When I was a kid, all the children in the neighborhood used to organize games of kickball. Whenever something would interfere with our game, everyone would shout “do-over!” and we’d start again. Universal Pictures and Marvel Entertainment have literally done the same thing. After 2003’s Ang Lee-directed Hulk burned out quickly due to disappointing word of mouth, they realized a potentially important franchise was in jeopardy. Turns out that audiences found Lee’s film too talky, with not enough of the patented “Hulk smash” action they had anticipated. The Universal/Marvel do-over comes in the form of The Incredible Hulk, which is not quite a remake and not quite a sequel. It does, however, much more closely fit the template established by the Spider-Man and X-Men movies and perfected by Iron Man.
The opening credit sequence briefly recaps the story of scientist Bruce Banner (now played by Edward Norton), who was zapped with too many gamma rays and subsequently morphs into a muscular green behemoth when he’s angry. In a nod to the prior film’s ending, Banner is hiding in a South American shantytown. He tries to learn relaxation techniques to help him control the beast within. His longtime nemesis, an American army general named Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt), is still looking for him, hoping to extract whatever causes his Hulk-ness in order to turn it into a weapon. Ross sends an elite mercenary, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), to find him.
And find him Blonsky does, but not before Banner is able to escape, make his way back to the States, and locate his former lover/co-scientist Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). He enlists her help in tracking down college professor Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson in a fantastic supporting role) whose gamma ray experiments may be able to help rid him of his big green problem. Since capturing Banner is difficult at best, Gen. Ross – who is also Betty’s father – injects Blonsky with some of the same material that helped create the Hulk. Eventually, he too transforms into something else: a creature dubbed Abomination. Of course, it all ends with a climactic battle between the two massive beings.
I was one of the few who liked the earlier Hulk movie, although I admit that it was not without its problems. It took way too long for the Hulk to come on screen, and a lot of the plot dealt with Bruce Banner’s complex daddy issues. Lee made a dark, brooding, and significantly Freudian picture that played more like an art-house film than a commercial blockbuster. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to say that Ang Lee made a great Ang Lee movie, but not necessarily a great Hulk movie. It’s kind of interesting; there was briefly a trend in which independent auteurs were hired to direct superhero movies (Bryan Singer and X-Men, Christopher Nolan and Batman Begins, Sam Raimi and Spider-Man). Prevailing wisdom suggested that these directors would elevate the material into something that went beyond the paneled pages of a comic book. By and large, that’s exactly what they did; however, Lee’s movie was considered an example of that idea taken too far. Comics fans and action-hungry audiences felt his Hulk had too much artiness and not enough fun.
The Incredible Hulk, on the other hand, has been directed by Louis Leterrier, who also helmed Transporter 2 and Jet Li’s martial arts drama Unleashed, so you know there’s no artistic pretension here. Leterrier is content to give fans what they want: a more action-oriented movie that has just enough – but not too much – of the character development that has always been a trademark of Marvel comics. Everything here sticks close to the formula that has proven so successful in other comic book adaptations.
For me, the best change is the addition of a Hulk-sized villain. Although I liked the father/son dynamics of the original picture, a superhero movie is always best when it has a physically threatening baddie for the hero to fight. Tim Roth does an excellent job playing Emil Blonsky – a guy who is not necessarily bad but who is hired to do bad things. Then, when he turns into Abomination, we get a chance to see the kind of battle royale between him and the Hulk that is precisely what we are paying to see. Yes, the special effects still look a little videogamey at times, but so what? The grand finale has all the smashing, bashing, and crashing that you could possibly want. We also get an excellent chase through Banner’s shantytown and an intense Hulk/military confrontation on a college campus.
There has been some talk of a disagreement between Edward Norton and the folks at Marvel. Norton allegedly didn’t want to sacrifice the story of Bruce Banner in the telling of the Hulk’s story. My guess is that those reports were dramatically overblown in the media, especially since The Incredible Hulk gets the balance just right. In this movie, we care about Bruce Banner just as we have cared about Peter Parker or Tony Stark. The character, and not his alter ego, is the centerpiece of the movie. I like how the relationship between Bruce and Betty plays out, as well as Bruce’s desperate struggle to rid himself of the thing that morphs him into a being he cannot fathom.
When it comes to rating this film, I’m in an unusual spot. It’s well-made, exciting, and a lot of fun, although perhaps not at quite the same level as Iron Man. But I also liked the first Hulk, which I awarded three stars. That’s what I’m giving this one as well. If you hated the first, you may rate this one higher yourself. I’m going to acknowledge that both versions have their strong points and make the perilous statement that, to me, one film is not necessarily “better” than the other. That said, in terms of being faithful to the comic and giving us the kind of big screen superhero entertainment that we want, The Incredible Hulk is definitely the more satisfying of the two.
( out of four)
The Incredible Hulk is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence, some frightening sci-fi images and brief suggestive content. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: The Incredible Hulk
Return to The Aisle Seat