Thursday, February 11, 2010

Planet Hulk: Not Just the Anti-Hero...

I had two unexpected snow-days from work this week; fortunately, I had a review of Planet Hulk to write, which served to stave off cabin fever. It was pretty good overall; the art was nicely done, with the scenery based on the comic's very-cool cover art (by artist Ladronn.) Sure, it deviated from the comic series on which it was based, but it was well-adapted to a movie format; it was written as a "one-shot," self-contained story; the essential scenes were intact while making it a stand-alone story. Sure, there were changes like Beta-Ray Bill replacing the Silver Surfer, but those are superficial changes. (I personally like the way the incorporated the rock gladiator's story into the first Thor story, which featured similar rock-like aliens.)

The most important change comes in leaving the Hulk on the planet, where he is not seen as a monster, but a hero. Consider these comments from the "making of" feature on the disc: "…this isn't banner's struggle, it's Hulk's struggle...this is Hulk as his very opposed to a "Banner" driven Hulk…He's not just the anti-hero that's out there to smash and cause trouble for the other real superheroes…"

One the one hand, the "Banner-driven Hulk" is what made the Hulk unique in a world among heroes. Only, the "real superheroes" of the Marvel Universe were already different by presenting heroes as flawed, neurotic, and tragic; Spider-Man was treated as a menace, Iron Man a drunk, Captain America irrelevant, the X-Men freaks, and so's true that the Hulk is most understood as a "Jekyll and Hyde" story, except that he does associate with the Avengers, and is not out for glory or recognition as a hero...and he's not out to intentionally destroy, but just wants to be left alone; it's more a statement against society turning men into monsters.

So what's interesting in Planet Hulk is the idea that the superpowered Illumaniti seeks to rid the world of the Hulk's destructive rage by exiling him to a peaceful planet. What they are really saying, however, is that they are exiling his uncontrollable power...uncontrollable by the powers that be, whether the government or the world's smartest heroes. What the Hulk represents is the raw individual who cannot be shaped or molded to society's conventions, best captured in the source of the Hulk's rage, which is not the gamma radiation, but the child abuse of the young Banner. As a result, the rage of the Hulk is really the rage of a child who just wants to be left alone. He cannot be an "altruistic" hero, because his story is one of self-preservation. By Marvel's standards, he cannot be a hero at all, because their heroes are consciously self-sacrificing. So the only option, then, is, "this man, this monster..."

Of course, the ship carrying the Hulk to his would-be peaceful planet goes off-course, and he lands on a planet run in Roman-Empire fashion, where he is captured and made a gladiator. This is where the Hulk as hero comes in; he initially fights for himself, with no concern for the other gladiators. But eventually he does come to see them as friends...more importantly, they come to see him as more than a monster...a hero, something he is not accustomed to, and something he initially cannot understand. In the comic, his efforts to start a family and lead a "normal life" are thwarted, resulting in World War Hulk, but here, there is a happy ending (an anomaly for a Marvel story!). The Hulk defeats the Red King, the slaves are freed, and a new age is upon the planet.

There are suggested layers of political subtext that I'd like to have seen explored; mainly, the ending: what happens politically? The fall of the Red King and the rise of the Hulk leaves open questions of politics and government...does the Hulk become the new Emperor (suggested by the adulation from the crowd below)? Is it a new age of freedom? The Hulk himself is not a political figure in the Marvel universe, so it'd be a stretch to suggest that he corrects the flaws in the Roman-like empire that contradicted the constitutional elements via the dictatorship of Julius Caesar (or the influence of a corrupt government favored by Alexander Hamilton that undermines the American constitution). Then there's the question of treating the Hulk as a savior, a messiah even. At least, he's not the worn-out "Christ-like figure" (maybe more like Spartacus?), and the comparison between the fall of Rome and the rise of Christianity is wisely avoided, if only because the Hulk is a far cry from the meekness of Jesus. Yes, at the source of the Hulk is the abused Banner, who just wants to be left alone, but this is no altruistic tale of the meek inheriting the earth, but of the struggle for freedom for all.

But putting all that aside (and it's probably for the best; if pressed philosophically, they may have gone the altruistic route; as it is, there's a certain neutrality that allows for my interpretation) its own way, the Hulk's story is a tale of laissez-faire individualism, of the freedom to be left alone, to associate with others as friends, not slaves. It is interesting that the Hulk could not be a hero on his home planet, where heroes are expected to be self-sacrificial, and rewarded with neurosis, public resentment, and tragedy. It's even more interesting that the creators of the Planet Hulk movie had to work outside of Marvel continuity to present a heroic character whose end is not tragic, whose heroism is not undercut by his own personal failings, and that this hero is the Hulk, just goes to show how much altruism, via Marvel Comics, has done to betray the idea of those so-called "real superheroes" in the first place.