“Acting like a real man” loomed large over my time growing up in rural Ohio. In that midwestern microcosmos, emotions were a weakness, and men were born breadwinners ready to fight at the drop of a hat. I didn’t realize at the time that life would feel so much like the world of Dragon Ball.
Dragon Ball Super: Broly, the franchise’s 20th animated film and biggest U.S. release of all time, is as much a story about the fight for one fighter’s soul in the face of corrosive masculinity as it is a reimagining of Broly, the beloved, one-note character created in the early ’90s. At the core of the film is a destructive relationship between the gentle-hearted brute and his father, Paragus — a man whose sole focus is revenge against the monarchy that exiled his son to a repugnant planet far away.
Broly’s kind heart is crushed under his father’s thirst for vengeance and the societal norms of Saiyan culture. While he appears to be a walking timebomb of rage and violence, inside, he’s an abused, scared child manipulated by others.
I never expected to walk out of a Dragon Ball movie with an emotional connection to a Saiyan fighter, but DBS: Broly truly punches in a whole new way.
The new film rewires Broly’s thin backstory, turning the Boba Fett of Dragon Ball lore into a symbol for overcoming learned behavior incurred from the pain of patriarchal expectations. Despite being a new adventure with Goku and Vegeta, DBS: Broly’s real tension isn’t whether or not our blue-haired Saiyan heroes will save the day. Instead, the movie asks if a seemingly broken soul can be saved from toxic expectations. Goku acts as a foil.
“It’s not like a Saiyan man to worry about his children,” Goku’s mother, Gine, says to the hero’s father, Bardock, early in the DBS: Broly. The line is a perfect encapsulation of the doomed Saiyan race, in which the strongest men are on the front lines of war, the women stay home, and infants are reared in pods — as to not be sullied by the nurturing touch of their mother.
Bardock has a drastic change of heart and breaks from the warrior tradition, knowing the end of their planet is nigh at the hand of Frieza. “Maybe I just wanted to save something for once,” he says, as they fire their Superman-like son’s pod off the doomed world.
Broly’s dad is not as self-reflective. When told that his son is being sent off-world to a desolate rock due to his unstable power, Paragus sees it as an attack on his lineage and rightful place in Saiyan society. Stealing a ship, the father rushes to retrieve the instrument of his revenge against King Vegeta, finding Broly on a planet devoid of intelligent life.
Stranded on the planet with his son, Paragus sharpens Broly’s uncontrollable power into a spear that will serve his revenge. What Broly wants or needs is an afterthought. The son is merely meant to follow the instructions of the father, be seen and not heard, and do as is expected. But he can be hard to contain; Broly almost explodes in a ball of rage after a man catcalls Cheelai, a member of the Frieza Force out on the hunt for new recruits.
Paragus interferes before anyone winds up snapped in half. In a callback to the original Broly film, The Legendary Super Saiyan, Paragus activates a shock collar placed on Broly, meant to debilitate him if he loses control. The palpable fear on Broly’s face at the mere sight of seeing his father reach for the collar’s remote is heartbreaking. The fighter’s psychological scars are ever-present; later, when Cheelai and her partner Lemo hear Broly’s story and try to understand why he’d still want to be with his father, his response is formal, but not angry.
“It’s not right for you to say bad things about him. He is my dad.”
I often think about what made the bullies of my youth the way they were. I was a perfect target for predators in grade school: nerdy, quiet, emotional. I failed to fit the mold of an Appalachian man, expected to know how to work the farm, hunt, and be more familiar with the inside of an engine than with the confines of a kitchen, and solve problems with confrontation. How many of these kids were told to just shut up and listen to their fathers, or run the risk of abuse?
The thought was on my mind as Broly tells the story of the green pelt around his waist. Paragus shot off the beast’s ear, as he saw Broly’s friendship with the creature as a weakness and distracting from training. It’s a sad tale, and new to Dragon Ball mythology. Before, there was no motivation or traits applied to the Legendary Super Saiyan. He was merely a wall of flesh and an enemy for Goku and the Z-Fighters to combat. In this new iteration, helmed by series creator Akira Toriyama, Broly is the collateral damage of a generational vendetta, and a prime example of when nurture and nature clash.
Broly’s harsh existence comes to a head when Frieza takes him to Earth. The Dragon Ball version of Napoleon, Frieza plans to use Paragus’ violent thirst to settle the score with Goku and Vegeta. Broly is sent into battle by Paragus under the threat of the shock collar and an obligation to the man that raised him. What follows is some of the heaviest, most fluid fight animation in Dragon Ball history. Broly’s anguish and inability to control his rage is palpable, while a confident Vegeta pummels him, and he transforms past the point of no return.
DBS: Broly is ultimately not about whether or not our heroes can survive a spat with a big, bad villain. Broly is never positioned as anything but a person used as a weapon to the point of self-destruction, with the tension coming from Cheelai and Lemo’s desperate attempt to save their new friend. Even Goku realizes that Broly is fighting under duress; he stops the battle at one point to say, “You can stop fighting. You don’t have to listen to what the others tell you to do.” At this point, Broly is too lost in his cloud of rage to see or act clearly, transformed into a hybrid form of the Saiyan’s Great Ape power and swinging away wildly.
As Super Saiyan Blue Gogeta — the vastly more powerful fusion of Goku and Vegeta — arrives to finish the fight, Broly’s survival becomes a question. But Cheelai and Lemo steal Earth’s Dragon Balls from Frieza and risk their own lives to give Broly a chance at a real life, and in the process save their friend and use their wish to send Broly back to his home planet.
“We can’t let this be the end,” Cheelai says as the great dragon is summoned into view. Broly’s friends aren’t ready or willing to give up.
Carving nuance out of Broly’s life is a complete 180 from his past appearances, and clashes with his role as the prototypical hulking, monosyllabic brute of a villain. In a story about one man’s trials in overcoming the hardships of antiquated, learned behavior, the real lesson is that it’s never too late to change, and that the people in our lives can save us from ourselves if given the chance.
What liberated me from the turmoil of American identity-forging was discovering that the world outside southeast Ohio is filled with all types of people. Seeing Broly can escape Planet Vampa echoed my own retreat from Appalachia, which I only managed through the support of friends. There’s hope yet for anyone struggling to escape the barren planet that is a certain type of man’s rigid expectations of how a person should be.
I’m grateful for Dragon Ball Super: Broly, a legitimate film about trauma, and I look forward to what’s ahead for the character. Broly is no longer the mute, rage-induced punchline of the Dragon Ball universe; he’s now the series’ heart and soul.
Will Harrison is a writer and reporter from Toledo, Ohio, currently residing in Austin, Texas. He lives with his wife, Rachel, and their three cats. He is on Twitter @DoubleUHarrison.