Marvel Animation may not earn the accolades given to Warner Bros. Animation's DC Comics properties, but they aren't entirely without merit. And after joining the Disney conglomeration, Marvel heroes are having an animated resurgence, buoyed by series like Avengers Assemble, Ultimate Spider-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy.
The latest installment in the Marvel Animated Universe is a new feature, Hulk: Where Monsters Dwell The film teams The Hulk and Doctor Strange (who's making his MCU debut next month) with a positively spooky version of the Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D. to do battle against Nightmare, ruler of the Dream Dimension, and stop him from invading our reality on All Hallow's Eve. It's a Halloween special perfect for those who like monsters that don't just go bump in the night, but SMASH.
The story, for the most part, is simple and linear. Strange has summoned The Hulk to help him contain several monsters rampaging through New York City. The monsters weren't always monsters, however, but young teens trapped in a dream state and transformed into their worst fears. Strange believes The Hulk might be connected with this phenomena, too, because seemingly at random Hulk is transforming back into an unconscious Bruce Banner during battle. Needing to venture into the Dream Dimension with The Hulk/Banner, Strange enlists Warwolf, Vampire By Night, Manthing, and the zombie version of Agent Sitwell (the Howl-ing Commandos, get it?) to guard their slumbering corporeal forms while they investigate.
At just over 70-minutes long, Hulk: Where Monsters Dwell has plenty of time to dive into the dual nature of its monster characters, specifically The Hulk, but instead the film mostly plods along from one action-packed encounter to the next. Strange, Hulk, and Banner in the Hulkbuster armor (which is possible because dream logic?) battle against Nightmare in the dream realm, while the Howling Commandos do their best to keep the monsters contained in Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum. The action is entertaining enough and capably animated, but missing from Hulk: Where Monsters Dwell is the opportunity to really explore what it's like for heroes who are only seen as monsters.
Strange comments that he's been counseling the Howling Commandos, helping them come to terms with their monster selves, but it's mostly lip service. None of the monsters featured, like Warwolf or Vampire By Night, ever really confront or deal with accepting their true natures, and only occasionally complain that Halloween is the one night they can freely walk around. The same can be said of ongoing struggle between Banner and The Hulk, which though presented in an interesting light (here, Banner is accepting of Hulk, but Hulk isn't so accepting of his inner puny human) is resolved fairly quickly in order to move on to the next fight.
Hulk: Where Monsters Dwell also tries to make some kind of statement about facing our fears, what with the teens being transformed into their worst nightmares, but again, with their worst fears reduced to stock monsters any real weight is lost from the message. (A teenage boy's worst fear is a minotaur? Really?) And there isn't nearly enough fun had with Strange and Banner arguing about magic versus science and which has the clearer answer to their problems. In the end, the story being told could have easily been served by a 30 or 45-minute episode, but feels stretched pretty thin over a 70+ minute movie, especially with so little time paid to being truly introspective on behalf of the monsters. (And it's downright laughable to recall this film being compared to The Killing Joke animated film, saying it'd be a more "adult-oriented" movie when it was announced at San Diego Comic-Con.)
Being as it's a pretty straightforward and Halloween-tinged story, Hulk: Where Monsters Dwell! should be a hit with kids, and they're definitely the target audience here. The jokes range from some gross antics with Manthing's slime and Sitwell's zombie parts, to a few good lines that might even have those above the age of 10 laughing. (Hulk asking, "Are you trying to eat me, zombie," at least earned a chuckle.)
The characters are presented fairly well, too. Nightmare is creepy, but he's never too scary, and the Howling Commandos are an interesting bunch who will hopefully appear more throughout Marvel's animated slate. Unsurprisingly, Doctor Strange and The Hulk get the most screen time, and outside of the uninspired costume Strange wears, they both look and sound pretty great (not too surprising since regular Strange and Hulk voice actors, Liam O'Brien and Fred Tatasciore reprise the roles). The animation is a step or two above what's seen on television, but its style doesn't vary much from other properties in the Marvel Animated Universe.
All in all, Hulk: Where Monsters Dwell isn't nearly as thoughtful a story as it could have been, but for a superhero adventure that's loosely tied to a holiday, it works. Kids will enjoy themselves, while adults may struggle to make it through the whole film. And including Strange was certainly a masterstroke of corporate synergy, whetting appetites for his arrival on the big screen.
Marvel's Hulk: Where Monsters Dwell is available on VOD Friday, October 21.