Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero: 5 Things We Learned From The Comic-Con Panel

As someone who binged the entirety of "Dragon Ball Super" in three weeks last year and has yet to regret that life choice, I have somehow become /Film's resident "Dragon Ball" guy, for better or worse. But that does mean I was well prepared to cover the San Diego Comic-Con panel for the latest movie in the franchise, "Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero," which saw a few key creatives assemble on the Hall H stage before screening the first 20 minutes of the movie.

Producer Norihiro Hayashida and voice actors Toshio Furukawa and Christopher R. Sabat were clearly overwhelmed to be speaking on such a large platform. Somehow, after all these years, "Dragon Ball" feels as popular as ever. There's just something primal about the show's blend of nerve-shattering fantasy action and ludicrous comedy that just somehow works, whether you're a 12-year-old kid or a man in his mid-30s who just wants more Piccolo and Gohan stories, darn it.

Thankfully, that's exactly what "Super Hero" delivers, sidelining the franchise's heaviest hitters to tell a smaller story about Goku's underachieving (by the morals of this deranged franchise) son and his gruff alien surrogate father. Here's what I learned from the panel, and from that opening 20 minutes of footage.

The new animation style

It's been known for some time that "Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero" would use 3D CG animation, but that doesn't make it feel any less ... well, any less weird. While CG animation was used in select sequences for the previous movie, "Dragon Ball Super: Broly," it takes center stage in "Super Hero," and the results feel mixed. Sometimes, it looks great, especially when characters are flying through the air, firing energy blasts at each other, and generally doing traditional "Dragon Ball" action. In other sequences though, it looks oddly, for lack of a better word, cheap. An early sequence where a car drives by a prison looks like a bad video game cutscene — sterile, lifeless, and blocky, without the tiny blemishes that make hand-drawn animation so satisfying and special in the digital age.

But enough of it looks good that it's easy to see this becoming the default style going forward, especially since Norihiro Hayashida and his team have built an entire new animation pipeline around the new techniques. The producer was candid about it during the panel, noting that yes, it does feel a little weird, which is why traditional animation is still heavily used to "smooth out" the characters and make everything feel consistent. I imagine fans will have a firmer opinion on this new direction when they can sit with the style for a feature-length running time, and not just the first act. I found it growing on me the more I watched.

A Gohan/Piccolo story

It's hard to imagine a "Dragon Ball" story getting bigger and more action-packed than "Broly," which is essentially a feature-length fight scene where the three most powerful beings in the universe nearly destroy Earth with their punches. "Super Hero" scales things down a bit (or rather, a lot), placing its focus on characters with softer power levels. Goku and Vegeta are present (and off doing their own thing), but the focus is on Gohan and Piccolo, one of the franchise's most popular and enduring duos.

Piccolo is still himself, a reformed alien menace whose long-retired murderous rage has grown into agreeable surliness. Gohan continues to bury himself in his professional career, happy to exist as a father and husband and rely on his dad to save the universe when necessary. The early footage, largely comedic in nature, finds Piccolo playing mentor to Pan, Gohan's daughter, and giving her the same tough love training he once gave her father (which includes, you know, throwing her into rocks hard enough to smash them, but in a loving way). Seeing Piccolo in the "grumpy uncle" role is a hoot, and his frustration with Gohan giving up fighting to write obscure academic papers no one wants to read puts him in the role of audience surrogate. This kid is supposed to be off saving the galaxy, not letting his idiot dad get all the good fights!

With a smaller-scale threat than usual (more on that in a moment), this is an adventure scaled down for Gohan and Piccolo, and it's about time. The two spent the vast majority of the "Dragon Ball Super" TV series playing second fiddle to Goku and Vegeta, so letting them have the spotlight is the change of pace the series desperately needs right now. Not every story needs to be about the next "most powerful villain ever" — smaller stakes will allow the oft-neglected duo to actually shine for the first time in a long time.

Reaching into the franchise's past

"Dragon Ball" has never been afraid to bring villains back from the dead (Frieza, anyone?), and "Super Hero" resurrects one of the franchise's earliest foes. The Red Ribbon Army, the diabolical collective defeated by Goku in the original "Dragon Ball" series, has quietly reformed, hired a genius mad scientist to build the most powerful android in the universe, and has declared war on their enemies. Meaning, our heroes. And naturally, this mad scientist is the grandson of Dr. Gero, a villain last seen meeting a violent end in "Dragon Ball Z." Yes, the movie does open with a recap of all the franchise history you need to remember all of this (or learn about it for the first time). Honestly, the front of the movie is so recap-heavy that it grows tedious. Thankfully, it improves considerably when the familiar faces show up.

Norihiro Hayashida promises the movie will blend action with drama and slice-of-life sequences, which suggests it may have more on its mind than just warriors screaming and firing fireballs at each other. With the descendants of the Red Ribbon Army and Dr. Gero taking the fight straight to Gohan, "Super Hero" looks like it could be a movie about generational conflicts, wars without end that engulf the children and the grandchildren of those who started it in the first place. Or it could just be about cool guys punching real hard. Both feel possible.

I hope you like silly Dragon Ball

"Dragon Ball" has always found time for comedy, but the truly universe-threatening stakes of recent "Super" stories has sometimes sidelined the silly nonsense that defines the storytelling between action scenes. While the first 20 minutes of "Super Hero" have a little bit of action, it mostly consists of my favorite flavor of "Dragon Ball": the B-list and C-list characters goofing off and just trying to exist in a world as weird as this one.

Sure, I'll watch and enjoy the big angry shouty fight scenes. But I really want more of Piccolo training Pan (adorable) and being interrupted by unwanted calls from Videl about helping with family errands in exchange for stuffed animals he — as he has made clear many times — absolutely does not want. And I really want more of Gohan refusing the call to action, obsessing over being a normal dude, and getting literally beaten up in his office by his green-skinned mentor because he's decided fighting isn't just his thing. Bring on Krillin and Bulma and the other characters who have proven increasingly useless in Goku/Vegeta-level fights! Let the goofballs have the spotlight! (I say this as a person whose favorite "Dragon Ball" character is Mr. Satan, so take from this what you will.)

While the movie will undoubtedly deliver the big action fans crave (the trailer features Gohan going Super Saiyan, so you know powerful foes await), the early scenes with our heroes are all about Piccolo's attempt at a peaceful day constantly getting interrupted by nonsense, and damn it, that's my "Dragon Ball."

Two Piccolos, together at last

While the footage was the highlight of the panel, fans were treated to a very cool moment before it screened: The two main voice actors for Piccolo shared a convention stage for the first time ever. Japanese voice actor Toshio Furukawa and English-language voice actor Christopher R. Sabat, whose respective takes on the character really couldn't feel more different, were clearly honored to be in each other's presence. "It is very difficult to be sitting next to him right now without repeating everything he says in a different voice," Sabat joked to the crowd, referring to the decades he has spent dubbing over Furukawa's performance for Western audiences.

And naturally, both actors were pleased that Piccolo was finally getting a movie where he'd get to be a lead. As Sabat noted, after Goku fans and Vegeta fans, Piccolo/Gohan fans are the "third part" of "Dragon Ball" fandom. When asked how he prepares for the role, Sabat says he thinks like Piccolo: He chills out, he meditates, and he uses Furukawa as a guide. This led Furukawa to deadpan that he'll keep doing a good job, just so Sabat would have something to follow.

In one especially charming moment, Furukawa revealed that he has an entire room in his home dedicated to Piccolo memorabilia, with 3,000 items in his collection. And honestly? If I was him, I would, too.

"Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero" hits North American theaters on August 19, 2022.