Incredible Hulk, The (2008) 
Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical
Written by Bill Warren   
Friday, 13 June 2008

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Marvel Comics has formed its own film production company; their first two releases are “Iron Man” and, now, “The Incredible Hulk.” “Iron Man” is great fun, a well-made movie that gave comic book fans—and everyone else—just what they wanted from that kind of film, and it was blessed with an outstanding star performance by Robert Downey, Jr.. “The Incredible Hulk” is a lot of fun, but it’s not the special treat “Iron Man” was. This new movie, scripted by Zak Penn, is grim, humorless and routinely plotted. But in terms of action, it’s great fun, and sure to please audiences around the world.

It’s not exactly a sequel to Ang Lee’s “Hulk” of 2003; though several of the same characters reappear, the roles are all played by other actors. The origin of the Hulk is recapped in a behind-the-credits montage, and differs somewhat from that in the earlier film. Comic book fans and most moviegoers of the demographic groups Marvel’s aiming at will definitely prefer this movie to the earlier one. But Ang Lee’s movie, though it collapses in the last 25 minutes or so, is much smarter and far superior cinematically to this straightforward tale, uncomplicated by the more sophisticated elements present in the earlier Hulk adventure. Is this a change for the better or a dumbing-down for the moron trade? Neither. It’s a different way of handling material that turned out to be more difficult to translate to movies than had been expected.

The Hulk himself looks different. Here, he’s olive green rather than the grassy green of the earlier movie, and Banner decisively rejects purple pants, even though they’re very stretchy. (One of the film’s few overt jokes.) The effects are elaborate, but not as precedent-setting as those of Lee’s film. In that movie,, the Hulk was shown in bright desert sunlight, leaping about, smashing tanks, etc., in fairly long takes. Here, each individual shot of the Hulk is briefer, and his escapades take place in smoke, fog, rainstorms or at night. His design is also somewhat over-rendered; we not only see all his huge, bulging muscles, but strange striations and lines in his skin that make it look as the paper on which he was drawn was wadded up before filming. (He wasn’t drawn on paper; he’s entirely motion-capture CGI.)

The story overall is rather thin, and the characters relatively uncomplicated, allowing director Leterrier to set and maintain a fast pace. The movie opens five years after Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) emerged from the gamma radiation experiment that, when he’s angry or otherwise aroused enough, makes him turn into the huge, green colossus that’s come to be known as the Hulk. Now he’s living more or less incognito in one of those amazing, sprawling, hill-covering slums that surround Rio De Janeiro, Rocinha Favela. He works days at a soft drink bottling plant, where his scientific expertise is occasionally brought into play; he spends most of his free time trying to find a cure for his condition, corresponding (as “Mr. Green”) by email with a fellow scientist in the U.S. he knows only as “Mr. Blue.” He’s also involved in anger-control training with a martial arts expert.

At the factory, Banner is slightly wounded; he tries desperately to clean up the few drops of his spilled blood, but misses one. This ends up back in the United States where an innocent bystander (Stan Lee, in fact) swills it down. He becomes ill with gamma-radiation poisoning, allowing General “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) to trace the bottle back to Brazil. He immediately leads a team of experts down there, accompanied by Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), a Russian-born but British-raised professional soldier. We also learn, at first from photos, about Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), the general’s daughter and Banner’s former sweetheart. She’s now doing research at Culver University in the Great Smoky Mountain region; she hasn’t forgotten Banner, but she’s also seeing psychologist Dr. Samson (Ty Burrell); that name will be familiar to Marvel fans.

Ross’ heavily armed (with tranquilizer darts) team tracks down Banner, leading to a well-staged, spectacularly-photographed and very exciting “parkour” chase across the rooftops of those crowded, box-like buildings of Rocinha Favela. (“Parkour” is also called “free running” and was on display in “Casino Royale;” elements also turn up in Leterrier’s two “Transporter” movies.) Not only is Banner pursued by these camouflage-clad gunmen, he pisses off a couple of passing Brazilians, co-workers at the bottling plant, who give chase, too.

Naturally, this is all a bit stressful on poor, beleaguered Banner; pretty soon his irises turn pale and he transforms into the big green Hulk, who really just wants to be left alone. But of course, he also has to smash everything in sight in his quest for peace and quiet. (In terms of plot structure and handling of the Hulk, this movie more closely resembles the same-titled TV series than did the Ang Lee movie.)

After the Hulk tosses around forklifts and people, he disappears. The stunned but impressed Blonsky learns from Ross that the awesome powerhouse that just left him panting in its wake actually was Banner. Ross regretfully tells him this was a result of a “super-soldier” experiment begun back during World War II (another idea sure to be noted by Marvel fans), then later carried on, using various kinds of radiation, by Banner, who had no idea his research was intended to create brutally powerful human weapons. Career soldier Blonsky, all too aware that he’s getting older, considers this idea way cool and demands to be injected with the super-soldier formula. This turns out to be, by his standards, a great idea, though everyone else is free to regard what happens as an abomination. A huge, Hulk-like abomination. (Who looks different from the Abomination in the comic books.)

