Today on comic shop and movie store shelves across America, "Planet Hulk" -Â the latest feature-length DVD from Marvel Animation and Lionsgate -Â smashes its way into the minds of comic fans and casual superhero viewers alike. And while the hardcore Marvel zombies amongst them may be excited at the promise of adapting Greg Pak's epic 2006 comic story line, the feature almost didn't happen.
"Right in the middle of production on 'Next Avengers' and 'Hulk Vs.' the idea came up of 'What are we going to tackle next?' Somebody ended up suggesting another Hulk movie, and I can tell you that myself and a lot of the rest of the creative team were not too enthused about doing that," said Marvel Animation Director of Development and "Planet Hulk" Supervising Producer Josh Fine. "We'd just come off doing so many Hulk stories in 'Vs' and he'd appeared in 'Ultimate Avengers' 1 and 2, and he cameos in so many animated series that it felt like we'd done the Bruce Banner/man on the run Hulk story before.
"Someone pointed us in the direction of 'Planet Hulk,' which I had not read yet at the time. When we cracked open the book, it was clear that this really wasn't Hulk in any way we'd seen him before. This was a special story for him to evolve in his own right and not be bogged down by Banner trying to kill the monster or being the anti-hero to the other heroes. It allowed him to deal with some deep-seeded issues to become a better hero in his own right."
Bringing that revelatory arc for the green goliath to the screen was both the ultimate goal and the supreme challenge of Fine's team, which included director Sam Liu ("Superman/Batman: Public Enemies") and writer Greg Johnson ("Hulk Vs."). In fact, the producer knew going in that selling the idea of "Hulk in space" may have been a stretch for some general audiences. "I've read a lot of interviews with Greg Pak and Joe Quesada talking about the idea of coming up with 'Planet Hulk' in the beginning and this idea of Hulk being exiled by the heroes of earth and becoming a gladiator," Fine recalled. "It sounds kind of wacky when you first hear it, but as soon as you start to think about it, it becomes immediately appealing. You can start to see every aspect to what that story is. I think for us it was the same thing. The concept just feels so right for the character, and yes...it is Hulk in a new and different way, but in a lot of ways it brings to light all the issues that the character has been dealing with over years and years in the comic books and puts a focus on them in a brand new way. The essence is the Hulk that everybody knows, but it's been exploded to new levels."
Landing the execution for that exploration became a matter of looking to the comics first as well as their writer. "We started with the comic because it is so well written, and it's our tribute to Greg Pak that this is truly the closest we've come to an absolute direct adaptation of any book. There was so much great stuff to draw from that there wasn't a need to change anything. Most of the things we had to do were in terms of streamlining the story into a 72-minute format. We took a stab at refining the story and getting it into a really strong 72-minute narrative, which obviously could not encompass the entire scope of the epic narrative Greg had created.
"But once we got it to a place where we we were comfortable with it, we did bring Greg in as a consultant to read through the script and give us some insights into the characters we hadn't considered and helped us refine some dialogue. And one way in which was incredibly helpful was that he helped on the pronunciations of a lot of the names and locations in the story that would not be immediately apparent."
Asked whether there were any pieces of the finished film that would surprise those closely familiar with the original series, Fine said, "There's certainly one element that fans of the comic are going to be surprised by. It is in the final gladiator fight. There's an appearance there that changes the dynamic of what you think might happen."
Beyond those nuts and bolts story elements, the creation of "Planet Hulk" called for new solutions to Marvel character animation. "We wanted to get a look and a style that evoked what was on the pages of the comics to begin with," the producer explained. "We tried to take scenes from the comic and put them up on the screen almost exactly but in a more animation-friendly style. And when we started to look at characters and character designers, we had to decide what exactly this version of the Hulk would look like. 'Planet Hulk' [the comic] was actually drawn by several different artists over the life of the run and we loved John Romita Jr.'s run on 'World War Hulk' and we wanted to incorporate some of that look as well. Our character designer Phil [Bourassa] really knocked it out of the park on that one and created a look for the Hulk and the other gladiators that not only worked to be animated smoothly but was really beautiful to look at in a still frame.
"Another aspect of what makes this movie really pop is the incredible animation that the Madhouse Studio in Japan did. We sent them some really difficult action sequences but knew they were going to come back looking great."
Speaking of comebacks, fans who know Pak's Hulk comics know that "Planet Hulk" is only the first step in the character's space-bound story. Fine teased that a sequel coming down the line would not be out of the question. "That certainly is the question on most people's minds -Â mine most of all. There is an entire chapter of this story that's yet to be told, and we think we did a pretty good job of refining the story where it's in a place where it feels like a complete character arc for Hulk from beginning to end. At the same time, there's a lot of story left to tell, and it's something I'd love to dive back into from 'World War Hulk' through the rest of the stories that came after. It would be great if this one does well enough to have the opportunity to come back and tell that story."
The producer wrapped with a look at the future of Marvel Animation, noting that the next big step he's directly involved with is the much-anticipated "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes" TV series which will include the scripts of comic scribe Chris Yost whenever it finds its final home on the airwaves. "It's the Avengers of the Marvel Universe presented as fans have always wanted to see them, and it's a real chance for us to dig deeply into the characters classic roots yet updated for modern times. You'll get to see them evolve over a long period of time. The great thing about TV animation is that with 26 or 52 episodes is that you can see the change in a character from one episode to the next."
But that doesn't mean the Marvel Animation DVD slate will slow anytime soon. Next up is 2011's "Thor: Tales of Asgard" featuring younger versions of the thunder god and Loki meant to capitalize on Thor's impending silver screen debut. PAst that, Fine teased, "The rest of our live action movie slate is a good indication of who will be getting more focus in the not-too distant future. I'd be looking for an increased focus on characters like Doctor Strange and the Defenders, Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, Power Pack, Runaways and those kinds of guys."
Check back to CBR tomorrow for a chat with "Planet Hulk" screenwriter Greg Johnson!