This article contains Batman: Soul of the Dragon spoilers.
The latest DC animated film Batman: Soul of the Dragon is a complete reimagining of the Dark Knight. It’s an out-of-continuity story, the kind of tale DC usually places under its Elseworlds banner. Set in the 1970s, Soul of the Dragon places Batman (David Giuntoli) as part of an ensemble of heroes, a collection of the top martial arts masters in the DC universe including Richard Dragon (Mark Dacascos), Lady Shiva (Kelly Hu), Ben Turner a.k.a. Bronze Tiger (Michael Jai White), and O-Sensei (James Hong).
“It’s a weird movie in that you can literally take the voice cast and transpose it into live-action and they can make the same movie,” gushes writer Jeremy Adams, “They’re all accomplished and good looking. It all works!”
Batman: Soul of the Dragon is a mash-up of Batman and ‘70s Kung Fu films. For this film, the comics character Richard Dragon is reinvented as a thinly disguised homage to Bruce Lee.
“I pitch a lot of martial art DC comic ideas,” confesses Abrams. “I’ve been pitching Batman meets Enter the Dragon for a while, and evidently, [Executive Producer] Bruce Timm had a similar idea.” Timm said he’d love to do a 1970s Batman martial arts thing, which led him to Adams. “Bruce wanted to add on a Big Trouble in Little China element, which is like catnip for me. That’s one of my favorite movies. So, it ended up being like four hours just talking about stuff, and what would work, and what would be cool.”
Adams and Timm have a great love of ’70s cinema. It’s an unusually fruitful period to set a Batman story according to Adams.
“One of the great things that they had is all these really distinct genres,” Adams says. “You had blaxploitation, you had Kung Fu movies, you had James Bond movies. Then you had horror movies that were the satanic panic type cult movies. And our movie is in the center of that and it just all seemed to lend itself to this movie.”
In the 1970s Batman comics strove to distance themselves from Adam West’s campy TV rendition which had become the dominant impression of the character since its wild success from 1966-69. Part of this reinvention involved scaling down Batman’s reliance on gadgets and technology in favor of a more two-fisted, detective style approach. Batman: Soul of the Dragon explores Batman in his formative years, and scales back his resources accordingly. “You’re not going to get the Batcave,” explains Adams. “You’re going to get the loft above a building, a dance club.”
There are so many Batman stories already so to stand out, the filmmakers sought to bring Batman to his roots by making this more about Bruce Wayne.
“We’ve tried to humanize Batman,” adds director Sam Liu, “so he’s not in the costume for the majority of the film, and it’s more of a human story.”
There’s always risk when retooling a beloved character.
“We get to work on big, A-list superheroes,” Liu says. “These are iconic heroes. They’re not just made up from cartoons and stuff like that. It’s a big responsibility sometimes, but if I spend too much time thinking what it means to so many people, I could get intimidated. After a while…you kind of want to try something different. We’ve done so many Batman stories. Sometimes you try something new and it’s interesting to you, because again, it’s different. But then the fans don’t get on board with it because they kind of want them to stay the same.”
Who is the Best Martial Artist in the DC Universe?
Given the formative theme, Batman: Soul of the Dragon illuminates Batman’s training in martial arts. However, this isn’t exactly Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins either. Batman doesn’t study ninjutsu with Ra’s al Ghul. Instead, he trains under O-Sensei alongside the most powerful martial artists of DC. Adams, a consummate comics and martial arts geek, already had his top three DC Universe martial artists picked out.
“Well, I know Shiva’s in there. I know Richard Dragon’s in there, and I know that Ben Turner’s in there,” Adams says. “I definitely think they are the top. I don’t think Batman breaks the top five in terms of DC martial artists. But he’s cool. I just think he supplements martial arts with so many other things.”
Even though Batman has top billing, he’s not the main character. According to Liu, each of the others in the quartet of heroes could carry their own story.
“We didn’t want any of them to be sidekicks,” Liu says. “We’re so used to these Batman stories where Batman is the guy. It was a very conscious decision in building this, that we made sure that Richard was never a sidekick. If anything, this was a little bit subversively kind of supposed to be more of a Richard story. Batman is just one of the characters. He grew up with these characters, and he’s just part of this ensemble, and each of them have their part in this grander story.”
In the wake of Bruce Lee, Kung Fu oriented characters spread into comics. Marvel’s upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, based on a popular comic series that came out in the 1970s, is a leading example, however DC had their own stable of martial masters.
