After Ang Lee’s version of Marvel’s not-so-jolly green giant split critics and left modest waves in the box-office, Marvel Studios reacquired the rights to the character, put Louis Leterrier in charge and slated the movie as the second film in the nascent Marvel Cinematic Universe. With a U.S. release date coming just a month after the critical and financial success of Iron Man (previously reviewed for the Marvel Blogathon by The Girl that Loves to Review), Marvel Studios looked to the release of The Incredible Hulk with cautious optimism. The Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it today was still in its infancy and no one had been able to catch lightning in a bottle like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. In their attempts to distance themselves from the 2003 version, Leterrier and Marvel painted themselves into the same corner where Marc Webb found himself with The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
The Incredible Hulk suffers not from too many villains (although that is an issue) but inconsistent tone. Like the title character, the film finds itself split into two parts. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) spends the first half of the movie hiding out in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, spending his days at a bottling factory and his nights searching for a cure to the Hulk problem. Soon he is discovered by General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt), the man behind the experiment which transformed the brilliant Bruce Banner into the mindless Hulk. Banner has been hiding from Ross ever since that first transformation which left the lab destroyed and slow-reacting scientists killed at the scene. Once Ross tracks Banner down, he sends a S.W.A.T. team lead by Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to recover Banner in hopes to use Banner’s biology to weaponize the Hulk. Blonksy is similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in Predator. Both are mercenaries sent to South American jungles to “get the job done” when the standard military “just won’t cut it.” Key differences include the actually terrifying diameter of Arnold’s biceps and (more surprisingly) his morality. In Predator, Arnold’s character Dutch is uncomfortable with the assignment that Carl Weathers gives his team. Once Blonksy sees the Hulk in action, he goes all in, doing whatever it takes to get a piece of Hulk’s power.
Let’s stop right here. Up to this point, The Incredible Hulk has played out like a “straight-forward” mystery thriller. The opening credits summarize the Hulk’s origin with brilliantly executed montages letting us bypass an origin story. Normally the origin story is my favorite part of a superhero film, but by getting these scenes out of the way early, Leterrier drops us straight into the jungle and gives the film a more interesting starting point. Aside from a few cumbersome lines, odd characters, and strange plot arcs, the movie executes this first half to great effect. There is actual intrigue in watching Norton evade his pursuers and exchange messages with “Mr. Blue” by satellite as the two work towards a cure (although the actual lines of text shared between the two are not the film’s finest writing moments). A few scenes show Banner avoiding fights or situations that may force him to transform into the Hulk. When he does inevitably get into fights, we watch him try to keep his cool while taking punches. So far so good.
Once Blonksy’s team flushes Banner out of hiding, the film shifts from measured mystery sequences to full-out superhero smash-fest. And in this realm, the film can not compete with other heavy weight superhero flicks, including Iron Man. The visual appearance of the Hulk himself is a step back from the 2003 version while still managing to win a beauty contest with his on-screen opponent Abomination (one of several antagonists in play). This is my least favorite version of the Hulk both in appearance and personality. He is in much more control than either Eric Bana or Marc Ruffalo’s version and less formidable than both. Ruffalo’s mindless brute works best in the ensemble hero flick. I suppose the relative restraint shown here helps this film’s plot as well even if near-conversations between the Hulk and Liv Tyler take away the beast’s ferocity. Some will prefer this controlled Hulk. I prefer the unpredictable Ruffalo version.
As a brief aside, let’s take a look at some personnel differences between 2008’s Incredible Hulk and 2003’s Hulk:
Bruce Banner: Edward Norton substituted for Eric Bana. Advantage Incredible Hulk
As much as I like Eric Bana in Hulk and in general, Norton gives a more well-rounded performance than Bana’s sullen scientist. Bonus points to Bana for name compatibility.
General Thunderbolt Ross: William Hurt for Sam Elliot. Advantage Nighy
Regardless of the actor choice, I don’t like this character. Similarly I don’t like the character of William Stryker in the X-Men films. Both are greying military figures who attempt to control and weaponize mutates and mutants respectively. I think the only actor I would enjoy in the role is Bill Nighy. He’s already been a Zombie, a Vampire, and a Pirate. Maybe a Red Hulk is next.
Betty Ross: Liv Tyler for Jennifer Connelly. Advantage Incredible Hulk
I would rather see Jennifer Connelly in anything, including a Lifetime biography of Liv Tyler’s life. I’ve seen one too many The Strangers, Armageddon, and yes, I dare say Lord of the Rings.
Director: Louis Leterrier for Ang Lee. Advantage Hulk
Leterrier’s action scenes may be an improvement but Lee’s version was more ambitious both visually and thematically.
Villain: Abomination for Nick Nolte. Advantage Hulk
I will always like Tim Roth because of his roles in Quentin Tarantino’s films (even in Four Rooms). But I don’t like Roth here. And I really don’t like the villain he plays. Nick Nolte plays a much more compelling villain in the 2003 film, even if the character absorbs several villains from the source material.
Bottom-line: An uneven second attempt to bring The Hulk to life, The Incredible Hulk offers a complete turn around from Ang Lee’s visually striking and ponderous attempt but falls far short of the character’s true potential.
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