“Iron Man” concluded with a huge, effects-laden battle between Iron Man and a very similar opponent; so does “The Incredible Hulk.” I hope Marvel has more plot irons in its fire than this one.

Banner works his way north from Brazil, eventually ending up at Culver University delivering pizzas. This puts him back in touch with Betty, but also soon draws Ross, Blonsky and a bunch of armored vehicles, which take on Hulk in a pitched, spectacular battle in a college park. Hulk here varies his form of combat from the first movie; there, he merely used the barrel of a cannon like a club, here he uses slabs of steel armor like shields, boxing gloves, etc. This tends to make the fights very very noisy, especially when Ross unlimbers the sonic wave cannons.

Hulk rescues Betty, to whom he’s Strangely Drawn, from all this fire and calamity, crushing Blonsky on the way. (But of course Blonsky recovers from having his bones reduced to the consistency of gravel.) Back to Banner, he heads for New York city with Betty, where he gets in touch with Mr. Blue (forgot about him, didn’t you), who turns out to be wildly eccentric Dr. Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson). This leads on to the big Hulk vs Abomination battle royale that’s the movie’s extremely loud climax. (And AFTER the climax, Ross is drinking away his sorrows in a bar where he’s found by none other than Tony Stark.)

Even though Ang Lee made highly creative use of unexpected comic book elements in “Hulk,” “The Incredible Hulk” is far more comic-book like. It has some modestly amusing talk—thinking he’s using the Portuguese word for “angry,” Banner warns a tough guy in subtitles “You wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry”—occasionally interrupted by big, effects-filled battles. It’s sprinkled with Marvel references—I caught a glimpse of the name “Nick Fury” at once point—and loaded with energy and action. Maybe the Hulk flexes his arms and roars defiance to the world one or two times too often, but he’s very much like the Hulk of the comic books. (Or at least A Hulk from the comic books—the character has undergone many alterations over the course of his nearly 50-year history.) Herb Trimpe would be flattered.

In addition to Stan Lee, we get a quick glimpse of the star of “The Incredible Hulk” TV series, Bill Bixby, in a televised scene from his OTHER TV series, “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” And TV’s Hulk himself, Lou Ferrigno, has an amusing, respectful cameo as a security guard who’s easily bribed with pizza. There are those other Marvel references scattered throughout, and Stark mentions to Ross that “we” are forming a team. That’s The Avengers, folks, (not Steed and Mrs. Peel, of course) but first Marvel has to do its long-awaited Captain America movie before launching an Avengers series. Incidentally, when Robert Downey Jr. made his carefully set-up entrance, the audience burst into applause. I hope that guy attends an “Incredible Hulk” screening to see how strongly and how quickly audiences have come to respect and like him. The preview audience also applauded Stan Lee and Lou Ferrigno.

It’s odd that Edward Norton chose to appear in this movie. He doesn’t make many movies, indicating he chooses very carefully. He’s good in this role, but it didn’t require an actor of his gifts. He doesn’t get many moments to shine, here; Banner’s character is pretty well laid out by the demands of the story. The same is true of Liv Tyler, a favorite of independent filmmakers; she’s very good in the role, but it’s like using an elephant gun to swat a fly. On the other hand, William Hurt is an interesting choice for the role of General “Thunderbolt” Ross. He never looks thunderous; he’s contained, determined, military, obsessed—and gripped by strong emotions (mostly regarding his daughter) that he struggles to keep hidden. (And it turns out that of the cast, it was Hurt who was the staunchest fan and biggest authority on the Hulk comic books.) Tim Blake Nelson’s wacko scientist is both amusing and a little disturbing, a great combination Nelson has fun with.

This is a great big summer movie, crammed with effects, beautifully shot by Peter Menzies Jr. and backed by an excited-sounding score by Craig Armstrong. The film makes good use of Brazilian and Canadian locations, and swiftly reaches its big-battle climax. I cannot imagine any way this movie could fail to be a boxoffice bonanza. I sort of wish Marvel had approached a writer other than Zak Penn; don’t forget that he wrote “Elektra” and the third X-Men movies. He’s got a good grasp of plot mechanics, but it’s probably very much for the best that Edward Norton did an uncredited rewrite of the script of “The Incredible Hulk” before shooting began. Some scenes Norton favored were removed from the final cut; maybe that means the eventual DVD will be a somewhat richer experience than this lively, entertaining but dramatically skimpy thriller.  







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