While audiences may be missing Batman’s menacing presence on the big screen (I’m counting the days till Battinson makes his debut), DC continues to provide a plethora of animated Caped Crusader offerings. These low-profile releases cleverly recontextualize the hero’s gothic image in an intriguing new light, including bringing Batman to the past (Gotham by Gaslight) and teaming him up with fellow pop culture icons (Batman vs. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). The latest in the hero’s animated catalog Batman: Soul of the Dragon imbues a 70’s martial arts spin that doesn’t work quite as well as it should.
Set in the 1970s, Soul of the Dragon follows Batman (David Giuntoli) as he’s reteamed with his fellow martial arts companions Richard Dragon (Mark Dacascos), Lady Shiva (Kelly Hu), and Ben Turner (Michael Jai White). The four former students most prevent the end of the world when their famed teacher goes missing.
Where most stories stew in Batman’s dour mindset, Soul of the Dragon takes a refreshingly low-steaks approach. Veteran director Sam Liu morphs Batman’s mythos with the campy energy of 70’s kung fu movies, utilizing the genre’s cheesy pastiche to subvert audience’s typical expectations (never thought I’d see Batman with unkempt sideburns). Liu’s playful sensibility generates a few high-flying action frames along the way, relishing the material’s inherent cheekiness with a few bright, uptempo fist-fights.
The veteran voice cast deserves praise for elevating their thinly-written roles. David Giuntoli’s rigid presence makes a fitting Bruce Wayne, while Michael Jai White and Mark Dacascos have a blast playing two of Wayne’s charismatic classmates. Both characters cleverly represent well-established trends of 70’s cinema. Dacascos has a blast playing a suave Bond-like superspy, while White carries a towering swagger reflective of the era’s best blaxploitation stars.
Soul of the Dragon’s promising aesthetics have a certain allure, but Liu and company do little to give the veneer much weight. A truncated 82-minute length allows little breathing room amongst the chaotic action, leaving several intriguing subplots in the dust (Batman loses his girlfriend in the opening scene, but it’s never brought up again). Where other animated efforts present thoughtful textures with their vibrant settings, Liu’s latest chases a style that isn’t implemented as successfully. Outside of a few playful references, the material mostly confuses formulaic plot notes as clever homages.
I support what Soul of the Dragon attempts to achieve, especially considering the refreshing R-rating at hand. It’s just a shame most of the approach comes with half-measures. It’s humorously referential, but not entirely mature for its target demographic. There are some sparks of intrigue on the page, although most of those are undermined by the relentless pace. The whole experience registers as one of the Caped Crusader’s more weightless endeavors.
I’m sure Soul of the Dragon will please some diehard fans, but the wishy-washy delivery doesn’t live up to its distinct premise’s promise. That being said, I’m always happy to support these brisk animated vehicles. The platform allows DC to take intriguing risks with properties that are rarely able to bend onscreen.
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