Thursday, December 09, 2010

Review - Planet Hulk

Just as Peter David succeeded in restoring the Hulk's popularity in the late '80s, Greg Pak's Planet Hulk storyline brought the green-skinned goliath back to the forefront of Marvel's pantheon. After years of writers doing their best to alienate fans by ignoring the character's history, years of pseudo-intellectual crap and amateur psychology disguised as depth, years of different writers struggling to say the same thing in different ways, Greg Pak sent the Hulk into space and had him beat up a lot of people. Planet Hulk was a great, fun, bloody space epic that reminded Hulk fans of the stories of old. So the folks at Lions Gate had their work cut out for them with an adaptation, and I was pleasantly surprised with how faithful the filmmakers were to the source material.

Planet Hulk opens right where it should, in the space shuttle that brings the imprisoned Hulk to Sakaar. A holographic recording of the speech Reed Richards gave Hulk in the comic, almost word-for-word, plays while the Hulk quickly breaks free of his bonds. In the movie, however, Iron Man makes the speech. I assume the filmmakers figured Iron Man was the most recognizable out of the four Illuminati members who choreographed Hulk's exile. The other three - Reed Richards, Black Bolt, and Doctor Strange - are shadowed in the background.

We're spared the whole Hyrda/S.H.I.E.L.D. story that explains how Hulk got tricked into the shuttle. In fact, we're spared any explanation at all. The filmmakers are putting a good amount of trust in the audience, and I think it's warranted. You don't need to be a hardcore Hulk fan or even a comic book reader to imagine a scenario in which the heroes feel justified to send the Hulk on a one-way trip Major-Tom-style. It also helps keep the story self-contained. Fans of the comic will notice that the film ends differently than the comic. Or, at least, the movie's ending stops short of the event that would precipitate the following storyline, World War Hulk. At first I was a little disappointed about this, but ultimately I think it was the best way to go. There's no way to know if there will ever be a World War Hulk animated movie, and doing away with the set-up for WWH made Planet Hulk feel more like its own story. Of course, after seeing what they did with Planet Hulk, I'm dying to see an animated version of the Hulk tearing through the FF and the Avengers like tissue paper, but I guess we'll have to wait and see.

After watching Planet Hulk, I can't help but wonder if, movie-wise, it would be best if they stick to these animated deals. The Hulk is a challenge to realize in live action, no matter who they get to play Banner, or who does the CGI. And we're way past doing a guy in green paint or a guy in a Hulk suit like Michael Chiklis's Thing suit in Fantastic Four. In live-action, the Hulk will always be a creature of cartoon contrasting sharply against a more real world. He's always going to look silly. If the movie is a cartoon, the problem's solved. And the Planet Hulk filmmakers took advantage of that. The movie's action sequences are great, and frankly of all the TV shows and films - live-action or otherwise - this is one of the first times I think Hulk fights looked and felt and sounded like Hulk fights should look and feel and sound.

In a lot of cases the filmmakers stretched out fights, such as the desert battle between Hulk and Caiera. In at least one case, and I feel sacrilegious for even thinking it, I liked the film's version of the fight much better than the comic's - the Hulk's final battle with the Red King. Not that I disliked the fight in the comic, but it wasn't much of a fight. The Hulk of the comic had to contend with holding Sakaar's tectonic plates together (which, you know, is kind of a challenge), but his actual fisticuffs with the Red King were fairly one-sided. The movie gave the Red King enough of a fighting chance that it seemed like Hulk may have broken at least a little bit of a sweat putting the bastard down.

Speaking of memorable Planet Hulk fights, the third round in the Coliseum with Hulk and his Warbound facing the Silver Surfer was changed to instead feature the guy with (I will argue to my dying day) the best name in comics - Beta Ray Bill. The outcome of the fight is pretty much the same as it is in the comic. I wondered if maybe this was why they changed the cast; if they didn't want to "shame" Silver Surfer with such a thorough and bloody defeat, but wouldn't mind doing so with a third-stringer like Beta Ray Bill. According to a Making Of feature on the DVD, however, the reasons for Silver Surfer's exclusion were purely legal. I've assumed it had something to do with the continued efforts of Jack Kirby's children to recapture control of their father's creations, though if that's the case I wonder how the movie could've been made at all considering, unless I'm mistaken, Hulk is one of the characters they've sued over.

