RETRO-REVIEW: The Incredible Hulk

Of the five-movie series leading into Marvel’s team-up movie The Avengers (released tonight across America, and of course I’ll be in attendance), the one people seem to like the least is The Incredible Hulk. I understand the reaction. By any reasonable metric, Hulk is disappointing. It’s not my least-favorite of the five, though…that would be the underwhelming Iron Man 2, for reasons I’ll get into tomorrow. I actually have a bit of a soft spot in my heart for this film, though admittedly, that’s because it’s much better than Ang Lee’s Hulk film made just a few years before. It would be an interesting project to show how this film manages to fix most of the major problems cited in its predecessor, while going off and making a number of mistakes all its own. That won’t be my project today, though. Maybe some other time.

On the surface, this should have been a pretty good effort. The cast assembled on paper was fitting, headlined by the seemingly mild-mannered yet occasionally temper-prone Edward Norton. (As a piece of meta-casting, by the way, that was as brilliant as the choice of Robert Downey Jr. for Tony Stark.) The script pays close attention to the larger elements of Hulk’s mythology while still making it accessible to neophytes, and leavens in some nice references for longtime fans of the character. There are several impressive Hulk rampages, and the special effects team went overtime to make the CGI Hulk look as real as they could. I think it’s fair to say, too, that they did a pretty good job on the big guy – perhaps not quite as good as the Iron Man suit looked, but to be fair, the graphics people didn’t have to create that suit from thin air. All in all, The Incredible Hulk should have been a well-respected follow-up to Iron Man.

So what happened?

Alone among the films that introduced an Avenger, The Incredible Hulk is not an origin story. Instead, they summarize the origin of the character beneath the opening credits. In a way, this makes sense to me. Hulk does not have a complicated backstory or set of powers – “scientist gets hit by radiation that causes him to turn big and green when he gets mad” doesn’t take much time to explain. And Hulk is probably the most familiar Avenger to mass audiences, both because of his unique appearance and because of his television series. Still, I think the choice was a mistake, because it deprives us of the time that we got to spend with Tony Stark and Steve Rogers before they became superheroes. Bruce Banner never really comes across to us as a separate character. We see only the barest glimpse of him as an ordinary man, before he was cursed with the bizarre consequences of his experiment. In other words, we never see him when he isn’t having to deal with a potential Hulk-splosion. The movie could have used that, I think.

Compounding this problem, ironically, is that the filmmakers understand exactly what would drive Bruce Banner (at least at first), and let that drive the movie. This leads to perhaps the movie’s biggest weakness: that its main question is too easily answered. Banner spends the first ninety minutes of the film trying to find a cure for his condition, like any reasonable person would. But we already know he can’t find it. We know this because the movie is called The Incredible Hulk, not Banner’s Cure. If Bruce Banner ceases to be the Hulk, we have no point to the movie, and we have no Hulk for the Avengers movie we all knew was coming. When the audience already knows for most of the movie the results of the character’s struggles, that long wait for Banner to catch up with us doesn’t do the movie any favors. Other movies have faced this problem and defeated it. Most notable, perhaps, is Superman II, in which we see the Man of Steel actually lose his powers – and then be forced to reassume them in the face of disastrous consequences. Maybe that could have worked here too. But we’ll never know.

Another consequence of this misguided choice is that we never really see Banner get to grow as a person. The final shots of the film imply that he’s coming to terms with his new nature, which is exactly where this movie needed to go. But because it spends so much time on Banner seeking a cure, we never get the transition between goals that we need. We could have used a scene right at the beginning of the third act where Banner says, in effect: “I’ll never be able to get rid of this thing inside me. He’ll always be there. The most I can do is get him under control.” The setup for that scene was there, too – earlier in the movie, we see Banner getting lessons in bodily control to stop Hulk from appearing, lessons which might also have been channeled to get his rampages under control. But the setup was never made use of. It’s a real pity.

Perhaps the place where The Incredible Hulk falls on its face the worst is in direct comparisons with Iron Man. It doesn’t help that Hulk basically steals its predecessor’s climax wholesale: just as Tony Stark was forced to fight a bigger, meaner version of his suit to the death on a rooftop, Hulk fights Abomination to the death across the rooftops of New York City. (It really doesn’t help that the fight is set up by Banner stupidly jumping out of a plane when he doesn’t know whether his “cure” is permanent; if it is, Banner Smash – into ground.) And the fight in Iron Man was frankly better than the one we get here. But that’s not the only obvious point of comparison between the two movies, and none of them works in Hulk’s favor.

I was fighting to keep from saying this earlier, but we might as well get it out of the way now. Edward Norton is great as Bruce Banner, and Liv Tyler is very good as Dr. Elizabeth Ross – when she’s acting opposite Hulk. But they don’t have nearly as much chemistry together as Downey and Paltrow did in Iron Man. In fact, they don’t really have any. Whatever spark was supposed to be between Banner and Ross comes across only dimly. I don’t think it’s the fault of either Norton or Tyler; they’re both capable actors and they’ve both been impressive in other things. But unfortunately, some people just don’t click together. This is one of those times.

It’s also a bit harder to root against Tim Roth than it was to root against Jeff Bridges. Roth plays Emil Bronsky, the consummate professional soldier who becomes Abomination. But while Abomination is a great final foe for Hulk, Bronsky isn’t as connected to Banner as Obadiah Stane was to Tony Stark. Bronsky has nothing against Banner personally, at least not at first; he’s just a mission objective. Matters only become personal for Bronsky when Hulk takes out his whole team during the capture mission. And let’s be honest – isn’t that an understandable reaction for a professional whose pride has been wounded?

