Another year brings us a slew of DC animated films that skip theatres to end up on digital platforms and the ever-fading home video format. As is usually the case with these kinds of releases, they go under the radar with very little fanfare, which is a shame because these aren’t the quick cash grabs you’d usually see in this kind of market. There are some real gems out there that are telling the kind of superhero stories that we should be seeing in theatres, and even the misfires, at the very least, warrant an interesting discussion.
A major selling point of these animated DC films is that it allows creators to take risks that they would otherwise be barred from by the head honchos at Time Warner. Even though I’ll always enjoy seeing a more explicit take on my favorite superheroes, one of the most interesting kinds of gambles that these films take is playing around with the time period.
We’ve seen what the Justice League would be like at the onset of the Cold War, and we’ve seen what Superman would be like if his ship landed in the Soviet Union instead of Kansas, but the recent Batman: Soul of the Dragon set in a Kung-Fu/Blaxploitation inspired 70s Gotham may just have my favorite setting shift in any of these films.
Taking its cues from Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon and classic James Bond flicks, the film follows secret agent Richard Dragon as he recruits three of his former classmates — playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne, inner-city martial arts instructor Ben Turner, and enigmatic crime boss Lady Shiva — to stop a cult led by the psychotic Lord Kobra from opening the gate to the underworld and bringing about the apocalypse.
As with any good reinterpretation, it doesn’t hinge its bets on one alteration to the source material. Instead, it offers viewers plenty of fun twists that you wouldn’t think you would see from DC today. The most apparent of these is that despite what the film is called, Batman is, in fact, not the main character. That honor goes to forgotten 70s relic Richard Dragon, one of DC’s premier martial artists. Dennis O’Neil and Jim Berry initially created the character for Dragon’s Fists: Kung-Fu Master Richard Dragon, a pulp novel that was first published in 1974. O’Neil and Berry would then go on to adapt Dragon and his tale into the comic series Richard Dragon, Kung-Fu Fighter for DC, the following year, but it would not survive the “DC Implosion” the following year.
However, this is not the Richard Dragon DC fans are used to. The most apparent reason is that in this film’s incarnation, Richard Dragon isn’t white. Created by two white men at a time when Asian characters were still mostly relegated to the role of villains, mentors, comic relief, and sidekicks, Richard Dragon sticks out like a sore thumb as the kind of “mighty whitey” character that would permeate American produced media about Asians and Asian Americans for decades to come.
Thankfully they had the good sense to have an Asian character take up the mantle for this outing, but unfortunately, he’s been reimagined both conceptually and visually as a Bruce Lee-clone (drawn primarily from his appearance in Enter the Dragon). I think this is a major misstep because the filmmakers really had a chance here to create a memorable Asian protagonist who stands on his own and adds something new to the mix. Bruce Lee fought long and hard during his time in Hollywood for a better representation of Asians and Asian culture in Western media. He was single-handedly able to change America’s racist perception of them from the bucktooth conniving klutzes that they first saw in propaganda to badass action heroes that could carry films by themselves. This opened up a lot of new avenues for Asian Americans who were either forced to play into racist stereotypes in minor roles or find work elsewhere. But, instead of taking the chance to innovate, this film continues a repulsive trend of trying to cash in on Bruce Lee’s image since the 70s. Few are aware of this, but when Bruce Lee died, there was such a demand for the kinds of films he pioneered in the West that a whole genre of exploitation films dubbed “Bruceploitation” popped up, trying to cash in on his personal brand. Some actors even made careers out of this trend by styling themselves after him and even renaming themselves at times to trick people into thinking they were him.
That’s not to say that the character is bad. Far from it, he’s quite charming — Richard Dragon is quite charming as a fun combo of James Bond and Bruce Lee’s stock protagonists. He’s a stoic badass when he needs to be but isn’t above making a sly remark or two when the situation calls for it. I wouldn’t mind seeing this incarnation in more outings. But when the three main members of the supporting cast are written to be more complex and even have their backstories expounded upon, it’s hard not to notice that besides essentially being Bruce Lee, Richard Dragon has nothing else going for him. We never know where he’s from, who his friends and family are, or what his life is like outside of his job as a secret agent. We never even see him interact with the agency or other secret agents in any way. You never really get a sense of who he is in this world, and there’s no real arc for the character in the way his team has in this film.
But that brings us to one of the film’s major strengths, the supporting cast. They’re oddly well-developed for an 83-minute film with what has to be one of the most interesting takes on Batman that I’ve seen in quite a while. This is not the seasoned veteran you’re used to seeing but a novice just starting out and trying to make sense of why he’s chosen to don the cowl. Other characters repeatedly tease him for it, and throughout the film, they make it clear to the viewer that Batman is, in fact, the weakest fighter of the bunch. This is a far cry from the flawless Übermensch who can single-handedly take down gods that seems to be the go-to interpretation in mainstream DC films. Batman being fleshed out is no surprise here, but his class rival turned staunch ally, Ben Turner (better known in the comics world as a supervillain who goes by the alias Bronze Tiger) is surprisingly well-developed when he’s essentially comic relief. Out of the four heroes, he’s the one whose backstory is explored the most, and the film goes to great lengths to humanize him. The fact that he’s played by Michael Jai White (of Black Dynamite fame) only helps to make him even more memorable.
Now, these are three are all badasses in their own right, but the film makes it clear that the best fighter is, without a doubt, the merciless Lady Shiva—firmly established to be the most powerful martial artist in the DC universe, and that makes her one of its most criminally underutilized antagonists in the Batman canon. In this film, she moonlights as a hero while also being one of Gotham’s most feared crime bosses, having no qualms over it. The best part is there’s no tragic backstory to excuse any of it. That and her cool domineering presence combined with just enough snark to humanize her makes for a fun female addition to the cast. Mind you. She’s also the only female character of note in the entire film. But, hey, at least they made it count…
And, I know what you’re thinking. From the description alone, you can tell that she’s by far the best character in the movie, and you have to wonder if she should’ve been the main character all along. I mean, the answer is obviously yes, a resounding yes, but we’re still a couple of years away from an Asian female leading a superhero flick when the title of the film has to cover the fact that an Asian male is leading this one. So, for now, I’m just holding out hope that this film will be a gateway to more appearances in other DC properties later on down the line.
With a cast as cool as this, it’s kind of odd that the main villain is pretty bland and par the course for these kinds of films. He’s a bit more complex than your average martial arts film antagonist, but the filmmakers could’ve afforded him more screen time and some more interesting scenes. The same goes for his two henchmen, who seem interesting at first when they’re (briefly) introduced, but are just disposed of towards the end without getting much screen time or development in between. I guess that’s only natural considering its tight running time, but I still expect them to be something a bit more than glorified boss fights.
Now, having just spent an entire review meticulously dissecting what’s essentially a throwaway film sold to me on a silly gimmick, you might say I’m expecting too much from a Kung Fu Batman film.
And, you know what?
Maybe I am because this film is far better and more ambitious than it has any right to be. You would think the filmmakers would lean into camp and self-aware humor with a film like this, but they admirably took this project on with the hopes of creating a good old fashion Kung Fu film.
They did, and the film is all the better for it.
J.D. Harlock is an Arab writer/editor based in the Lebanon. He is the Poetry Editor at Orion’s Belt, the Poetry Co-Editor at Solarpunk Magazine, the Outreach Manager at Utopia SF Magazine, and the Social Media Manager at The Dread Machine. You can find him on Twitter @JD_Harlock.