Dragonball Z is perhaps the most iconic Shonen anime. So, when Toei Animation announced a new Dragonball series helmed by the legendary Akira Toriyama, fans were no doubt excited. I’m a little late to the part myself where Dragonball Z is concerned. As I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t grow up with DBZ and didn’t really get into it until I saw DBZ Abridged on Youtube. I was not a fan of the original cut of Dragonball Z, which was bloated with filler to the point of being un-watchable.
When I finally got around to watching DBZ Kai, I was blown away. The battles were tight and fierce, and every episode left you wanting more. The pacing was spot on: seriousness was balanced with comedy, and action was balanced with periods of relative peace where the plot developed. But what really made the show was the characters. We saw Piccolo move from a villain to a hero, becoming more human along the way and learning about his own heritage. Vegeta, too, moves from a world-blasting baddy to a father who is willing to sacrifice for his family. Gohan moves from a frightened child to a warrior to a young man trying to balance his odd place as a half human warrior and his mother’s wish that he be a productive member of society. And, of course, we have Goku, who is defined by his desire to constantly transcend himself but who also is a man who stands up for what is right and is willing to fight to defend his family and home.
There were some problems with the series, of course. The Majin Buu arc was uneven at best, and the way that the power was scaled in the series got really over the top fast, undermining the plot points of previous arcs, along with the “scare factor” of previous villains. Some of the battles got repetitive, even if they were pretty good overall. Transformations became overused, moving from something of a surprise to something extremely predictable. Overall, though, the good parts of the series outweighed the bad.
Given how good DBZ was, I had high expectations for Dragonball Super. I’m about 30 episodes in, and I have to say that I’m disappointed. On the surface, it looks like Dragonball Z. There are epic battles and new enemies for Goku to face, and the Dragonball universe has been expanded quite a bit with all sorts of interesting new characters. The art style has also been updated, and the series looks as good as ever.
The problem I have with Super is not with the surface elements but with the heart of the show. It lacks the soul of DBZ Kai. There are many reasons why, but the core of this issue is twofold. The first part has to do with the power levels involved in the show. The big new characters in Super are the God of Destruction, Beerus, and his martial arts teacher and caretaker, Whis. To put it mildly, they are absurdly powerful. Beerus at one point flicked Super Saiyan 3 level Goku in the head and sent him flying, and on more than one occasion Whis steps in to stop Beerus from going overboard, demonstrating that he is clearly the more powerful of the two. This in and of itself is not necessarily bad, but what throws off the show is that, after their original battle, Goku becomes friends with the pair.
This is problematic in more ways than one. For one, it sucks the dramatic tension out of the series. At one point, Frieza returns and comes to Earth to get revenge on Goku. At one point in the battle, Whis and Beerus come as spectators. They do not directly intervene in the fight, but their presence still robs much of the tension because either one could destroy the antagonist with the flick of a wrist. This is the same problem that DBZ had, but it is far more pronounced. Nothing in the DBZ universe can compare with Beerus, which would be fine if he were looming over events as an adversary to be conquered, rather than a dubious ally who is so overpowered he takes the winds out of everyone else’s sails. Even if the power scales were off in the old series, at least it was somewhat exciting to see the upper limits of each new villain and how Goku and his allies will overcome that limit. Here, the upper limit is already defined by a character so absurdly powerful that he and Goku almost destroy the universe just by fighting in their initial battle. And there’s a character already in the show who out classes even this monster!
This is closely tied to the second reason Super lacks the heart of DBZ. There is no doubt that Beerus is a monster, who has committed genocide thousands of times over. His disregard for life is casual and somewhat played for laughs, but no amount of yucking it up can override the fact that he is basically a force for evil who destroys on a mere whim. Now on the other hand we have Goku, who has his own morality but is generally kind-hearted to a fault and concerned for the well-being of others. He fought world-busting baddies and yes, many times it began as a way to test himself in battle but he also became righteously angry at the needless taking of life. Goku fighting then befriending an enemy is a cliché of the show, but this doesn’t always hold true. Frieza, for example, is portrayed as incredibly evil, and remains Goku’s greatest enemy, but in reality, his crimes pale in comparison to those of Beerus. So, to my mind Goku being buddies with the God of Destruction, even if it is in line with the sportsmanlike part of his character, clashes uncomfortably with the part of his character that is generally good. The show seems to lack the sense of morality inherent in DBZ, where even if Goku mostly wanted to test himself in combat, he still stood up for what he thought was right and fought for those who couldn’t protect themselves. Instead, he has befriended the worst villain in the universe and trains with his teacher, who is complicit in his crimes by simply being indifferent to them and making no attempt to stop him.
Now, the argument can be made that Beerus is a God of Destruction, and his function is to balance out the creative propensity of the universe. This is pretty much struck down in the beginning of the season by something the Elder Kai said, where he more or less refuted the Grand Kai who argued the same thing. That isn’t the point anyway. The point is that DBZ made a point to show how evil Vegeta was for destroying planets and committing genocide to sell planets to the highest bidder. It depicted Frieza as an evil ruler grinding a large chunk of the universe under his proverbial boot heel and showed how cruel he was by destroying the Saiyan home world. Cell was evil for taking hundreds of thousands of lives to make himself stronger and for wanting to destroy Earth as well. Then there’s Maijin Buu, who destroyed planets wholesale and killed gods. They were clearly marked as being evil, but Beerus for some reason gets a pass due to the fact he’s a god. It clashes with the spirit of the original series, this sense of good struggling mightily to triumph over evil, and it doesn’t sit well with me.
A third aspect of Super doesn’t sit well with me. Comedy of varying quality was always part of Dragonball Z, but generally the original is serious in tone. Super feels like it is going out of its way to be a comedy. Goku comes across as a buffoon, and Vegeta is almost disgustingly servile toward Beerus. The balance between comedy and dramatic tension that generally held up well in DBZ is completely off in Super.
So, what is my verdict on Super, overall? It might sound like I despise it, but that isn’t the case. DBZ Is great, while Super is merely ok. It lacks much of the dramatic tension that made the original such a joy to watch, while also lacking the heart that made DBZ touch so many people. It relies too much on dubious comedy, while repeating tropes of the series that were old when DBZ was young. All in all, my impression 30 episodes in is that it’s interesting in terms of world-building, but mediocre in terms of plot and story. I’ll watch it, but it’s probably not going to be one I’ll watch over again like DBZ Kai.