Warning: This column contains spoilers for the new animated film Batman: Soul Of The Dragon.
A new year has begun, which means new adventures and opportunities, and Gotham is no exception. And it’s in that spirit, Bat-fans, that we turn our attention to a quite different version of the city. Batman: Soul Of The Dragon is the latest DC animated movie starring the Dark Knight and regardless of if you think we get too many or too few movies featuring Batman, you’re not going to want to overlook it. (Especially if, like me, you miss going to the local cinema for action-packed comic book flicks.)
The plot of the film has Batman teaming up with Bronze Tiger, Lady Shiva and Richard Dragon as they fight the terrorist group known as Kobra. Think of it as the perfect fusion between old school martial arts movies and classic James Bond. I walked away from the film pondering questions about nature versus nurture and how it related to Batman. The movie has some great flashback sequences that show Bruce Wayne training under O-Sensei. We see O-Sensei teach Bruce the nature of patience, acceptance and sacrifice.
I’ve been reading Batman comics since I was a young boy, but I never stopped to consider how much of who he is may have been shaped by his teachers. Consider this: what if Bruce had been taught by someone other than O-Sensei? Someone without morals, or someone who lusted for power. Was Bruce Wayne malleable enough that he could’ve been corrupted under a teacher like Vandal Savage?
It’s clear that O-Sensei left an impact on Bruce. One of the most powerful sequences in the movie involves O-Sensei instructing his students to punch a stone until it breaks. Time passes and one by one each student gives up until only Bruce remains. Bruce’s knuckles are bloodied, but he never stops trying to break the stone. Eventually, O-Sensei emerges from the shadows, telling Bruce that the stone could not be broken, just as evil would never truly disappear. “Accept what you cannot change,” he says and it’s clear Batman took that lesson to heart.
Of course, one could argue that Bruce already came to O-Sensei with strong convictions. O-Sensei may have helped sharpen Bruce’s skills, but was he the one who molded him into Batman? We’ve seen versions of Batman’s origin where violent sociopaths like Ra’s al Ghul or David Cain have trained him and he’s remained the same virtuous figure of justice. Consider the fact that all of O-Sensei’s students took something different from his training. In fact, when the film catches up with Lady Shiva, she’s a crime boss who doesn’t think twice about murder. It’s a far cry from her classmate Bruce Wayne, yet both of them trained under the same teacher.
Another scene that stands out is the flashback where Bruce fights Ben Turner after their tension reaches a breaking point. Bruce clearly loses the fight, but he continues to get up despite the odds being against him. This move earns him Ben’s respect and sums up who Batman is at his core—a driven individual who never stops. This moment foreshadows the movie’s ending where Batman makes the ultimate sacrifice, and if you’ve seen the film then you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Perhaps a good teacher doesn’t change who you are at your core, but rather, makes you the best version of yourself. It’s an idea that prompted me to take a second look at how Batman has mentored his allies like Nightwing, Robin and Batgirl. Of course, we’ve been debating nature versus nurture in the role of human development for centuries, so I doubt we’ll land on the ultimate answer any time soon. Regardless, it says a lot that Batman: Soul Of The Dragon had me questioning aspects of Bruce Wayne that no other Batman film has before.
While we’re talking about the people who shaped Batman, let’s turn our attention towards Denny O’Neil. Soul Of The Dragon ends with a dedication to the celebrated writer, who passed away last year. Like O-Sensei does in the movie, O’Neil molded Batman into who he is today in real life. After the camp era of the 1960s ended, O’Neil brought Batman back to his roots, writing the Dark Knight as a pulp style detective in a series of grounded adventures. Gotham became a grittier place, with an overarching sense of danger and realism. If you loved Batman: The Animated Series, then you can thank Denny O’Neil since most of the show was modeled after his legendary Batman run.
O’Neil introduced fans to Ra’s al Ghul, Talia al Ghul, Leslie Tompkins and many others. In fact, O’Neil created most of the characters in this film, including O-Sensei, Richard Dragon, Lady Shiva and Bronze Tiger. O’Neil’s love for classic spy flicks and kung fu movies was obvious to anybody who read his work. Batman: Soul Of The Dragon is the ultimate tribute to his legacy and there’s no doubt he would’ve been the film’s biggest fan.
O-Sensei shaped Batman as a fighter for justice, while O’Neil shaped Batman as a pop culture legend, and the character is better for it on both counts. If you haven’t seen Batman: Soul Of The Dragon yet, I encourage you to watch it, and if you’ve seen it already, I urge you rewatch it and consider the nature versus nurture argument. It seems that after eighty years, the Dark Knight still has some new things left to teach us.
Batman: Soul Of The Dragon is now available on 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack, Blu-ray and Digital HD. For more on the movie, including trailers, clips and interviews with the cast, click here.
Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.