Directed by Louis Leterrier. Screnplay and screen story by Zak Penn; based upon characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and published by Marvel Comics. Produced by Avi Arad, Gale Ann Hurd, Kevin Feige. Music by Craig Armstrong. Photographed by Peter Menzies Jr. Edited by John Wright, Rick Shaine, Vincent Tabaillon. Starring Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson, Ty Burrell.
Amongst comic book and film fans, there seems to be a sharp divide between those who favor Ang Lee’s 2005 Incredible Hulk movie (called Hulk) and those who prefer Louis Leterrier’s 2008 reboot (The Incredible Hulk). Both sides of the argument are clear, because the two films are very distinctive. Lee’s film is a psychologically-driven fantasy that meditates on pain, anger, and father-son conflicts, with precious few action scenes. Leterrier’s movie is wall-to-wall action, with only cursory exclamations of character development, themes…stuff like that. You pick your poison when you declare a side in the Hulk discussion, but at the risk of sounding cowardly, I have to confess I don’t think either film works.
The Ang Lee film has the courage to take the material seriously. Perhaps too seriously. Its plot is exceptionally silly, and not helped by a screenplay that fails to realize that. And it doesn’t exactly have weighty drama—it’s more like facile character beats that constantly repeat themselves for emphasis. Lee’s aim is to create a thoughtful comic-book epic, and he doesn’t really succeed. Leterrier’s movie has the opposite problem: he wants to make a dumb comic-book movie, and he succeeds all too well. The Incredible Hulk has plenty of stunts and special effects and exploding buildings and all the CGI that money can buy…and it fails to give us a reason to really care about any of it. The well-crafted Incredible Hulk movie has, in my opinion, yet to be made.
The Incredible Hulk has always been one of the trickier characters to dramatize within the Marvel Comics stable, and that’s because he’s not a superhero. The Hulk, who is a behemoth powered by gamma radiation, is essentially a Mr. Hyde to the Dr. Jekyll that is Bruce Banner. Hulk, like Hyde, is pure id—a channel for all the serious issues that Banner has repressed. This means that when audiences line up for an Incredible Hulk movie, what they really want to see is a werewolf story mingled with Godzilla. And just like Godzilla, Hulk is usually given definition by pitting him in battle against foes who are even nastier and bigger than he is, although you’ll forgive me if I’ll not bestow much nobility to the destructive giant green thing who is desperately pointed in the direction of the destructive giant yellow thing.
What typically informs any Incredible Hulk story, is, in other words, Bruce Banner. He represents the humanity that allows insight into the moments when Hulk goes berserk. Hulk by himself is not at all interesting, but Bruce Banner can be, and consequentially Hulk can be if the connections between the two are made vivid and clear. In a well-told Incredible Hulk story (and there are some), psychology can lend context and weight to the Hulk’s actions. Without that clarity, any Hulk story is fundamentally flawed. There’s nothing to interest us in the Hulk unless he has a strongly-defined character, and in The Incredible Hulk he does not.
The fault is not Edward Norton’s. Not just because he ably plays Bruce Banner, but because this film was apparently hacked to ribbons in the late stages of editing. There’s a version of The Incredible Hulk floating around in the ether that apparently does fix all the problems found in the theatrical version, although such a claim has been made of every bad movie. Norton, a lifelong Incredible Hulk fan, spearheaded this project and was ultimately disappointed with the result, possibly because like many fan projects the end result is something that obviously holds its subject in great reverence, and is completely inarticulate in being able to explain why.
There’s a lot of things that are not really explained in The Incredible Hulk. Like how Bruce Banner, now living in Rio de Janiero, could be so cautious to avoid capture from the US Army but also so careless that he allows a drop of his blood to fall into the the bottling machine at the juice plant he works in. For that matter, what happens to the poor guy who drinks Bruce Banner’s gamma-irradiated blood? Why is Bruce in Brazil, of all places, anyway? Oh, wait—I know the answer to that one. It’s because Leterrier wants to import some exotic color and maybe catch a little second-hand prestige by filming in the same locations that Fernando Meirelles used when he directed City of God (2002). Leterrier’s camera does make the city look nice, at least.
The movie doesn’t really waste time in trying to link itself to the earlier Hulk film. I guess if you squint you can kinda say they’re related, but the movie insists that you enjoy it on its own terms. Ok, so fine. Bruce is hiding out from the US Army, S.H.I.E.L.D, and General Ross (William Hurt). Ross, who presided over the experiment that turned Banner into the Hulk, now wants to hunt down the man—oh, and also use that gamma radiation to create an army of Hulk-like super soliders, the practicality of which is…not explained. William Hurt is a very good actor. You may know that. You may forget that if you see this movie, in which Hurt’s function is primarily to be a walking, barking mustache.
Also a good actor: Tim Roth. Also crippled by a terribly-written script: Tim Roth. He plays a nasty sonofagun marine named Emil Blonsky. He’s evil. We know that because in an early chase scene he shoots a dog. Two dogs, in fact. How else is he evil? Well, I don’t know, really. He has an altercation with the Hulk that puts him in traction, and I guess that’s supposed to be our hook for him, since he’s a nasty now embarrassed by how the Hulk showed him up. During that hospital scene, he glares at the camera with such intensity—he doesn’t actually come out and say “This time its personal!” But he does think it. Very loudly.
