In preparation for Dragon Ball Super, I've just recently spent two weeks reading the entire Dragon Ball manga series from beginning to end. I've spent a lifetime as a fan of the anime and video games, reliving time and again the sagas and movies for over a dozen years. And I see one reoccurring problem that holds back the entire franchise, especially now as it returns to us with the hopes of recapturing the audience that has loved it for so long. And that problem is Goku.
I know. I know. It's blasphemy to say this. I'll be hung in Hell--or HFIL--for even suggesting such heresy. He's Dragon Ball's most iconic character. He's the face of the franchise. He's the John Cena of Dragon Ball. He's served as its main character from the series inception in 1984 to just about every adaptation and permutation of the property since. But it's about time to say the one thing that everyone knows but doesn't want to say:
Goku has outgrown his own franchise.
And the longer he exists in it as a main character, the longer he cripples it.
Goku is just too powerful. Take into consideration his history in the franchise. Even before he battled the likes of Frieza, Cell and Buu, Goku was always far mightier than his peers.
Goku's strength was incredible for a child. He was bulletproof, he was powerfully strong, and he had the stamina of a god (until he grew hungry, that was). In Dragon Ball this was fine, because it was largely played up for comedic effect and an amazing premise: a powerful, pure-hearted kid venturing around the world and saving the day. It was David and Goliath writ large: a powerful David, yes, but one taking on the Goliath-level threats of evil armies and demons unleashed.
But as he grew older, and the scale of Dragon Ball's action had to increase to appropriately match the series' progression, things got...a little out of hand. Goku grew so mighty that he would surpass his allies in weeks or months. They often felt he was so distant in power they could never reach him. And most never did. He was beyond them in every single way. He was godly.
And this was before he even hit puberty.
Hell, this was before he even knew the difference between boys and girls without patting their private parts.
Let's look at the facts:
Going strictly off the manga:
- Goku surpassed Master Roshi--the greatest martial artist in the world, with centuries worth of fighting experience--within a year or two of training with him.
- He learned Roshi's signature move, the Kamehameha--within moments of observing it.
- He traveled around the world on his own and survived all kinds of harsh conditions.
- He took down an entire army of soldiers armed with guns, planes and mech-like "battle suits". All before he could be "rescued" by his friends.
- He took on as assassin he couldn't defeat, trained with a sage, and in three days beat his opponent with ease.
- He defeated what were essentially Hollywood's greatest monsters.
- He took on Tien, who had years of training in a deadly style and far more tricks, and nearly won.
And then he fought The Devil.
Considering King Piccolo was meant to represent a sort of devil, Goku effectively fought Satan, and eventually won with nothing but his might, his wits, and his courage. And after fighting The Devil, Goku trained with God--Kami, King Piccolo's other half, or The Devil's counterpart--just in time to take on a new Satan of even more power.
After all of this, even Kami--God himself--told Goku that Goku was powerful enough to ascend to godhood. That Goku could take his place and become the new guardian of Earth. But Goku being Goku refused, and decided to keep traveling and enjoying life. At this point, the series ended, finishing off Dragon Ball to make way for Dragon Ball Z. The series as a whole could have ended right here, with Goku more powerful than God and The Devil themselves. But no, the series--too popular to end--continued, giving way to an even greater franchise that brought millions of fans from around the world, including me, into its world.
But where could Goku go after defeating The Devil? Where could he go after surpassing God himself?
Akira Toriyama decided to ramp things up, opening up the universe of the franchise to include galactic overlords, evil androids, time traveling evolving synthetic beings and eons-old magical monsters. And each time, Goku surpassed all of his limits with well-timed training or newly-found powers, defeating the most feared dictator in the universe, coming close to defeating "the perfect man" (and indirectly doing so by helping his son learn two transformations within an extremely short time), and defeating an unstoppable force of chaos.
He's converted almost all of his major foes and rivals into longtime trusted allies--Yamcha, Tien & Chaozu, Piccolo and Vegeta, with the latter two even having close ties with his family. And not only did he become far superior to most of his rivals, but he even passed the levels of the lords and master of galaxies, universes, and beyond.
