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Dragon Ball Super: Broly (2019) - Is it Gothic?

Can Dragon Ball be Gothic? As a scholar of the Gothic, that's exactly what I wondered when I sat down to watch Dragon Ball Super: Broly (2019). In the movie, the death god Beerus literally takes a vacation. The Gothic mostly does, too, but let's take a closer look...


The movie more or less starts with King Vegeta looking upon his infant son, Prince Vegeta. Incubating inside the royal saiyan maternity ward, the boy is small; his power levels are not. The king looks smug. "I look forward to watching you grow into a vicious king!" he boasts. King Vegeta and those under him work for King Cold, an even bigger tyrant. At the movie's start, Cold retires, putting his son in charge. Ever the enfant terrible, Freiza belittles the saiyans for their poor technology. After killing a handful for seemingly no reason, he introduces the now-infamous scanners for the survivors to use. With more explanation than the original show ever bothered to provide, DBS: Broly throws the savage warriors of old into an arms race.

Gothic stories concern themselves with a barbaric past, including feudal enterprises, but also ancient warriors: i.e., the Goths. While the Gothic and Neo-Gothic revivals occurred in England and Europe, the Goths never set foot on English soil. Instead, the term 'gothic' was used during the Renaissance to describe the period after the fall of Rome, more commonly referred to as the Dark Ages or Medieval Period. Over time, the word developed a nefarious connotation: a fearsome projection of the barbaric past. Many Gothic stories localize this fear—of the past coming forward to invade, destroy or haunt the present. It can involve distance, but usually abstractions thereof: terrestrial space, time travel, or outer space. Early Gothic novels typically occurred in other countries, like Italy or Germany. The Terminator (1984) made clever use of the fourth dimension that it might have L.A. invade itself from a "past" version, full of monsters. Extraterrestrial visitors emerge from another kind of void; by traveling across space, they are technically older than humankind (the Old Ones from Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness [1936] literally assume a special, "forgotten" state to travel faster than light).

So are the saiyans Gothic? There are certainly components. They are powerful destroyers that travel across space. However, while the Gothic concerns imperialism, its monster usually emerge in a kind of liminal state. This status will confuse the audience, though especially how they perceive their homeworld, either by reminding them of home (the haunted house) or of someone inside (the double). For the saiyans to be Gothic, they would need to return from the past: to be mythical and long-dead, but also from or of the Earth. Yet, in the show, this is not the case. Their race technically survives. After a recent genocide attempt, those who remain foster a "super saiyan" myth. This is not a ghost story of their race rising from the ashes to plague Earth by mirroring earthly tyrants. Instead, the legend speaks of a golden avenger for the recently-fallen. There's a distinct lack of undead, ghosts or otherwise. Nor are the saiyan roots buried in Earth's past. Apart from Goku (which this movie treats more like Superman than anything else), no saiyans had ever visited Earth before Raditz. Nor is the saiyan planet a graveyard to examine: Freiza blows it to pieces. There are no ruins to explore, here or elsewhere. No haunted houses. No doubles.

There are some Gothic moments. Or rather, it bears saying that even the most supernatural of stories concern mundane plights: of rapine and rape, of stolen property and forged lineage—material concerns the likes of which a king might fuss about... I digress, the movie is not strictly about King Vegeta or his son, but Vegeta Junior's hidden rival, Broly. Vegeta Senior sees another child in the maternity ward, a commoner whose power level vastly exceeds that of the next-in-line(!). Enraged, he banishes Broly to a vacant, mysterious planet (a slightly less direct form of infanticide. In the original 1993 movie, King Vegeta stabbed baby Broly with a knife). The world is dark and alien; landing on it is hazardous. I found myself thinking of the Nostromo landing on the "almost primordial" planetoid, LV-426, in Alien (1979). That movie was, itself, a Gothic story about isolation and survival against a monstrous past; or rather, a "past" stranded on an alien world, first revisited and then brought on board, where it wreaks havoc by imitating the crew.


So, too, are Broly and his father, Paragus, eventually rescued. Aboard their rescuers' craft, Broly and his father are unfamiliar with their customs. Paragus doesn't care, but Broly imitates them as to not stick out and appear unusual; he also imitates Vegeta when they fight, as a survival mechanism. Broly is a highly-weaponized survivor, not unlike older, murderous, Gothic villains. However, the similarities mostly stop there. He is not a slasher like Victor Frankenstein's Creature was, or his various counterparts. While the Creature was physically hideous, Broly is, for all intents and purposes, handsome (a throwback to the likes of ‎Robert E. Howard's titular Conan the Barbarian). The Creature was brilliant; while not an idiot, Broly isn't a rocket scientist, either. There is parental strife, though. Remnants of the father are passed down the same bloodline, signified by the collar around Broly's neck. Broly isn't allowed to be himself, anymore than Vegeta was under the yolk of Freiza. Is this like Frankenstein's monster, or the xenomorph? Not quite. Unlike them, Broly isn't simply made; he's raised by his father to be violent. Except Paragus' quest largely fails: Broly isn't violent; his monstrous side is. And therein lies a clear divide. Broly is only a monster when driven to grief, when his father is killed. Furthermore, his own drama stems not from the bad parentage read about in Frankenstein (1818). Unlike the Creature, Broly is not begot from Promethean science, nor is he driven by petty revenge. He's naturally strong, loves his father no matter what, and remains totally innocent post-abuse (thanks to amnesia)—effectively the opposite of the Creature.

