The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Starring: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, Tim Blake Nelson, Ty Burrell, William Hurt
Directed by: Louis Leterrier
Not a sequel, and not quite a remake, The Incredible Hulk serves as a reboot of the franchise after 2003’s Hulk film by director Ang Lee was seen as a disappointment. Marvel Studio’s took back the property from Universal Studios (who distributed this film but didn’t finance it), hoping to pair it with Iron Man as cornerstones in their burgeoning studio. To do so, they needed to re-establish the property as different from the one presented five years ago, replacing the Oedipal issues of Ang Lee’s vision with a more action-packed adventure that fans expected from ol’ Green Genes.
I’m actually in the minority who believes Ang Lee’s Hulk is a good movie, which surprisingly took a movie about a mindless behemoth and made it thought-provoking and unique. So I wasn’t looking for a replacement for that film or an improvement, although I can understand why one exists from a business standpoint. After seeing The Incredible Hulk, I’m willing to concede that while 2003’s Hulk is more ambitious, more interesting, and a better movie, 2008’s The Incredible Hulk is the better Hulk movie.
This is the movie that fans were looking for five years ago, eschewing all the psychoanalytical mumbo-jumbo for some straight up Hulk smashing. The movie is so conscious to avoid associations with Lee’s film that scenes with Dr. Samson (Ty Burrell) having brief conversations about psychology with Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) that appeared in advertising didn’t make the final cut (which had the effect of keeping me from realising that the film had introduced the character of Doc Savage for possible sequels until I got home and read the character’s name again). Director Louis Leterrier (who previously directed Transporter 2) keeps his hands on the throttle throughout the film, getting the origin story portion that usually burdens all superhero movies out of the way while the opening credits roll, then plunging us into the ongoing struggles of Bruce Banner trying to live with being The Hulk while on the run in Brazil.
The scenes in Brazil are quite effective, giving the film a unique setting that I can’t recall ever seeing on film before. The flimsy shacks built on a hill added to the dramatic tension of the early, Hulk-less scenes, as you fear that when the monster is eventually unleashed, this whole community could be easily torn down. This brings us into Banner’s struggle to keep the Hulk at bay, even if most fans are impatiently waiting for the film’s real star to appear.
Unlike 2003’s Hulk, the audience doesn’t have to wait long. And once we’re treated to the first scene of Hulk action, Leterrier never makes us wait that long for the next helping. Thankfully, the film is cast with enough talent and given enough heft that its roller coaster thrills aren’t undercut by being surrounded by stupidity. The Incredible Hulk may not be terribly profound, but you needn’t check your brain at the door to enjoy it either. While the Hulkless scenes aren’t near as compelling as those when the monster is attacked by soldiers led by General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) and Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), or goes toe-to-toe with The Abomination, they function well enough to let us grow attached to Banner and his relationship with Betty Ross (Liv Tyler).
More time could have been spent developing these characters (depending on what rumours you believe, Norton has distanced himself from the film due to a dispute over the final cut), but I think it was the right decision to keep this movie moving, which serves the dual purpose of never making the audience wait too long for the next action scene and keeps the pacing of a chase movie (which is one of the film’s many nods to the Hulk TV series). Banner is a man on the run, not just from the army but also from the monster within, and the pacing helps reinforce this idea even if the film doesn’t have a whole lot of time to dedicate to it.
As far as effects go, they get the job done. The CGI Hulk is convincing enough, and about as good as we’re going to get at this point (possibly the best we’ll ever get, what with the uncanny valley and all). The problem is that he doesn’t look anything like Norton, unlike 2003’s CGI Hulk, which bore a pretty good resemblance to Eric Bana. However, the biggest success of the CGI Hulk comes with his battle with the CGI Abomination. A lot of films that climax with CGI creature battles end up feeling removed, but in The Incredible Hulk, the action feels more immediate and visceral. It feels like real pain and fury is being inflicted on both characters, leaving me flinching at times from the impact on screen.
So there you have it, a Hulk movie that delivers everything one would expect from a Hulk movie. The only real complaint I have is that it ONLY delivers that which you’d expect from a Hulk movie, and nothing more. Louis Leterrier and Marvel Studios have delivered a film to meet expectations, but don’t do much to exceed them, resulting in a summer blockbuster that hits the right notes while exhibiting no ambition to strike a new chord.