Let the record show that the makers of The Incredible Hulk want it clearly understood that their film is not, repeat not, a sequel to Hulk of 2003, Ang Lee’s arty and ambitious but unpopular take on the comic-book movie.
Coming only five years after the Ang film, this is a bit awkward — much more so than with the eight years separating Batman Begins from the last film of the previous Batman franchise, for instance. The Batman franchise ran four films over eight years, and belonged to an era of comic-book movies that began in 1978 with Superman. By 1997, both the era and the franchise had been run into the ground.
The new era of comic-book movies began in 2000 with the first of the three X‑Men films. Ang’s Hulk, along with the Spider-Man trilogy, Batman Begins and Superman Returns, belongs to this new era, so a reboot here is a glaring slight to the earlier film.
That’s only good business, I guess, considering the low esteem in which Hulk is held by the fan base, largely for weak, scattered action scenes, too much talking and a head-scratching finale. These are legitimate gripes, though the film’s psychological depth and creative storytelling still make it one of the more intriguing efforts in the genre. (Why paltry action doesn’t sink a truly lame flick like Fantastic Four, which of all the new comic-book films most deserved a reboot but was unaccountably popular and thus merited a sequel, is too depressing a question to think about.)
At any rate, The Incredible Hulk, directed by Louis Leterrier (The Transporter) from a script by Zak Penn (X2, X‑Men 3) and star Edward Norton, sets out to be the anti-Ang Hulk, with the straightfoward agenda of keeping the emphasis on the action. They’ve also assiduously set out to connect with two overlapping but distinct fan bases: those who know the Hulk from the comic books, and those who know him from the 1970s-era TV show starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno.
While not retelling the Hulk’s gamma-ray induced origin story in detail, the filmmakers reimagine it in a way that elegantly blends the comic-book and TV versions, while simultaneously tying in with plans for an upcoming Captain America movie. There’s also a direct link to the early summer hit Iron Man, the first film from Marvel’s own production company, building on intimations in that film of a cross-over Avengers film. (Both planned projects are currently scheduled for 2011.)
In the comics, Bruce Banner was a military scientist working on a “gamma bomb”; in the TV show, Banner was a medical scientist seeking to unlock “the hidden strengths that all humans have.” This new take imagines Banner (Edward Norton) engaged in military-sponsored medical research which he naively believes is intended for peaceful purposes, though unbeknownst to him General “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt), father of Bruce’s beloved Betty (Liv Tyler), has other ideas in mind.
The strong opening act gives both sets of fans a textbook case of what they want and expect. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is a fugitive, living anonymously in Brazil and working as a day laborer in a bottling facility. In a nod to recent comic-book history, we see Banner using yoga meditation techniques to try to keep an even keel. As often happened in the TV show, he runs afoul of local bullies, while at the same time the military catches up with him. (There’s even a sly wink to the disparaged Ang film, which ends with Banner hiding in South America, giving a subtitled Spanish twist of the best-known line from the TV show: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” Here we see that Bruce’s Portuguese isn’t as good as his Spanish.)
An effective chase sequence in the overflowing card-house shanty towns of Rio builds to a satisfying climax, a shadowy sequence recalling the hero’s debut from Batman Begins. This first act is the best part of the film, but the filmmakers can’t sustain it.
Although The Incredible Hulk continues to keep the action front and center, big set pieces at a university campus and the streets of Harlem don’t recapture the excitement of the opening act. Part of the problem, alas, is the Hulk himself. It isn’t, I think, merely that when we finally get a good look at him in broad daylight, his appearance and movements somehow suggest a particularly detailed video-game character. It’s that for the most part the movie doesn’t seem to know or care what’s going on behind that carefully textured green forehead.
Watching the Hulk movies, I find myself wondering what makes The Lord of the Rings’s computer-rendered Gollum so real as a character. I don’t think it’s just Weta’s brilliant CGI work, or Gollum’s comparatively plausible physiology. In large part, it’s Andy Sirkis’s bravura vocal performance (as well as his motion-captured physical performance). Sirkis brings Gollum to life as a character — as more than one character, in fact, given Gollum’s tortured inner monologue.
