by Mel Valentin
Over the last five years, DC Comics and Marvel Comics have moved their longstanding rivalry from comic books to straight-to-DVD, feature-length animated films. Their respective animation divisions have focused on core titles, DC with Superman, Batman, and the Justice League, and Marvel with the Avengers (and various members thereof). Both DC and Marvel animation units have delivered engaging, quality entertainment, DC with "Justice League: The New Frontier" and "Green Lantern: First Flight" and Marvel with "Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme" and now "Planet Hulk," a popular Hulk-as-gladiator storyline that appeared three years ago in "The Incredible Hulk" comic book series. Originally intended to remove the Hulk from the then ongoing "Civil War" mini-series, writer Greg Pak and artist Carlo Pagulayan’s well-received arc lasted more than a year.Planet Hulk opens in media res, as Iron Man (voiced by Marc Worden), the nominal leader of the Illuminati, a super-secret cabal of Marvel’s best-and-brightest superheroes (e.g., Namor, the Sub-Mariner, Reed Richards, a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic, Doctor Strange, Black Bolt, and Charles Xavier) exile the too-dangerous Hulk (Rick D. Wasserman) into outer space via a computer-operated space shuttle. The Hulk breaks free from his restraints, however, causing the shuttle to crash land on Sakaar. Almost immediately, natives to Sakaar attack the Hulk. A weakened Hulk easily fends off an insect-like race, but loses in a confrontation with soldiers armed with high-tech weapons. The soldiers, loyal to Sakaar’s despotic ruler, the Red King (Mark Hildreth), drag the Hulk back to the capital, where the Hulk will fight as a gladiator.
"It's the Hulk's world. We just get to watch him smash it."
At the Coliseum, the Hulk meets the other gladiators, Miek (Sam Vincent), a member of an insectoid race who claims he’s “hider, not a fighter,” Korg (Kevin Michael Richardson), a rocklike alien not native to Sakaar, Elloe Kaifi (Advah Soudack), a noble-born resistance leader, Hiroim (Liam O'Brien), a priest-turned-rebel, and Lavin Skee (Michael Kopsa), the gladiators’ nominal leader. At first, the Hulk refuses to fight with the other gladiators as a team, but agrees when he learns he’ll gain his freedom if he survives three battles in the gladiatorial arena. When a gladiator loses his life, the others swear mutual allegiance and call themselves the Warbound. The Red King, who, with his bald head, megalomania, and, later, a power suit, resembles Lex Luthor (but with red skin), proves as duplicitous as the Hulk initially suspects. Caiera (Lisa Ann Beley), the Red King’s chief bodyguard, becomes pivotal to the Hulk’s fate on Sakaar.
For the “Planet Hulk” arc, Pak borrowed heavily from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. Taking his cues from Pak, screenwriter Greg Johnson (Wolverine and the X: Men, Doctor Strange, The Invincible Iron Man, Ultimate Avengers I and II) modeled the Red King on Commodus, the Hulk on Maximus (from Gladiator) and Spartacus (the gladiator-turned-slave-leader), but mixes in a Matrix-style prophecy of a warrior-savior, the Sakaarson, who will free Sakaar from the Red King’s dictatorial rule. Johnson (again following Pak) made the Hulk a reluctant action-hero, a loner by nature and desire who repeatedly refuses the hero’s call (as in Joseph Campbell’s A Hero’s Journey). If it’s not already clear, the Hulk we meet in Planet Hulk can think and reason (he never reverts back to Bruce Banner).
Story aside, Marvel Animation has also upped the animation quality level, bringing it more in line with what DC Comics has delivered through its animation division. Although no one will confuse Planet Hulk with theatrical feature-level quality, the background textures and character details are still better than anything Marvel has delivered in the past. Just (if not more) importantly, the director, Sam Liu (Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, Hulk Vs.) delivers Hulk- and Warbound-centric set pieces (a fan-favorite Marvel character also makes an appearance, but his or her identity is better left unspoiled). Liu and his animators give Marvel exactly what they expect to get from an animated film called Planet Hulk: massive amounts of destruction and bodily damage (only when it's well-deserved, of course).Where "Planet Hulk" might surprise some fans (and casual video renters), though, will be in the depiction of violence. Death and dismemberment occur frequently on screen, including several that could be only described as disturbing, especially for young children. Marvel Animation and Lionsgate released "Planet Hulk" without a rating, but it probably should have received an R-rating. More importantly for fans of the comic book arc, "Planet Hulk" ends before the comic book series did, likely in anticipation of another direct-to-DVD feature. Unencumbered by the demands of an ongoing serial narrative (where drastic changes to the status quo are often followed by a return to the status quo ante), Marvel can take the sequel in an entirely different direction than what readers found in the comic book series.
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originally posted: 02/03/10 01:00:00