Sunday Slugfest: Planet Hulk (DVD and Blu-Ray)

A comic review article by: Thom Young, Charles Webb, Jason Sacks, Paul Brian McCoy, Karyn Pinter
The Hulk was impossible to control and too dangerous to ignore, so Earth’s mightiest heroes exiled him to an Earth-like planet that has no sentient species. However, the spaceship is knocked off course due to The Hulk's rampage--which results in it crashing on a planet called Sakaar that is ruled by a tyrannical Roman-styled emperor.

Forced into slavery, The Hulk becomes the empire's mightiest gladiator--as well as the prophesied Messiah whose arrival was foretold in the planet's religious texts.

Charles Webb:
Jason Sacks:
Paul Brian McCoy:
Karyn Pinter:
Thom Young:

Charles Webb:

There’s a challenge inherent in condensing a year or more of storylines into a feature film. The problem has to be particularly compounded when it’s a pricey animated production with an 81-minute runtime. Indeed, Planet Hulk is a production that appears to struggle with its limitations--distilling what was one of the more epic and definitive stories about the green goliath into something that feels like it’s missing . . . something.

For those not in the know, the Greg Pak-penned “Planet Hulk” storyline ran through issues 92-105 of The Incredible Hulk, which followed the banishment of the title character from Earth following the plot development in Brian Michael Bendis's The New Avengers: Illuminati. Rocketed into space by Iron Man, Reed Richards, and Doctor Strange towards what was supposed to be an uninhabited but hospitable planet, the Hulk’s rampage inside the ship sends him off course.

The movie picks up these beats as well as the Hulk’s being drafted into the local gladiatorial games alongside a group of convicts and outcasts for the pleasure of the Roman-styled empire that is led by its own version of Nero: the Red King. The big draw of the comic was precisely how ferocious and downright hostile the world was to the Hulk. He could bleed on this planet; everything was a threat to him, and there was serious doubt as to whether he was "the strongest of them all."

Again, the movie conveys these elements--the Hulk bleeds, he’s thrown into the gladiator’s ring, he fights for the pleasure of it--but something feels missing. About 45 minutes in, I realized what that something was--the Hulk. The character is onscreen in his more intelligent persona, but it felt like he was missing from the actual story. He wasn’t really driving events, they were just sort of happening to him.

Here, it feels like the filmmakers missed the arc that made the original story so compelling--the Hulk finding his place in a world of monsters, and attempting to strike a balance between his rage and his heroic nature. The book was notable for allowing the Hulk to veer into nearly amoral, might-makes-right territory. In one telling instance, the Hulk pushed one his fellow prisoners--now calling themselves the Warbound--to act out in revenge because it’s what the Hulk would do.

Missing many of these particular notes, the movie feels deflated--and the Hulk’s arc feels poorly defined. It then comes down to a series of very long fight scenes. To their detriment, the fight scenes (which would be enough to justify the price of admission) feel downright anemic. Much of the action consists of the same shot of a character being flung back against a wall or onto the ground. The physical interaction between the combatants is somehow simultaneously messy and kinetic.

I was surprised how negative my review came out. The movie was an adequate diversion while I was watching it. However, in the final analysis, Planet Hulk is pretty slight as it lacks the emotion and energy of the source material.

If you liked this review, be sure to check out more of the author’s work at Monster In Your Veins

Jason Sacks:

I enjoyed the heck out of Planet Hulk--especially before I read Greg Pak's excellent graphic novel, which I have now read as well.

The idea behind the story is simple and logical: some of Marvel's smartest heroes launch the Hulk into space in order to essentially quarantine Earth from one of its worst threats. The Hulk's spaceship unexpectedly hits a wormhole, which transports Greenskin to Sakaar, a world in which gladiators fight for survival against impossible odds. While on Sakaar, the Hulk slowly grows in both maturity and strength--eventually fulfilling an ancient prophecy by becoming the planet's savior and king.

Much of the movie is taken up with some exciting fighting in the gladiatorial stadium. The idea of ancient Rome transported into space is hardly a new idea, but we're not necessarily looking for new ideas in a story like Planet Hulk. The comfortable framework allows for fun action scenes and a nice story arc--since the filmmakers don't need to explain the gladiatorial aspect of the story, they're free to focus on more interesting topics.

