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On Cinematic Universes: Has Dragon Ball Z Cracked Marvel's Formula?

August 11, 2015

 

 

A set of magical stones pursued by an intergalactic tyrant who will stop at nothing to use their power to bend the universe to his will. A proud prince from a galactic royal family, stuck on Earth and forced to learn humility. A self aware machine hell bent on wiping out the human race to shape the world as he sees fit. What sounds like a smattering of Marvel stories are actually storylines and character backgrounds that make up one of the most popular mainstream anime series of all time: Akira Toriyama's Dragon Ball Z. And while DBZ has some surface similarities to the threads of the current phenomenon that is the Marvel Studios Cinematic Universe, what's actually more interesting to this writer is the timing between the recent record-breaking success of Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection F, and the current highs that Marvel Studios is reaching with each new installment of its serialized filmmaking formula.

 

With close to 30 years of printed, televised, and cinematic stories to its name, the Dragon Ball saga is the kind of franchise that has been primed to enter the “cinematic universe” model for years. Now in 2015, it's interesting to focus on how the last two big-screen adaptations of the Dragon Ball Z story have primed the franchise for a swing that could allow it to become bigger than ever, while also delivering fresh new stories within its own self-contained, connected realm (ESPECIALLY in light of how many other failed attempts have been made to mimic Marvel Studios' shared universe strategy).

 

Over the course of almost 20 TV seasons (adapted from a 40+ volume source manga), Akira Toriyama has laid out an exciting narrative of confrontations between valiant heroes and destructive villains that aren't a far-cry from the kinds of battles we've seen the Avengers handle (or that we'll eventually see the Justice League handle). When introduced to audiences outside of Japan, it crossed over and blew up in a way that few international sensations ever have. Almost 20 years after the franchise's inception, Dragon Ball Z is now a pop-culture staple of many who came of age in the late 90's/early aughts.

 

This popularity aside, DBZ has always been a little uneven in its cinematic efforts (in this writer's opinion anyway). The DBZ franchise has produced a few movies here and there, but only a few of them warrant a recommendation, with almost all of them ending without any real narrative impact on the larger franchise, a problem that can be attributed to the difficulty that arises when trying to place many of them into the series' canon. Efforts like Dead Zone and Cooler's Revenge make the grade, both having impact on the large scope of the DBZ arc and managing to be really good; but others like Tree of Might and World's Strongest defy continuity to this day.

 

In short, tying cinematic adventures into the bigger picture of the DBZ universe hasn't generated the same success that Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios have managed to master over the past 7 years. But, series helmer Akira Toriyama seems to have figured out how to steer the ship, and in doing so, he may be on course to make the Dragon Ball franchise bigger than it has ever been.

 

After the final story arc of DBZ in 1996, creator Akira Toriyama took a bit of a sabbatical from the series, lending his efforts to the worlds of manga, video games, and other mediums. In 2012, Toriyama announced he had a few new ideas in the tank, and began working with DBZ's parent animation studio/distributor Toei Animation on the production of a new, canonical, DBZ feature. The result, Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods, was a fun, earnestly goofy, action-packed new story that sticks to the narrative scope of the DBZ saga while also introducing new threats (In the form of Beerus and Whis, two characters that have become a favorite of mine), new ideas (Super Saiyan Gods, because why not?), and new possibilities into the show's universe (via the revaluation of the existence of other, actual universes).

 

Battle of Gods saw much love globally, so Toriyama and Toei Animation decided, based on the demand for new stories, that they would push full steam ahead with a second feature film AND a continuation of the Dragon Ball Z television show in 2015's Dragon Ball Super. With the pieces in place, the question became: could these new entries in the long standing series foster a connected realm of storytelling that rewards viewer loyalty while also delivering gripping narratives that roll out to commercial success?

 

For now, mostly, the answer is yes. On a weekend where 20th Century Fox's efforts to bridge their Marvel properties seems to have died a firey death with the box-office destruction of Josh Trank's Fantastic Four, Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection F (which funnily enough, was also distributed internationally by Fox), has broken box office records in the “limited release” category, while also drawing in critical acclaim (holding a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes).

 

Resurrection F itself is much more action oriented than Gods, and while it still offers up a ton of great animation, fan service, and wit, I felt its commitment to focusing the entire plot around fan-favorite villain Frieza actually hurt the film in a larger sense. Battle of Gods was about moving the franchise further down the road, while Resurrection is a detour past a popular roadside attraction. HOWEVER, Resurrection still manages to dive into the dynamic between longtime series rivals Goku and Vegeta, with both getting big set-pieces centering around their personalities, and the flaws they have yet to deal with over the course of the series. It leads to some interesting stuff, and ultimately could set the stage for great new character developments.

 

Between these two films, Toriyama is laying a foundation for what seems to be an intriguing future of storytelling. Numerous mentions have been dropped left and right to characters and plot points never-before acknowledged in the series. From the introduction of space-cop Jaco to the implication that Goku's universe is one of many on the cosmic stage, Toriyama is building up potential for the future, brick-by-brick, just as Marvel Studios has done for almost a decade through post-credit scenes and strategic character build ups.

 

On the televised front, Dragon Ball Super has been laying out a week-by-week re-telling of the narrative of Battle of Gods, sticking to and expanding upon the core narrative skeleton of the film so far, but changing some superficial details (Bulma's birthday party, a key part of the film, takes place on a cruise ship on the show for some reason). Much like the correlation between Marvel's TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, Dragon Ball Super seems to be concerned with expanding upon the world while letting the film installments tell the larger story.

 

One of the speed bumps facing DBZ in its cinematic reemergence however, may be its own pop-culture history. While Marvel Studios has built an interconnected storyline over the course of 12 films (to date), Dragon Ball Z has a lot more homework required for new viewers to catch up and avoid being confused. Battle of Gods gives a very brief refresher of the multiple DBZ storylines, but Resurrection F just jumps right into the fray, assuming its audience is already up-to-speed. On another, unfortunate front, while DBZ may have more presence in the zeitgeist than ever in 2015, it suffers from the stereotypical pejorative attitudes associated with most anime series in America, a hurtle Marvel Studios didn't really have to overcome when it unveiled Iron Man in 2008. The general public is cooler today with super heroes, but it seems that there's still a bit of a cultural divide that keeps anime limited to a niche audience. And there's also the matter of Dragonball: Evolution, the widely panned live-action adaptation of the Dragon Ball franchise that has turned into one of the biggest cinematic jokes of the 2000's.

 

So, how far can it all go? Only time will tell. Maybe it's entirely premature to assume that the DBZ series is going to reach the same dizzying heights that Marvel has seen. However, it can't be denied that in the wake of so many failed attempts to jump-start cinematic universes based on existing properties (Sony's planned-then-aborted Amazing Spider-Man franchise being the most notorious failure to date), it's remarkable how Toriyama and Toei seem to have figured out how to make this strategy work so well for themselves. Let's just hope the effort takes their power level higher.

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