Dragon Ball Z is arguably the most recognizable anime in history. The franchise has spanned over 30 years and shows no sign of stopping. The most recent series, Dragon Ball Super, recently concluded but will release a brand new movie at the end of 2018. So, it seemed appropriate to take a look back at the Dragon Ball Z feature films and figure out which ones are the absolute best. Seeing as how there are 15 films to go through, this is a tough list to make but here it goes.
Note: This list will only include the theatrically released films that carry the Dragon Ball Z banner. So, any Dragon Ball or Dragon Ball GT films were excluded. And since we’re only talking about the theatrically released films, we need to mention something right out of the gate…
Honorable Mentions – Bardock: The Father of Goku (1990) and The History of Trunks (1993)
Both of these films aired as TV specials, so we have to exclude them from the regular ranking. That’s unfortunate because Bardock: The Father of Goku and The History of Trunks are two of the absolute best movies in the series. They both tell a crucial piece of backstory — the origin of Goku’s father and the origin of Trunks and the androids — but manage to work as solo adventures that don’t require the show.
If these were in the ranking, they would be in the top five. If you’re a hardcore fan of Dragon Ball Z, these are essential viewing.
15. Bio-Broly (1994)
Original Japanese Title: Super Warrior Defeat!! I’ll Be The Winner
Let’s get perfectly honest: I don’t think that any of the Dragon Ball Z movies are bad. They are simple battle stories that act as fun little “what if?” tales for fans. None of them are outright unpleasant to watch. So, when taking in this list, please know that wherever a particular movie lands in the ranking does not mean it denotes a severe lack of quality. It’s purely personal preference for a list of movies that I generally like in total.
That being said, Bio-Broly is the only Dragon Ball Z film that comes close to actually being a poor experience. It’s the conclusion to a trilogy about Broly, the legendary Super Saiyan. At this point in the story, Broly has been definitively killed and is getting cloned. But, the clone isn’t stable and it turns into a Swamp Thing. This isn’t so bad, but making Goten and Trunks the main characters just doesn’t work. They can’t carry the film and their childish antics get pretty tiresome. It’s cool to have Android 18 as a main player in this, but that’s about all there is that makes Bio-Broly stand out.
14. Broly — Second Coming (1994)
Original Japanese title: The Dangerous Duo! Super Warriors Never Rest
The first sequel in the Broly films is pretty bare bones, but that’s not always a bad thing when it comes to a Dragon Ball Z movie. Broly comes to Earth and is searching for Goku, but Goku is dead after sacrificing his life to try and stop Cell. Instead, Broly has to deal with Gohan, Goten, Trunks, and Videl.
The first part of the movie takes a little too long to get started, but once the fighting starts it’s a satisfying if somewhat hollow endeavor. Granted, the action and animation are great but it’s not quite the momentous face-off that the first Broly movie offered. Still, it’s under an hour and that’s the perfect length for this kind of movie.
13. The Return of Cooler (1992)
Original Japanese title: Clash!! The Power of 10 Billion Warriors
This is an important entry in the series as it’s the first film to act as a sequel to a previous one. Frieza’s brother, Cooler, is back as a mostly cybernetic being. He’s mass-producing copies of himself in order to conquer the galaxy and get revenge on Goku. There are some fun battle sequences in this one involving robots and it’s the first movie where Goku teams up with Vegeta. Seeing them fight a gigantic cyborg Cooler at the end is goofy in all the right ways.
However, this isn’t quite as good as its predecessor and the fights don’t get as bombastic as most Dragon Ball Z beatdowns. It’s still incredibly short at around 45 minutes, so it flies by before you can ever get tired of it.
12. Lord Slug (1991)
Original Japanese title: Super Saiyan Son Goku
There is a formula to most Dragon Ball Z movies: a big bad guy wants to take over the world/galaxy and he has a bunch of henchmen tagging along for the ride. The henchmen fight some of the Z Warriors but still beat them, so Goku has to come in and wreck shop. This formula was done to death by the time Lord Slug came around and it’s the biggest strike against the film. It feels pretty rote at this point.
But, there is still plenty to enjoy in Lord Slug. We get our first peek at a potential Super Saiyan and it’s pretty awesome if a little too short-lived. Lord Slug is an interesting villain since he gets his wish for eternal youth at the start of the film. And we get some good focus on Piccolo. More Piccolo is always a good thing.
11. Battle of Gods (2013)
Original Japanese title: God and God
Battle of the Gods was a big deal. It was the first full-length Dragon Ball Z movie in nearly twenty years, it introduced characters that would become central to the actual plot of the series, and it provided yet another ascended form for Goku to attain. With such a long gap between any proper Dragon Ball Z film, fans were ecstatic over Battle of Gods at the time of its release.