And this brings us back to the problem of scale. By the time Goku fought Vegeta, the possibility of being able to destroy a planet was becoming real. Fighting Frieza made that threat ever more palpable, with Planet Namek actually getting destroyed by Frieza's might. Goku's battle with Cell ramped things up so that even the solar system itself could face destruction by Cell's hands. And Goku's battle with Buu had the whole universe and afterlife on the line.
Again, I ask: where do we go from here? Are we still excited by the same formula?
It's time for a reset button
Let's face it: Goku is too powerful. And while it's exciting to relive our adolescent love of the Japanese trope of transformations and ever-increasing power levels, Goku is just way too overpowered to take seriously.
In the most recent films like Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods and Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection F (which may be considered canon when the new series Dragon Ball Super starts today), Goku has taken on an even more powerful God. One capable of destroying an entire galaxy. He has even obtained godhood himself, sort of, in his new Super Saiyan God form. And then he even went beyond that with two more transformations, Super Saiyan Beyond God, and Super Saiyan God Super Saiyan. And when a transformation essentially has its own transformation, you know things are getting ridiculous.
It's like the age of extreme in 90s comics: where having super powers wasn't enough if you also didn't have a giant gun. All that's left is to give Goku some leg and arm pouches, some spikes and name him Super Saiyan God Soldier X Super Saiyan, and have him charge his God Kamehamehas through a hand cannon.
Obviously, Dragon Ball GT wanted to bring things back to basics, initially. The whole premise of Goku getting turned into a kid with less power and traveling to find dragon balls with a tech expert and apprentice in Trunks and Pan, respectively, was undoubtedly a desperate attempt to harken back to the franchise's roots. Someone saw the problem of Dragon Ball's exponentially increasing scale. It's just that they did it poorly.
They tried to have their cake and eat it, too, by having Goku go from nostalgic boy-body to adult, red-furred, eye-lined and extreme Super Saiyan 4. And then, his only threat was the highest anyone had gone yet: fighting the evil incarnation of the dragon whose powers gives the entire series the macguffin it needed to get started in the first place. Even if done poorly, the series had come full-circle. You can't possibly go much higher than that, we thought, way back when.
And you can't blame Akira Toriyama's lack of involvement either, since he's the mind behind the problem in the first place. The focus from adventure and comedy to melodrama and power levels was a major shift, and one that made the series get caught up in its own gimmick so much it couldn't escape. Even when the plot called for logic--like needing to destroy a vulnerable villain who could destroy the planet with one blast when the moment arises--the heroes, like Goku and Vegeta, forced their frightened comrades into allowing the villains to reach full power just so that they could test their fighting skills against them.
Vegeta threatens everyone, even his son, if they get involved at certain times when facing dangerous foes, and Goku just loves to give his enemies senzu beans even when they've promised to destroy innocent lives. When you think of the amount of lives that were lost (though admittedly were later saved with the deus ex machina of the dragon balls), it's ridiculous how many times the heroes almost lost everything because the saiyans had a nasty habit of wanting to get a good fight in at the worst time.
It may be a product of Japanese fighting spirit: the idea that with a drive to succeed and never-ending physical and mental endurance, a warrior can overcome anything. Its seen in everything from Puroresu (Japanese wrestling) to movies, and in every single Dragon Ball Z-inspired show. But it casts an unrealistic edge to the characters' reasoning, endangering entire populations just for one good challenge, and it's gotten out of hand now.
The solution? It's time to revamp the series.
Sometimes when something gets a little too out of hand, it's time to bring it back down to earth. This doesn't mean that the series needs to lose its edge or its unique factors, but it certainly needs to scale things back down so that any new protagonists can have the opportunity to rise back up.
Akira Toriyama attempted to do this with Gohan, with Goku officially passing the torch to his son during the battle with Cell. Goku even died in the process, allowing Gohan the freedom to fully take his dad's place as the protector of Earth while Goku had fun running around the afterlife with his warrior buddies. But, according to Toriyama, he decided against it, with some sources saying Goku was too popular or too associated with the series to take a backseat to the major plots unfolding.
But even without considering that revelation, Gohan was already too powerful to start the series' direction over. He had, by supplanting his father, essentially surpassed The Devil, God, galactic overlords and the perfect being. So he was in a similar state: where could Gohan go from there?
