In spite of the long shadow cast by its predecessors, Dragon Ball Super manages to differentiate itself from past Dragon Ball anime. Not only does it play with the traditional idea of power levels and use it as a vehicle for character growths, but it also mixes and matches different narrative tropes common to Dragon Ball in a refreshing and enjoyable manner. This can be seen in the latest storyline, the “Tournament of Power,” which takes the “tournament” narrative and the “fight to save the world” narrative—two things which normally do not overlap, and combines them together.
One of the major differences between tournament arcs and world-saving arcs is what’s at stake. Tournaments are supposed to be about showing who’s the best, and it gives an easy opportunity to showcase a wide range of characters both old and new. These competitions also might have rules that provide a twist to how the contestants fight (with ring outs being the most prominent in the Dragon Ball series).
In contrast, the world (or universe) - saving arcs are about fighting to save lives. In these all-out, no-holds-barred environments, fighting is generally a more serious affair. Many of Dragon Ball’s most famous arcs are along this vein, such as the Frieza Saga. In fact, the Majin Buu saga (the last arc in Dragon Ball Z) starts off with a world tournament and transitions into a battle to protect the Earth as a way to escalate the story. The closest that Dragon Ball Z comes to utilizing both formats simultaneously is the “Cell Games,” but the tournament elements there are more of a pretense than anything else.
That’s why the recent Tournament of Power arc in Dragon Ball Super stands out so much in the world of Dragon Ball. Working off of some previous plot where ownership of Goku’s universe (known in-story as “Universe 7”) is at stake, this newest challenge involves heroes from across the multiverse in a massive battle royal to determine which universe survives. Here, “battle royal” isn’t just a phrase; it’s literally set up like a pro wrestling-style battle royal. Everyone is in the arena at the same time, with ring outs being the only way to eliminate opponents. Killing is against the rules, too. In other words, it’s a struggle on a cosmic scale, but with competitive parameters.
The Tournament of Power, even from the start, feels amazing. The rules might appear to shackle to the potential for this arc, but it’s actually a great exercise in creativity and imagination to see how the rules are taken advantage of. It’s not just about out-fighting the competition, it’s about outthinking them. Nowhere is this more evident than the fact that Universe 7’s team does not consist of the strongest warriors. Among its roster are Krillin, Kamesennin (Master Roshi), and Tienshinhan, human fighters who haven’t been in the upper echelons of power since the original Dragon Ball anime. In a battle to the death, they likely wouldn’t survive. In the rules of the Tournament of Power, however, they can take advantage of strategy. The sky’s the limit… figuratively speaking.
Given how different the Tournament of Power is, I see it as Dragon Ball Super implementing more modern shounen battle elements into its story. The Dragon Ball manga concluded 20 years ago, and while a lot of shounen series owe a lot to Dragon Ball, those series have tried to move beyond the foundations Dragon Ball has laid. Here we have Dragon Ball Super surveying how its world has changed, and learning to evolve into something both classic and contemporary.