By Will Barber Taylor
Set in the midst of the swinging 1970s, this Elseworlds adventure finds Bruce Wayne under the training of a master sensei. It is here that Bruce, along with other elite students, are forged in the fire of the martial arts discipline. These lifelong bonds will be put to the test when a deadly menace arises from their past. It will take the combined efforts of Batman and world-renowned martial artists Richard Dragon, Ben Turner and Lady Shiva, to battle the monsters of this world and beyond!
I have, in the past, criticised Bruce Timm. He is a great creator and his work on Batman: The Animated Series amongst others is rightly lauded as a defining moment for the character not just in animation but in general. During the later part of the 2010s I was somewhat dismayed by both Justice League: Gods and Monsters and Batman and Harley Quinn, two very poor films. With Justice League vs The Fatal Five it seemed that Timm had regained his winning streak and this streak continues in the thrilling 70s style epic Batman: Soul of the Dragon.
The film is indisputably great and mixing a rollocking good “race to stop evil before it’s too late” with an interesting twist on Bruce Wayne’s time prior to becoming Batman, studying martial arts and learning how to fight. It artfully displays Bruce Wayne’s devotion to his destiny to defeat injustice. The film does this by demonstrating that whether through attempting to break an unbreakable stone and not giving in even when he’s told it is unbreakable or showing his unwillingness to yield in a fight with Ben Turner, he is determined to train himself to fight. This film excels at showing not why Bruce Wayne became Batman but how he became Batman. What is most startling about the film however is that, really, Batman isn’t the central character.
This may seem puzzling given that his name features in the title. When watching the film it soon becomes apparent, however, that from a storytelling point of view, Richard Dragon played with finesse by Mark Dacascos, is the central character. He is the instigator of the reunion between the former students; he is most vociferous in the pursuit of the Kobra cult and it is he, with his strong relationship to O-Sensei that is pivotal to the climax of the film. That DC would bill this as a Batman film rather than a Richard Dragon film is perfectly understandable – the former is one of the most well-known comic book characters in the world and other than Superman perhaps the preeminent superhero. Richard Dragon, whilst a fascinating character is certainly more obscure and had his name been in the title the film likely wouldn’t have attracted the same attention that Batman’s name naturally brings.
The portrayal of Richard Dragon is pivotal to the film’s success given how necessary he is to the story and writer Jeremy Adams ensures that Dragon is not only a dynamic and interesting character but one that makes sense at the heart of the movie.
It is, despite this slight inaccuracy in title, an extremely enjoyable film that fits perfectly into the Batman universe. It has a stylistic edge over some other DC animated films with the 70s-character designs lending themselves well to animation. The ending of the film implies that there is room for a sequel and I would certainly welcome such a prospect.