"Planet Hulk" is a Smashing Success
If you surveyed superhero fans to guess which Marvel Comics character would produce the best and the most direct-to-video animated movies, it’s unlikely that many would have picked the Incredible Hulk. Certainly the popular conception is that the Hulk is a one-note character, often reduced to little more than a handful of punch lines involving his limited vocabulary, his favorite activity, and his remarkably durable pants. However, despite his almost complete lack of nuance, the Hulk has played a prominent role in nearly all the Marvel direct-to-video animated movies so far, culminating in last year’s Hulk Vs. where he very successfully anchored two short films packed with animated mayhem. Now, Marvel and Lionsgate have released Planet Hulk, an outstanding direct-to-video animated movie that is easily the best to date from the animated branch of the House of Ideas.
Based on the recent graphic novel by Greg Pak and Carlo Pagulayan, Planet Hulk sounds like a story someone came up by yanking two random genres out of a hat and pasting them together. In an attempt to address the Hulk’s destructive rampages, Earth’s superheroes decide to exile him to a planet where he will finally be able to live in peace. When things go wrong, the Hulk crash-lands on the planet of Sakaar, a wasteland populated by a variety of incredibly tough alien life forms, many of which can harm even the Hulk. He is captured and forced to fight in gladiator matches for the amusement of Sakaar’s populace and its despotic Red King, with only a motley band of aliens as his allies. However, his popularity in the arena soon makes many of the planet’s inhabitants believe that the Hulk is the Sakaarson, a warrior king foretold by an ancient prophecy that will unite the disparate races of Sakaar. Even though he isn’t interested in anything but himself, the Hulk is soon enmeshed in events that will pit him and his Warbound gladiators against the Red King, with the fate of Sakaar hanging in the balance.
Like Justice League: The New Frontier, Planet Hulk adapts a massive graphic novel into a 70+ minute animated movie, although it must also be said that Planet Hulk seems to be far less ambitious. The good news is that screenwriter Greg Johnson has done a terrific job of streamlining Planet Hulk to ensure that the whole movie can stand alone on its own, crafting an emotionally satisfying story out by judiciously selecting the highlights of the original material and artfully working around external restrictions. Even so, it’s hard not to notice that the movie is essentially a collection of increasingly intense fight scenes separated by expository flashbacks to give context and background for Sakaar and selected members of the sizable cast. Still, the movie does an excellent job at drawing us into this strange alien world and getting us emotionally invested in the fate of its inhabitants. This is a more noteworthy achievement than it may sound like, considering that Planet Hulk has to provide backstory for more than a half-dozen new characters while also giving an emotionally satisfying story arc for the Hulk himself. The New Frontier movie only intermittently managed the same trick, so it’s rather impressive how well Planet Hulk succeeds at its feats of storytelling efficiency.
The set and character designers and the voice acting cast are also more than up to the task of bringing Johnson’s screenplay to life. The arid, harsh environment of Sakaar is palpable through the screen, and the characters are all beautifully streamlined for animation from their more detailed comic-book versions. The vocal performances in the movie are excellent across the board, with Rick D. Wasserman leading the way as the Hulk. The movie dispenses with the Hulk’s alter ego entirely (a question not adequately answered by the movie itself) and turns the character into a sullen, seething presence that’s constantly a hair’s breadth away from violent, explosive rage. The character animation and Wasserman’s vocal performance both communicate tremendous texture and subtext through exceptionally little dialogue and movement. The rest of the performances are equally good, with the insect-like gladiator Miek deserving special praise. His introduction makes him seem like he is fated to be the annoying noodge of the group, akin to the grating Pym in 2008′s Next Avengers. Surprisingly, he probably has the second-best character arc of the movie, stealing many of the scenes he’s in and getting the most satisfying development as the story progresses.