It was nice to see this particular incarnation of the Hulk in an adaptation. Excepting a VHS tape of one of the OLD 1960s Hulk cartoons - the ones that were basically just panels from the comic with voice acting thrown in - this was the first time I've seen a cartoon depiction of the Hulk that wasn't the savage, monosyllabic, "HULK SMASH" Hulk. Planet Hulk's hero is something along the lines of what Hulk fans used to call the "Grayvage" Hulk - the skin color, size, power, and emotional instability of the green Hulk coupled with the intelligence, selfishness and thuggish dialogue of the gray Hulk. It's actually a little unsettling at first to hear a cartoon Hulk who isn't speaking in the third person, particularly because at first they make it seem like you're getting the ol' faithful growl-a-lot version. In the first two scenes, the Hulk does nothing but snarl, scream, roar, growl, and other assorted things that don't actually form words. It isn't until after he wakes up at the beginning of the third scene, chained with the other gladiators, and he says "Where am I?" that you know for sure that this is more of a smartypants Hulk. It's weird at first. You find yourself thinking "What the hell? What do you mean 'where am I?' Don't you mean 'WHERE IS HULK?' Huh? Huh? Dontcha?"

Bruce Banner does not appear in the movie at all, and it's difficult for me to form an opinion on this exclusion. In the comic, I was glad to see him take a break. We'd had so many years of writers beating the Hulk/Banner duality to death, that getting to see the Hulk take the reins unchallenged for a while was refreshing. But in the comic Banner's absence is at least acknowledged and, to a certain degree, explained. With the exception of Iron Man referring to Hulk as "Bruce" in the first scene, we never hear anything about Hulk's paler half. While I didn't have a big problem with it, it's tough for me to step into the shoes of someone watching Planet Hulk without any prior knowledge of the story.

A lot of things in the comic are jettisoned, and it's regrettable but absolutely necessary due to the length of the movie. If the filmmakers had more time, or if they were making a mini-series instead of a movie, sure I would've wanted it all in there. Given what they have to work with, however, they did a stellar job staying faithful to the spirit of the story. In fact, considering the movie is PG-13, I'm surprised at quite a lot of what they did fit into the film, including a sad and horrifying sequence in which a child turns to ash in Caiera's arms. The scenes with the Spikes going all zombie on Sakaar's inhabitants were fairly violent and intense for a cartoon, too.

There are also some nice little extras for Marvel fans, particularly during the gladiator battles. Keep your thumb ready near the pause button and you'll spot cosmic characters like Adam Warlock and Gamora in the stands of the Coliseum. I'm fairly certain I spotted the Grandmaster in the shadows behind the Red King's balcony.

Of the changes from comic-to-movie, I think the Hulk/Caeira love story was the one major casualty. It still happens. Kind of. They're all kissy at the end, but it doesn't feel like it makes sense. There's no build-up. You never get the sense that there's any sexual tension between them. First they don't like each other, then they kind of respect each other but they still don't like each other, then they hate each other more, then they don't hate each other as much, and then they suddenly want to suck face. This is my one major complaint about the movie and the only thing I don't think can be excused because of time constraints. In the comic, from their very first meeting in the Coliseum it's obvious there's something developing between Hulk and Caeira.

It wouldn't have taken long to establish a connection between the two. If comedy directors can make me believe attractive women want to have sex with Adam Sandler or Mike Myers even though they only have 90 minutes to do it, the makers of Planet Hulk could have crafted a believable arc for the Hulk/Caeira love story.

I missed Brood, I wished the expanded story of the Spikes could've been included, and I felt like Hiroim's character felt more like a generic hero than the Eastern-influenced warrior-monk we got in the comic. But overall Planet Hulk is a good movie, faithful to its roots, and definitely the best of the Lions Gate Marvel adaptations I've seen so far.

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