Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Hulk Smash Character Development: Planet Hulk reviewed

When you're this big, they call you Mister Planet Hulk.
Disclaimer: This scene does not actually occur in Planet Hulk. This is the old comic-book trick of drawing readers in with an irresistibly compelling image involving their favourite hero. The sole caveat, of course, is that the compelling image, more often than not, does not appear inside the comic.
I should know better than to expect great things from relatively current depictions of classical comic book characters, such as The Incredible Hulk. Yet, due to my exposure to breathtaking depictions of popular characters, penned by prodigious writers, I still find myself disappointed at times. In this case, I was underwhelmed by writer Greg Pak's 2006 story arc of Planet Hulk and the follow-up 2010 animated film.

For the uninitiated, here's a plot summary worth the trip.

Heroes including Dr. Strange, Iron Man and Mr. Fantastic decide that the Hulk is simply too dangerous to stay on Earth. They take it upon themselves to launch the green guy into space, where he is destined to live out his days peacefully on a planet void of other sentient life. Inevitably, the Hulk awakens during the preprogrammed trip, throws a berserker tantrum, thus steering the spaceship off-course. He lands on the planet Sakarr where, weakened by his trip, the locals manage to enslave him and force him to fight in gladiator games for the Red King. Among the violence, encounters with alien beings, and an exposure to the wider universe, something inspirational occurs - the Hulk develops as a character. He slowly learns to look out for more than himself. Riffing on Ridley Scott's film, Gladiator, but also a tall stack of 1970's comics where the Hulk had interstellar tussles with the legendary behemoth Klaatu* and a long line of fantastic yet extraordinarily aggressive alien beings, Pak attempts to mine new material for the jade giant.

The thing is, there's a great, wider eye of a story gazing out from this scaffold of Hulk trashing monsters, robots, and tyrants.

If one notices, they can spot this greater idea winking out at them in a beautiful scene that appears in the print and film version of PH. The Hulk goes a wandering one evening on the surface of the confusing, desert-like planet. He gazes up at the utterly unfamiliar stars, planets and solar systems. Pak sculpted a stunning moment, here; the Hulk stares at fantastic constellations, awed by the beauty and wonder of the unknown universe.

And then, just as he is pondering a greater question about the meaning of everything, another character shows up and the plot grinds along. The giant must decide whether to sulk, as his infantile maturity level demands, or to help the endangered city below and save them from a hostile invasion.

You can guess what the Hulk decides, of course.

But the point of this précis is not to give away the story, nor that the film stops at a certain moment in the original narrative, leaving the journey incomplete. Marvel Studios understandably reduced the length of his 12 labours and jettisoned minor characters, as well as the Silver Surfer (due to licensing reasons), to fit into 81 minutes of animated film.

The point is that Pak put the Hulk somewhere where he can grow, no mean feat considering that Pak is more or less dealing with a surly loner of a protagonist. Keep in mind that this Hulk is very much like the Hulk of the late 1970's-to-mid-1980's comic books. During that era, he aimlessly wandered the earth under the sure artistry of Herb Trimpe and Sal Buscema and Marvel Comics scribes Len Wein and Bill Mantlo, lumbering from one scrap and one continent to the next. Mentally, the Hulk didn't even possess a teenager's maturity; he threw tantrums, couldn't speak with proper grammar or diction, and just wanted to be left alone, a mantra he held for years.

In PH, Pak tries, unsuccessfully, to make the Hulk's transition from this child-like character to teenage-like character work, but in the end he doesn't have enough track to run with. And, when he does run, he runs to formula, and terrifically violent formula at that. The Hulk dispatches enemy alien after enemy alien, often in gory fashion, frightening those around him who would become his fellow gladiators. The other odd aspect of PH is that, Bruce Banner, the Hulk's alter-ego, never makes an appearance, a departure from form that is never explained.

But why protest about a classic, four-colour character? Because, in that simple stargazing scene of serenity mentioned above, I witnessed a beast gazing up at the stars, much like a Neanderthal gazing heavenward in the Stone Age. Pak had something there, but he discarded it, which is a shame. There's no reason the Hulk can't get smarter - instead of simply only stronger.

In all fairness, the Hulk is not the easiest character to rewrite and the fact that Peter David, a long-time scribe on the comic book (12 years), did an admirable, enviable job of developing the character makes a new writer's task even more unenviable. Mr. David transformed the Hulk from a mindless, childish,  albeit goodhearted brute, into a synthesis of Bruce Banner's character and the Hulk. David also actually pit the Hulk against not only mere villains, but the reality of friends contracting HIV/AIDs, and in touch with his own empathy. Along the way, David developed minor characters such as Rick Jones and Betty Ross and a whole backdrop of heroes in a group called the Pantheon.

My comments should not be misconstrued. It's not that the Hulk character should confront any and all modern ills. He's the green giant, not Green Arrow from the 1970's. And, admittedly, Hulk's a fun, marauding character. When he gets into a scrap, he breaks things - big things. It's just that PH only portrays three-quarters rampage and one quarter character development.

Greg Pak admitted that he reacted in amazement when Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada handed him carte blanche to give Hulk a space odyssey. Whether intentional or not, Pak employed villains entirely reminiscent of 1970's fare, when the Hulk fought across different galaxies. Hulk also managed to fall in love with another green-skinned creature, named Jarella. His love affair with Jarella, however, ultimately became a tragic love story during a time when Marvel Comics management was enthused about offing the romantic interests in their flagship titles (but that's another story). That romance too is tributed in PH, a gift for viewers well versed in Incredible Hulk history. That sense of space pirate adventure and romance is exuberant. Who will the Hulk befriend now? What strange being will attack him now? Why does this planet look so much like ancient Rome or like the Middle East? But in all seriousness, that rollicking tone, and the sense of awe that Hulk feels, albeit briefly, are the endearing qualities of PH. The problem is that there isn't enough of either.

Unfortunately, I felt that this story-that-could-have-been looks out at the viewer (or reader) from behind the set of a tale that shows the Hulk pounding his way across Sakarr. He has little to show for his journey except for an injured shoulder and a meagre chance at happiness. Perhaps if the animated film had gone for 30 minutes longer and played out the rest of the graphic novel's story, tragedy or no, there would have been more balance and more reason to believe that a big green goliath could go from being, mentally, four years old, to far older, and somewhat wiser.

It's also hard to fault Pak; he took a crack at writing a fun character and fell in love with the alien aspects of his creation. In the end, though, you can feel the momentum sliding toward Hulk-versus-the-next-thing. This rhythm, a staccato pace toward the next plot point, becomes tiresome. Without more reason to root for the protagonist, a belief in his ability to grow as a character, the adventure seems as lost on the viewer as a personal adventure would be lost on someone without the ability to grow from their own trials and experiences.

* = Incidentally, the Klaatu character is a nod to both the alien in the classic 1951 sci-fi flick, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and a Canadian prog-rock of the same name formed in 1973.

 




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