With an opening weekend box office of about $55 million, folks are calling The Incredible Hulk a “hit” and a “success.” Maybe. But, is it any good? That’s the question people should be asking. Let’s be honest, making tons of money doesn’t mean a movie is any good–I give you Titanic and Ang Lee’s Hulk (which had a $62 million opening). All I can say is this: The Incredible Hulk is pretty much the movie I would have made.
I feel that it’s important to begin by telling you that I was not a fan of 2003’s Hulk. I like Ang Lee and all, but you really need to think before you hand a comic book movie to an “art house” director–panels, Lee? Really? Fucking panels!!–especially a comic book movie starring a character like the Hulk. There’s a lot of subtext in the character that could, if you’re not careful, lead to a lot of psychoanalytical Freudian wankery. But, the problem is, as legitimate as this analysis might be–particularly given Hulk’s Jekyll and Hyde pedigree–the Hulk is not what one might call introspective. No. Hulk…well, Hulk smash! That’s it. That’s the Hulk’s reason for being. He is an unstoppable, rage-fueled engine of destruction. Lee’s Hulk was too light on smashing and too heavy on hashing–as in “hashing it out.” Sorry, Ang, but you’re movie just spent way too long talking about shit and not nearly enough time showing it. I had no problem with the abusive father back-story or (believe it or not) the Hulk-dogs–they’re both canon, so I’m okay with them. I did, however, think the climatic “battle” between Eric Bana’s Banner and Nick Nolte’s Pa Banner was a bit…um…strange. Seriously, was Nolte supposed to be the Absorbing Man? Oh, and did I mention those damned on-screen panels? I did? Okay then.
I guess that brings me to Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk. Now this is a Hulk movie. This Hulk takes liberally from both the Marvel comic and the classic ’70s television show. Edward Norton does an admirable job as Bruce Banner (a role he almost played back in 2003), who’s on the run in South America. Norton’s Banner is a quiet intellectual with that goofy charm that Norton can do so well when he’s not playing a complete prick. Norton’s Banner doesn’t have to tell you how much he hates the thing inside of him. You can see it on his face every time his heart-rate approaches 200, or in the moment when he reaches the inevitable conclusion that sometimes the best tool for the job is a massive, green-skinned juggernaut. Norton is ably assisted by the rest of the cast–including the always eeevil Tim Roth as aging soldier Emil Blonsky, who juices up on Banner-gravy to become the Abomination, and William Hurt as perennial Hulk-hunter General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (although I am curious to know what happened to Sam Elliott…were he and his mustache busy?). The only real weak link in the cast was Liv Tyler. Don’t get me wrong, I love Liv. I’ve always loved Liv, ever since Empire Records and those oddly sexual music videos she made for her dad’s band. Hell, I’d crawl naked over broken glass and swim through a mixture of rubbing alcohol and lemon juice just to be in the same room as Ms. Tyler…but, I had a bit of a hard time believing her portrayal of scientist Betty Ross–granted, it was nowhere near as difficult as it was believing that Denise Richards could spell “nuclear scientist” much less be one. I guess that’s why Leterrier had her put on her “smart girl” glasses whenever she had to be all science-y.
As for the Hulk himself, I think Hulk ’08 is an improvement over Hulk ’03. Leterrier’s redesigned Hulk looks dangerous. He’s all muscular and veiny. He looks like power incarnate:
I’m willing to chalk this up to technological improvements in CGI in the last five years (yes, I’ve accepted the fact that there is no way that Hollywood would make a Hulk movie without a CG Hulk). Of course, given the numerous ways that the character has been portrayed over the decades–grey, green, smart, stupid, gigantic, not-so-gigantic–both versions are, technically, valid. This new Hulk, however, is just closer to the way I prefer the character to be. I like my Hulk big and dangerous. I like him to throw shit and cause ridiculous amounts of collateral damage because he doesn’t know better. He should be a little talky, but not overly verbose or intelligent. I can’t remember if Lee’s Hulk spoke, but Leterrier’s does, and his sparse dialogue (yes, including “Hulk smash!”) is roared by Lou Ferrigno (television’s Hulk), who also has a cameo as a security guard (yes…again).
Unlike its predecessor, The Incredible Hulk takes full advantage of the forty-plus years of Hulk-story, not to mention the new toys in Marvel’s movie sandbox. Borrowing from Bruce Jones’ run on the Incredible Hulk comic, Banner is assisted in his search for a cure by the mysterious Mr. Blue, with whom he communicates via instant messenger. In the movie’s universe, the creation of the Hulk is tied to the U.S. military’s attempts to recreate the super-soldier serum that created Captain America, which is lifted from Marvel’s Ultimate Universe (where, in case you didn’t know, Nick Fury looks suspiciously like Samuel L. Jackson). In addition to General Ross and Blonsky, Banner has a run-in with Samuel Sterns (played by Tim Blake Nelson), who’s destined to become Banner’s super-intelligent nemesis The Leader. Other characters who pop-up in one form or another include sidekick Rick Jones (whose name appears on a list of Banner’s known associates) and Doc Leonard Samson (played by Ty Burrell)–although, if you hadn’t been following the pre-release media machine, you could have missed that Burrell’s character is actually Doc Samson. In a nod to the television series, the iconic “Lonely Man Theme” is used while Banner hitchhikes his way across Central and South America, and one of the Hulk’s rampages is caught on film by college journalism major Jack McGee. Sadly, the classic line–“Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”–is once again missing, in English anyway. There’s a Portuguese version, played quite effectively for laughs, where Banner confuses the Portuguese word for “angry” with the word for “hungry.” And, in addition to the veiled reference to Captain America, Stark Industries is mentioned numerous times, and Robert Downey, Jr. steals the movie with a forty-second cameo as Tony Stark.
In the final analysis, The Incredible Hulk isn’t as good as Iron Man (which has raised the bar for super-hero movies as far as I’m concerned), but it’s a pretty good sophomore attempt by Marvel’s new film division. It’s certainly earned a spot in my DVD collection, something that Ang Lee’s Hulk didn’t accomplish.