Dragon Ball Super took a knife to the franchise and ripped out a lot of what made the previous Dragon Ball shows uncomfortable to watch.
Few franchises have the longevity and long-lasting fan power that the Dragon Ball franchise has had in its 35-year run. Beloved around the world, I still remember watching Dragon Ball Z with my older brother after school when we lived in Puerto Rico, and how obsessed he was by a show that my little 3-year-old mind just did not get.
I didn’t appreciate it then, but years later when I finally rediscovered Dragon Ball Z thanks to my girlfriend, I understood why the show enthralled him. The long, heated fight scenes, the comedic gags, and the gradual development of characterization and relationships keep a relatively slow-moving show engaging from episode to episode. As an adult, though, I could more clearly see the problems that have been lurking in the franchise for decades.
Dragon Ball Z, in particular, has always suffered from including racist caricatures like Mr. Popo, the sidelining of strong female characters in which they are reduced to wives and mothers kept away from the fights, and the poor treatment of children and minors by male father figures. Gohan alone suffered more than any pre-teen ever should have.
Fortunately, the most recent anime series, Dragon Ball Super, continues Dragon Ball Z’s continuity while also fixing much of what was terrible about it. Women like Bulma have a constant presence on screen as more than just sexy lamps, men like Vegeta and Krillin are caring fathers who love their wives, and the children stay away from the deadly fights, even when the universe is at stake.
Although Super takes place years after the end of Z, it picks up only a few months after the last arc, barreling right over the less popular Dragon Ball GT continuity and more or less going “Nevermind all that!”. Along with a shiny, fresh art style and the return of classic voice actors, Super clarified it was not afraid of doing away with a lot of the outdated, toxic elements of its predecessors. Nowhere is this more obvious than within the latest installment, the Dragon Ball Super: Broly movie.
Dragon Ball Super brought several characters exclusive to the Dragon Ball Z films into its continuity, such as Beerus and Whis— a destroyer god and his angelic valet. The films they first appeared in, Battle of the Gods and Resurrection ‘F’ were adapted into the first arcs of Dragon Ball Super, with some changes. But Whis and Beerus weren’t the only characters from old Dragon Ball Z films that Super brings into its continuity. Broly, one of the franchise’s most popular villains received a new design and a major overhaul to his origin story that introduced him to the Super universe as a tragic antagonist.
Broly first appeared in Dragon Ball Z: Broly— The Legendary Super Saiyan. In this film, he’s an evil, all-powerful being kept under control by his abusive father, Paragus, with the diadem on Broly’s head that painfully suppresses his powers at his father’s command. Not only that, but Broly’s original design uses “decadent exoticism” with an undercurrent of Egyptian aesthetics, despite how pale he is.
Contrasting this with his father, the sole dark-skinned character in the movie who also enslaves and oppresses his son and an entire alien population made for some terrible optics. Throw Broly’s shallow motivation of wanting to kill Goku because he cried a lot when they were kids on top of that and I was done with this film by its first half hour.
Understandably, Broly’s origin story made me apprehensive about seeing the Dragon Ball Super: Broly movie. However, I left the theater ecstatic and with a newfound love for the titular character. Broly’s backstory changes, and he goes from being an evil, hyper-powerful force that needs to be stopped for the good of the universe, to being an abused and frightened young man who needs to be freed from the clutches of his father and his past.
His skin tone is darker now to match Paragus’, and his clothing redesigned to reflect a more classic Saiyan look, removing many of the harmful racial undertones the character and his father carried. This Broly has sad stories about his beloved pet and only friend, who his father hurt to keep him focused on his training. The device Paragus uses to keep Broly docile is an electroshock collar that causes him immense pain, causing another character to steal it early in the movie to free Broly from his abusive situation. Broly in the Super universe is a much more innocent character who is the victim of his father’s brutality and a terrible warrior society, rather than a being of pure evil who needs to be controlled and destroyed. Aside from these changes addressing and eliminating originally problematic elements, the shift also works well within the narrative context of the Super universe.
Because of characters like Whis and Beerus, who are all-powerful within their universe and have a history of protecting the earth and the Z fighters, the stakes for fights involving enemies of lesser power are much lower. The audience knows that in most situations, the heroes will be okay, and if they’re not, then Whis and Beerus will put a quick end to any force that threatens to upset the balance of the universe. With Broly’s impact as a villain lessened, the move to make him a tragic antagonist means that for the length of the film, the audience is rooting for someone to stop Broly, not to end him, but to save him. It’s a refreshing turn that calls back to the tradition of Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, in which characters who at first tried to kill Goku often ended up befriending him.
Sure enough, just when it looks like all is lost and the heroes have no choice but to eliminate Broly, he’s scooped out of his awful situation and given a new life with new friends and caretakers, and Goku there to extend his hand in friendship. The evil Legendary Super Saiyan Broly is no more, replaced by a softer, kind-hearted Broly who is at last free of abusive and racist tropes.
Dragon Ball Super took a knife to the franchise and ripped out a lot of what made the previous Dragon Ball shows uncomfortable to watch. Although the show is over in Japan and is still being dubbed and released in the U.S., Dragon Ball Super: Broly makes it clear that the development team isn’t quite done fixing the sins of their forefathers just yet.