“I know and I love the glut of DC martial arts characters of that era,” states Adams emphatically. “Everybody has their peculiarities in the things they love about fandom. I know a guy that is really obsessed with the background creatures of Star Wars. But one of my obsessions in the DC universe are these really cool well-defined martial arts characters they have.”
Batman: Soul of the Dragon takes a deep dive into several secondary DC martial artists like Judomaster Rip Jagger (Chris Cox), Edmund Dorrence (Patrick Seitz) and the nefarious Kobra Cult including Jeffery Burr (Josh Keaton), and Lady Eve (Grey Griffin). What is it about cobras and martial arts villains nowadays?
Enter Richard Dragon
While all of the martial artists in this film have been reinvented to some degree from the comic pages to this animated adaptation, the biggest change is Richard Dragon. In the comics, Dragon was originally Richard Drakunovski, a Caucasian character. In later story arcs, Dragon’s title is usurped by his villainous student, Richard Diaz Jr. In Batman: Soul of the Dragon, Dragon is Chinese, a clone of Bruce Lee’s character ‘Lee’ from Enter the Dragon.
“‘Race swapping’ is not usually where I go first because I’d rather just make a new character,” confesses Adams. “But we made this an Elseworlds, so there’s a lot to be set up. We can do whatever we want.”
For Liu, bringing a positive Chinese character to the DC animated universe was huge.
“It’s funny because when we started this film, they sort of approached me saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to put you in this sort of ’70s Enter the Dragon meets Batman kind of a story.’ I was like, ‘Oh boy. This could go either way.’”
Liu remembers laying out the ground rules in an early writer’s room meeting by saying “Look, I’m Chinese. I just want to make sure that you’re going to do this respectfully, because I don’t really want to be a part of something if it’s just sort of…irresponsible.”
Liu was reassured to learn that respectful representation was at the forefront of everyone’s mind from the very beginning and that sold him on the project.
“I’m an older guy, so I’ve experienced racism and all that kind of stuff, because I grew up in the South when I was very, very young,” Liu says. “It’s horrible. I’ve always liked to get more representation.”
For Liu, Batman: Soul of the Dragon is another step towards increased acceptance of diversity. As an Asian American, he has experienced xenophobia all his life.
“As volatile as it is nowadays, it’s much better,” Liu says. “I remember my dad being an Asian man in the South, and some of the stuff we had to go through. I come from an era where you’re oppressed, so you’re just expected to be that way. Any little movement forward is a big step. For me, personally, I think it’s great.”
As the world’s first global Asian celebrity, Lee was a pioneer before long before diversity became an issue of debate. He lived by example, all the while infusing his philosophy into his constant battle against racism.
“It’s like a theme that’s in Enter The Dragon, the art of fighting without fighting.” In Batman: Soul of the Dragon, there’s even an homage to the scene in Enter The Dragon where Lee drops that line on Parsons (Peter Archer) and tricks him out of a fight.
For Adams, shifting Richard Dragon to Asian was true to the roots of the character. Dragon first appeared in a paperback novel written by Denny O’Neil under a pseudonym. According to Adams, “On that cover, it looks like Richard Dragon is an Asian man. And for Bruce [Timm], that’s how he always saw him.” Adams feels that bringing Dragon back to how he was depicted on that original cover was the way to go. “I think it adds a great diversity and it pulls away from, ‘Oh, here’s another white guy with Batman.’ It makes this really cool ensemble, even more definitively different.”
The Launch of a New Franchise?
The finale of Batman: Soul of the Dragon leaves the door wide open for a sequel. Batman, Dragon, Shiva, and Turner enter another hellish dimension, and what lies ahead is anyone’s guess.
“The ending is actually one of the first things that we came up with,” reveals Adams. “We looked at each other and thought, ‘This is crazy. But, what if this happens?’ We’re looking around at each other, like, ‘Somebody’s going to stop us, right?’ It’s like, ‘Nope. We’re going to do it.’ The ending fits perfectly with the dream of Batman, which is, ‘I get to fight evil, forever.’”
So will there be a Batman: Return of the Dragon?
“Bruce Timm had talked about potentially doing more if this does really well,” adds Liu. “I think he’s in talks with some other creators and stuff like that, because he’s such a fan of the ’70s that I think that he would love to be able to continue doing more stories, especially in this genre. This story is really, really personal as far as just all the things that he loves. I think both him and Jeremy are in love with this era and this genre.”
Batman: Soul of the Dragon is available now on Digital and Blu-ray.