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We Need to Talk About Broly

The early box office returns for the 20th ‘Dragon Ball Z’ movie, ‘Dragon Ball Super: Broly,’ suggest not only sustained popularity—but growing popularity. There’s a good reason for this.

The back of Broly, a ‘Dragon Ball Z’ character with spiky green hair Toei Animation/Ringer illustration

Dragon Ball Z, in the simplest terms, is a sci-fi adventure comedy that doubles as a martial arts action series in which people can casually produce the destructive power of a thousand hydrogen bombs from a single finger. Or their mouths. It’s ridiculous, in other words, and even series creator Akira Toriyama doesn’t quite understand its popularity.

There are a lot of characters with funny names just announcing things—their goals, their training, their power levels, the instability of a certain planet’s core, which comes up more than you’d think—but most often there’s yelling. Like, a lot of yelling. In fact, the yelling might be Dragon Ball Z’s defining characteristic. The show, based on the shonen manga, originally aired in Japan in 1989 and crash-landed in the U.S. in 1996. When it arrived on Cartoon Network’s Toonami two years later, like a lot of kids I knew, I found each “Find Out Next Time” to be a personal betrayal. And though I’ve gotten much more sober about Dragon Ball Z over time, like a lot of kids who’ve become adults I know, I still count this particular bit of yelling among the most memorable and goosebump-inducing moments in TV history. Goku going Super Saiyan for the first time during the Frieza saga was not totally unlike a moon landing.

I mention Dragon Ball Z because, as of Wednesday, there’s a new Dragon Ball movie out in theatres, Dragon Ball Super: Broly. It’s already massively successful by localized standards; the film grossed $7.06 million in the U.S. on opening day, which pounds the former record of $1.97 million set by 2015’s Resurrection F into a bloody mist. You can get a better sense of how big a deal this is by viewing the earnings as Anthony D’Alessandro at Deadline did: “Broly‘s Wednesday is 67% of DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda 3’s $10.5M opening Friday.”

You might look at this and suspect that a lot of young men who spent time poring over Angelfire for manga scans (like myself) are having some of their memories sold back to them, and that may be partly true. Most of the people at my showing on opening night were men my age, and Dragon Ball commands significant cultural capital. If you consider Toonami the supplier, then Dragon Ball was more or less the gateway drug that led a generation to better anime like Fullmetal Alchemist, Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star, Yu Yu Hakusho, Inuyasha, Samurai Champloo, Rurouni Kenshin, the list goes on. But that is only part of it: What’s really a trip is that Dragon Ball Super: Broly is the 20th Dragon Ball movie, and the fourth featuring the Broly character. Taken together with those box office earnings, that suggests not just sustained popularity, but growing popularity.

Should we talk about Broly? He first appeared in the eighth Dragon Ball Z movie, Broly: The Legendary Super Saiyan, in 1993. The plot of the movie is straightforward: Goku and his best frenemy Vegeta think themselves to be the only Super Saiyans in the whole wide universe, but it turns out there’s another one, a legendary one, of prophecy. To be 100 percent fair here, Broly was sort of a nothingburger of a character. He’s named after broccoli, to begin with. Goku made him cry when they were toddlers on their home planet—that’s his ax to grind—and he speaks in one-word sentences, on account of his father, Paragus, training him to be a weapon and nothing else. His weakness is—get this—that he’s too powerful. In order to stop Broly from going mad with bloodlust and destroying another galaxy (he’s already destroyed one, by the time the movie starts), Paragus put power-dampening amulets all over him.

What I’m trying to say is, Broly, a noncanonical character, somehow curried so much favor with the Dragon Ball fan base that Akira Toriyama, 26 years later, wrote a movie to reintroduce him to the series as canon. Toriyama wasn’t really involved with the original film in 1993, but went a step further than retconning just the Broly character by making tweaks to the original story line that shaped the franchise. My colleague Justin Charity worried that Broly would be “wildly incomprehensible” to anyone who hasn’t been following the series through its myriad reboots and reinventions—GT, Kai, Super, Heroes—but Broly was exceedingly accessible. I confess, however, that when Goku’s hair turned white I had to Google where that power-up was, in the order of power-ups. (At the top, by the way, it’s “Ultra Instinct.”)

Three decades in, even if Toriyama doesn’t understand why people keep coming back to it, Dragon Ball seems to have a firm grasp on why Dragon Ball is good. Dragon Ball Super: Broly is occasionally hilarious, fun throughout, and, even if the premise is thin, the action is so illogical and amazing that it borders on psychedelic. The movie starts, as the one immediately before it did, with six of the eponymous and magical Dragon Balls (they grant wishes) already collected. Through a complicated arrangement of happenstances, Frieza, Goku, Vegeta, and Broly converge on the location of the seventh.

Then they work out their differences. And destroy the Arctic ice cap in the process.