Elseworlds, alternate reality stories featuring the characters of DC Comics, have been a staple of the publisher for nearly three decades. The Elseworlds imprint may have been scaled back in recent years, but the basic idea remains as popular ever especially in DC media outside of comics. Two classic Elseworlds storylines, Batman: Gotham by Gaslight and Superman: Red Son, were adapted for animation. Once again, Warner Bros. Animation is diving into the Elseworlds pool for its latest DC direct-to-video movie Batman: Soul of the Dragon that sees the Dark Knight teaming up with a cadre of other skilled fighters during the bygone era known as the ’70s.

Fans of DC animation are intimately familiar with the name Sam Liu. Since 2016 he has directed over a dozen DC animated direct-to-video projects. Lately he’s taken on the role of producer in addition to director. Despite the title, it’s business as usual for Liu. “My duties haven’t changed a lot. Even for the last ten years I’ve been in things that are halfway between producing and directing. In the direct-to-videos even from the beginning [producer] Bruce Timm has been gracious about letting his directors be in most of it. Because I’m in all the voice recordings and I have a lot of say.”

Nevertheless, the producer role does entail more responsibilities for Liu. “Whatever supervising or executive producer I’m working with, they’re the ones who pick the project and start to develop it. I’m working on multiple things at the same time. But I come in earlier now and I’m able to lend my voice to the scripts as far as suggesting certain lines or things to cut out.”

Soul of the Dragon isn’t Liu’s first brush with Elseworlds having worked on the aforementioned Gotham by Gaslight and Red Son adaptations. Since Soul of the Dragon is an original story not based on any comic storyline, Liu appreciated not having to worry about comparisons to the original source material as well as the bolder filmmaking possibilities. “This one was kind of fun because the music and fashion of the ’70s is so distinct. The music in Gotham by Gaslight is just classical, which people have heard before. Even with Red Son we didn’t really lean into the sound or music of the era as much. But this one we took the time to find the right composer [Joachim Horsley] that was able to infuse ’70s in 90-95% of the movie. Also fashion and cars. Cars is a huge thing for Bruce Timm.”

Indeed, Soul of the Dragon screenwriter Jeremy Adams corroborated how instrumental Bruce Timm was in maintaining the ’70s setting without becoming a parody. “That was his formative decade so if I went a little overboard with some sort of ’70s slang he would immediately say, ‘That’s too much.’ I tried to have a disco joke, but he said, ‘Nope. We’re in ’74. Disco isn’t around yet.’ He was VERY specific. I think that’s what lends itself to the authenticity. It’s like a colorful aspect of this movie and yes we’re in the ’70s. But it’s not so overburdened that it becomes a parody of itself. It feels more natural. Yes that’s fun. It has a grindhouse feel. But if we had gone too far one way I think it would have pulled you out of the movie and the story a little more than you want it to be.”

Batman: Soul of the Dragon

Tapping into the martial arts craze of the ’70s zeitgeist epitomized by icons of the decade like Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly meshed perfectly with film’s sensibilities. There’s no question that Batman is synonymous with martial arts. When you team the Caped Crusader with other skilled (even superior) fighters, the challenge then becomes animating unique fighting styles that reflect the characters. I’m reminded how in Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon, the creators based each Bending style on a real-world martial art that had some meaning to the Benders. Though they didn’t quite have the same time and resources for the same level of detail as Last Airbender, Liu and his storyboard team set out to differentiate the fighting styles through their own methods and research.

As Liu elaborated, “The Rip Jagger character has more of a snake style. Ben Turner obviously has more of a hard style so it’s more of a karate kind of style and maybe some kickboxing kind of stuff. Shiva is the cold master kind of thing. So she has a little bit of Wushu but a more direct kind of style. Richard Dragon is more Kung Fu/Jeet Kune Do. And Batman is a little more mixed.”

Incidentally, the core voice cast (with the exception of David Giuntoli who joked he can barely touch his toes) are all practitioners and champions in various forms of martial arts. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s literally in the blood of Mark Dacascos who voices Richard Dragon in the film. Animation voiceover may be new territory for the performer, best known for his on-camera work such as Crying Freeman and John Wick: Chapter 3, but his martial arts training proved beneficial. As Dacascos explained, “In my training one of the fundamentals that I had to work on was the horse stance, mǎbù. The mǎbù is a stance where you position your body as if you’re riding a horse. You basically have your feet slightly wider than your shoulders and you bring your legs down and sit your butt down so that your sides are parallel to the floor. It’s incredibly hard but that is there to root you to the ground to build up your strength. And while you’re building up your strength, one of the great benefits is that you’re working on getting your breath down low and constant and deep. You’re forced to focus and be efficient with your energy to hold that stance for a very long period of time. You have to bring that focus and ground your body and then get your breath deep so you can open your heart and mind up to the character and the story without seeing any visuals. Without having natural sunlight air on you. You’re in the studio. The martial arts really helps in life but especially with focus and breath. And breath is absolutely important for voice acting because you can’t get away with how you look. All your energy is inside your breath whether it’s grunting or words. All of that martial arts training has helped me especially for this story.”

