Sure, Batman is probably my favourite 'superhero' - the thinking man's comic character (I've never liked Superman because, despite his amazing powers, he's limitlessly dense) - but in the Marvel Universe where Spiderman, X-Men and Daredevil are popular fan favourites, the not-so-jolly green giant has always managed to grab my attention. I know, I know, his character is supposed to highlight the dichotomy between the intellect and the brute force of mankind itself, but - frankly - there is something viscerally satisfying about mild-mannered Bruce Banner's reaction to the situation when people - or circumstances - push him to the limit. He snaps, grows a few feet taller (and wider), bulges with rippling muscles, and turns green. And, at that point, his solution to near enough everything boils down to a simple choice between smash or bash, with a few combos thrown into the mix. Oh, and he becomes distinctly monosyllabic and shouts a lot. Of course there's something slightly worrying about the representation of an angry, violent guy like this as being any kind of hero (anti- or otherwise) but the stories that followed him always walked this fine line quite carefully, depicting him as a good man who largely just wants to be left alone - but is continually oppressed.
The live-action interpretations of the classic Hulk character have both succeeded and failed in various respects: Ang Lee's beautiful vision eventually degenerated into a messy puddle of badly-expressed, poorly-realised ideas; and the Edward Norton / Tim Roth reboot suffered from being part classy action-thriller and part mindless monster-bash, leading to its own confused undoing. Who knows where they will go from here? Personally I hope they make the character a full-tilt anti-hero in the upcoming Avengers ensemble superhero movie. In the 'Ultimates' graphic novel saga, which recently updated this particular motley crew of remarkably human superheroes, the Hulk was awesomely realised. And it'd just be nice to see him crawl up a skyscraper and threaten to eat Freddie Prinze Jr. for trying it on with his girlfriend, Betty Ross. Alas, that's never going to happen on the Big Screen (particularly after the disappointing animated interpretation of the 'Ultimates' storylines - called the Ultimate Avengers) and I'm pretty sure Hulk is always going to be a misunderstood, misinterpreted and under-realised character.
Thankfully the lack of Big (or small) Screen success for my favourite Marvel character has not stopped his return to form in the comic book realm, the seminal Planet Hulk saga setting new standards for this angry man's exploits. It's a bloody good - and pretty epic - tale. And its alien-world story set things up perfectly for a decent animated adaptation. Unfortunately I've said that before about relatively recent animated works (some of which were also from the DC realm, admittedly) and ended up utterly disappointed. Ultimate Avengers and Hulk vs. Wolverine alone didn't do justice to this raging bull. So, did they actually do this particular epic story justice, or totally ruin it both for fans and for newcomers?
After one bull-in-a-china-shop episode too many, all those clever little goody-goody superheroes on Earth (including Dr Reed Richards from the Fantastic Four, and Tony Stark's Iron Man) get together and decide that Hulk is too dangerous to stay on their planet, choosing to banish him to a planet where he is less likely to cause so much mass destruction. So the Hulk wakes up aboard a shuttle where a holo-message is playing explaining that he's been given a one-way ticket out of this solar system. Things, predictably, go awry - best laid plans and all that - as Hulk's none to impressed with the news, raging out, breaking his shackles, damaging the ship and forcing it to crash-land on the nearest planet. Rather than finding himself on an idyllic world where the he can live peacefully, he awakes in a brutal, war-torn dystopia where an unforgiving, dictatorial King rules over the majority of the world's population. Hulk is soon captured by the King's soldiers, who implant him with a disc that causes him to submit if he gets disobedient and then draft him in to participate in the King's favourite game - gladiatorial combat, to the death. Teaming up with a group of disparate fellow fighters he has to win three successive battles to gain his freedom. So, will Hulk prove triumphant and sort out this chaotic world?
I loved Planet Hulk. It was a tremendous read, basically (although this does not fully encompass its character composition and clever story arc plotting) it amounts to a Hulk version of Ridley Scott's Gladiator, with zombies(!). It's brutal and quite tragic in parts, and without the previously compulsory 'transformations' (here Hulk is always Hulk, and never Banner, despite being more intelligent than his usual, thuggish self) it is one hell of an action-packed ride. The animation studios have quite adeptly transformed it from its comic origins into a solid animated movie, stripping it down to its core essentials (a necessity, I guess, of the seemingly intractable 'unwritten law' that all animated features should be no longer than about 80 minutes), adding and removing characters where appropriate (they substituted the Silver Surfer's role in the comic for some little-known Thor-impersonator here) and avoiding the more global back-story that involved the Hulk being 'duped' into taking a space mission to save the world, subsequently doing so, and then being banished to another planet on his return journey.
All of this works quite well but there are a few changes that take away some of the gravitas of the original story - most notably the Hulk / Caiera romance is completely dropped, and the subsequent twist towards the end removed because, obviously, it would no longer make sense. I think perhaps there was not enough time to do that story justice, but I would have preferred a longer adventure with it in, rather than an abbreviate form which skips over it. Finally, they don't set things up for a sequel like you would expect them too - the book made it very clear that World War Hulk was going to follow on from the end of the story, but here things are resolved quickly, and far too neatly, avoiding almost the entire last third of the book. Still, maybe they'll make another Planet Hulk instalment, which gives us the rest and takes us into World War Hulk.
Planet Hulk is probably the best Hulk story out there, and even if it does not quite do justice to the epic material, it is the best we are going to get, and far better than everything that has come before it. And in terms of violence, it is a pretty full-on PG-13 riot, complete with plenty of blood-letting (even of the green variety), faces getting bashed in, zombie mutations, limb-lopping and even an exploding head. Which is everything a fan of the angry green man would want in a story about his ferocious adventures on an alien planet. Finally we have a story which allows Hulk to flourish as something more than just a thuggish brute hunk of muscle. Here, despite his reluctance, he is the only hope to save this foreign planet. And, as a result, he finally shows his value as a true superhero. Recommended.
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