Ang Lee’s version of the Hulk was not welcomed by diehard comic book geeks, barely-men who were too busy fawning over the latest Michael Turner sketch drawings of a half-naked Witchblade to watch Lee’s “The Ice Storm” or “Pushing Hands”, and thus had no idea what they were getting into when they stepped into those cold, darken theaters back in 2003. The poor bastards, they never stood a chance. Hollywood saw Lee do action in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, and decided he could do comic book action, too. Well, yeah, kinda. Lee’s Hulk wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, although I liked it for its complexity and humanity, despite being a movie about, essentially, a green guy that likes to smash things up real good when things didn’t go his way, or as I like to call it, the Hillary Theory.
Then again, who didn’t see the negative reaction to “Hulk” coming? You don’t make a movie about a superhero and try to shoehorn in Oedipus complex b-plots between the smashing and leaping and scenes of mutated dog bashing. (Really, Ang? Mutated dogs?) Guys who actually spend money on comic books instead of downloading it online like the rest of us wouldn’t have known whether to stare with their mouth open or run home to their basement and dive into the latest issue of “The Justice Society of America” to wash away the awful taste of adulthood. Let’s face it, you can make adult comic book movies, sure, but at the end of the day, you better keep in mind that it’s still just a comic book movie. Christopher Nolan proved that with “Batman Begins”, and Sam Raimi walked the fine line in “Spider-Man 2”.
And so, 2008 arrives, along with a new Hulk movie, this one from French director Louis Leterrier (“The Transporter” movies). The reboot/not-really-a-sequel stars Edward Norton, who replaces Eric Bana as Bruce Banner, mild-mannered scientist and alter ego to the most destructive force on the planet when he gets mad, and you don’t want to get Bruce mad. Norton has always been good in tortured, contemplative roles, and he strikes the perfect frame of mind as Bruce Banner, although I have to admit, he doesn’t really make for a credible scientist. Not that it matters, of course. He doesn’t do a whole lot of scientific stuff anyway, unless you count peering into beakers and test tubes for about a minute or so as very scientific-y.
In a brief, do-over prelude, we retrace the origins of Banner’s transformation into the Hulk, and his current problems with the Evil U.S. Army ™ as embodied by General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt, in a role previously played with gruff appeal by Sam Elliot), who is also the father of Bruce’s major squeeze, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler, subbing in for Jennifer Connelly in this version). The film proper picks up with Bruce hiding out in a South American hole, attempting in vain to cure the Hulk within, when the U.S. Army comes knocking. This time, the men in camo are led by shoot first and screw your questions badass Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth). Forced out of hiding, Bruce returns to the States, to Betty, and maybe a possible cure. The Hulk eventually comes out to play again, leading to a lengthy street brawl with the Abomination, the hulked out, gray-skinned pretty boy that Emil Blonsky becomes after one too many doses of the Super Soldier Serum (from comic book lore) and Gamma radiation.
In the comics, the Hulk’s favorite line was, “Hulk Smash!” And indeed, Hulk smashes plenty in “The Incredible Hulk”. Leterrier has learned the lessons of the 2003 version well, and it’s not even 20-minutes in when the Hulk makes his first appearance, dishing out a world of hurt to some local thugs and Blonsky’s commando crew at a bottle factory. Later, the Hulk turns a college campus into an impromptu class on whooping ass, as he tosses about tanks, soldiers, helicopters, and Emil Blonsky again. In another movie, Blonsky would be the hero – the ultimate soldier, always in the thick of the action, the never-say-die human who goes to great lengths to beat the big invincible monster. Unfortunately the title of the movie is “The Incredible Hulk”, so Tim Roth and Blonsky will have to be satisfied with playing the villain.
So the question is, how does “The Incredible Hulk” compare to Ang Lee’s “Hulk”? Favorably, in the sense that it clearly has nothing to do with Lee’s movie. By the same token, Lee’s “Hulk” also compares favorably against Leterrier’s. What I mean by that is, everything you liked in Lee’s Hulk is missing in Leterrier’s, and vice versa. If you were one of those fanboys who bitched endlessly about Lee’s treatment of the material, then this is your movie. But if you thought Lee’s movie was not the tragedy that many made it out to be, Leterrier’s Hulk will seem lacking by comparison. Undemanding comic book nerds will probably like this version more, since the story is straightforward enough and the characters little more than archetypes, which make the whole meal easier to digest.
And while the action quotient in Leterrier’s “Hulk” is not noticeably any higher than it was in Lee’s movie, it’s the quality of the comic book action that differs – with emphasis on the comic book part. Where Lee was satisfied with having the Hulk fight those oft-maligned mutated dogs and various military vehicles that got in his way, Leterrier is more interested in putting the Hulk through his paces with an opponent of equal power. Enter the film’s Third Act – a 10-minute street brawl with the Abomination. But even before Blonsky goes full-bore freak-out, his taking of the Super Soldier Serum results in increased speed, strength, and agility. All those things we’re going to get plenty off when Marvel unleashes the Captain America movie on an unsuspecting world in a few years. (And no, there isn’t a Captain America cameo in “The Incredible Hulk”, if you were wondering.)
“The Incredible Hulk” will also be unfairly compared to another Marvel hero, “Iron Man”. Leterrier’s film is nowhere near as accomplished as Jon Favreau’s, which maintained a perfect balance of comedy, story, and action from beginning to end. There are long stretches of “Hulk” that drags, which is surprising, given the rumors that at least 70 minutes worth of footage were left on the editing room floor. Really? What exactly were in those 70 minutes, more Edward Norton running through the jungles of South America, trying to find the perfect size pants to accommodate his tendency to “hulk out”? I can’t even begin to imagine what they had to cut out, or what Norton was rumored to be fighting for in that much-discussed spat with Marvel over the film’s pacing.
“The Incredible Hulk” benefits from an excellent cast in Edward Norton and Tim Roth, with William Hurt providing substantial backup, right down to the mustache. Character-wise, Hurt’s Ross is problematic, as he seems to have no real purpose except to be the biggest piece of shit in the world and to progress the plot as needed. But hey, if you needed someone to do just that, and do it with charisma, Hurt is the way to go. On the other hand, Liv Tyler is hopelessly miscast, and if it was hard to sell Norton as a scientist, forget about Betty Ross. With Tyler in the cast, the filmmakers should have rewritten the character to conform to the comics and kept her simply as Banner’s girlfriend. Liv Tyler can play girlfriend. She can’t play scientist, even if you give her a pair of nerdy glasses. Of course, trying to erase the memory of Jennifer Connelly in the role is never a good idea for any actress.
Geek Side Notes: Tim Blake Nelson plays an ambitious scientist name Samuel Sterns, who boasts that he’s more “curious than cautious”, and for good reason. Ty Burrell plays a background psychiatrist name Dr. Samson; his hair isn’t green … yet. Lou Ferrigno has a small role as a campus security guard, and also voices the Hulk’s, well, growls. In the special cameo category, Stan Lee does his regular bit, while Robert Downey Jr. shows up before the closing credits as Tony Stark to talk about a “team” he’s putting together with some guy with an eye patch.
Louis Leterrier (director) / Zak Penn, Edward Norton (screenplay)
CAST: Edward Norton … Bruce Banner
Liv Tyler … Betty Ross
Tim Roth … Emil Blonsky
Tim Blake Nelson … Samuel Sterns
Ty Burrell … Dr. Samson
William Hurt … Gen. Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross