Movies, television shows, animated features, video games, toys... you’d be hard pressed to find someone who is unfamiliar with the classic DC Comics character Batman. Even the most casual fans would be able to spout off his origin, his supporting cast, and one or two of his iconic rogue’s. But ask most fans if they’re familiar with Richard Dragon, Bronze Tiger, or Lady Shiva, and you may see a significantly different response.
These are the characters that are at the forefront of the new animated feature film, Batman: Soul of the Dragon. As an extremely avid fan of DC’s animation, (see my review on Wonder Woman: Bloodlines here), I’ve become familiar with the way the studio uses Batman as a bit of a Trojan Horse to introduce some of their lesser known characters. This strategy can be an effective way to boost the profile of other heroes, but can also result in some Batman fatigue, especially with two live action Batman adaptations happening simultaneously. Batman: Soul of the Dragon not only gave fans a fresh take on the Dark Knight with an original, 70’s spy, blaxploitation inspired story, but also spotlighted Bronze Tiger, Richard Dragon, and Shiva, three characters of color who many may now be wanting to see more of.
For most of the movie, we spend time with young Bruce Wayne, out of his costume. He is used less as the main character, and more of a way to for viewers to be introduced to the other heroes who are training with O-Sensei. In fact, the movie’s cold open makes it fairly clear that Richard will be the protagonist of the film, by giving him a James Bondesque fight scene, complete with funky 70’s music and fight choreography that showed off his martial arts ability and overall cleverness. The finale brings us full circle by giving Richard the penultimate showdown instead of Batman. After doing some background research on the character, you will see that Richard is not originally created as an Asian character, but was changed for this film. I believe that was the correct decision, because so often, White leads are thrust into martial arts films in some attempt to please Western audiences.
The film also introduces Lady Shiva, a long time Batman antagonist as an antihero. She is one of the two female characters who studies with O-Sensei, and is clearly designated as the most adept martial artist there. The film does an excellent job, by “showing, not telling”. In her many fight scenes, Shiva is objectively the most talented and down right badass character in the movie, at one point, defeating another student with only one finger.
Lastly, Ben Turner, aka Bronze Tiger, rounds out the team with the most compelling character arc. At first glance, he seems a bit stereotypical, particular because of the blaxploitation style of the film. He is introduced to Bruce as the wise-cracking, tough guy from the inner city with an anger problem. However, one of his lines of dialogue is incredibly poignant, as he remarks that like Bruce, many people from his neighborhood have witnessed their loved ones get gunned down in front of them, only they don’t get as much media coverage. It was a fascinating commentary on the classic Batman origin, and became that much more relevant when Ben is faced with the choice to kill a child who is prophesized to become a threat in his adult years. Ben learns to cope with his anger, and realizes revenge is not his path, instead becoming a teacher and mentor to young black students.
Batman: Soul of the Dragon is an excellent story, that happens to feature Batman. Complete with perfect voice casting, a score reminiscent of the era it is portraying, and beautifully choreographed action sequences, the movie feels like a classic martial arts movie that could have been in theaters in the 1970’s, and we’re lucky enough that it is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and digitally now!