It's been fashionable of late to note that Marvel has developed a smart scheme to exploit its comic-book properties on the big screen, cross-promoting characters (as putting Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark into The Incredible Hulk) on the way to a star-packed The Avengers film. But of late Marvel rival DC has so far only struck it rich with Batman—admittedly very rich, but their universe of other characters isn't pulling any weight. Until recently, DC could at least claim dominance in the animated sector, with highly regarded TV series and animated movies. But after a few misfires, Marvel's animated arm is stepping up in a big way with Hulk Vs., a direct-to-video two-fer of animated adventures.
Hulk Vs. comprises the 37-minute "Hulk vs. Wolverine" and the 46-minute "Hulk vs. Thor," released on two-disc DVD and single-disc Blu-ray, each set coming with a slew of bonus features. Action-packed to a fault, the films ruthlessly propel their narratives forward like, well, a monthly comic book, and the results are thrilling. After a handful of animated features (Ultimate Avengers 1 and 2, The Invincible Iron Man, Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme, The Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow) that divided fans, a contingent calling them ill considered or poorly animated, Marvel's new deal with Madhouse Studio bodes well for the future. The Japanese animation giant (Paprika, The Animatrix, Batman: Gotham Knight) has the chops to produce spectacular, dynamic, colorful, stylish animation (or, rather, anime) that's an evolutionary leap for Marvel on the small screen. In fact, they should consider taking this show to the big screen at least once (a la DC's Batman: Mask of the Phantasm).
"Hulk vs. Wolverine"
Jumping off from the fan favorite The Incredible Hulk #181, "Hulk vs. Wolverine" is packed with classic Marvel characters going at each other. Tough-as-nails Wolverine (Steve Blum)—sporting his classic yellow look—is called in to contain or kill the Hulk (Fred Tatasciore) for the Canadian government's top secret Department H. The military presumes Hulk to be on a murderous rampage, but of course there's more to the story. When Wolverine catches up with a wigged-out Dr. Bruce Banner (Bryce Johnson) in the mountains, it's not long before Hulk and Wolverine throw down for a knock-down, drag-out bloody brawl. This is the kind of thing fanboys love ("Who would win in a fight?"), but it's only the beginning of a pleasingly chaotic story that returns to Weapon X, the secret-lab program from which Wolverine was spawned. Wolverine must contend with The Professor (Tom Kane), dangerous ex-girlfriend Deathstrike (Janyse Jaud), and powerful, regenerative nemeses Deadpool (a very funny Nolan North), Sabretooth (Marc Acheson), and Omega Red (Colin Murdock). Written by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost (the upcoming series Wolverine and the X-Men) and laid out by storyboard artists Kevin Altieri and Butch Lukic (Batman: The Animated Series), "Hulk vs. Wolverine") is tight and thrilling, with plenty of hyperbolic action (Hulk twice flings people for miles) . Due to its PG-13 rating, it also benefits enormously from loosened restrictions—there's substantial, bloody violence (five limbs are amputated, for example) that should perhaps separate the boys from the fanboys in the film's audience. Thanks mostly to Deadpool, the "Merc with a Mouth," there's also plenty of humor: stick around for the post-credits scene after the cool end titles.
"Hulk vs. Thor"
Also written by Kyle and Yost, "Hulk vs. Thor" is an extremely creative match-up that also makes time for a strong emotional component for Bruce Banner. Set on Thor's turf of Asgard during the annual Odinsleep, the story finds Banner spirited away to Asgard by Thor's stepbrother and arch-nemesis Loki, prince of darkness (Graham McTavish). His ambivalent partner-in-crime Amora (Kari Wahlgren) fancies Thor (Matt Wolf), which complicates matters; besides, Thor already has the attentions of the Lady Sif (Gray DeLisle). Upon his arrival, Thor tangles with the Warriors Three: voluminous Volstagg the Valiant (Jay Brazeau), Hogun the Grim (Paul Dobson), and Fandral the Dashing (Jonathan Holmes), as well as old hand Balder the Brave (Michael Adamthwaite). Naturally, they're no match for the not-so-jolly green giant. The mania of the Odinsleep onslaught makes possible cameos by giants, dark elves, and demons, and the plot climaxes in the underworld realm of Hela (Janyse Jaud). It's an entertaining romp through Marvel's take on Norse legends, with magic that creates a fascinating and ultimately sad state of affairs for the hapless Banner. The animation is again top-notch, with gorgeous art direction and set design: each frame is crammed with otherworldly detail.
