(Note: some spoilers, particularly regarding the ending)
It’s that time again: beginning its return in earnest with 2013’s Japanese release of Battle of Gods, Akira Toriyama’s Shōnen manga titan and pop-cultural gamechanger Dragon Ball continues its march back with the English release of the follow-up Resurrection ‘F’, coinciding with the Japanese premiere of Dragon Ball Super, the first new TV show since Dragon Ball GT’s conclusion in 1997. And now, out to secure its renewed success and pave the way for future adventures, Resurrection ‘F’ is dedicated to recapturing what popularly defined the heyday of classic Dragon Ball Z. And that’s exactly the problem.
The film’s palpable desire to legitimize itself in the most straightforward ways possible (New transformations! Classic villains return! New allies, incorporating Toriyama’s own spin-off manga Jaco The Galactic Patrolman!) bleeds out of every pore. Prior to the showing, a brief set of interviews presented with the American cast and crew had them cheer on the return of Akira Toriyama to his franchise; much as the recent behind-the-scenes footage for Star Wars: The Force Awakens seemed to go as far as possible to differentiate itself from the prequels without directly mentioning them, this seems determined to divide itself from Dragon Ball GT – Toei Animation’s anime-only sequel to Z with minimal involvement from Toriyama, meeting fan disappointment, a swift end, and overt retconning by the new material – as much as it can through promoting its return to a classic flavor without acknowledging the contrast with the last show in so many words. Toriyama’s return with Battle of Gods was met somewhat lukewarmly itself, with many feeling that it placed comedy above action to a point of veering off-track from the series formula. And with the idea of the new ongoing series no doubt in producers’ minds, and the consequent desire for a bigger lead-in, Resurrection ‘F’ functions as a highlight reel, and on that front will no doubt appeal to the substantial existing fanbase. But for all its considerable excitement and charm, that’s all it is, while Battle of Gods, for any self-indulgent goofiness, still did a considerably more interesting job of reworking the tropes that Z itself largely defined and popularized.
Resurrection ‘F’ picks up a year after the last film left off, with Saiyan superwarriors and rivals Goku and Vegeta training under Whis, servant to last movie’s antagonist, the amoral and temperamental God of Destruction Beerus. As the heroes’ families and allies enjoy a period of peace, the lackeys of Frieza, the series’ earliest major villain and almost certainly its most iconic, gather the magical Dragon Balls capable of granting any wish to revive their fallen leader. Humiliated by his defeat and stay in Hell (the nature of his damnation being maybe the best comic bit in the movie), Frieza trains as he never had before to unlock his deepest potential, returning to an Earth unprepared for his wrath and seemingly limitless new power to seek his vengeance. Because it’s Dragon Ball Z, this conflict plays out through screaming, bragging, and trips along the color spectrum for hair and skin to indicate changes in power, as scaling up the fighters’ abilities visually would otherwise result in galaxies shattering with every punch.
As far as adhering to the winning formula, it works on every level. Animation supervisor turned director Tadayoshi Yamamuro keeps the action fast-paced, fluid and inventive (aside from a few clumsily-done CG shots in the midst of the animation), in particular manipulating times’ application to background elements to articulate the incredible speed of the fighters involved entirely unobtrusively. With Akira Toriyama taking total control of the script, every character from Goku down to Master Roshi is on-point and gets a moment to shine one way or another, even accounting for the fact that the film is essentially a 30-minute buildup to an hour-long fight scene. And as far as that narrative structure goes, what more is one really going to ask from a Dragon Ball Z movie?
