Our review of the new animated film on 4K Blu-ray
New to home video this week, Batman: Soul of the Dragon is a really enjoyable and unique take on Batman that mixes DC’s 70s comics, kung fu cinema, Brucesploitation, mysticism and supernatural elements, snake demons, and even a dash of Stephen King’s It. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say this is one of the best films to come out of the DC Animation lineup, most of which have been pretty good.
To me, one of the more fascinating elements of Batman mythos has always been the allusions to his sojourns as a young man, traveling throughout the far east and training under martial arts masters — long a part of the comics lore and explored on film in 2005’s Batman Begins.
Batman: Soul of the Dragon expands on that premise and marries it to DC’s martial arts comics of the 70s, featuring several lesser known but very cool characters, played by an incredible (I mean, seriously) cast. The most familiar is probably Lady Shiva — voiced here by Kelly Hu — who pops up in Batman comics from time to time. But long before that, she made her debut in the comic series Richard Dragon: Kung-Fu Fighter, which also featured the Bronze Tiger, Ben Turner. Michael Jai White reprises the role, which he previously tackled for the live action Arrow series. Mark Dacascos stars as Richard Dragon, reimagined as a suave Bruce Lee clone (a change from his Caucasian origin in the comics).
Soul of the Dragon deftly brings these two worlds together, finding a natural fit for Bruce Wayne (David Giuntoli) as a member of this classic lineup, giving the group a common history as students under the reclusive kung fu master O-Sensei (James Hong).
Flashbacks of the group’s shared past experiences permeate the tale as they must once again team up years later — some of them now quite different after having gone their separate ways — to once again fight the same supernatural, evil entity which ended their discipleship residency in tragedy.
A new threat has emerged in the form of a clandestine cult, which has taken control of a secret and ancient gateway which is linked to the group’s past. On the other side, demonic forces wait to plunge the world into chaos.
Batman’s name is in the title because that’s what sells ‘dem Blu-rays, but this is very much a tale centered on the core team element, and Richard Dragon is arguably even the main character. Batman also takes a back seat to Bruce Wayne, only appearing in costume for a few seconds early in the film before finally emerging for the final act.
This particular take on Richard Dragon and Ben Turner is clearly taking some inspiration from the Enter the Dragon combo of Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly (and maybe shades of Ron van Clief?), which is a really nice touch. Some fun references sneak in: Bruce’s style and mannerisms are certainly recognizable in Dragon, a notable new entry in the long history of Brucesploitation, and in one instance Turner’s “Bronze Tiger” moniker is misremembered as “Black Samurai” — a knowing wink to fans of Jim Kelly’s 1976 film.
As with a few of these DC Animated films, I’m a little mixed on the R rating. It’s my hope that the filmmakers simply made the movie they wanted to make, and then accepted that it was given a R rating (rather than trying to pander to edgelordy dweebs who demand everything be grim and gritty).
The film has some bloody violence, but it’s pretty mild as R rated films go — it could’ve landed a PG-13 with a few minor changes. I feel that in these situations you can either lean into the R, have a lot of fun with it and get gnarly, or back off a bit and capture a broader audience. In this case, I really enjoyed the film and would love to share it with my kids, but it’s inappropriate for them at their age.
But at the same time, it doesn’t actually do a whole lot with the R rating to make me excited or glad that they went for it. I’m certainly not advocating for more sex and violence in a Batman movie, but in this case if you’re going to take the R, then really playing up the supernatural elements in this story into full-tilt action-horror would’ve been an ideal use of that freedom.
These are external observations, though. What it comes down to is that this film is really quite remarkable. I love these colorful characters and their world. I love this amazing cast. I love that DC is plumbing their legacy and celebrating their 70s comics in such a novel way.
I did not love the credits abruptly appearing on an unexpected cliffhanger scenario, but if it means there’s a sequel on the way, then, well, I guess I’m all for that too.
Batman: Soul of the Dragon comes in the usual combo packs (UHD/Blu-ray/Digital, or Blu-ray/DVD/Digital). The 4K disc features the movie only, with all special features limited to the Blu-ray. My copy included a metallic slipcover.
Like most of DC Animation’s titles, the Blu-ray looks superb and renders the mostly clean-line art style quite nicely, and it is nearly as good as the 4K disc — I wouldn’t hesitate to purchase either version.
Special Features and Extras (on Blu-ray Disc)
Batman: Raw Groove (30:30)
The filmmakers and producers explore the film’s background and inspirations, including the comic source material, martial arts and exploitation films, and evoking the spirit — and sounds — of the 70s.
Batman: Soul of the Dragon Sneak Peek (18:03)
Even though this was created as an EPK-style preview teaser, the “Sneak Peek” is a notable and welcome inclusion. While the “Raw Groove” featurette does a great job of exploring the film’s creative genesis, it doesn’t feature the incredible cast. The main cast members do appear here, talking about their roles and involvement.
Batman: The Animated Series Episodes
Two martial arts themed episodes; Day of the Samurai (22:21) and Night of the Ninja (22:19). These are presented with the Blu-ray transfers and make a compelling case for anyone on the fence about purchasing that must-own set.
DC Animation Sneak Peeks:
EPK-style promos for other DC Animation films: Elseworlds tales Batman: Gotham By Gaslight (8:30) and Superman: Red Son (11:21), and the upcoming Justice Society: WWII (8:07)
Batman: Death in the Family (1:52), Deathstroke: Knights and Dragons (1:41), Justice League Dark: Apokalips War (1:32), Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge (1:39), Superman: Man of Tomorrow (1:41)
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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.