Marvel has ingeniously positioned Hulk Vs. between last summer's The Incredible Hulk and this summer's X-Men Origins: Wolverine; it also serves the long-term goal of mainstreaming Thor, whose own film directed by Kenneth Branagh is set for 2010. Hulk Vs. is also cause for reflection: hearing catch-phrases like the Hulk's "Hulk smash!" and Thor's "For Odin! For Asgard!" points up Wolverine's lack of one. Other than a tendency to call people "Bub," he's remiss, but you tell him that.
Lionsgate delivers a pristine Blu-ray transfer for Hulk Vs., in a special edition that mirrors the 2-disc DVD content. The rock-solid image handles the fast-paced action with terrific dimensionality, eye-popping color, and no hint of digital artifacting. The perfect picture quality is matched by a potent DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio track: seriously, could you ask for more? It's the room-rumbling sound you demand from these titanic superhero battles, complete with immersive surround effects.
Lionsgate doesn't skimp on the extras here. Both flicks come with gleeful audio commentary by writers Craig Kyle and Chris Yost. The two share the fanboy sensibility of anyone who'd listen to the commentary on Hulk Vs.: they explain their intentions and point out their favorite moments, explaining why they're there.
Each film also comes with a second audio commentary: for "Hulk vs. Wolverine," supervising director Frank Paur and storyboard artists Kevin Altieri and Butch Lukic sit down to chat, and for "Hulk vs. Thor," Paur, animation director Sam Liu and color key designer James Peters gather to comment. Given their more technical approach, these tracks are geared more to the animation buff, but they have their geekout moments to be sure.
The excellent featurette "This is Gonna Hurt: The Making of 'Hulk vs. Wolverine'" (20:11, HD) gets the takes of all the top talents behind the film: Kyle, Yost, Paur, lead character designer Jeff Matsuda, Steve Blum, Fred Tatasciore, and Nolan North. Withillustrative clips from the film and clips from the voice actors at work, the doc covers conception, characters, design, animation, and cast.
It's always nice to get Comic-Con footage as a bonus, and here it's provided in "Fan Frenzy: 'Hulk vs. Wolverine' at the 2008 Comic-Con" (8:02, HD). We get highlights from the Q&A with Kyle, Yost, Paur, and Tatasciore.
"First Look: Wolverine and the X-Men" (5:45, HD) allows Kyle and head writer Greg Johnson to preview the upcoming animated series, with plenty of tantalizing footage.
"Of Gods and Monsters: The Making of 'Hulk vs. Thor'" (18:25, HD) follows the model of "This is Gonna Hurt," as Kyle, Yost, Paur, Tatasciore, Graham McTavish, Matt Wolf, and Grey DeLisle discuss their work on the film.
Though brief, "Jack Kirby + Thor" (4:47, HD) is a well-deserved tribute to iconic comics artist Jack Kirby, and in particular his work with the Thor title. Participants include Kyle, Paur, and "Thor: Tales of Asgard" supervising director Gary Hartle.
"First Look--'Thor: Tales of Asgard'" (4:40, HD) previews the next Marvel Animated Feature, with Kyle, Hartle, writer Greg Johnson, and a series of clips.
Lastly, the disc offers several Marvel trailers and a bookmarking feature. All in all, this is a set—especially on Blu-ray—that superhero fans won't be able to (and shouldn't) resist.
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