The Road to the Avengers: The Incredible Hulk

Edward Norton about to transform into the Hulk

As far as I’m concerned, that man’s whole body is property of the U.S. army.

I happen to like Ang Lee’s Hulk. While it’s not what many expected (philosophical musings, a CGI monster-poodle!), it was a fascinating entry into the super-hero genre. There was hardly anything like it before and there has been very little like it since. That Marvel hit the reset button (shouting ‘HULK SMASH’ I presume) is more than a little unfortunate. It closed to the door to seeing some risks being taken and some really interesting films being made.

Instead we received French director Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk:  a remake, requel or something. A new cast, a different Hulk and a new direction: the safe waters of convention.

None of this is necessarily bad.

In a way The Incredible Hulk is an apology-of-sorts, a ‘sorry we were too ambitious and bit of more than we could chew’ type grovel. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is still on the run with a prologue establishing a different origin that more or less gets the character in the place where he needs to be: isolated and afraid to return to society. Off the grid for a number of years, he’s forced to confront his fears when he’s located by General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross (William Hurt) who wants his genetic code to create a new breed of super-soldier (in an odd way, this film acts as a pseudo-sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger). However Banner’s work on the genetics for the military leads to a new threat: The Abomination. Banner will have to sacrifice his personal safety to defeat this new, potentially stronger foe.

The Incredible Hulk is a far simpler film than its predecessor, eschewing philosophy and introspective characters and favouring loud action beats and wearing its emotion on its sleeves. It’s not particularly subtle, but then again, a giant green monster full of rage wouldn’t be. Beginning in the slums of Sao Paulo before beating Harlem into submission in the last act, this is a film that’s less about the slow, avant-garde musings on father versus son/daughter relationships and more about levelling buildings/cities with the vibe of the old monster movies Universal Studios used to make. It’s hard to avoid comparison with other versions of Hulk (especially the Bill Bixby TV version this adventure draws inspiration from) which may make this adaptation the most watered down version of the character. However, at least until Marvel’s Avenger’s Assemble, it actually felt like the purest distillation of a character that’s hard to depict on screen without coming across as incredibly fake.

Norton’s Banner made a lot of sense at the time, giving the character the juxtaposition of a small, timid, unassuming man who gives way to voracious green giant. He centres the film with an intelligence and anxiety that makes Banner an interesting character, a man who suffered the greatest form of scientific hubris and is now afraid of his own shadow, lest he get angry and destroy anything close to him. Punishment by being cast off from humanity.

Tim Roth as Emil Blonksy is good; an old, determined soldier hankering for his glory days and revealing one of the film’s themes (addiction/temptation whether it’s for power, knowledge etc). Liv Tyler’s Betty comes across as little delicate (probably down to Tyler’s breathy voice) and her reunion with Banner feels very melodramatic at times, as if someone watched too many Mexican telenovelas.  Hurt’s Ross is okay but suffers from the problem that afflicts much of the supporting cast: they feel a little undercooked; as if there’s more to them that is not shown in the film.

So what makes the film good? Quite probably its lack of pretension. While Lee’s Hulk was more interesting, this Hulk is more fun whether it’s showcasing Leterrier’s action skills, making Banner angry or the Hulk turning a police car into boxing gloves. There’s inventiveness to the action in places that just about offsets the fakery on show, and the overall story of Banner as fugitive keeps the narrative flowing, always worried about if he’ll be found, moving from city to city while searching for a cure. It’s not hugely ambitious; then again Hulk’s at its best when he focuses on one thing: smashing stuff.


[The less said about the end credits scene the better, a moment that Iron Man 2 unravels but Avenger’s Assembles tries to rectify. Also, when are we going to see Tim Blake Nelson’s The Leader in a Marvel film?]

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