I was surprised to find “Planet Hulk” on the new movie shelf this week, not having seen any trailers for the project at all. Given Lion’s Gate’s track record with Marvel properties, and especially with adaptations of existing stories, I didn’t hesitate to slip the Blu-Ray version in between the laundry soap and frozen pizzas, where my wife would hopefully overlook it until we’re at the checkout lane….
I didn’t follow the Planet Hulk stories in the comics when they were current, but made the opportunity to read the back issues once World War Hulk exploded into Marvel continuity. The dozen-plus issues worth of adventure on an alien world brought the Jarella stories of the 70’s to mind, though without the trademark storytelling of Harlan Ellison or Len Wein. I found it especially intriguing to see the differences in popular culture that 30 years has wrought on a very similar story.
The premise of Planet Hulk is straightforward: Hulk is exiled to an alien planet by a group of heroes from Earth because he is too dangerous to keep and presumably too difficult to kill. Now essentially free from all previous continuity, an entirely new cast of characters and settings can be introduced and explored at will. As a comic series, Planet Hulk stands on its own merit as a self-contained story that eventually leads back into the mainstream Marvel continuity with World War Hulk. As a movie, it fares even better.
Story (Pass/Fail) – Pass
The movie turned out to be a fairly faithful translation of the comic books into animation – as faithful as possible when crushing two-years worth of books and crossovers with overlapping story arcs into previous and future issues into an 80 minute movie. For all that, it is not an incredibly complex story, a superhero/sci-fi rendering of Conan the Conqueror, or perhaps Kull the Conqueror. Either way, the movie could aptly have been titled, “Hulk the Barbarian”, and stood easily alongside the best work of Robert Howard. Little effort is wasted on cleverness or complexity, and the movie smashes into the action fist-first, plunging the viewers into a never-ending cascade of violence, treachery, and injustice.
Characters (Pass/Fail) – Pass
If the plot is simply a vehicle for the action, the characters are the beating heart of the story. The leading roles of hero, villain, and love interest are impeccably voice-acted, full of barely restrained emotion, crushing determination, and despicably blind selfishness, And in an alien world where Hulk is the only hero guaranteed to stand at the end of the film, the intensely personal stakes of love, loyalty, and survival hit home with gut-twisting purpose.
Technical Merit (Pass/Fail) – Pass
Although I had hoped for the detailed animation and epic money shots of previous animated Lion’s Gate films, Planet Hulk followed the same pattern of animation as New Avengers, and the TV series Wolverine and the X-Men. Little to no cell-shading or CGI is used to enhance the flat traditional animation of the story. Character designs are simple instead of complex, and backgrounds lack detail and depth. The movie is solid, and very watchable, but feels more like it was produced on a television schedule rather than as a cinematic feature. Even the soundtrack is dutiful and easily up to standard, but fails to excel in emotional resonance.
Content (Pass/Fail) – Fail
The story is artfully simple, but will leave viewers with little in the way of meaningful conversation. A character analysis of Hulk might yield a discussion on the merits of self-control, the benefits of society, and the responsibility of the strong towards the weak, but it seems like entirely too much effort. Although the action is at times incredibly violent, it is mostly downplayed, and there is no sensual content whatsoever. The special features are appreciated efforts, and some interesting behind the scenes of the comic story, but ultimately are too few to justify the price difference between the DVD versions. The Hulk vs Wolverine episode of Wolverine and the X-Men was a nice thought.
Shelf Life (Pass/Fail) – Pass
At the end of the film, I immediately wanted to watch it again, both for the film’s own sake, as well as for the two feature-length commentaries. I suspect there is more to this than a simple action fest, and I find myself perfectly willing to put in the time to make a better study of the story and characters. Plus, my son likes to trot out his action figures and help the characters on screen earn their victory.