There’s a misconception that voiceover work requires little physicality. Kelly Hu, who voices Lady Shiva in the film and is no stranger to portraying badass women in the DC Universe, can attest to how voiceover performers use their entire body. “I think that’s one of the advantages I have as a woman who does a lot of these kinds of characters because I have the experience of doing martial arts,” she said. “Especially when there are so many of these fight scenes to make all these different sounds. Different actions have different sounds. So if you are taking a hit or giving a punch or kick or landing or tumbling or any of that, they all have a different sound to it. I think when you have the experience of knowing what it’s like to get hit in the head or in the stomach too many times you actually know the sound that it makes. I think it makes it a lot easier on their part to work with actors who really know [martial arts].”

Michael Jai White who plays Ben Turner in the film echoed Hu’s remarks. “Certainly doing the action parts of it. If you’re throwing a kick you know much breath you’re using. Or if you’re throwing a punch, your physicality in receiving that punch. That’s something a normal voice actor would never understand. To accurately and authentically portray that I think was smart of them to use real martial artists.”

Despite having less voiceover experience than his co-stars Giuntoli, who plays the eponymous Batman in Batman: Soul of the Dragon, found his time in the booth quite rewarding. “I am not kidding when I say the most dignified work that you can get in all of show business is voiceover. You don’t have to hear notes from the network saying, ‘He looks like he needs a little more sleep today.’ You can roll in wearing God know what. I roll in in my sweatpants. They’re still nice sweatpants. I look great in them. You just bring your creativity. There are very few distractions in the sound booth. It’s you, the director, the producer, your headphones, and it’s just creativity. I absolutely love it. I find it to be freeing.”

Whether it’s live-action or animation, actors typically play up the dichotomy of Bruce Wayne and Batman by altering their performance. Sure enough, Giuntoli is no exception. “I did play Bruce Wayne and Batman differently even just in my vocal register,” described Giuntoli. “Bruce Wayne wasn’t a falsetto but he couldn’t go as deep as Batman. So I always had to keep something extra gravelly in the tank when I was playing Bruce Wayne because I knew I had to go deeper with Batman. I think Bruce Wayne has darkness to him but he’s not fully formed so he’s a little rough around the edges. When we see him much younger in this film he is just starting to hone his skills as a fighter. He has it in him but he’s getting his butt handed to him by some of the other students. I tried to play him a little more innocent. I tried to play him younger in vocal register.”

Michael Jai White as Ben Turner in Arrow

For Hu and White, Lady Shiva and Ben Turner are DC characters they’ve previously portrayed in the Arkham Origins video game and Arrow live-action show respectively. Though Hu has only vague recollections voicing Lady Shiva in Arkham Origins, Ben Turner is a character that resonates personally for White. “His anger I relate to that, as just even Michael. I grew up in a certain way where I had to deal with anger a certain way. Martial arts actually helped me through that. On a very personal level I connect with this character.” His performance on Arrow clearly made an impression on the filmmakers who offered White the role directly without him having to audition.

I think it’s safe to assume the vast majority of people have never heard of the character Richard Dragon. It was definitely true for Dacascos who came to relish both the role and script. “I wasn’t familiar with Richard Dragon until I read Jeremy Adams’ brilliant script. The good thing is that I wasn’t influenced by anything except for what I read. And what I read I LOVED. The first few pages into it I already was thinking, ‘This is really, really good.’”

If you want to find a dyed-in-the-wool Richard Dragon fanboy, look no further than Jeremy Adams. “The first spec script I ever sent Jim Krieg was a Batman: Brave and the Bold with Richard Dragon, to everyone else an obscure character but I love,” the screenwriter revealed. “I’m obsessed with the DC martial arts universe. DC has a long history of a specific martial arts universe. I have a Top 5 DC martial artists I’m sure people would argue about. Always I had Shiva, Richard, and Ben Turner in the Top 5 definitely.” Adams cited writers such as Denny O’Neil, Chuck Dixon, and Gail Simone whose work in the martial arts corner of the DC universe he gravitated towards.

