I’ll admit it: I haven’t watched an episode of Dragon Ball in years. But my childhood memories of tuning into the show as it aired on Cartoon Network’s anime block, Toonami, are indelible. I get misty-eyed, thinking about how Son Goku became father Goku; I laugh at, and mourn for, the useless Yamcha.
The daily sizzle reel that played on the block just ahead of each episode of the original Dragon Ball anime is burned into my brain, boiling the biggest anime franchise in the world down to its essence: Dragon Ball is about big-haired boys who just love to fight each other. That’s all there really is to it, when all is said and done; check, please.
It’s not just the absurd action that’s so lovable, but also creator Akira Toriyama’s trademark sense of self-aware silliness that ensures we don’t forget this threadbare premise. This long-held through-line is as essential to the Dragon Ball formula as all the Super Saiyan, alien planet nonsense. The combination of the two is what makes Dragon Ball Super: Broly, a hugely promoted theatrical release in the series that finally canonizes a cult-favorite character, so good for even a long-lapsed fan.
[Ed. note: There are spoilers below for Dragon Ball Super: Broly.]
Unlike Dragon Ball movies of the past — or even the anime series themselves — Broly takes the time to map out an origin story. There are assumptions made about how much the audience knows about Dragon Ball history, of course; no time is wasted on explaining what a Super Saiyan is, or why all of them have tails, or why Frieza and company are occupying Planet Vegeta. Instead, a lengthy prologue explains how the soft-spoken Broly (and our boys Goku and Vegeta) got caught up in all the misuse of power, psychological manipulation, and the consequences of unchecked strength.
It’s helpful grounding for me, who hardly remembers Broly beyond fan-forum griping about how his original film appearances existed outside of the franchise lore. The prologue establishes that Broly is the victim of governmental politics that deem him a monster before he’s said his first word, all because of his latent power; after he’s shipped off to a foreign planet, his father escapes to protect and train him. It’s a noble deed that actually manifests as years of abuse, leading Broly to be nothing but a collared war machine with the heart of a scarred child.
The character’s story is reset for everyone to start on the same page from, even Dragon Ball Super-heads who can name every Super Saiyan tier off the bat. The movie even makes sure to remind us all of Goku and Vegeta’s beginnings on the war-torn Saiyan land, and subsequent sole members of the race remaining. Soon thereafter, the movie fast forwards through the events of the original Dragon Ball — a fun reminder of the place that brought all of us to this point, watching this movie in a huge American theater.
All of this provides me with an understanding of where the limits of my Dragon Ball knowledge are as the movie shifts into the present-day part of the plot. I can make it to Dragon Ball Z and hardly beyond that; but that is, thankfully, enough. Broly exists outside of Dragon Ball Super’s storyline, picking up where the recent sequel series left off. But it is staunchly not predicated on having seen a single episode of Super, making the briefest asides to that show’s events before moving along promptly.
The movie instead focuses on a skeleton crew of characters, almost all of whom either have been with the series since the Z days (or longer) or debut in Broly. This is a smart move, since it’s not only the first Super movie, but the first Dragon Ball movie in three years. The gap expands when counting the years between the end of Dragon Ball Z and the Dragon Ball Super anime’s premiere: almost 19 years.
If you’re big into the specifics of Super, its new characters, and its wild additions to the already convoluted franchise lore, the movie’s ignorance of it may strike a chord, and not a good one. Except that Broly gets the fundamentals of Dragon Ball extremely right, no matter where you’re coming in from: This is a series made by one of Japan’s finest gag comics creators, Akira Toriyama, who found success in deftly combining his sense of humor with pure, hyper-masculine wish fulfillment. Dragon Ball is just dudes beating up other dudes for fun. And it’s as much fun for Goku as it is for us.
Without revealing some of the best jokes in the movie, which throw a lampshade on this threadbare premise, the Broly movie makes it plain that Dragon Ball has been a spectacle more than a story since its height. Sure, Broly is a sympathetic character, perhaps even an antihero of sorts; but he really is just there to punch Goku and Vegeta into submission, making us teeter on the edge of our seats in fear that perhaps one of them might ... lose. Which is worse than dying in Dragon Ball, a series where death can be undone with a simple wish.
There are no grand statements to be made in Dragon Ball Super: Broly, and more amusement than anxiety. Like the best of this very silly, very over-the-top franchise, Broly is big and loud and dumb, and it knows it. That’s what makes it so much fun, even while I’m happy to keep my Dragon Ball-watching days as a fond memory.