Hulk, on the other hand, is about as mute as The Fellowship of the Ring’s cave troll, and not much more emotionally engaging. (In the comics, some versions of the Hulk are more talkative than others, but his characteristic pidgin dialogue (“Why puny soldiers not leave Hulk alone?”) probably wouldn’t work on the screen, so both movies go with the mute Hulk played on TV by Ferrigno. Incidentally, Ferrigno not only reprises his cameo as a security guard, he also provides the Hulk’s voice, mostly grunting and shouting — though the filmmakers can’t resist giving him the Hulk’s signature line from the comics, “Hulk smash!”)
Can a computer-rendered creature be emotionally persuasive without a voice? Well, possibly. Perhaps not coincidentally, the best counter-example to date comes from the same director and actor as LOTR’s Gollum: Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Of course, what made Kong real (as in the original) was his connection with Ann Darrow. There’s an obvious counterpart here in Betty Ross, and the one key scene that makes this connection is among the movie’s better moments. But The Incredible Hulk is too focused on action to develop the Hulk–Betty relationship in a way that might have helped to humanize the green giant.
Aggravating the problem is the almost total disconnect between Bruce Banner and his alter ego in this reading — a disconnect underscored rather than softened in the film. At its most suggestive, the idea of the Hulk suggests the potential destructiveness of violent emotions in all of us, boiling over from time to time despite our best efforts to keep a lid on them. As with Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, the Hulk can be thought of as a part of Bruce writ large (and green) rather than a curious and inconvenient side effect of an experiment gone wrong.
This film, though, has little interest in exploring such ideas. Beyond that one key intimation of the Hulk’s soft spot for Betty, there’s not much to connect Bruce to the Hulk. When Bruce tells Betty that the creature “isn’t me,” this doesn’t seem to be denial, but a simple fact. Bruce’s anger-management initiatives are simply good prophylaxis; there’s no suggestion that he has a temper or issues related to suppressed anger. Even a bedroom scene that ends abruptly as Bruce remembers he mustn’t get too excited manages no subtext; he might as well have a bum heart. Toward the end the film unexpectedly lurches toward an “embracing the monster within” resolution that isn’t adequately set up and doesn’t come off.
Casting is mixed. Compared with the first film, Norton is a fine alternative to Eric Bana, but Tyler is a poor substitute for Jennifer Connelly, and Hurt, a fine actor, can’t fill Sam Elliott’s shoes as General Ross. Tim Roth is well-cast as mercenary Emil Blonsky, but Tim Blake Nelson (Holes, Hoot), introduced in the third act as a scientist who wants to help Banner but may wind up battling the Hulk in future installments, brings the movie to a screeching halt with his jarring camp stylings.
The Incredible Hulk is the latest comic-book movie that ends with a battle royal of computer-rendered characters; other recent examples include Iron Man and Ghost Rider. As a set piece, the climax is energetic and sporadically clever, but as with Ghost Rider the mayhem lacks a human face. (Iron Man shrewdly evades this pitfall by following the lead of the Spider-Man movies and unmasking the hero and villain at key moments.)
Most viewers will probably find The Incredible Hulk diverting but forgettable entertainment after a strong opening act, though for Hulk fans smarting from the thoughtful, flawed Ang film, it may just be balm for the soul. Fans of the TV show will notice homages to nearly every iconic small-screen moment, from Bruce’s green-eyed, rigor-stricken face as the change starts to come over him to the familiar hitchhiking image. And comic fans will chortle over the purple sweats that Betty picks up for Bruce, to pick only one of a dozen possible moments.
At times the filmmakers are too eager to please the fans. It’s one thing to have characters quasi-realistically drop terms like “hulk” and “abomination” before these become established names for particular creatures. But as geeky-fun as it is to hear Ferrigno growl “Hulk smash!”, didn’t anyone realize that nobody calls the creature “Hulk” — least of all himself?
Not the best or most exciting of comic-book movies to date, but the most thoughtful and arguably one of the most interesting, Ang Lee’s Hulk offers a new look at Marvel Comics’s green-skinned Jekyll-and-Hyde pulp anti-hero through the director’s poetic, psychologically attuned sensibilities.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.