The gladiator scenes proceed pretty much as you might expect, but it's hard to see how they might have gone differently. We see the Hulk slowly rise through the ranks, growing a following as he does so. Many of the battle scenes are fun, but my favorite was the battle between the Hulk and Beta Ray Bill, which really grew in drama as it proceeded.

The action scenes on this DVD give the story a lot of energy, but it's the Hulk's arc that gives the story its heart. We've never really seen this Hulk before. In the past, when the Hulk has found happiness, it has come from him either compromising his own toughness or literally becoming a different person. However, in Planet Hulk, he finds true happiness through being himself.

On Sakaar, the Hulk is in the perfect place at the perfect time to become self-actualized since incredible strength, channeled anger, and a kind of brutish enlightened narcissism are positive attributes on Sakaar. The very attributes that caused the Illuminati to launch the Hulk into space are those that led him to become a great leader on Sakaar and find true contentment in his life. The movie presents a very satisfying character arc for the Hulk because he grows from literally being rejected by his old society to becoming absolutely beloved by his new society.

He even finds love in the arms of the beautiful and extremely powerful Caiera, a woman who's the Hulk's equal in so many ways and whose story also follows an equally interesting arc. Caiera had once been a member of the Shadow Guard of the despotic Red King, only to be betrayed by the emperor when he performs an act of unspeakable evil. Caiera and Hulk are a couple who belong together. They are very different people, but it's easy to see how they can find love and respect for each other.

The final scenes, in which the Hulk finds true happiness, are surprisingly moving because the character developments are so nicely depicted.

So this DVD movie is very entertaining. The only problem is what is so often the problem when a very good book is adapted to a movie--there's so much that is left out.

After watching Planet Hulk, I pulled out my trade paperback copy of the story on which this movie is based--and there's just so much more that wasn't included in the movie. One of the Hulk's gladiator allies, a Brood female, is cut entirely from the movie, and she was one of the most intriguing characters in the graphic novel.

The story arc of Miek, the Hulk's insect ally, is also dramatically truncated. We get some implications of Miek's story on the DVD, but it drops much of the satisfying content that makes him such an interesting character in the novel.

Most notably, the movie also truncates the threat posed by the nasty Spike creatures that fall from space and bedevil the people of Sakaar. Though the Spikes provide some of the most vivid and moving scenes, they don't have the same emotional impact as they do in the book.

Finally, we also get a very different ending. In the comics, the Hulk returned to Earth full of vengeance for the Illuminati--which triggered the World War Hulk story. In the movie, however, the story ends at a different point--one that gives the viewer a happy ending that provides closure to the movie's story arcs. It's a good fit, and it will leave most viewers happy--I think.

Possibly the difference that people will mention the most is the fact that Beta Ray Bill is included in the movie in two places. In one instance, in the coliseum where he replaces the Silver Surfer, the change is made smoothly and is quite satisfying. The scene with the Silver Surfer in the graphic novel seems a bit awkward and depends a bit too much on the reader's familiarity with the Marvel Universe.

However, having Beta Ray Bill grafted onto an earlier scene with the Stone Men from Saturn detracts from the movie a bit for me. I liked the feeling of closure that we get from having the character reappear in the movie, but his inclusion in the recreation of Thor's origin just felt unnatural and distracting to me.

The Planet Hulk DVD is packed with bonus features. The two behind-the-scenes commentaries give good explanations for the storytelling choices that the filmmakers made, and they provide a nice context for the story. We also get a preview of the upcoming Tales of Asgard DVD, which looks outstanding. There's also an entertaining episode of Wolverine and the X-Men that features the Hulk as well as some weird motion comics.

I really enjoyed Planet Hulk. The DVD was exciting and satisfying, and I'm very glad it got me to read the even more satisfying graphic novel. The works are very different from each other, but they're both a hell of a lot of fun.

Paul Brian McCoy:

Do you want the long version or the short version?