The action scenes of Planet Hulk are definitely one of its major assets. Hulk Vs. set a new standard for animated mayhem that Planet Hulk completely shatters. The work by Japanese studio Madhouse is stellar, bringing the creatively staged and storyboarded combat sequences to vivid, adrenaline-laced life. The fight scenes in Planet Hulk are massive, world-shaking affairs, which is to be expected as the inhabitants of Sakaar are visibly much tougher and stronger than the average Earthling. Many prove capable of taking a hit from the Hulk and dishing it right back, but the movie never lets us forget that its characters are titans doing battle. The blows these characters are landing are far more powerful than what we have grown accustomed to in most Safe-for-Kids-6-to-11 superhero cartoons or even the PG-13 rated movies (live-action or animated). Viewers should be forewarned that Planet Hulk is much more overtly violent than any of the other animated superhero movies from Marvel or DC, with plenty of animated bloodshed and a surprising number of on-screen deaths. However, this violence never feels gratuitous or excessive, with one notable exception that becomes pretty funny in a really gross way. The movie’s approach to violence makes it clear that Sakaar is a much more savage and hostile place than Earth, while also neatly addressing the elephant in the room of how the Hulk can go on such destructive, extended rampages without hurting or killing anybody.
Planet Hulk on Blu-ray disc is a revelation. The video quality of the 1080p high-definition image makes Planet Hulk the best looking animated DTV thus far, with crystal clear image quality bringing out every detail in the gorgeously rendered artwork. The soundtrack comes in a 7.1 DTS-HD mix which doesn’t quite match up in quality to the video. It’s not that the soundtrack is inadequate or badly done, but considering the tremendous power behind the characters in the movie, you’d expect there to be a lot more boom and rumble than there is. The Blu-ray also comes with a sizeable list of extras which fall a bit short, unfortunately. The two featurettes “A Whole World of Hurt” and “Let the Smashing Commence!” briefly cover the making of the movie and the original comic book story, respectively, doing a good job of pointing out a few trivia tidbits and explaining why some changes were made (especially one particular guest star from the comic who has been converted to another character entirely for the movie). Like Hulk Vs., Planet Hulk also comes with two audio commentary tracks: one by supervising producer Joshua Fine and screenwriter Greg Johnson, and the other with director Sam Liu, character designer Philip Bourassa, and key background painter Steve Nicodemus. The commentary track by Fine and Johnson is rather disappointing, as it mostly either describes what’s happening on-screen or points out the painfully obvious; not much real substantive material is covered that isn’t repeated in the other commentary track or the “Whole World of Hurt” featurette. The second commentary track is much better at providing interesting behind-the-scenes information and pointing out little tidbits to catch on screen, but it also has several long patches of dead air. The second disc in the package contains a digital copy of the movie; unlike Warner Home Video’s latest Windows-only digital copies, Planet Hulk‘s digital copy is also Mac-compatible.
The remaining extras are mostly promos for other Marvel projects. The first few minutes of the upcoming Thor: Tales of Asgard direct-to-video movie looks like fun, combining the youthful spirit of Next Avengers with the overcranked pomposity of Marvel Comics’ Asgard. The “Wolverine vs. Hulk” episode of Wolverine and the X-Men is also included – a pretty good standalone episode of the show and a nice tie-in to both this movie and Hulk Vs. The disc also includes two of Marvel’s “motion comics,” which in general seem like a mix of animation and comics that won’t really satisfy either audience. Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. is by far the better of the two, mostly because Alex Maleev’s artwork is so fascinating to look at and works quite well with the limited “pan-imation” that dominates motion comics. Astonishing X-Men: Gifted fares less well, mostly due to some really poorly done attempts to animate limbs and do 3-D rotations. The former are laughably bad and the latter are just weird looking and ugly. At least Marvel was willing to spring for more than one voice actor, which is more than one can say for something like the Watchmen motion comic. There are also dispensable music videos for Spider-Woman and Astonishing X-Men, putting pseudo-techno and pseudo-rap over the motion comics images.
It’s almost a shame that the success of Planet Hulk was followed by the massive company-wide crossover event World War Hulk, where the Hulk returns to Earth with his gladiator friends to exact revenge on those who exiled him. With the number of characters involved and the complex rights issues surrounding many of the key players, it’s almost guaranteed that the sequel to Planet Hulk won’t be getting animated any time soon. It’s remarkable that the Hulk has proven to be such fertile ground for Marvel Animation, and that what could have been a hackneyed and stale mashup of two genres turned out to be so thoroughly satisfying. Planet Hulk is a sure-footed winner for anyone looking for supremely well-done animated superhero mayhem.
Images courtesy of Lionsgate via the Marvel Animation Age. Also, read our interview with Rick D. Wasserman, the voice of the Hulk, here, and the Marvel Animation Age’s interview with screenwriter Greg Johnson here.