A fine actress enters. Liv Tyler. She plays Betty Ross, not to be confused with Betsy Ross. Yes, she’s the general’s daughter, and she’s also Bruce’s main squeeze, and she was played by Jennifer Connelly in the other movie. Tyler is a step up, because Connelly in the Ang Lee film played it the way she plays everything these days: cold and easily hurt. Tyler is warm and inviting, so much so that she invites Bruce in a tender moment all the way into her bed, and Bruce hungrily accepts until he catches himself, remembering that he turns into The Hulk whenever his heart rate goes up. So…no sex for Bruce Banner. Maybe for the Hulk, but let’s not go there. Betty, taken aback by this news, doesn’t actually say “That’s okay, we can just cuddle.” But she does think it. Very loudly.
The plot can be summarized thusly: Hulk gets chased. Then Hulk gets away. It’s so easy that even the Hulk could understand it. Banner, who is trying desperately to control his body and not become the monster, has a heart rate monitor, which lends a nifty twist to the scenes where he’s being chased by the military guys across rooftops and down alleys. But it’s just a gimmick, because all he has to do is pause for two seconds to bring his heart rate down a few ticks—and then, back to the chase. Eventually, he drops much of the pretense about denying the monster his moment in the spotlight, because what did we come here to see, anyway?
The Ang Lee film showed us a little of the Hulk. This one shows us a lot of him. Less is more. He fights tanks and gunships and helicopters and men on the ground, and very little fazes him. Bullets even bounce off, which should probably be the final word on whether or not you should keep wasting ammunition on him, right? Meanwhile, Bruce and Betty travel to New York City to try to find something that will cure Bruce’s affliction, while at the same time the army tries to catch him, and…guess what? Neither of those things are actually going to happen, are they? If they do, the series is over, so any attempt to make us believe they will is an example of a screenplay that’s content to tread water. Compared to most comic characters, the choices for dramatic tension in a Hulk movie are arguably limited.
There are several action sequences. Chases through Rio de Janeiro. Encounters with street toughs. Wild and crazy events on college campuses. Super battles in the streets of New York City. And then there are dialogue sequences, which mainly as useful tools to separate those action sequences, like one of those blank pages you occasionally find in an instruction manual. There are fugitive notes sounded about love and inner peace and daughters who hate their fathers, but nothing that would indicate a screenplay that actually wants to explore these topics. And there’s a mad scientist who is played by Tim Blake Nelson. Remember what I said about William Hurt? Nelson is also a good actor. I have the same rationale for mentioning that.
A quick page through the annals of the Hulk rogues gallery is not an encouraging sight. They mainly exist to be foils for the Hulk’s super strength and super gait (and his decidedly not super intelligence). Enter The Abomination, which is what happens to Blonsky when he jabs himself with a serum to make himself the equal of the Hulk. Why does he do this? What does he have to prove? And why does his aim become so indiscriminate after becoming the Abomination? There are no real answers to any of these questions, except for the fact that this movie needs a showstopping villain, and Blonsky apparently had no qualms about signing up to be it.
So Blonsky becomes a menace walking the streets of New York, and the army must turn to the Hulk to stop him. Which Bruce Banner does, by jumping out of a plane, hoping that the frefall with Hulk-ify him. But it doesn’t, and he slams into the pavement and dies. Oh, wait. Except he doesn’t, because from the deep hole he made the Hulk emerges, even though the Hulk is larger than the hole, so obviously Banner was Banner when he hit the ground. Why didn’t he die? Doesn’t matter. He lunges out of the hole and attacks the Abomination.
About this final battle. It takes place at night, so that the special effects can be properly obscured. And it goes on and on, draining of us of whatever modicum of interest we had before it started. The two characters, who are entirely CGI creations, are thrown around the city with great skill on the part of the effects people…but no pizzazz. Of course the effects are competent, but all effects are competent these days. Where’s the extra spark of creativity?
But then, who can blame the CGI techies for being uninspired? This is a deeply uninspiring film. During this climactic battle, instead of being wowed by what should play as a symbolic, psychological battle between two oversized personalities transformed into titans, we just get a lot of flashy colors and bright lights. And crashes and booms and shakes and bangs and roars. And occasionally some dialogue, which someone should have advised against. And at no point do we care, because the film has not given us reason to. If you were to take the previous 90 minutes of the film and chop them out, the final battle would play no differently. Just very loudly.
The Incredible Hulk feels like the middle chapter in a trilogy that only partially got made. It’s a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist, although in a parallel universe it might be the Ang Lee film. And it’s a prequel to a film that won’t exist—the upcoming Avengers may provide a missing piece of closure, but since Bruce will now be played by Mark Ruffalo, I’m not counting on it. The movie stops in mid-sentence, with every reason to believe that the army will keep on a-chasin’ The Hulk, and Betty will pine for her lost love with doe eyes. At the end of The Incredible Hulk, the two lovers exchange a sad look, and then Hulk escapes. As he must. If he ever were to settle down, not only would his story be over, but marrying his girl would make them both…shudder…Bruce and Betty Banner.
NOTES/AVENGERS CONNECTIONS: The opening title sequence references “Stark Industries.” Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has a scene with General Ross at the very end.