Short version is, Planet Hulk is freaking awesome--the best animated Marvel work I've ever seen.

Long version?

Well, okay. Since you asked nicely.

I'm not a big Hulk fan. Never have been, really. Oh, he's an okay character when a good writer is on board, but there are about forty years' worth of Hulk stories that I couldn't care less about.

I liked the very first Hulk stories from back in 1962 when he was a sociopath who would have just as soon conquered the planet as save it. However, the big, dumb, man-child Hulk never really did anything for me (outside of some his Defenders appearances written by Steve Gerber).

So you can imagine my surprise when, a few years back, I picked up an issue of The Incredible Hulk with the "Planet Hulk" logo on the front. It was about three or four issues into the story, I think. After flipping through it in the shop, I decided to order what I'd missed and take the ride--and it was a pretty damned good ride.

Sure, it had a lot of clichés and mystical mumbo-jumbo that was never really explained, but it was a fresh take on the character and a dedicated twelve-issue story with a beginning, middle, and end. Sort of. If you've read it, you know what I mean.

It was also packed with a lot of very brutal violence--which, when combined with an interesting story, goes a long way with me. Then, when I heard that there was going to be an animated version of "Planet Hulk," I really wasn't sure what to expect. I've tried to watch the Ultimate Avengers cartoons, but I couldn't finish them. I skipped Iron Man. Doctor Strange was okay, but a little too JMS-y. Thus, I wouldn't have been surprised to pop this DVD in and get a big facefull of whitewashed blah.

But that was not the case.

While not as violent or adult as the comic, this animated adaptation stays very faithful to the source material. In fact, there are a couple of scenes that play just as powerfully here as they did in the comic, and the streamlining of the story for the 81-minute format helps to provide a very satisfying done-in-one feel. You really can't tell anything's missing.

In fact, the only major change made was the replacement of the Silver Surfer with Beta Ray Bill (thanks to legal tie-ups with 20th Century Fox, I assume)--and, to be honest, I always felt that the Silver Surfer was out-of-place in the comic. His appearance just happened out of the blue with no real set-up or justification.

Beta Ray Bill, on the other hand, is worked into the framework of the story early, so when he re-appears later in the Arena, it's a nice callback that reinforces narrative ties to one of the Hulk's Warbound allies. Kudos, gang. Well done.

And to make the whole thing even better, the story comes to its conclusion before the tragic events that marked the end of the comic's story and the beginning of "World War Hulk"--all of which adds up to the best Marvel Animation experience I've ever had.

There are also a few cameos that are more like Easter Eggs than anything that actually adds to the story. Just pay attention to the crowds watching the gladiator combat and you'll see what I'm talking about.

One appearance, however, was kind of creepy and shadowy, which I thought was going to signal a very significant change from the source story, but it had nothing to do with anything--so, when you see a mysterious figure lurking behind the throne of the Red King, you can just ignore it and enjoy bumping up your geek cred for recognizing who it was.

Did I hear someone ask about the Extras?

Well, they're a bit of a mixed bag, with some having no real relation to Planet Hulk--like the first chapters of the Spider-Woman and Astonishing X-Men motion comics along with their respective music videos (about which, the less said, the better).

Also included is an episode of the Wolverine and the X-Men animated series, involving Wolverine, The Hulk, and the Wendigo. However, it's not a retelling of the first appearance of Wolverine, as I expected it to be. Instead, it's a new story that references the other, then goes on to tell just about the same story.

I'm not really sure what the point of it was. Except, of course, to promote another Marvel product. If you ask me, it can be skipped--as can the motion comics.

On the other hand, the extras that directly relate to Planet Hulk are very good and informative. The first is a "making of" documentary that goes into the creative process behind the film--from the crafting of the opening credit sequence to voice casting to the details of winnowing down the original story into a piece that works in 81 minutes while staying true to the source material.

The second documentary goes into the writing and producing of the "Planet Hulk" storyline from Incredible Hulk. This also provides an entertaining and informative look into what went into the creation of the best Hulk storyline in at least a decade. Maybe longer.

Finally, we also get a preview of the next Marvel Animated Feature: Thor: Tales of Asgard!!!

Yes, that was three exclamation points I used, thankyouverymuch. I am a total geek for the original Lee and Kirby "Tales of Asgard" stories, and while this isn't really related to those, it does tell a tale of young Thor, Loki, and Sif going off on a huge mythological adventure. The trailer looks impressive, though the opening sequence included on this disc seemed a little pedestrian. We'll have to see how it plays out.

So, if you're wondering whether to drop some coin on Planet Hulk, I can say without hesitation that it's worth the price. I don't have much need for the digital copy included on the second disc, but if that's your thing, then all the more reason to pick it up. I really don't think you'll be sorry.

Karyn Pinter:

Planet Hulk opens with our big green buddy strapped into a spaceship--destination nowhere special--receiving a message from Iron Man going on about how sorry he and rest of the Illuminati are for sending him away. Their reasoning? Hulk, when in the grip of his rage, is an unstoppable force of destruction.

Don't you think shanghaiing a giant, pissed off mutant is going to piss him off more? Hulk goes on to hulk-smash his ship. In doing so, he gets jettisoned off course and ends up landing on Sakaar, a planet in need of a hero—a giant, green, pissed off hero.

How convenient.

Alright, I'm not a huge Hulk fan. In fact, I have read only one issue of The Incredible Hulk--which was issue 181, the first appearance of Wolverine (and it was for that reason alone that I read it). Now, since I know jack about the source material, other than what I read on Wikipedia, I can't compare the two, so that should cut down on the complaining.

Right off the bat, this movie was badass.

I really wasn't expecting much more than a hyped-up kids' movie, but I was taken pleasantly by surprise. The story was very entertaining, even if it was just the slightest bit predictable.

I mean, the hero, against his will (or at least not of his own doing), ends up in a strange land and is sold into slavery to fight as a gladiator. He then ends up saving the day by rising against the tyrant king. How many times has that story been told before?

On the other hand, how many times has it been told with The Hulk?

See, there's the difference. Mutants make the world go round, and give fresh new spins to tried and true plots. It has all the elements needed for a standard action flick--reluctant hero, bumbling sidekick, token female badass, blood and guts, Machiavellian leader, kick-ass death for villain, and at least one automobile (or in this case spaceship) crash.

Additionally, being a gladiator-themed movie, there was plenty of violence--real violence, like aliens being cut in half. There was even one case of eyeballs rupturing.

Thumbs up on graphically exploding eyeballs in a cartoon.

However, there were a few things that weren't explained enough--such as Caiera's ability to live through the "spike" attack in her childhood. It's just a quick mention of the name of this trait and that's it.

Well? Why does she have it and no one else in her village has it--not even either one of her parents?

Is she some kind of reborn ancient? Or a goddess? And is that all her ability does, help her evade attack?

Nothing is explained, and it just seems like a convenient plot device. I looked up her character online. I know it has to be explained in the comic, so why not in the movie? It's that kind of slip that held the movie back; that wasn't the only one, just the one that really stood out.

Anyway, as a character, the Hulk has always been a bit confusing to me. I know that sounds sort of silly, but I have never understood how he can be considered a hero. He's Bruce Banner's impulsive, brutish, alter ego who goes around smashing things when he's angry. That never really struck the hero cord with me.

Apparently it didn't feel right to the Illuminati either since they jettisoned Hulk off into space. The point I'm trying to make is that the Hulk has always been a big brute who is capable of nothing more than smashing city blocks to bits. However, after watching Planet Hulk, I'm starting to think otherwise.

I found the protagonist to be more human in this story than I assumed him to be. It was very easy to identify the Hulk as the hero and to want him to succeed. That aspect should vouch for the quality of the story. It changed my mind about a character I would otherwise have written off as being one-dimensional.

This movie could turn me into a fan yet.

So many of these animated comic movies just come off as hour-and-a-half-long TV episodes. Lately, though, I've noticed that they are becoming more complex and mature. If the movie version was this good, then I can only assume the comic on which it is based is even better.

Obviously, this movie is a must for any fan of the Hulk series--but for those of us who aren't die-hard Hulk fans, the movie is really worth checking out. I think I'll definitely be tracking down the original "Planet Hulk" comic book issues.

Thom Young:

Unlike my colleague Charles at the top of this slugfest, I was surprised at how positive my reaction to Planet Hulk is. I have not read the original print version of the story, and I'm not likely to ever do so--due to time and financial constraints rather than any sort of obstinacy on my part.

I knew that there was a "Planet Hulk" story running through the Incredible Hulk comic book series a few years ago, and that it was a story that had come out of Marvel's Civil War event. However, I had no interest in it at the time.

The truth is that while I think the Hulk is a great character, I've only read a few of his stories during my 30-some years of reading comics:
  • The origin story in Incredible Hulk #1 by Jack Kirby from 1962,

  • The first appearance of Wolverine (which Karyn mentioned above) in Incredible Hulk #181 from 1974 (which I once owned a near mint copy of and sold for about two dollars, unfortunately),

  • DC Special Series #27 (a.k.a. Batman vs. The Incredible Hulk) from 1981,

  • And the collected editions of Bruce Jones's run on issues 34-76 of Incredible Hulk (second series) that began in 2001.
I had also read some random issue of Incredible Hulk while on a camping trip when I was 12. It belonged to another boy, and I only recall that the story was about the Hulk in a subatomic world where he had a lover named Jarella. I've since discovered that the issue was Incredible Hulk #156 from 1972 (more on that story in a moment).

That's it. Those are all of my experiences with a character whom I admit has a great deal of potential for fascinating stories through the exploration of themes and motifs that are deeply rooted in the Cold War milieu of the early 1960s.

In fact, I suppose it's my view of the Hulk as "an Atomic Age Mr. Hyde who is a byproduct of the Cold War" that caused me to not be the least bit interested in the "Planet Hulk" story when I first heard about it a few years ago. It's also the reason why the only Hulk stories that I truly enjoyed as "Hulk stories" (as opposed to Wolverine or Batman stories) were Kirby's origin from Incredible Hulk #1 and the first half of Jones's run.

I'm sure there are many Hulk stories that I haven't read but that I would enjoy. However, a space-faring Hulk who finds an extraterrestrial civilization modeled after the Roman Empire sounded like a bad idea--even though I firmly believe that any story concept can work if it's appropriately executed. It's just that if I want to read a well-executed story of an Earthman who finds himself on a barbarian planet where he is eventually hailed as a hero, then I'll read Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter of Mars and Carson Napier of Venus series(es).

If I want to read that type of story in comics form, then I'll seek out reprints of Alex Raymond's "Flash Gordon" comic strips. Similarly, if I want to read a science fiction story of a space-faring Earthman from the early 1960s, I'd prefer Gardner Fox's original Adam Strange stories from DC's Mystery in Space.

Obviously, the concept of Planet Hulk is not new. In fact, it's not even that new for the Hulk. Harlan Ellison essentially used the same idea of the character traveling to another world where he is considered a hero rather than a monster in his 1971 story from Incredible Hulk #140--"The Brute that Shouted Love at the Heart of the Atom."

In Ellison's story, the Hulk is sent to the subatomic world of K'ai where Bruce Banner's mind is brought out in the Hulk's body by sorcerers in service to the world's queen, Jarella. Not only is Hulk hailed as a hero, but he becomes Jarella's lover (as much as could be implied in a 1971 story that was approved by the Comics Code Authority.

The Planet Hulk reworking of the story has part of Bruce Banner's mind rise to consciousness in the Hulk's body through some sort of neurological device that is implanted in the Hulk's chest. Additionally, Hulk is hailed as a hero and becomes the lover of Caiera (the Jarella analogue in Planet Hulk).

It's Ellison's initial story that informed its sequel from Incredible Hulk #156 that I chanced upon when I was 12. However, rather than a sequel, Planet Hulk is clearly a re-imagining (and expansion) of Ellison's story. As I indicated, Jarella is replaced by Caiera--who doesn't become Sakaar's queen until the end of the story when she and the Hulk are set to rule the planet after removing the despotic emperor.

