Given Super’s obsession with the neverending piss contest involving Goku and Vegeta, it’s about time Gohan and Piccolo get their own spotlight back, and hopefully it’s a harbinger for things to come. For a story about a warrior and their master, like Goku and Master Roshi in the original Dragon Ball, still speaks true to the heart of this imaginative universe.