Except that the last film did do more, and inevitably set similar expectations for its follow-up. Resurrection ‘F’ follows the pattern of every Z film up to this point – the villain appears, the second-stringers deal with their henchmen including one or two lieutenant villains, the big hero (either Goku or Gohan) appears to challenge the main antagonist, said villain has a transformation, the hero struggles for a while but wins in the end anyway. Battle of Gods, while following the same pattern in principle, subverted it and charted out a potentially different course for the franchise. Rather than a Bad Guy who apparently just hates goodness, BG’s Beerus is a bizarre, legitimately alien figure that swung between funny, terrifying and oddly understandable in his childishness. The heroes’ main personality traits are turned on their heads, with Vegeta’s pride as a warrior and final member of his races’ royalty running up against the realization that he’s changed so profoundly there are now things more important to him, and Goku’s fighting spirit exposed as an oblivious self-serving desire to advance at any cost rather than nobility. And when the time for the fight comes, the heroes fail, utterly and unambiguously. None of the Dragon Ball victory formulas – the power of teamwork, intense training, sudden new transformations, sheer nose-to-the-grindstone determination or even the Dragon Balls themselves – are enough in the end, and the character defined in the eyes of generations of fans as the guy who can beat anyone if he tries enough finally finds a wall beyond his ability to pass, no matter how hard he fights. The one victory pulled off, the only reason Earth isn’t annihilated, is because of an idea persisting from the start of Dragon Ball: Goku being a really nice, really determined guy keeps him going when nothing else can, and more importantly sometimes gets through to people who seem unchangeable in their malice. It’s how almost every member of the show’s ‘first-generation’ team of fighters joined, and it’s what spares them when fighting fails. Dragon Ball returned after a nearly 20-year hiatus by doing an honest-to-god deconstruction of itself and its wildly popular and influential characters, and reconstructing from first principles as something where the character can reclaim its place in center stage alongside and even ahead of the action. It was by no means astonishing or revolutionary, but it was a bold move from a franchise with every excuse in the world to rest on its laurels, while still maintaining everything that made it successful.
With Resurrection ‘F’, the franchise self-consciously reverts back to type. In fact, it’s an almost precise rehash of Frieza’s own first appearance: everyone is terrified of him, Goku shows up and fights him, Frieza reveals he has far more in the tank, Goku makes an unexpected Super Saiyan transformation (one without the character beat or shock revelation of ineffectiveness that made the last film’s ‘Super Saiyan God’ form interesting – this replacement exists simply for the sake of existing, as SSG was pointedly a one-off deal, and an equivalent was needed so that the Super Saiyan transformation could remain), Frieza goes up to full power, it turns out Frieza’s burnt out, Frieza tries tricks including stabbing Goku in the back after being granted mercy and blowing up the planet they’re on, but Goku destroys him in the end anyway. The story ends with everyone in the same states that they started out: several new status quos are introduced (including a truly stupefying deus ex machina that prevents what could have been the most cathartic moment of the film from coming to pass), but as already existing background elements established between movies, shoehorned in to set things up for the new show. It exists simply to have a couple big fight scenes, because that’s what everyone remembers about Dragon Ball Z and wanted to see again, with none of the twists or drama that allowed the series to function as an action-driven story, or even the seemingly insurmountable power of previous movie villains to raise the stakes and grip the viewer with the relatively limited space available.
Dragon Ball Super begins with adapting the events of Battle of Gods and Resurrection ‘F’ into full multi-episode arcs, and while the already complete unto itself Battle has been dragging compared to its original incarnation, it’s hard to believe Resurrection won’t benefit from being forced to find something more to do with itself. As is, while its predecessor fundamentally changed how the series functions going forward, this feels like little more than filler. Still, for even casual fans there’s nothing to really strike against it: it’s a fun, funny movie with plenty to recommend, only really coming up short by comparison. More than that, it points to better things to come: the crowd-pleasing fanservice has been taken care of and the future thereby secured for now, new roles have been established while the character development from Battle of Gods remains in place if in the backseat for the moment, new adventures with far more room to breathe are guaranteed via the new show, and the series’ creator has returned to steer it forward in the midst of its greatest peak of popularity in decades. All in all, it’s a better time to be a Dragon Ball fan than in a long, long while.
Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection ‘F’ will continue its limited U.S. theatrical showing until August 12.