So, yeah, Planet Hulk is not very original as a concept. In fact, it's basically a blend of Ellison's story and the 1954 film Demetrius and the Gladiators--but one in which the Hulk is the gladiator-Messiah instead of being a 1st-Century gladiator-Christian.

However, even though Planet Hulk is simply a reworking of these "sword and planet" and "sword and sandals" stories, it's a surprisingly well-executed reworking of them. I don't have a problem with newer stories that are simply reworked versions of earlier stories. After all, Shakespeare's Hamlet may have been a reworking of earlier stories referred to as the Ur-Hamlet, but it doesn't mean Shakespeare should not have written Hamlet.

We also know that Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida is not only an adaptation of Gregory Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, but that the story goes back at least to Boccaccio’s version of it in Il Filostrato. Yet, Shakespeare's and Chaucer's respective "remakes" are classics of world literature nonetheless.

Similarly, Christopher Marlowe was not the first to write a story about Faustus, a character who went back at least 17 years earlier (and probably much earlier) to the 1587 Faustbuch--which also informed Goethe’s Faust in 1808.

No, there is absolutely nothing wrong with re-telling the same basic stories as long as there is something new that can be brought out of them (which Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho failed to achieve). Fortunately, Planet Hulk has enough twists on the old stories to hold my attention and engage my intellect.

Yes, there is a great deal of fighting in this movie. Normally, consider mindless violence in superhero stories as the equivalent of WWE-styled professional wrestling "matches." However, the gladiator motif in Planet Hulk allows all of the fighting to work within the context of the story in a way that is similar to why the song and dance routines work for me in All that Jazz even though I normally hate musicals.

Additionally, Planet Hulk is not just scene after scene of super-powered fighting, which is what DC's recent Green Lantern: First Flight unfortunately is.

It doesn't surprise me that my colleagues who have read the original print version of Planet Hulk have pointed out that the graphic novel is better than the movie. After all, 99 percent of the time a good novel is going to be better than its film adaptation regardless of how good the film is. The only instance where I haven't found the film to not be as good as the original novel is with Blade Runner, which I think is superior to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? However, Philip K. Dick's original novel isn't bad; it's just that Ridley Scott's film adaptation is better.

For someone like me who will probably never read the Planet Hulk graphic novel, this movie version is a well worth watching.

Nevertheless, I suppose if you are going to spend money on this story, I would recommend buying the graphic novel simply because I think reading a novel is better than watching its film adaptation. However, there are plenty of stories in which I love both the novel and the film--such as George Orwell's 1984 and the film version that starred John Hurt as Winston Smith.

For those people who have read the graphic novel, the Planet Hulk movie will probably be an enjoyable experience, too (as it was for Jason Sacks and Paul Brian McCoy).

Like Jason, I had a slight problem with the movie's re-imagining of Kirby's "The Stone Men from Saturn" from Journey into Mystery #83. The movie has Beta Ray Bill help Thor vanquish those extraterrestrial stone men--who are now from a planet called Krona rather than Saturn.

Of course, Krona is a variation on the name Cronus, the Greek deity on whom the Roman god Saturn is based--so they are still the stone men from Saturn in a way.

At first it bothered me a great deal that Beta Ray Bill had been inserted into Kirby's story, but I later realized that it does an appropriate job of setting up the character's subsequent appearance near the end of the movie.

Since I did not know at the time that Beta Ray Bill was standing in for the Silver Surfer from the graphic novel, I initially wondered whether Greg Pak had revised Kirby's and Walt Simonson's respective Thor stories. Obviously, I now understand that it is the movie that revised those stories--and I must admit that it works.

I think Beta Ray Bill is actually a better choice to be a gladiator on Sakaar, and I'm actually glad the Silver Surfer wasn't used in the movie. My only qualm is that I wish the Messianic angle had been explored more fully. I'm intrigued by this notion of the Hulk as a Messiah (similar to the possibility of Kirby's Apokolips-born New God, Orion, as a messianic figure).

Perhaps the Messiah angle is explored in more depth in the novel. If that's the case, it might just be enough to get me to buy that book after all . . . someday, when I have more time and money.

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