American popular media tends to overlook the spiritual side of martial arts in favor of emphasizing physical brawls. Viewers may be taken aback to discover that Soul of the Dragon puts the focus more on the internal lessons of martial arts than external fighting. After learning Adams has been practicing martial arts since childhood, this nuanced depiction is not so surprising after all. “When I was a kid I was bullied and then I started at a local Taekwondo school. From there I went to Olympic Taekwondo, Kenpō, Shotokan, and a little bit of Aikido. I really found my place. There was a great Hapkido stylist named Bong-soo Han. If you ever saw Billy Jack, he was the stuntman for [Tom] Laughlin. He brought Hapkido over from Korea. His protégés who were Master [Dan] Cruz and Master [Eric] Friske, I learned under Master Friske. I think I’m the 129th Black Belt in the Hapkido federation for that style. 129 out of 30 years, it’s a harder road to hoe. It’s something I keep up with and martial arts in general.”

The Soul of the Dragon voice cast was also completely unaware of Adams’ martial arts background. “I didn’t know that but that would make total sense because the writing was so good,” praised Dacascos. “I thought he just researched it. What a lot of shows miss out is the philosophical aspects of martial arts. Good martial arts teachers, what they teach really transcends the fighting and martial arts. They go into day-to-day life of humanity, who you are, what you are, what you want to be, and how you do things to get that. Jeremy incorporated all of that in the script and the relationships. It is so nuanced. The lines are as deep as you want to go with them. What the great James Hong says as O-Sensei…holy smokes! I’ve heard so many things similar to that in my own training from my different teachers.”

Kelly Hu likewise commended Adams. “I think that’s what makes martial arts for special. It’s not just about the physicality of it. It’s the philosophy behind all of it that is so awesome. It totally makes sense that the writer is a martial artist because he really got it. He got the whole idea behind martial arts. It’s what you can believe that makes you a great martial artist. The respect and the philosophy is what makes it an art form. Otherwise it wouldn’t be an art. It would be fighting.”

Not too long ago, Marvel’s Iron Fist series came under fire for its mishandling of Asian representation and perpetuating the white savior trope. It’s a sharp contrast to Soul of the Dragon that inverts traditional roles for Asians in American media right from the opening scene that introduces Richard Dragon. “He’s a cross between Bruce Lee and James Bond. That is a great combination. You don’t get to see a lot of Asian characters played with the sexy,” articulated Dacascos. “He’s a real human and has depth and nuance. I’m so grateful that I got to play him.”

Batman: Soul of the DragonCourse correcting wasn’t a conscious goal for Adams, but something that was natural. “We’re strategic in it but it just seemed right,” he explained. “I personally like to watch a movie where I’m not entirely sure what’s going to go down. For example there’s a showdown between Ben Turner and Bruce Wayne. I’m sure the audience thinks it’s going to go one way and it doesn’t go that way. It’s a very specific way of say this is not your expectation. We keep wanting to thwart your expectation. That’s something as a writer I really enjoy because everyone has seen the movie where Batman is greater than everybody. I don’t think this is that movie.”

Soul of the DragonIt’s sentiment shared by the other filmmakers. “Bruce Timm was on board with this from the very start. Richard Dragon should never seem like a sidekick,” said Sam Liu. “None of them should seem like a sidekick. They should all be equals. In a normal Batman movie, Batman is smarter than everybody else. He’s not like that this in the story. They make decisions as a group.”

Liu added, “It’s funny as we were making it, it’s a Batman movie but Batman is not really the main character. We were trying to focus more on Richard Dragon because it’s a coming of power for him. He’s the glue of the group.” Despite playing the title character in Batman: Soul of the Dragon, Giuntoli had absolutely no qualms with giving the spotlight to the other characters. “It actually took some of the responsibilities off of my shoulders seeing as this my first role as Batman. There’s an equal arc with Richard Dragon.”

“The great thing about this project is it’s super collaborative. So if I stepped over a line, it’s super unintentional,” Adams admitted. “Thank goodness there’s a thousand people up the chain of command that’s going to help me right myself or teach me something me.”  

The film gets Kelly Hu’s seal of approval. “I feel that this is respectful of the martial arts and ethnicities and it’s a whole new era of people starting to understand the value of inclusion and respect for cultures. And I think this movie does a really good job at that,” said the actress.

While Soul of the Dragon is a continuing step in the right direction, director/producer Sam Liu is not ignorant of the ongoing challenges. “I’ve had talks about this with co-workers and friends of mine that are in the industry about what types of stories should we tell. Is it enough to make a character just not white? Some people think it’s not enough but then some people go if you’re going to put a person of color in it then it should have something to do with their culture.”

Whatever impact the film has on audiences, Michael Jai White perhaps said it best, “I hope they come away with something that they really enjoy and want to watch over and over.”

Batman: Soul of the Dragon is available now on Digital and arrives on on 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack and Blu-ray Combo Pack on January 26, 2021.