And not without good reason. There are some elaborate fight scenes and the character of Lord Beerus is a fun addition to the canon. But, this is also one of the longest films in the series and it feels its length. It also ends with a bit of an anti-climax. This feels more like a setup for a new continuation of the series rather than its own standalone story. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but it does prevent the movie from being able to go as big as it wants.
10. Cooler’s Revenge (1991)
Original Japanese title: The Incredible Strongest vs. Strongest
Frieza is one of the best villains in the entire Dragon Ball Z canon. Cooler’s Revenge posits that Frieza had a brother and he’s now searching for Goku in order to redeem the honor of his race. This is a pretty by-the-numbers film but it hits those notes fairly well. and Cooler’s final form is a great design that balances outlandish alien elements with a genuinely imposing figure.
Cooler’s Revenge isn’t fantastic but it certainly gives you the basics of what you want out of a Dragon Ball Z movie. Plus, the ending confrontation between Cooler and Goku is a blast. We’re starting to get towards the halfway point of our ranking and this is where the cutoff for the “pretty good” movies starts to pop up.
9. Resurrection ‘F’ (2015)
Original Japanese title: Resurrection of F
Like I just said, Frieza is a fan-favorite villain and getting him to come back to the series was warmly received. Not only does he get revived, but we also get to see him with yet another new transformation. Yeah, it’s just a simple color change, but it feels powerful and his battles against Goku and Vegeta are a cool treat to longtime fans.
Even with all that, Resurrection ‘F’ does take a toll due to its position as the longest Dragon Ball Z movie. The plot gets dragged out in certain places and the animation can sometimes look a little too clean and digital. But, this is still a fun entry that rewards longtime fans. And when it comes to Dragon Ball Z‘s sense of humor, nothing might be funnier than seeing Frieza’s version of Hell.
8. Dead Zone (1989)
Original Japanese title: Return My Gohan!!
As the first Dragon Ball Z movie, Dead Zone still has some of its tone and style rooted in the earlier series, Dragon Ball. The character designs aren’t as streamlined as they’d become and the movie maintains a fairly childish perspective due to Gohan’s central role in the film’s plot.
thankfully, the action and story are on point here. The evil Garlic Jr. gets immortal life at the beginning of the film and that’s awesome. We get a villain that we know can’t be killed, but that doesn’t make the eventual battle with him any less brutal and engaging. And the darker fantasy elements of Dead Zone help it stand out among most of the Dragon Ball Z movies. This is a good start to the cinematic series and a solid entry point for anyone wanting to get into Dragon Ball Z.
7. Bojack Unbound (1993)
Original Japanese title: The Galaxy at the Brink!! The Super Incredible Guy
Every movie from here to the top of this list is great. We’ve gotten through the decent and good stuff and made it to the choice nuggets. And even if Bojack Unbound is seen as the least great, it’s still a colorful, creative, and kickass entry in the movie series. It’s set around a big tournament — always a good framing device for this franchise — in which the competitors will win the chance to fight Mr. Satan. But, it turns out that actual villains have shown up and it’s up to Gohan and the Z Warriors to stop them.
This is the first film that doesn’t have Goku as the main protagonist. That’s a welcome switch as we get to see Gohan come into his own. Though the villains are woefully underwritten, they still get a number of visually cool moments and gimmicks. One of the coolest elements of this entry is that it’s set in a manufactured theme park world. That means we get to see everyone fighting in truly unique landscapes. For a purely excellent surface level Dragon Ball Z experience, this is your go-to flick.
6. Wrath of the Dragon (1995)
Original Japanese title: Dragon Fist Explosion!! If Goku Can’t Do It, Who Will?
The Dragon Ball Z movies almost all focus on introducing a central villain to the story. Wrath of the Dragon takes a very cool approach by centering its plot around a new hero, Tapion. As we learn more about Tapion’s past and the curse that’s been put upon him, he becomes a sympathetic and endearing hero. Considering that he only shows up in this one movie, he’s maintained a strong following of fans. That goes to show just how well his character works.
There are some fun surface elements to this as well. Seeing the Z Warriors fight a giant demonic monster is a wacky but welcome change to the formula. And Goku’s random ability to summon a golden dragon is as awesome as it is unexplained. If you need something that feels a little different than every other Dragon Ball Z movie, Wrath of the Dragon will satisfy that urge.
5. The World’s Strongest (1990)
Original Japanese title: The Strongest Guy in the World
We’ve gone this long without stating something that needs to be acknowledged: fans love to watch Dragon Ball Z movies because they are about superpowered beings beating the crap out of each other in cartoonishly badass ways. There is nothing wrong with that sentiment. If there was, I wouldn’t be spending so much time ranking these films. And when it comes to scratching that essential Dragon Ball Z itch, The World’s Strongest is a knockout.
