Directed by Louis Leterrier
Starring Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, William Hurt and Tim Roth
Produced by Marvel Studios and Valhalla Motion Pictures
Distributed by Universal Pictures
On one hand, Marvel Studios’ The Incredible Hulk has the fortune of replacing Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk, a film that disappointed most comic book readers. On the other hand, it has the misfortune of following up May’s release of Iron Man, a film that thrilled most comic book readers. Therein lies the rub. The Incredible Hulk is like the NFL back-up quarterback who gets to replace the ineffective (and disgraced) starter, but now he has to share the backfield with the All-Pro running back who single handedly won the Super Bowl and appears on every Wheaties box and in every Nike commercial. In other words, fans’ expectations of The Incredible Hulk are a bit paradoxical: they’ll be content with the movie as long as it’s not the misfire that Hulk was, but if it’s not spectacular, they’ll leave the theatre confessing, “I liked Iron Man better.”
A recent Incredible Hulk television spot even leads off with General Thunderbolt Ross’ bar encounter with Tony Stark (played by Iron Man‘s Robert Downey, Jr.). It’s an extraneous encounter that doesn’t occur until the EXACT end of the film, but its placement in the television spot can be interpreted as Marvel Studios’ attempt to corral Iron Man movie-goers to see The Incredible Hulk. It’s a sensible marketing ploy, but then again, Marvel Studios might not realize that this television spot suggests that The Incredible Hulk can’t stand on its own… which isn’t the case.
Because on its own, The Incredible Hulk is a well paced, competently acted, entertaining experience that tickles the 10 year old boy inside us. It’s also a Hulk film that plays it safe and stays “within the box.” It doesn’t attempt to philosophize or psychoanalyze the concept. The Hulk is not presented as a symbol of either the destructive potential of Cold War technology or a man’s childhood-trauma-induced rage. One could perhaps argue that The Incredible Hulk manifests post-Watergate mistrust of the government since one of the reasons why Bruce Banner goes into hiding is because he knows the American military will use a sample of his blood to create a new super-soldier serum. That’s probably giving the movie too much sophistication. The plot is your standard “man on the run from authority” conflict that we’ve also seen in dozens of other films like Minority Report and The Fugitive. That’s not meant to be criticism, just an observation that the film operates within a stock plot device.
Marvel Studios understands that most film-goers are not attending a Hulk movie in order to ponder some nuanced metaphor; what most film-goers want from a Hulk film is wanton destruction, and this film delivers that with three visually-stunning extended sequences involving the Hulk punching people through walls, ripping apart a HumVee, and pounding the Abomination’s face into the ground. The ensuing violence is plentiful and intense but not gory. Through clever editing and extreme long shots, the deaths that occur in this movie are suggested rather than shown. The violence in… say… Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is far more brutal than what’s shown in The Incredible Hulk. Again, The Incredible Hulk wonderfully reverts its viewers to a boyhood state that relishes the spectacle of cartoon violence.
And yes, androgynous contemplations aside, I realize that adult women do not have a boyhood state to revert back to. This is a film that women and girls–especially those who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a comic book–might very well find unappealing (but not offensive). The one aspect of the film that might interest them–the romance between Bruce Banner and Betty Ross–lacks distinctive charm… and is downright clichéd, truth be told. For instance, when the two lovers reunite in the middle of the story, they do so–yep, all together now–on a bridge during a torrential downpour. Ugh.
When I watched The Incredible Hulk in the theatre, seated in front of me were four pre-teen boys who had no qualms letting everyone know which parts of the movie excited them and which parts bored them. Unsurprisingly, they were rather put-off by having to watch two adults kiss on screen, and to be honest, I found myself agreeing with their wish for the story to move along and get back to the mayhem. It’s not like the romantic moments undermine the film though. In fact, there are very few of them, but that just means that Liv Tyler really doesn’t have much to do in this film besides express concern for Bruce and disgust for her gruff father, General “Thunderbolt” Ross. For a scientist, Dr. Elizabeth Ross doesn’t perform many mathematical equations, but she does go clothes shopping for her boyfriend. So Liv Tyler’s performance, while capable, is uncomplicated.
In fact, all the performances in The Incredible Hulk are a bit one-note, but that’s because the script doesn’t demand too much of the actors. William Hurt presents a gruff and determined General Ross, while Ed Norton delivers an appropriately controlled portrayal of Bruce Banner. I was most impressed with Tim Roth’s restrained performance as megalomaniacal Emil Blonsky. Roth turns inward Blonsky’s seething ambition to upgrade himself into the perfect physical specimen. The madness is cast in the actor’s eyes even as he moves his body in accordance with a military officer’s trained restriction. It is the antithesis of Kevin Spacey’s bombastic posturing in Superman Returns.
The Incredible Hulk certainly caters to fans of both the Hulk comic book and the 1970s television show. Whether it’s a purple pants gag, a mention of a reporter named Jack McGee, a psychiatrist named Dr. Samson, a “Hulk Smash!” moment, a Pizzeria called “Stanley’s” (get it?), there are fan service moments a plenty. And of course, Stan Lee and Lou Ferrigno make their obligatory appearances, and both are inspired fun. Indeed, this film might have more fan service moments than any other super-hero film ever made. Each viewer though needs to determine if these moments are annoying distractions or entertaining ephemera.
One aspect of the film I found annoying was the number of times it had the Hulk scream his lungs out. The film’s first “Hulk bellow” offers a superb “theatre moment”: the scream reverberates throughout the theatre as it makes it way through the surround sound speaker system. You can’t help but be awed… at least until the Hulk bellows for the fifth time, at which point you’ve not only got a splitting headache, you’re begging for the opportunity to ask the jolly green giant if it would be too much of him to turn it down a notch. I would almost accuse the filmmakers of attempting to blow out the theatre’s sound system, but of course, it’s most likely they discovered upon an awesome sound effect and decided to replicate it many times. Unfortunately, the redundancy is grating.
That’s really a minor complaint about a film that is otherwise engagingly frenetic… and also effectively structured. One of the smartest parts about The Incredible Hulk is that the Hulk’s origin is condensed into a series of mute images that are presented during the opening credits sequence. That saves the audience from having to witness yet again Banner’s laboratory experiment gone horribly wrong and instead allows the story to begin at the point where Banner has been hiding out in Brazil for several months, communicating via computer instant messaging with a scientist who he hopes can figure out how to cure him of his now gamma irradiated biochemistry.
Bruce swears that he is not the Hulk. After every transformation, Bruce only vaguely remembers the Hulk’s actions and experiences. Betty,
however, insists that the Hulk retains Bruce’s humanity, which seemingly gets confirmed when The Hulk acts like a super-hero during the climactic battle with the Abomination.
You read that correctly: The Incredible Hulk presents The Hulk as a super-hero. As he grapples with the Abomination, the Hulk realizes that innocent bystanders are in peril, so he deliberately performs an action (the specifics of which I won’t spoil here) to make sure that no harm comes to them. For me, it was the most surprising–and welcome–development of the film. Hulk’s altruism echoes a moment from earlier in the film when Bruce intercedes on the behalf of a Brazilian woman who is being harassed by some thugs.
So maybe there’s more about The Incredible Hulk to ponder than I initially gave it credit for. However, it won’t hurt to approach this movie with the enthusiasm of a 10 year old boy who couldn’t wait to watch the next summer action spectacle. If you do so, just try your best to stomach the gushy kiss scenes.