One of the most iconic scenes in any iteration of the Dragon Ball franchise is Gohan's transformation into an ultra-powerful Super Saiyan 2 warrior in his battle against Perfect Cell. In that moment, Gohan transcended every known limit to become the strongest character the series had ever seen, surpassing both his father and Vegeta. A lot has changed for Gohan since then, and not for the better. Looking at him in Dragon Ball Super, you'd be hard-pressed to believe they're even the same character. Now that Dragon Ball Super has finished its run (at least for now) it's time to look back on just how big of a disappointment Gohan turned out to be.
It's true that Gohan hasn't ever quite had the same drive as his father. As a half-blood Saiyan, he lacks the unquenchable thirst for combat that's shared by Goku and Vegeta. If he can help it, Gohan is a lover (and a scholar), not a fighter, but there are times when you need to be able to fight in order to protect the ones you love. In this regard, Super's portrayal of Gohan falls short time and time again.
When Beerus shows up on Earth looking for a fight, Gohan transforms into his Ultimate form and rushes the God of Destruction, only to be defeated in a single blow. That in itself is nothing to be ashamed of, as Super Saiyan 3 Goku suffered the same fate against Beerus on King Kai's planet, but the difference is in how that shortcoming impacted them.
Goku realized just how much room he still had to grow and just how dangerous the universe really is, fueling his passion for self-improvement to new heights. Gohan, on the other hand, admittedly fails to keep up with his training at all. A year later when Frieza is resurrected and invades Earth, Gohan's strength has declined so much that he isn't even completely certain if he's able to go Super Saiyan anymore. Thankfully, it turns out he can, but he never manages to push past it to Super Saiyan 2 or Ultimate Gohan, and when he attempts to stand up to Frieza, the so-called Emperor of the Universe completely defeats him without ever even leaving his seat.
Gohan is so utterly incapable of defending himself that Piccolo ends up sacrificing his own life to save Gohan's in a moment that mirrors a famous scene from the Saiyan Saga of Dragon Ball Z. While it's nice to see Piccolo's continued affection for Gohan, it's a bit depressing to consider that the first time this happened Gohan was five years old. It's time to grow up.
He seems to realize this for himself at the end of Super's second season. After finding himself as nothing more than target practice to Frieza, Gohan implores Piccolo to train him until he can become strong enough to protect those he loves. Could this finally be a turning point for the character?
In a word: no. Gohan is seen training with Piccolo briefly in season 3, but this is just a cruel tease. When he finds out that his universe has been pitted against another in a tournament decreed by the Gods of Destruction, he volunteers to join the team. Just as quickly as he gives hope to his long-suffering fanbase, he rips it away. Seconds after volunteering to join the fight, he retracts his offer, remembering that there's a conference coming up that he had planned to attend.
Gohan continues to sit out every major brawl over the course of season 3 and season 4 (no, for the love of Zeno, we're not counting the Great Saiyaman), settling into his roles of loving husband and doting father. It's not until the fifth season, when the fate of the entire multiverse is at stake, that Gohan finally returns to training and starts to get serious. Is this finally his redemption? Well, that depends on how you look at it.
During the Tournament of Power we finally get to see Gohan win some key fights. He manages two solo KOs, pairs up with Piccolo for two more, helps Frieza take down Dyspo, and is part of a six man team that defeats Universe 3's merged monster, Anilaza. He's far from the fight's MVP, but at least he makes his presence known.
One of his shining moments during the tournament comes when a Namekian from Universe 6 unleashes a devastating attack meant for Piccolo. In a reversal of roles, Gohan steps in front of the blast and saves Piccolo. It's a beautiful moment that seems to be telling the audience Gohan is no longer a helpless child who needs defending. Unfortunately, the very next episode sees him getting knocked off the stage when he lets his guard down, and Piccolo is once again forced to rescue him. It's a small but frustrating detail that undermines the impact of the previous episode.
In the end, Gohan is knocked off the edge and eliminated while helping Frieza defeat Dyspo. That in itself isn't much of a letdown, and he actually made it further than I expected. Unfortunately, we don't get to see any real improvement for the character. When Gohan (finally) resumes his training with Piccolo before the Tournament of Power, he once again unlocks his Ultimate form. However, Piccolo tells him that he has not reached the full extent of his power and that he can go much further.
Goku and Vegeta achieve multiple new forms throughout Super, and even surpass their limits to unlock new transformations during the tournament itself. Gohan...does not. Over 40 episodes after Piccolo senses that Gohan has a great deal of untapped potential (more potential than even Goku and Vegeta, according to Vegeta himself), Gohan still has the same limited arsenal of transformations and fighting techniques that he's had since the Buu saga in 1996.
Dragon Ball Super has been a wild and enjoyable ride, but Gohan's treatment sticks out as a shortcoming, especially when compared to the impressive development of characters like Vegeta and Android 17. Thankfully, it's a near certainty that Super will return, giving Gohan another shot at redemption. The Tournament of Power was a step in the right direction for Gohan compared to earlier seasons. Hopefully witnessing the incredible power of fighters across the multiverse is enough to keep Gohan from suffering any further setbacks on his journey to reaching his potential.