Moreover, though Bronsky takes the initial dose of a potent serum by choice to get his revenge on Hulk, I don’t think he could have been prepared for all the consequences of that action – especially not its continued strengthening influence on him over time. That makes it easier for the audience to rationalize, when we see changes in Bronsky, that he’s not quite himself and that the serum is driving him to do things he would normally have the self-control not to do. In a way, I felt sorry for Bronsky even as I cheered against Abomination, whereas I unambiguously wanted Stane to pay for his betrayal of Stark’s trust. Had the Bronsky we see at the beginning of the film known where his decision would take him, I have a hard time believing he would have made the call he did. In his own way, he is just as much a victim as Bruce Banner.

One last difference between the two movies: Iron Man knew how to use only the bits of its mythology it needed for the story at hand, and it knew how to pay them off. The Incredible Hulk does not. Only once (and that obliquely, at the very end of the film) is there any mention of S.H.I.E.L.D., precisely at the point when they should be escalating their visible presence – which makes this film feel disconnected from the growing universe of movies. (It would feel even more so if not for Downey’s cameo as Tony Stark.) And the presence of Samuel Sterns, while helpful in the main plot, is used past the point it should be. We are shown serum dripping into an open wound on Sterns’s forehead, and Sterns smiling. In the comics, this would eventually result in his becoming Leader, one of Hulk’s most formidable adversaries. In the movie, we get none of that payoff. You have to know the Marvel universe to get the reference, which means it flies right over the head of the general audience that Marvel presumably wanted to attract. Sterns’s storyline feels incomplete.

What really bugs me is that you could have solved both these problems simultaneously. Insert a few shots throughout the film of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents covertly keeping track of Hulk, then have them move in at the end to confiscate Hulk’s blood samples…and Sterns. Drag him past the camera in the background, screaming about how now he knows everything and that someday he’ll be your leader, and you’ve pleased the hardcore fans while paying off the moment. What? You think calling him Leader in dialogue would be a bit too on the nose? Tell that to the scriptwriters, who do the same thing to both Hulk and Abomination. I mean, c’mon, fellas. I know it’s groanworthy, but if you’re gonna do it twice anyway, one more time wouldn’t kill you.

I’ve really unloaded on The Incredible Hulk, haven’t I? Well, sorry about that. I didn’t mean to. This movie doesn’t aggravate me nearly as much as it might seem. In fact, as I said earlier, I have quite a bit of affection for it. There is a lot wrong here, and a lot more that could have been done better, but I get the feeling that it was all honestly meant. People may have made the wrong choices, but I think they did so purposefully, in an attempt to give us a really good movie. I can’t articulate a reason why I feel that way. I just do. And that makes it harder for me to be mad.

Maybe one of the reasons I feel that way is the presence of Hulk himself. Hulk looks unreal, but then again, he would if he actually existed – he’s three tons’ worth of mean green wrecking machine. Not exactly someone you would run into while shopping at Kroger’s. What makes the difference is that Hulk looks realistically unreal. He seems to have mass and take up space. He moves, he breathes. His muscles ripple. He emotes. Occasionally he’s clumsy, as only such a big guy could be. The look and feel of Hulk is a triumph for the CGI team that put him together. And as is only fitting for such a good-looking monster, he gets three excellent rampages. We only see flashes of him in the first one, at a Brazilian bottling plant – though his menace is played up nicely. But the film gives him his full time in the sun during a great daylight battle with the Army at Culver University, and then of course there’s his magnificent final clash against the equally well-realized Abomination. This is a Hulk worth looking at. This is the guy we wanted to see.

But Hulk is merely the finest of this film’s many real virtues. The cinematography is gorgeous; this film doesn’t have so much as a single action or location shot that looks anything less than fantastic. This includes some excellent use made of the cramped but picturesque scenery of Rocinha. There are some sly references here that work beautifully, including a brief callback to Hulk’s “Lonely Man” music from the TV show and a low-key but fun cameo by Lou Ferrigno, who also supplied Hulk’s voice. The catchphrases are there, including a wonderful subversion of “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” and a rousing, played-straight rendition of “HULK SMASH!” The cast may not work perfectly together, but all of them (including William Hurt as General Thaddeus Ross) turn in great performances. In fact, I’d say that Roth’s fairly complex and engaging performance would have stolen the show, if not for Norton.

Because Edward Norton is Bruce Banner. He captures perfectly the intelligence of the latent scientist when he’s called on to do so, but he also perfectly evokes Banner’s dominant characteristic – loneliness. This is a man who has been exiled from his life, from everything and everyone he once knew, and who now is forced to carve out an existence alone while searching for a way to come home as the man he was. It can be a powerful story if told right, and what works of it here works because of Norton’s conviction and ability to dominate the screen, even while seeming like an everyman. I’m looking forward to Mark Ruffalo’s performance in The Avengers, but I regret that I may never get to see Norton take another crack at doing it right. He is the best Banner I’ve seen, and it’s a shame that his only turn came in this well-meaning but ultimately unsatisfying misfire.

In case you were wondering? As good as the CGI is here, Ferrigno will always be the best Hulk.

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