That was the best superhero animated movie I've seen to date. I love the Hulk. I'd have still liked the story had they told it with a different superhero, but the Hulk raises it to another level.
What's great is that it's doing the Universal monster aspect of the Hulk more thoroughly than I've ever seen. At first he's just the usual monosyllabic destroyer, smashing like a beast. He's such a menace that the other Marvel superheroes put him in a spaceship and send it flying towards an uninhabited planet where he can live out his life without hurting anyone, but unfortunately this doesn't happen because the ship will have twenty seconds to live as soon as the Hulk realises what's happening. He does land on an alien planet, but one with people on it. Whoops.
He lands, he starts smashing up the natives... and suddenly he finds himself getting zapped, fitted with an "obedience disc" that reprograms his brain to make him speak the language and then sold into slavery. This isn't something you often get with the Hulk. He's an underdog! The Red King of Sakaar is so strong and powerful that even the Hulk's in trouble under his regime. He's put in a gladiatorial arena along with other rebels and malcontents and basically the story's being set up nicely for a battle against the evil Roman Emperor. We've seen this kind of thing before, but that's okay. It's a strong story. It's Spartacus or Ridley Scott's Gladiator... except that you've never seen it like this. The Hulk's no hero. The fighting begins and Hulk just stands back and lets his friends become a pile of corpses.
This is cool. I loved it. They haven't watered down the Hulk at all, but instead are going out of their way to show that he's a selfish, brutal bastard. Obviously he'll change later in the story, but not all of these are the kinds of changes you'd expect. He becomes more talkative, for instance. Maybe it's the brain-reprogramming or maybe it's just the novelty of being in a situation that he can't fix with his fists, but after a while he starts using grammar, seeing through political intrigues and holding himself like a man instead of an ape. He's still a monster who might as easily destroy you as save you, but at least he's now capable of expressing his rage and alienation in words as well as actions. Some of the things he says are pretty shocking. "Earth is no home of mine." "I don't need any friends." Furthermore, even when he has information that might save someone's life, he doesn't really care. "If you do X, you'll die," he says, for instance, then just lies there and does nothing as his friend does X anyway.
It's the story of a monster becoming a man. It doesn't mean much for someone who's already heroic to start saving people, but this Hulk? I've never seen anyone tell a story this far-reaching with the character, although the Ang Lee movie moved me in a different way. This is why he's different from all other superheroes and my favourite of the lot.
Unusually for Marvel, it's a direct adaptation of a comic book storyline. The original was written by Greg Pak, drawn by Carlo Pagulayan and mostly appeared in Incredible Hulk 92-105. If you can, read that instead. Everyone says it's better. People who've read it don't tend to get too excited about this animated version and even its producers admit that they had to cut out a lot to get the story down to movie-length, even with its unusually long running time by Marvel straight-to-DVD standards. A proper adaptation would have been a 6-hour miniseries. The list of differences includes:
(a) losing the Silver Surfer because of licensing issues, although Beta Ray Bill of all unlikely people makes a good substitute. I'd never heard of the guy, but he looks cool. In his first scene, I was wondering why this horse-faced monster was dressed up as Thor.
(b) a simplified ending that misses off some pretty dark stuff and doesn't lead into World War Hulk
(c) no lead-in on Earth, just jumping straight into the Hulk in space.
(d) fewer supporting characters and less happening to them, although there's still plenty of character development to make this a richer and more fully realised world than I'd expected going in.
That said, though, I think there is a point to this film. It can go further than other screen Hulk versions, not having to worry about being either a mainstream big-budget tentpole film or an animated children's TV series. It's certainly much more graphic than either of those, with some nasty violence and a willingness to kill off anyone, including children. I've even heard it said that some bits are creepier or scarier than the original comic, which I'd guess would be the spike-zombies. Besides, it's a really nice production. They've clearly worked hard (and succeeded) at making it epic, with a story and a scope that's broader and deeper than it needed to be. I didn't notice the voice actors, which means they're doing their jobs and not being annoying. This is almost unknown in this kind of thing, but fortunately everyone's clearly realised that for once this is a proper story that calls for actual acting. Fred Tatasciore isn't playing the Hulk this time, while Sam Vincent does well to stop Miek from being the annoying comic relief. I liked Miek. He's cool.
It's got Chosen One prophecies, with no explanation of how these prophecies came to be in the first place. These are laid on pretty thick at times, but I liked them. Firstly, they give other characters a reason to want to believe in the Hulk when any rational being would be wanting to stay the hell away from him. Secondly, there's a cool bit of symbolism with the regenerative powers in the Hulk's blood making plants grow when it's spilled, although the film never puts it that way. Maybe they just didn't have time to fit in the explanation? The DVD commentary explains why the Hulk never turns back into Banner, for instance, which is that the planet is toxic to humans and so the Hulk's "too dangerous for the puny human" trigger is always firing.
Some specific bits aren't done as well as they might have been. The scene where a child dies and crumbles into dust doesn't have its full emotional impact, perhaps because it happens while Caiera's simply walking along. There's also idiot plotting when the Red King says something stupid and turns an ally into an enemy, although in fairness he is a dick. However the actual story changes I thought were intelligent, with Beta Ray Bill and his set-up being great and the Red King's death being downright brilliant. Now that's what I call poetic justice.
At the end of the day, I loved it. I'm sure I'll love the graphic novels even more when I get around to reading them, but for what it is I think this is outstanding. The animation style's perhaps a bit clean and simplified for my tastes, but it would have been ridiculous to expect a Disney-level budget. I just love its Hulk. I love him when he's a brute with tactics to match (charge straight at opponent, get beaten into the ground, repeat until someone's dead), but I also love the later, more talkative version he's forced to become. I love the way he destroys Beta Ray Bill's obedience disc in the arena and turns him into a good guy... and then turns him into a bloody crater anyway. I love the way that on this planet, he gets hurt. I love the way we see inside him. "I've never been called anything but a monster."
I'm now desperate for Lionsgate to follow this up with World War Hulk
. I know nothing about it but its title, but what a title!