Your stock is rising, Marvel.
As always, it’s hard to write about animated comic book movies without doing a bit of comparison. It’s almost like I’m keeping score of Marvel Animation and DC Universe Original Animated, for some inexplicable reason. Then again, when there are only two games in town, it’s hard not to. Regardless, the clearcut winner has historically been DC Animated, whose features typically feature better animation, more complex storylines, better writing and superior voice acting. However Marvel’s newest entry, Planet Hulk, shows that Marvel is ready to knock a couple of dents in DC’s armor.
Planet Hulk is based on the comic book storyline of the same name, but with some notable and necessary (and some unnecessary) differences. The essential story is the same: The Hulk (aka Bruce Banner, though we never see him in this version) is simply too dangerous to exist on earth anymore. Long-regarded as one of the most powerful, most destructive and most uncontrollable forces on the planet, a group of what can best be described as superpowered wisemen called the Illuminati decide to step in. The group, comprised of Namor (The Sub-Mariner), Tony Stark (Iron Man), Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), Dr. Strange, Black Bolt, and Charles Xavier (Professor X), essentially capture and sedate the Hulk and launch him into space. Hulk, waking up in bonds on a spaceship, learns this from a holographic message left by Tony Stark, who tells him they’ve found a peaceful, green planet without intelligent life where they hope he can find peace. The Hulk, as is his way, loses his shit, breaks free and trashes the ship, causing it to crash land on the planet Sakaar, a desert planet ruled by a harsh and oppressive king known as The Red King. Hulk is promptly captured and sold into slavery, where he and a ragged band of other slaves are forced to fight in gladiatorial games for the amusement of the king and his people. The King, who came to power after saving the people from near-genocide decades before, fears and instantly despises the Hulk, especially once the arena’s fans begin to rally behind his wins.
Sound familiar? Well, it’s essentially a gladiator movie for the first 50 minutes, and the stories of gladiator movies (Spartacus, Gladiator) don’t deviate much — undesesrving hero is captured, forced to fight, joins forces with the other gladiators, leads them to overthrow their oppressors, and either dies or becomes king. Planet Hulk, despite featuring superheroes and aliens, sticks pretty closely to that formula.
Anyone who pays even passing attention to Marvel comics knows that there have been several incarnations of the hulk — green, gray (even red nowadays), smart, stupid, angry, calm, etc., etc. This particular version is green, can speak and is moderately intelligent, but still a distinct personality from alter ego Bruce Banner. The story follows the Hulk as he fights wave after wave of gladiator challengers — robots, insects, giant robot-centipede thingamajigs, even Beta Ray Bill, who is involved in the story briefly and rather bizarrely — the purpose of his character is filled by the Silver Surfer in the comic book series, but for reasons unknown they went with Bill for this one. Regardless, the people of Sakaar are waiting for their legendary savior, and after witnessing his feats in the arena, they begin to believe the Hulk is that savior. As I said, you can guess where this leads.
Director Greg Johnson does manage to some curveballs thrown into the plot — the Hulk is initially aloof from his fellow fighters, but of course, eventually begins to care for them. The emperor is cunning and way more evil than you suspect, and his woman-at-arms is more than she appears. But overall, the plot is rather predictable. This is born somewhat out of necessity, as the comic’s storyline is massively complex and dependent on years of history, but a little frustrating as well — every outcome is telegraphed, every character predictable. That said, it’s still an effective little movie. The action is fast and furious. Both Marvel and DC are upping the violence quotient in their animated films, and, especially for characters such as the Hulk, this is a near necessity. The Hulk is a creature of rage and strength and determination, and it’s well reflected in Planet Hulk. The voice acting is overall excellent — it lacks the big-ticket names that other aniimated films has, but I usually think that works to the advantage of these films. Hearing a recognizable voice is distracting sometimes.
The animation is good, not great. It’s a simple animation style, but the world of Sakaar is well-rendered and visually pretty impressive. A desert planet, it’s full of harsh landscapes and creative, alien architecture that helps you buy into the story. The character animations are sharp, the Hulk in particular — the close up shots of his face and eyes are able to show a remarkable range of emotion. Best of all, the creature design is varied and interesting. There’s a cornucopia of alien races that come into play, and they are all inventive and unusual.
Planet Hulk, along with Marvel’s last effort Hulk Vs., is a strong step in the right direction for Marvel’s animated film catalogue. While the story is fairly predictable and derivative, it’s a well-told one and has some fun quirks thrown into it. The colors and animation are vivid and exciting, the voice acting is slick and the direction is strong. It’s predictable, but not dumb — Planet Hulk is another animated film that should satisfy kids and adult fans alike (although the violence and mild bloodletting may be a bit much for the little ones).
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.