The usual henchmen are all wildly unique and offer different kinds of fights for Goku to overcome, the sci-fi setting is weird and beautifully animated, and the final villain is a giant brain inside a huge robot. Those are the kind of things that make a Dragon Ball Z movie so bizarrely enjoyable. No way that this isn’t one of the best in the whole series.
4. Super Android 13 (1992)
Original Japanese title: Extreme Battle! Three Great Super Saiyans
Dragon Ball Z movies don’t spend a lot of time on setting up their villains. That can be good or bad depending on the kind of movie it is, and Super Android 13 definitely benefits from throwing the audience directly into the action. We get the briefest of setups that ties into the series — Dr. Gero had some other androids on ice! — and the battle is underway.
This one moves with lightning speed and it’s appreciated. It also brings together Goku, Vegeta, and Trunks for the first time in the movie series. Seeing all three Super Saiyans go to work is undeniably exciting, and the evolution of the main villain is as Saturday morning cartoon as you can get but it works. When it comes to the visceral pleasures of Dragon Ball Z with all the fat chopped off the edges, Super Android 13 might be the best example in the entire lineup.
3. Broly — The Legendary Super Saiyan (1993)
Original Japanese title: Burn Up!! A Close Fight – A Violent Fight – A Super Fierce Fight
As I stated earlier, the Dragon Ball Z films are usually trying to set up a really cool villain. Most of these are fine but lack a lot of staying power. That’s not the case with Broly — The Legendary Super Saiyan. This film fills in a big part of the mythology surrounding the Saiyan race and that alone is a cool element. But, it also discards the henchmen formula and positions Broly as the only threat in the story. In this way, the plot begins to feel more like a genuine movie than an extended episode of the show.
Broly — The Legendary Super Saiyan is arguably the best film in the series simply because of the impact of its villain. The fact that the story around Broly also works is equally impressive. Instead of setting up a few minor fights and then a climax, this one builds up to one big battle and delivers the goods in spades. If this takes the number one spot for you, you won’t get any argument from me. In fact, these top three could be interchangeable for different reasons, but a ranking is a ranking and I’ve got to make some hard decisions.
2. The Tree of Might (1990)
Original Japanese title: The Decisive Battle for the Entire Earth
A little backstory: When Dragon Ball Z first made its way to the United States, it took a while before the whole series was available to American fans. For a long time, only the first three films — Dead Zone, the World’s Strongest, and The Tree of Might — were available for a long time. Fans from my generation saw these movies a lot. So, it’s fair to say that The Tree of Might is my favorite film in the series and nostalgia definitely plays a big part in that decision.
But, even without that factor, The Tree of Might is an awesome Dragon Ball Z movie. It has a great threat — a supernatural tree will devour all life on Earth — and what basically constitutes an evil Goku for the villain. Turles is what Goku could have become if he had grown up as a Saiyan. That kind of dichotomy is one that doesn’t get brought up much in the film series. And the big climax of the movie is the only time we see Goku fail to succeed with his most powerful move, the Spirit Bomb.
Look, I love this movie and if you don’t like it or you think it should be lower in the ranking, I get it. But, Dragon Ball Z is something a lot of us associate with some of the best parts of our childhood. And The Tree of Might is the Dragon Ball Z movie that makes me feel the most like a kid again. Still, even I have to concede that it’s not the best movie in the series.
1. Fusion Reborn (1995)
Original Japanese Title: The Rebirth of Fusion!! Goku and Vegeta
Fusion Reborn tells the story of Janemba, a powerful being that is born from the evil essences of Other World spirits. He is able to control the worlds of both the living and the dead, resulting in a huge resurrection that occurs on Earth. Goku and Vegeta attempt to stop him and they eventually have to fuse into Gogeta to defeat the monster.
There is no Dragon Ball Z movie that’s more vibrant, kooky, or imaginative as Fusion Reborn. The afterlife narrative means we get cameos from a few notable villains, and Janemba himself is basically a better spin on Majin Buu; he’s a cheery, rotund monster who eventually turns into a cackling demon. The way Janemba’s powers are illustrated are dazzling and magical, and that’s something that we always can use in Dragon Ball Z.
And the escalation to seeing Gogeta is perfect. We get a comical take on the character at first, but the real deal is one of the coolest characters in the entire Dragon Ball Z roster. Add to that the excellent animation and the perfect pacing and you come up with the absolute best Dragon Ball Z movie out there.
Want more opinions on Dragon Ball Z? Check out my piece talking about why the death of Cell was the perfect place to end the series. And let me hear your opinions on Twitter!