Netflix's New Gods: Nezha Reborn isn't exactly billed as a superhero movie, but storywise, it's hard not to view it through that lens: its lead hero, Li Yungxian, a smuggler in the fictional slums of Donghai City, suddenly unlocks dormant powers he never knew he had, discovers a larger than life destiny ahead of him (and behind him), and through a series of run-ins with other powered-up people and an eccentric master, becomes a hero to his community. He even builds himself an Iron Man-esque costume out of, wait for it... a box of scraps. The superhero genre is intrinsically built on top of antiquated gods and monster tales, so the decision by the film's creators to join the dots between the mythological and the modern is a smart one.
Netflix has been rapidly expanding its library of East Asian content beyond Japanese anime lately, giving way, in the process, to more Chinese animation like Nezha. The recently acquired series, Heaven Official's Blessing -- previously a Funimation exclusive -- offers the platform's viewers what might be their first taste of both donghua and danmei (Boys Love). Nezha Reborn, meanwhile, provides a window into what may be another overlooked part of older Chinese culture outside of its country of origin. Both are historical in their subject matter, and both share the same stunning visuals, giving larger, Western studios a real run for their money where animation quality is concerned.
The same could be said for the superhero-watching crowd, who, between the bland, cookie-cutter realism of the MCU and the drab and dreary palette of Zack Snyder's shrinking corner of the DCEU, might have forgotten that the genre could look so vibrant on-screen. Nezha Reborn might not be the most solidly plotted story, and its runtime might test younger viewers' concentration, but its sublimely fluid fight scenes, dynamic direction, gorgeously detailed set dressing and highly creative character design, it's a real feast for the eyes even if the brain isn't as engaged as it could be. Only James Wan's Aquaman really compares in terms of color, style and bombast, and perhaps the zippy, pop art-feel of Cathy Yan's Birds of Prey.
Comparing animation to live-action is probably a bit unfair given the constraints of the latter, but even comparing Nezha to other superhero cartoons -- or Western cartoons in general -- it's hard to point to anything else resembling it, visually, with the notable exception of Sony's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Hollywood appears largely disinterested, at the moment, in pumping money into many animated productions that have this kind of care and commitment to style. (Both Into the Spider-Verse and Nezha took four years to make.) The studio and director behind the film, Light Chaser Animation Studios and Zhao Ji, respectively, are perhaps best known for 2019's White Snake, which was again lacking a little in its story and ideas but can't be faulted in its technical competency. Light Chaser was formed in 2013 under founder Gary Wang's desire to answer the growing demand in China for high-quality, domestically-made animation, and has been going from strength to strength since then on the world stage.
The CG 3D approach of White Snake and Nezha is one that has been successfully adopted by the likes of Disney and Pixar, which, interestingly, have also been borrowing a lot from the wide-eyed anime school of character design. But East Asian productions are repeatedly beating the American industry titans at their own game, most recently with Nezha and before that, Lupin III: The First, Toho's first CGI take on the iconic Japanese character, executed with the same level of lavish attention to detail and breathtaking action sequences. Though the medium has produced handsome-looking works in the past in Japan, such as Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children and 2013's Space Pirate Captain Harlock, they've often missed one key ingredient: soul. Introducing a softer, more 'cartoonish' element to the perceived coldness of hyperrealistic computer animation is finally making up for that, crafting films that are at once weightless in their fluidity yet tangible in their believability.
With a sequel for New Gods: Nezha Reborn already in the works, Netflix users and native Chinese audiences alike can expect more animated fare of this standard to keep throwing the gauntlet down for Hollywood.