A Hip, Retro Batman Versus Kung Fu Demons

When is a Batman movie not a Batman movie? When Bruce Wayne is mostly used as a supporting character and the superhero rarely shows up in costume. Batman: Soul of the Dragon is technically an original story from DC animation that leans heavily on several characters created by Batman writer Denny O’Neil during the ’70s. Martial artists from DC Comics like Richard Dragon, O-Sensei, Bronze Tiger, and Lady Shiva all play prominent roles in the sprawling supernatural adventure that ranges from Chinatown in Gotham to the Far East.

The engaging animated superhero tale has a secretive cult attempting to bring a powerful demon into the world. It’s up to the deadly martial artists Bruce Wayne met during his formative training years to stop the cult. Set appropriately in the ’70s as a tribute to the original comics that introduced these characters, there’s a distinct exploitation vibe that pays homage to the decade’s cultural touchstones.

Batman: Soul of the Dragon is a hip martial arts action tale with exploitation nods

Richard Dragon is a thinly-veiled Bruce Lee knock-off. Ben Turner, better known as Bronze Tiger, is a copy of Jim Kelly’s Black Belt Jones from Enter The Dragon. O-Sensei and Lady Shiva pull from familiar kung fu archetypes that first hit mainstream awareness during the ’70s.

Experienced WB animation hand Sam Liu (Reign of the Supermen, Batman: The Killing Joke) directs the violent Elseworlds adventure with style and sophistication. Batman: Soul of the Dragon has maybe the best voice cast of any DC project, which is truly saying something after so many successful movies. The character development is handled particularly well, introducing a slew of characters many younger fans may not know.

David Giuntoli is a newcomer to Bruce Wayne/Batman but I would love to hear him voice the character again. Probably the best casting for the Bat since legendary voice actor Kevin Conroy. Kelly Hu (Arrow) as Lady Shiva and Michael Jai White (Spawn) as Ben Turner/Bronze Tiger are nigh perfect in their roles.

The real coup in the cast is veteran character actor James Hong voicing O-Sensei. While you may not recognize Hong’s name, genre fans certainly know Hong’s face as the dreaded villain from Big Trouble In Little China. Hong makes so much sense in the role that it’s hard imagining anyone else as the aged monk.

Focusing on Bruce Wayne’s time training in the Far East under the guidance of O-Sensei, Batman: Soul of the Dragon is a hip martial arts action tale with exploitation nods. While he does don his costume, it’s really an afterthought in the wider narrative. This is a young, hipper Batman that hasn’t yet become the grim Dark Knight. The stylish homage even has supporting characters like Silver St. Cloud, one of Batman’s romantic partners from the era, possibly her first appearance outside of Batman’s own comics.

A love letter to the grittier martial arts aspects Denny O’Neil introduced into DC Comics during the ’70s, Batman: Soul of the Dragon is slickly-made animation that approaches Batman’s mythos from a completely different angle. Get ready for guns, swords, snake demons, and blistering martial arts battles.

The Elseworlds tale definitely feels different from other DC projects. The refreshingly fun vibe strips out many of the tired superhero conventions found in their other animated movies. This is for fans that want a taste of Batman from the ’70s set in bloody martial arts fights.

Batman: Soul of the Dragon 4K UHD screen shot

Video

Some DC movies like Superman: Man of Tomorrow have taken advantage of UHD with its deeper color space and higher resolutions with impressive results. Batman: Soul of the Dragon has a more restrained palette than typical DC fare with earthier undertones, though it retains the smoother animation from its recent re-launch with strong character designs and more background details. So it’s a largely pointless release in 4K with no major A/V upside. The largely irrelevant HDR pass offers a marginal upgrade over the standard BD, while a hint of banding baked into the HD animation remains visible.

The main feature runs 82 minutes on a UHD-66, encoded in HEVC averaging nearly 50 Mbps. Like almost all animated DC movies, the black levels are deep and inky. The Flash-based animation has beautiful saturation with zero chroma noise. A select few moments pop in HDR with more vivid color – the snake demon’s hell dimension, O-Sensei’s hidden garden paradise, the fighters when using supernatural aids. But otherwise there really aren’t huge differences between the UHD’s 2160P presentation and BD’s 1080P video.

Audio

Both UHD and BD share the same excellent 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack. Every punch and kick land with authority in the dense, discrete surround mix. Superb separation and clean dialogue passages help create a commanding soundstage with depth and precision. The fat instrumental score would sound right at home in a blaxploitation flick from the ’70s.

Ample bass and effective immersion convey impressive dynamics and strong fidelity. One does wish that WB Animation would push the sonic envelope and give us a true object-based soundtrack in Atmos for their movies with fantastic audio design.

Optional English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles play in a white font on the UHD. Curiously, the BD has more subtitle options with Danish, Finnish, German SDH, Norwegian, Swedish also available. This could be a subtle attempt at region locking by WB. The UHD does include a Spanish dub in 2.0 Dolby Digital.

Extras

Batman: Soul of the Dragon hits home video courtesy of WB in three different editions. There is the ordinary 4K UHD combo pack reviewed here, a limited edition 4K UHD combo that includes a Ben Turner figure, and the regular Blu-ray set. The limited edition UHD set is only available at Best Buy. Like most UHD releases from the major studios, all bonus content listed below is only available on the included BD.

The UHD is coded for all regions. A glossy slipcover with the striking cover art is available for the UHD. A Movies Anywhere digital copy is provided which redeems in UHD quality on all MA providers.

In somewhat disappointing news, it appears that Target has abandoned their exclusive SteelBook editions for DC’s animated movies. If you already most of DC’s animated output, you’ll recognize several recycled featurettes below.

“Batman: Raw Groove” Documentary (30:30 in HD) – A far-ranging documentary more about the cultural milieu of the early 1970s than it is about Batman. Academic types and others discuss issues on Vietnam, Nixon and other topical subjects, detailing how they played into pop culture. From the explosion of gritty cinema and kung fu to the cultural changes spreading across the U.S., it explores the early ’70s and how they inspired Batman: Soul of the Dragon.

“Producer Jim Krieg’s Far-Out Highlights” Featurette (18:03 in HD) – Producer Jim Krieg’s funniest in-character appearances guide this “different” approach to the typical making-of featurette found on home video.

A Sneak Peak at “Justice Society: World War II (08:07 in HD) – An advance look at the next animated film in the popular DC Universe Movies collection.

A Preview of “Superman: Red Son (11:21 in HD) – Kal-El’s rocket fleeing Krypton never reaches Smallville, but instead lands in the Soviet Union, single-handedly shifting the new world order. The epic re-imagining of Superman’s origin story.

A Preview of “Batman: Gotham By Gaslight (08:30 in HD) – Set against the backdrop of turn of the century Gotham, Batman is involved in a hunt for a criminal who has committed the most heinous acts of murder.

2 Bonus Cartoon Episodes From the DC Vault:

Batman: The Animated Series episode “Day of the Samurai” (22:21 in HD)

Batman: The Animated Series episode “Night of the Ninja” (22:19 in HD)

WB Animation Trailers (04:52 in HD) – Deathstroke: Knights & Dragons, Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge

Full disclosure: This UHD was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

Soul of the Dragon
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A groovy retro martial arts spectacular that just so happens to feature Batman as a supporting character in the ’70s.

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The following six screen shots serve as samples for our subscription-exclusive set of 52 full resolution uncompressed 4K screen shots grabbed directly from the UHD: