Movie Review: The Incredible Hulk (2008)
I’ve always liked the Incredible Hulk. While Batman may be my favorite superhero, Bruce Banner and his destructive alter ego have been floating near the top of the pool of worthy runner-ups, constantly nipping at the Dark Knight’s heels. In the comics, Hulk had it all—science fiction, huge action, and a compelling personal drama. On the surface (which appears to be at what level most critics take the character), the Hulk is little more than a mindless, Godzilla-like monster, ravaging cities and getting into fights with other, similarly powered monsters. The comics attempted to be so much more than that though—the Hulk has a deep potential to be a compelling character study. I like Ang Lee’s Hulk because it tries to strike a definite balance between action and character development, and I love the quiet, Bruce Banner issues of the comics.
Due to the nature of film, The Incredible Hulk is shoehorned into Ang Lee’s model of what the Hulk is, as opposed to how he is portrayed in, say, The Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. In a movie about a man who becomes a monster, too much monster cheapens the flick and creates a low rent, B-movie vibe. Director Louis Leterrier strips away a lot of the emotional context of Lee’s movie, creating what is basically a two-hour, cross continental chase scene. The reason they’re so glib with the action and light on the exposition is that they actually kept the continuity established with Hulk back in 2003, going so far as having Gen. Thunderbolt Ross say that it’s been five years since the last Hulk sighting. Credit for this goes to star Edward Norton, who wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote several drafts of the movie.
Norton’s decision allows for the development of the Hulk’s rival, Emil Blonsky, an initially well-meaning special forces soldier from England (by way of Russia) who becomes evil through his jealousy of Banner’s monstrous form. Tim Roth, who plays Blonsky, is fantastic as a soldier thrown into a wholly new environment who slowly allows himself to get twisted out of shape. His two encounters with the Hulk, prior to becoming the Abomination, feel about as real as such encounters can be. The first time, he is completely unprepared. The second time, he’s confident and has super soldier serum (yeah, that one) pumping through his veins. Despite having had his ass kicked pretty badly in round two, a quick, serum aided recovery means that he’s “pissed off and ready for round three.”
Ed Norton’s Bruce Banner is played much like Eric Bana and Bill Bixby’s before him—shy, silent, paranoid, and unlikable when angry. Some of the better scenes in the movie (there aren’t enough of them, sadly) involve Banner’s quest to suppress the Hulk. He trains with a breathing specialist and avoids Hulking out after a sudden succession of slaps. In an early chase, he has to stop to calm himself down to keep from changing. Oh, and he fails to have sex with Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross because he can’t get too excited.
The supporting cast is also fairly deep. William Hurt turns in a great performance as General Ross, Tim Blake Nelson does well as unethical scientist Samuel Sterns, and the cameos are welcome. The only nagging complaint I have is Betty Ross, and I’m not even sure that Liv Tyler is to blame. Betty Ross’ role for much of The Incredible Hulk is to stand around and look distressed, which doesn’t cut it when Pepper Potts did so much more in Iron Man. This isn’t a movie about interpersonal relationships though, so Betty is tossed to the side so that Hulk and the Abomination can bring the noise.
The Hulk smashes a lot of things—a lab, a South American pop bottling plant, the military, Harlem, and the Abomination. Surprisingly, it all looks really good. CGI has progressed a lot since 2003, so Hulk looks less like a video game character and more like a character from a really graphically advanced video game. He certainly looks more real in-movie than he does in the trailer, but more weight is given to the CGI via several beautiful transformation scenes. The final Hulk/Abomination throw down is more visually spectacular than anything in Transformers, and when Hulk yelled “Hulk smash!”, I screamed like the nerdy schoolgirl I am (2003′s “Puny human” had the same effect).
The movie did an exceptionally good job of tickling whatever bone fanboys have that makes them love proper winks and nods. Nick Fury and Stark Industries appear in the headlines of newspapers in the opening credits, Bill Bixby appears on TV (right before Sesame Street‘s Grover!), Lou Ferrigno makes an appearance as a security guard and provides Hulk’s voice, Stan Lee makes his obligatory appearance, the guy who voiced Hulk in the 60′s cartoon series got a part, and there was even a purple pants gag. Oh yeah, and the last minute of the movie is absolutely awesome—thank God Marvel is giving it a go at a combined cinematic universe.
The Incredible Hulk isn’t as good as Iron Man, but it falls comfortably into a top five of the best Marvel Comics movies, likely falling behind X2: X-Men United and Spider-Man 2, which is pretty damn good for a movie that people were expecting nothing from. It’s also a marked improvement over Ang Lee’s version of the character. The problem with the movie? It leaves no lasting impact, emotional, visceral, or otherwise. Yeah, the final fight is cool, but it was essentially a final boss battle with some cheesy dialog (“You don’t deserve this power!”). The flick is run, fight, run, fight, run, science, fight, but there’s enough within that frame, including a subtle tease as to who the next villain is, that makes me think that things can only get better from here.
Also cool: There’s talks of an extra 70 minutes of this movie floating around, as well as an alternate, deeper, Ed Norton edited cut of the movie. Both of them probably feature a cameo of Captain America. Yes, CAPTAIN AMERICA.
I’m practically salivating.
The Incredible Hulk. Directed by Louis Leterrier. With Edward Norton (Bruce Banner), Tim Roth (Emil Blonsky), Liv Tyler (Betty Ross), William Hurt (Gen. Thunderbolt Ross), and Tim Blake Nelson (Samuel Sterns). Released June 13, 2008, by Universal Pictures.
Paul Arrand Rodgers
Paul Arrand Rodgers has this blog, and that's about it.