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Film Review: The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk (2008; Directed by Louis Leterrier)

Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk was the only remaining movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that yours truly had yet to see. Which is fitting, given its redheaded stepchild profile in the MCU. As the second MCU installment after the more consistently appreciated (and even beloved) hit Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk sees Marvel Studios still getting their footing, figuring out the casting, structure, themes, cinematography, tone, and action profile that would define their outrageously successful superhero blockbuster formula for the following decade. As a result, this is one of the MCU’s weakest films, and its aftermath represents one of the rare times that Marvel would decide to retool their movie universe on the fly.

The Incredible Hulk was not only one of Marvel Studios’ clumsy first steps towards the culture-spanning shared cinematic universe that they would eventually put together. It was also a re-orientation attempt following Ang Lee’s Hulk in 2006, which featured Eric Bana in the Bruce Banner/Hulk role and approached the material with a mix of comic-book goofiness and open-eyed poetic sincerity typical of its auteur. Critical, commercial, and fan reaction to Lee’s Hulk was mixed, hence Marvel and Universal (the latter studio owns the solo Hulk film rights still, hence the character’s supporting appearances only in Disney-produced MCU films) neither embracing its particular aesthetic and tone nor entirely disowning it with a hard reboot. This kid-gloves page-turning effort lead to The Incredible Hulk being billed as a “requel”, a nigh-on insufferable movie-biz buzzword portmanteau of “reboot” and “sequel” that feels like a bitter root on the tongue.

The half-empty/half-full nature of “requel” does actually typify the inconsistent tone and effect of The Incredible Hulk, a movie with one foot in confused standard-issue genre conformity and another (all too tentatively) in the confident scope of the later MCU. Much of this uncertain tone stems from the movie’s star, Edward Norton, taking Bana’s place as brilliant but isolated scientist Bruce Banner and (with ample CGI assist) as the hulking, destructive, impervious, gamma-irradiated green creature that he turns into when his heart rate becomes a bit too elevated. Norton is too good an actor not to be good in the role; his own sense of responsibility when it comes to the actor’s craft shows through in Banner’s sense of responsibility for managing the danger of the Hulk, and he treats Banner’s anxiety and determination regarding his predicament very seriously. But maybe too seriously; Norton strains to give such convincing interiority to Banner’s struggle with the forces that give rise to the Hulk that the exteriority can be lacking.

The big green monster is plenty exterior, of course; the Hulk is a comic-book Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde conceit, but it’s also a very blunt metaphor for internal psychological turmoil personified and made physically manifest in hypermuscular verdant form. Norton is a fine casting choice for a psychologically realist Banner/Hulk, but this is a film only intermittently interested in exploring that angle on the character, frequently choosing spectacle and humour instead, the latter which is patchy and awkward compared to later MCU films. Little wonder, given this angle of focus, that despite Norton’s interest in continuing in the role (and perhaps partly because of his creative seriousness and insistence on input into the future direction of the character on a screenplay level), Marvel re-cast Mark Ruffalo to give the role more rounded contours for the character’s next appearance in The Avengers.

The movie commences with a fleet, opening-credits background exposition montage of the laboratory accident that gifted/cursed Banner with his dangerous green co-pilot and alienated him from his significant other Dr. Elizabeth “Betty” Ross (Liv Tyler) and her military father General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, whose character is one of the few elements here with any recurrence in the MCU after this film). The general and his hordes of soldierly minions are on the hunt for any sign of Banner, who has gone off the grid in Brazil’s favelas while working quietly at a guarana beverage plant (the drinks’ green hue suggesting the slumbering Hulk, no doubt soon to awaken). Banner also corresponds with a mysterious online colleague (eventually revealed to be Tim Blake Nelson as eccentric cellular biologist Samuel Sterns, whose last-act appearance injects some comedy, albeit a tad forced), who suggests treatments for his condition to try out and teases him with hints of a cure.

Random chance (and one of Marvel Comics maven Stan Lee’s more amusing cameos) reveals Banner’s incognito location, and General Ross descends on him with a strike team that includes Russian-born Royal Marine Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth). Blonsky is a grizzled black ops veteran and little fazes or even challenges him anymore, so when the strike team corners Banner in the beverage factory and the Hulk comes out to flatten them, the soldier is intrigued even more than terrified. As Banner moves up the spine of the Americas to his old lab, to Betty, and to Manhattan in search of a solution to the Hulk problem, Ross injects Blonsky with a super-soldier serum (similar to that used on a certain scrawny Brooklyn native during WWII) intended to make him a match for the green behemoth but which will instead make him into something more abominable.

The Incredible Hulk doesn’t know entirely what it wants to be. Letterier emphasizes the Hulk smashing more than Ang Lee did, but none of the big sequences carry the punch that Hulk‘s final action sequence did. The first act is essentially a big-budget remake of an episode of the late 1970s The Incredible Hulk TV show (that series’ Hulk, bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno, is given a fawning cameo, and also gets to vocalize the CG Hulk), with sadsack Banner wandering crowded streets and dusty roads, forever alone with his big green secret. Norton is often in a bracingly honest psychological drama in the middle of a relatively mediocre action movie, for which Roth is a sneering comic-book villain. Even the look of the CG Hulk, with its moppish hair and excessive vein-y-ness, was reworked before the character’s reappearance four years later.

Perhaps, all things considered, the Hulk works better in the supporting doses of Ruffalo’s later appearances as part of an ensemble, with superhero foils of the intellectual (Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark, Banner’s later brother-in-science, who appears in a not-very-good credits stinger scene before the credits roll; yeah, they were definitely still figuring things out in 2008), physical (Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Stark’s Hulk-busting armour), and emotional (Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, with whom Banner has a never-to-be relationship) variety. There’s no reason that should be the case, of course, and perhaps the character’s success in Ruffalo’s hands in the MCU will lead Universal to team with the home-run-hitting Marvel Studios creative squad for another swing at a successful Hulk headlining gig. But The Incredible Hulk wasn’t it, that much is certain enough.

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Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews
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