Incredible Hulk, The (United States, 2008)
Possible Spoilers: This review reveals some of the cameos in The Incredible Hulk. Those who wish to be surprised by these appearances would do well to stop reading now.
For five years, Marvel has been trying to figure out what to do with one of the biggest potential franchises of its universe. Ang Lee's Hulk proved to be a dud with fans and producing a direct sequel was as unlikely an alternative as altogether forgoing additional Hulk movies. So the decision was made to "re-imagine" the character, which is a nice way of saying that the 2003 feature would be ignored. The Incredible Hulk is a more traditional superhero movie than its predecessor and should please those who want their not-so-jolly green giant served with helpings of action. This film provides less talk and more smashing.
Structurally, The Incredible Hulk is a fairly straightforward superhero movie. While it is not an "origin story" in the strictest sense, it functions as one in the way it must introduce characters, establish situations and relationships, and open a series. As a result of so much backstory, there's not a lot of room for a complex plot. So the principal villain remains half-formed and the storyline as a whole revolves around three confrontations between the Hulk and this nemesis.
The film opens with a re-telling of how Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) entered his Jekyll and Hyde state. This allows the 2003 Hulk to be "erased" from the record for those who care about such things. As we join the story, Banner is in South America, on the run from himself and the military, trying to keep a low profile while he searches for a cure to what plagues him. A mishap at a factory alerts General Ross (William Hurt) to Banner's location. A tactical team, led by the amoral Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), goes in to capture Banner. After turning into the Hulk, he escapes and heads back to the United States, where he is reunited with his former love, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). Meanwhile, the General and Emil plot a "foolproof" method of capturing Banner - one that involves injecting Blonsky with a serum that makes him superhuman.
The Incredible Hulk takes place in the same "universe" as Iron Man (a point that is driven home by a Robert Downey Jr. cameo), but the movies aren't on quite the same level. Iron Man was rightfully described as a "comic book movie that you don't have to be a comic book fan to like." The same is not true of The Incredible Hulk. This film's appeal, while not as narrowly focused as Sex and the City, is designed primarily with fanboys in mind. Director Louis Leterrier's approach lacks the wit and sophistication of Iron Man. While The Incredible Hulk has some emotional resonance, it's built on a foundation of action. When Lou Ferrigno (providing the main character's voice) shouts "Hulk Smash!", it encapsulates the attraction.
As Banner, Edward Norton takes over for Eric Bana but there's little apparent difference in the way the character is interpreted. Banner is still the same tortured soul he was in 2003. Liv Tyler's version of Betty Ross is surprisingly awkward and at times unconvincing, but maybe that has a lot to do with her dialogue. It's as if George Lucas was brought in to ghost write her lines. At least there's a real sense of affection between Banner and Betty; that goes a long way toward redeeming weaknesses in Tyler's performance. As Blonsky, Tim Roth is at his badass best, even if all he really has to do is sneer a lot. William Hurt is fine, if a little bland, as Ross. Then there's Downey, who's on-screen for about 30 seconds, but steals the movie and brings down the house. That says a lot about the popularity of Iron Man and indicates how big Iron Man 2 will be.
The Incredible Hulk pays homage in many ways to the popular late-'70s/early-'80s TV show of the same name. In addition to providing the little-used voice of the Hulk, Ferrigno reprises his role from the 2003 movie as a nameless security guard. Bill Bixby gets a little face-time via some archival footage that's inserted in such a way that anyone not looking for it won't be bothered by it. There's also a brief snippet of the TV show's theme tune, a character named "Jack McGee," and an iconic shot of Banner walking alone, hitchhiking. Plus, Stan Lee makes his obligatory cameo. (He and Ferrigno are the only two to appear in both Hulk and The Incredible Hulk.)
After a slightly protracted introduction that puts all the pieces in place, The Incredible Hulk stays action-oriented for the remainder of its running time, pausing occasionally for some exposition or to advance the Banner/Betty relationship. Granted, a lot of the action consists of chase scenes with soldiers running after Banner, but whenever the Hulk appears, things get interesting. The final battle, bits of which have been shown in TV commercials and trailers, recalls one of those Japanese monster-a-thons where giant creatures collide. And it's a lot more kinetic (and shorter) than the climactic conflict in Transformers. The Incredible Hulk builds to this, and it doesn't let us down.
The special effects used to create the Hulk aren't flawless but they're good enough. The CGI is evident mainly during the final battle, when it's apparent that a lot of what we're seeing was crafted in a computer. The word "cartoonish" comes to mind but, considering that this is adapted from a comic book, that's not an inappropriate descriptor. The work here passes muster, and the Hulk is no longer the bright green of the 2003 feature. Letterier has rendered him in a grayish-green.
The Incredible Hulk provides Marvel with its second superhero hit of the summer. For comic book fans, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk represent a solid one-two punch. If the former movie was a triple, the latter is a solid single, and good enough to drive the earlier one home. Now, the wait is on for The Dark Knight, to see whether D.C. can hold its own. Certainly, Marvel has succeeded in wiping away the hangover from last summer's crop of superhero movies and revising the future look more promising.
Incredible Hulk, The (United States, 2008)
Cast: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson
Screenplay: Zak Penn and Edward Harrison, based on the comic book By Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Cinematography: Peter Menzies Jr.
Music: Craig Armstrong
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
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