No, a new series needs to take it all the way back. Take away the saiyan forms, for now. Take away planet-destroying blasts. Hell, take away the power of flight for a while. The protagonist, perhaps a descendant of Goku or another character, or someone new entirely, should having the same opportunity Goku had all the way back in 1984 to be built up from the ground up. The series should also bring back the fun adventure and action of earlier stories, where there were actually some real stakes to be had.
Sure, we knew Goku would always make it, but at least plots were varied. Dragon Ball Z was essentially the same story over and over again with slight variations. A being showed up who was too powerful for the hero. Goku would be needed to defeat said foe, but would be incapacitated or unavailable for one reason or another. Other fighters would hold off the threat for a while, until Goku arrived and won.
Later, the allies would get stronger, think they're enough to stop a threat, only for the threat to get even more powerful. Goku would have a secret or some kind of training that completes just in time to take on the foe. They'd fight, Goku would overwhelm the foe, but not fast enough for the foe to have one last trick or form that slows down Goku. Goku, through perseverance, the help of his friends, and maybe a new form of his own, finally would destroy the evil foe, and everyone would live happily ever after. Until the next threat, of course.
We need something different. We need enemies that make us wonder if the protagonist and his friends will actually make it. We need foes who don't absorb or copy others' abilities, but who are unique all on their own. The best thing about Goku's earliest enemies was that they had at least one or two distinct abilities that Goku had to learn to fight against and overcome.
It's what made much of the derivative Naruto series work despite overwhelming structural story similarities to Dragon Ball Z. Earlier in the series, their battles involved specific techniques that forced even the mightiest opponents to sweat. They had to fight with power and strategy, which made epic battles both a matter of spectacle and suspense. I'm well aware that Naruto suffered similar issues of scale and over-reliance on transformations later in the series, but much of the franchise balanced on deceptive battles and tactics.
Dragon Ball needs more of that, antagonists who force the hero to use his power and wits in various ways that don't involve gaining a new energy level and hair color, and don't include fights where the biggest components are enemies constantly vanishing, punching with blurry flurries, and doing tug-of-war energy beam light-shows.
A good idea of this would be the premise of Dragon Ball Online, a short-lived MMO where the story initially takes places long after the events of the series, and the world is a new landscape populated with various races and new threats. And like the latest game, Dragon Ball Xenoverse, perhaps the new protagonist could learn from masters over the course of a new adventure. There could even be some surprise cameos, like a sage-like Piccolo traveling world, old and wizened like Kami decades before; a turtle hermit-like Krillin who dedicated himself to helping deserving humans find their potential (so that humans could defend themselves); or even a now divine Goku, who has finally accepted a sort of Kai-like role in looking over the universe from time to time to offer advice.
This allows for the series to be both new and reminiscent, borrowing when need be, but giving enough room to introduce new ideas and new characters. And, most importantly, allow a better pace for escalation, so that fans finally have something to root for again.
Dragon Ball has been around for as long as some of us have been alive. It's touched the hearts of boys and girls alike all over the world in a variety of languages, and lives on in many projects: from officially licensed games to fan art, from fan fiction like the internationally-beloved Dragon Ball Multiverse, to the brand new series that will be debuting today. But all of this love doesn't mean that we have to get more of the same to make the franchise live on successfully. Conversely, fans have faced varying amounts of fatigue over the years at getting the same exact content over and over and over again. It's time for something familiar but new, something different and exciting.
It's time to let Goku die, and it's time to pass the torch. Or else, twenty years from now, we'll be watching Goku transform into Super Saiyan God Soldier X Super Saiyan Deluxe Mode Alpha to take down a fused-Frieza/Buu/Cell hybrid that absorbs beings to obtain his twentieth form of power, Perfecter Friezuucel Form 100% Full Power Go.
And I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound exciting at all to me.
But maybe I'm wrong. Do you think it's time for Goku to move over and pass the torch? Become a supporting role? Or do you think that the series can't survive without him as the main character? Do you think it should follow a new character or an established one? Try the poll below and sound off in the comments, and let us know how you feel!