A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, PG-13, 117 mins.

Bruce Banner/Hulk: Edward Norton / Betty Ross: Liv Tyler / Emil Blonsky: Tim Roth / Sterns: Tim Blake Nelson / Gen. Ross: William Hurt / Voice of Hulk: Lou Ferrigno

Directed by Louis Leterrier / Written by Zak Penn / Based on characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

As I grew older I think that my tastes in comic book heroes graduated into ones that had more emotional and psychological weight.  Batman and Spider-man appealed to the maturer reader in me because I saw them as spandex clad personas that had introspective and well-written alter egos.   There was depth to these heroes underneath their masks, which is what consequently allowed for them to resonate with me that much more. 

Marvel Comics’ The Incredible Hulk has always tapped into the inner, less demanding child reader buried within myself.  This near fifty-year old Stan Lee and Jack Kirby creation was always one of my favorites as a very young reader because his stories were less intricate and demanding.  Some of my greatest pleasures as a tyke were grabbing my issues of Hulk and seeing just how much damage this gigantic, gamma ray induced monster could unleash in all of his monstrous, smashing glory.  

Of course, as a much older reader I was able to discern that this otherwise one-note “hero” (let’s face it, Hulk never emoted much, nor did he have much of a personality) had some sophistication in inception: He was a curious Pop Art-aged blend of the stories of King Kong and Beauty and the Beast, while maintaining the disturbing turmoil of Jekyll and Hyde.  Yet, as much substance as I would later read into Dr. Bruce Banner’s gruesome, green skinned half of his duplicitous personality, I will forever remember Hulk as a startling brute force hero that rampaged his way through his adversaries.  And how! 

Louis Leterrier’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK understands this implicitly.  His film version of the character harkens back to my pre-adolescent days of marveling at the comic book panels of the Hulk annihilating villains and causing unparalleled destruction in his path.  To label this new adaptation of the comic source material as being “mindless” in its approach and handling of the character is a bit redundant.   Those critics miss the point entirely.  

This film version understands the more simplistic, rudimentary and satisfying foundations of the character, which has always been steeped in bold and exciting spectacle and larger-than-life action set pieces.  Individual moments in the film made me fondly reflect on a more innocent time when seeing the sight of this behemoth smash his way through…everything….was just about the most gratifying fixation possible.   Yes, Leterrier’s HULK is bombastically noisy, visually chaotic, and crushingly action packed.  

But...as a result...it shows its keen understanding the source comic. 

Now, my appreciation here for this Hulk’s more tantrum-heavy and pulverizing-centric behavior in the film should not be considered a sleight against the first major HULK film, directed by Oscar winner Ang Lee.  That 2003 effort was profanely chastised – and very unfairly so – by a majority of Hulk fans, maybe because, deep down, they did not want an inquisitive and multifaceted expose on the character that felt more comfortable with looking at the psychological foundations of his dual personality.  That film also had its share of wholly satisfying Hulk devastation, but Lee took a daring approach and invested more of his time diving into origins of the character, which also manifested itself into a fairly touching and tragic father/son tragedy.  

This HULK’s prominence with its brooding and melancholic focus of the hero – bringing the character to untapped dramatic gravitas and poignancy – made it a very memorable and welcome change of pace for an otherwise summer popcorn flick.  That, combined with Lee’s ingenious usage of split screen editing (this film is still one of the better ones to capture the visual grammar and syntax of comic books), made Lee’s HULK marvelously stand apart, despite its unfair moniker as a “failure” (most critics loved Lee’s version, and the film grossed $250 million worldwide, which stretches the definition of “failure”, I guess). 

Alas, I think the bad taste that Lee’s efforts permeated in the mouths of Hulk fans was that his Hulk didn’t capture the more straightforward essence of the comic books.  That’s where Leterrier’s version comes in.  It should be noted that THE INCREDIBLE HULK is not – I repeat, not – a direct sequel to Lee’s version.  Instead of continuing Lee’s unpopular aesthetic choices and style and the film’s story, this new Hulk is essentially a one-shot, a reboot, a drastic redefining of the character  (it’s no where near a sequel to 2003’s HULK as BATMAN BEGINS was a sequel to BATMAN AND ROBIN).  The film maintains most of the same characters, but has recast all of them, and the underlining premise of the military wanting to capture Dr. Banner is still here.  Yet, everything is decidedly different here. 

Thankfully, the I-HULK (as I will abbreviate it from here on) does not waste time by telling another origin story.  Amazingly, it does completely provide a whole new origin for how the Hulk came to be (which bares striking resemblance to the old 70's Lou Ferrigno/Bill Bixby TV show) and it does so in a nifty three-minute credit montage sequence.  This is both a blessing and a small curse, in a way, seeing as by avoiding honing in on the origin allows for fast forward momentum in the story, but it also negatively deters from any serious and tangible character development.  Compared to Lee’s HULK, the people that populate I-HULK feel pretty sub-standard and weakly defined. 

Regardless, this HULK is a slim, trim, and fairly well oiled action film that does not stop and look back.  After that neat credit/origin sequence we are transported to South America where we see Dr. Banner (Ed Norton, in fine form) who is in hiding from the US military after his experiments with them to create better soldiers went disastrously wrong and created one big green menace.  

