Entertainment

'Dragon Ball Super: Broly' Is Crushing the Box Office with Pure Fanservice

dragon ball super broly
Toei Animation

Underestimate the purchasing power of fans at your own peril: Dragon Ball Super: Broly stunned critics this week with a $7.06 million stateside opening on Wednesday. The anime film is pacing to rake in $15 million over a six-day run, adding to the $57 million pile of money it has already taken from international releases since mid-December. (Update: Six-day actuals are $22.7 million.) It's no billion-dollar Aquaman, but it's also far from the disappointing showing of Keanu Reeves' sci-fi flop Replicas. Besides, it's disingenuous to compare the performance of live-action genre movies to the 20th movie in an ongoing franchise that's been beloved for more than 30 years where the protagonist is an affable buff dude with a tail and pointy hair. 

Premiering in just 1,250 theaters, Broly's success out the gate can be chalked up to its "fanboy nature," as Deadline characterized it. Which, true: Just think back to how stoked the online hype machine was when Al Roker announced the debut of the giant "Super Saiyan Blue" Goku balloon during this year's Macy's Day Parade. Or the thousands and thousands of people across the world that crowded public squares and filled stadiums to watch the TV finale of Dragon Ball Super last MarchThere's also the draw that original series creator, Akira Toriyama, has taken his most active role in a Dragon Ball movie production in years, creating a storyline that's being treated as canon. (For Broly, the Legendary Super Saiyan character who's appeared in three other non-canon movies, that's huge.) But ultimately, the reason people are going to see it comes down to the fact that Dragon Ball Super: Broly is tight as hell.

GIPHY/Dragon Ball Super

Anyone with even a crude understanding of the Dragon Ball extended universe could sit through the English-dubbed movie and walk out of the theater having had a great time. After all, Broly is essentially an extended action sequence, easily filling two-thirds of the runtime with physics-defying martial arts and glowy muscle men getting punched through arctic mountains and shooting energy balls out of their hands and yelling "gwAAHHHHH!!!" when they turn into their higher Saiyan forms. This wouldn't hold attention unless the animation commanded it, which it does. Lush, rich, and neon-tinged, the art is a directorial marvel, translating the hand-drawn feel of manga into a fluid, kinetic landscape where set pieces are meant to be (and will be) destroyed by crashing bodies or pulses of energy, and camera angles shift between sweeping bird's eye, tight third-person, and, most interestingly, first-person perspectives.

In the periphery of the centerpiece brawls is some, frankly, important contextual storytelling that even longtime fans would find enlightening. The movie begins 41 years before Dragon Ball's understood present day on Planet Vegeta, inhabited by the Saiyans, a warrior race enslaved by the king of the universe, King Cold, who hands down his reign to his son, the eminently recognizable antagonist Frieza. What's new here: We've never really had this past hammered out so clearly to see the power dynamic between the Saiyans, who conquer and raze planets for profit, and how Frieza subjugates them before he destroys Planet Vegeta altogether. Of course, our three future heroes -- Goku, who's called his Saiyan name Kakarot, Vegeta, and Broly -- escape the destructive fate of the rest of their race by simply being incubating children shipped off to other distant planets, Broly because he's deemed an overpowered freak and Goku because his parents want him to have a better life, before Frieza blows the rest of the Saiyans to bits.

dragon ball super broly
Toei Animation

Lurching back to present day, we see the horrible conditions of Broly's upbringing on the "repugnant" planet Vampa, the distinctly comfortable island lives of Goku, Vegeta, and co. on Earth, and Frieza's manipulative scheming while traversing in a large ship through space. Retelling all this here, though, means very little in the grand scheme of the movie. Most everything else that happens in Broly is a melee power struggle where everyone gets a turn at each other with stakes that don't particularly matter, no matter how dire things seem, because the good guys always win in the end.

From beginning to end, Dragon Ball Super: Broly is packed with fanservice beats. For the 18-to-30-something hypebeasts that entirely populated the second-day showing I went to, that meant applauding when favorited characters made their on-screen debuts, and cheering (or jeering) wildly at character developments in the heat of battle. There are a few legitimately good jokey bits written in -- one in the beginning about using the wishing powers of collected Dragon Balls to make indistinguishable improvements to one's physical appearance, and later, when Goku and Vegeta are messing up an embarrassing fusion "dance" that would combine and multiply their powers to defeat the out-of-control Broly -- that got real laughs. The first time Goku delivered his first signature "Kamehameha," the theater erupted. In the spirit of Dragon Ball, it all felt exactly the way this movie was meant to be seen: Taken just seriously enough to gape at the spectacle, but still chill enough to kick back with the absurd, dumb fun.

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Leanne Butkovic (@leanbutk) is an entertainment editor at Thrillist.