Gothic stories should affect the viewer. For this, an ambiguous monster is key. Victor's Creature was arguably psychopathic, but (somewhat) sympathetic all the same. In the original movie, Broly was responsible for destroying an entire galaxy (don't ask me how). Here, he never kills anyone; he defends a lady's honor and his father's quest for revenge is aimed solely at Prince Vegeta. It's important to remember that, whilst Broly is exiled, he spends it with a parental figure. The Creature was left on his own from day one, attacked by everyone including his maker. Paragus might not win any parenting awards. Still, he looks after his son, values Broly while grooming him into a weapon; Victor weaponized his creation through mad science and total neglect. All the same, Broly's childhood is undeniably demented. One scene has him a befriending a clown-like beast, on par with the Cheshire Cat. This monster is Broly's first-and-only friend, on-planet. He even keeps the cretin's ear after his father shoots it off, much like an angry patriarch putting down the family dog.

"I gotta say. Your old man is pretty horrible," one character tells Broly. Unlike Victor Frankenstein, however, Broly's father is blackened by a blood feud between him and the royal line. Victor, conversely, was a spoiled brat. Vegeta, like Broly, is innocent. Neither child fully understands or controls the violence that consumes them through their brash fathers (and neither ever seems to have had a mother). The two sons meet. Cue fisticuffs. While Broly retains his human form, his outward behavior mirrors an inner animal. Mythological, he and the other saiyans aren't simply warriors, but werewolves. There's no pathos, though; the battle largely devolves into a barrage of punches and kicks, fueled by familial drama (the action is excellent, however). There's no emphasis on the violence as cyclical, either. Everything happens in the here-and-now. No matter the problem, it can be resolved if the heroes hit hard enough.


Broly's rage is slow to mount. While Paragus quickly loses control, his death at Freiza's hand is what finally pushes Broly over the edge, transforming him into a blind destroyer. Mountains shatter. The polar caps melt. Though suitably apocalyptic, it's all muscle and brawn, delivered through a protracted fistfight. The personalities of the fighters emerge from the mayhem. Freiza is literally golden, the way he wants to be viewed and worshiped; Broly is furious; and Goku and Vegeta must merge, personifying (reluctant) teamwork.

It's not very Gothic, because I always knew who was who, and little was terrifying or horrifying. While the Creature doubled Victor Frankenstein, Broly is very much his own person. Herculean, but not alien, his rising mania becomes increasingly tragic, growing more relatable, not less. Like the bull against the matador, I felt reminded of Rocky against Creed: hopelessly outmatched and continuing to take punishment. By the end, I wasn't bothered by my sympathy for Broly like I would be with the Creature; there's no paradoxical attraction. He isn't simply a destroyer of galaxies like in the original movie, is much more human than that. His destroyer side only emerges in straightforward, unambiguous combat; it doesn't linger on him as a surface to behold. Nevertheless, Broly's the star of the show and the real success behind the movie. I enjoyed the "novel of manners" approach, too; it sets the stage through "old hat" scenes, with clever explanations that add unnecessary-but-welcome depth. Still, there's no mystery, no doubles, no horror or terror. There's no "horror context" on par with Netflix' Castlevania (2017). No gore, no demons.

Although it isn't Gothic, DBS: Broly is a still a great movie. It's smart (for a Dragon Ball movie) and delivers the goods. This is easily the most action-packed entry in the entire franchise, from any of the shows, games or movies. I enjoyed the combat, too. It's not so much a string of smaller battles, but a giant one. Epic in length, the actual melee unfolds like a three-course meal: Vegeta, Goku, and then Gogeta. Each member adds a signature style. While Broly never strictly transforms, he does have three stages: base, feral, and golden. He takes a hellish beating from beginning to end, but beats Vegeta and Goku, man-to-man. I love how he beats Goku—not with a sword, like Janemba, but by pounding him into submission. It doesn't matter how many times they change colors; Broly's the champ in one-on-one combat. As it should be. There's no quick, easy win, either. Even when Gogeta shows up, he still has to break a sweat.


Each facet of the brawl not only looks different, in terms of fighting styles; each looks different, animation-wise. Each segment—Vegeta, Goku, and Gogeta—seems to have been handled by a different animation team. One or two moments even looked somewhat digital, as if generated by the graphics engine from Dragon Ball FighterZ (2018). I was worried the projectiles and energy attacks would contrast too sharply with the fighters' bodies like in Super (2015). This wasn't really a problem. The combatants smash mountains, swim through lava, and attack each other from a spat of angles too numerous to list. At the same time, much of the action looks heavy and robust (a quality often lacking in digital animation). The sheer number of characters is substantial, but regulated by prudent cross-cutting and careful excision (note: Krillin is missing-in-action). The minutiae is ample, as well. Frieza, for example, sends his feckless lackeys to scoop up the dragon balls, their power levels too low for anyone to notice. The characters in the show discuss this, and many other things. The screenwriter feels fluent with the material, and everything gels from top to bottom. There's a sense of structure: a prologue; a first, second and third act; and an epilogue. Nothing feels rushed. Nothing drags. Bravo!

***

For other posts of mine, see: "Alien: Ore" Q & A ProjectThe Autopsy of Jane Doe (review), Mandy (review). Is Garfield Gothic? (essay).

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