Realizing that he just can’t keep hulkin’ out every time he gets upset or excited (in one sly scene, even foreplay could transform him from mild-mannered scientist to green giant…damn!), Bruce desperately tries to stay in hiding so he can find a cure for his rather large problem.  Yet, he has another problem in the form of gung ho General Ross (William Hurt, displaying a grizzled charisma with an otherwise bit part), who tries to hunt down the fugitive doctor and capture him.  Ross feels the Banner is now the property of the US government and has more diabolical plans to use his research to create an army of super men (although, how having a whole squadron of rampaging hulks would be a practical benefit is beyond me). 

Ross has an ace up his sleeve, of sorts, in the form of the tough and immoral Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth, snarling his way effectively through this black and white bad guy role).  Blonsky and company do discover Banner in Rio, which leads to a sensational montage of shots showing Banner evade perusing military men on the roof tops of the city.  Predictably, they make Banner “angry” (don’t they know that this is a no-no?), and all hell breaks loose, which leads to Bruce/Hulk escaping back to America.  While there Bruce re-connects with his former love, Betty (Liv Tyler, adequate in the minor love-interest damsel in distress role), whom helps him evade capture.  This is complicated by the fact that Betty is the estranged daughter of the General.  The dynamic of their bitter relationship is mournfully undeveloped, compared to the one presented in Lee's HULK.

Meanwhile, Blonsky is mighty p-oed at his failure, seeing as he does not like to lose, but General Ross gives him a boost in the form of a top secret 'Super Soldier' serum that has been placed in cryogenic freeze since WWII (even lay comic fans can connect the dots here: Captain America was spawned in the comics from this serum).  Further plot developments – and more genetic manipulation – lead Blonsky to become the viscous Abomination, a scaly and even more savage beast than the Hulk himself.  This culminates, of course, with a full-on beast versus beast showdown in the Big Apple, which demonstrates, especially after the intense carnage the city suffered in TRANSFORMERS, that New York is the most physically abused city in the movies.  

On a level of sheer, unapologetic slam-bam intrigue and visceral thrills, I-HULK is a rousing entertainment.  The film has two fantastic action sequences, the first occurring earlier in the film with Blonsky and Ross’ army trying to stop Hulk at a university campus with pitiful results and the final climatic showdown between Abomination and the hero, which is a giddy, fun-filled, CGI-laced rumble that manages to destroy most of Harlem in the process.  Leterrier is no stranger to incredulity-stretching action films (he made the two gloriously silly and enjoyable TRANSPORTER movies) and here he uses his decent instincts to bring life to the improbable by infusing I-HULK with a noisy and visually kinetic punch.  Rhythm and Hues replaced Industrial Light and Magic this go around in creating the pixelized Hulk, and the results are slightly more polished.  Leterrier’s Hulk is more agreeably similar looking to his comic book cousin (Lee's Hulk always looked disagreeably pudgy): There are shots that do favorably look like Dave Keown’s (one of the greatest of the recent Hulk artists) splash pages brought to life.  Sure, the battle scenes still look cartoonishly artificial, but the energy of these scenes – and the wallop they create – will leave comic geeks wetting their collective pants. 

If anything, I-HULK’s biggest failing is, ironically, its predilection at showcasing intense action and thrills first and character interaction and development second.  There has been a very public controversy regarding the film’s running time and story.  Ed Norton, not liking Zak Penn’s first draft, was given the go-ahead to re-write the draft altogether, destroying all ties to the 2003 version.  The film released was under two hours, but the film Norton apparently wanted to release was over 130 minutes, which he claimed had a nicer balance between character dynamics and drama with Hulk-inspired mayhem.  Marvel Studios, not wanting to have a fan response relapse that plagued the first film, pressed for a shorter, more action jammed film, much to Norton’s chagrin, who later refused to do any publicity for the film.  He later – perhaps as a result of his artistic insolence – was denied a credit as screenwriter. 

Having seen the film, it’s clear that Norton’s hunch was the right one.  Although I-HULK is resoundingly fun to sit through on the basis of its titanic, grand-scale escapist thrills (fans of the comic books will applaud those elements), the film is nevertheless a bit underwhelming on the basis of its story and characters.  The actors all do solid work in their respective characters, but some, like Roth’s Blonsky, seem hastily defined and cultivated, and the film could have honed more in on the troublesome relationship between Banner, Betty, and her father.  I-HULK also seems to speed its way towards the end credits with perhaps too much hurriedness.  A 135-minute HULK – Norton’s preferred running time – would have, no doubt, alleviated some of these deficiencies.  However, a future blu-ray release, it has been revealed, may sport both the theatrical and the Norton-approved versions. 

Regardless of the film’s inconsistencies, THE INCREDIBLE HULK will undoubtedly appease comic book fundamentalists that felt that Ang Lee’s reflective and thoughtful 2003 version was prohibitively wasteful (I am in the minority for feeling that it was one of the better comic book films of the current decade).  The wiser and more astute film viewer in me appreciates Lee’s HULK more, but there is the uncontrolled, hyperactive, and hormonal 12-year-old in me relishes Leterrier’s choices with this new version, which does a reputable job of encapsulating the more visceral elements of the classic Hulk comic stories.  Lee’s film is the better of the two in terms of final product, but Leterrier’s is a closer approximation of the comic.  His HULK resoundingly smashes…and how! 

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