In light of the vitriolic backlash against Ang Lee and his take on the Hulk in 2003, I can understand Marvel Studios wanting to reboot the property and overhaul its continuity. However, I suspect the producers might have given too much heed to what basically amounts to a handful of tantrum-prone fanboys convincing everyone else to treat Hulk as a child rapist (actual quote: “This movie raped my childhood!”) for fear of getting lambasted on comments boards. The Internet geeks call it a “meme”. I call it cyberbullying.
To be clear, I don’t object to the green behemoth getting reinterpreted for a less pensive audience, but I fear the powers that be might have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. The Incredible Hulk starts off on the right foot, as Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) tries to find a cure for his gamma-powered anger management issues and make a life for himself in South America. The details of his low-key existence prove fascinating, and I applaud director Louis Leterrier and screenwriter Zak Penn for holding back until the second act before assaulting us with mindless violence. Unfortunately, once the action does kick in, that’s pretty much all we get.
Mind you, Leterrier, known for his work on The Transporter (2002) and Unleashed (2005), delivers some pretty exciting set pieces, such as when our protagonist eludes American black ops in the streets of Brazil. The director holds the camera a bit too close to the action for my tastes, especially when digital effects are involved, but he understands that, on account of his might and invulnerability, the Hulk works better as an unwitting antagonist than as a straight super-hero. Consider the scene in which the same soldiers corner Bruce at a university, how we’re invited to marvel at their cold efficiency and his makeshift ingenuity rather than the monster’s awesome brutality.
In fact, this is the first time in The Incredible Hulk we really get to see the title character, who appears once before but only in shadows. Again, I appreciate Leterrier’s tact. The Hulk in Lee’s feature looked a bit like a radioactive Play-Doh sculpture on account of his bright skin tone. The CGI team behind this new version addresses the issue by covering him with tiny dust patches, an imperfect solution we’re more inclined to forgive after waiting almost an hour for the beast to show up. More to the point, I like the idea of treating our hero as a classic Universal monster. Subtle nods to the likes of Frankenstein (1931) and King Kong (1933) help cement the notion of Bruce Banner as a cursed man and provide a metatextual context for General Ross’ (William Hurt) hatred of him.
At least it would if Ross were the same character as in the previous movie. Rather, The Incredible Hulk portrays him as a soulless, chain-smoking opportunist less concerned with protecting the civilian populace from the green menace than with stopping Bruce from ridding himself of a valuable weapon. What with his conducting dangerous experiments on an aging soldier named Emil Blonsky (Eric Roth), I’d be tempted to call the two-dimensional antagonist a cackling megalomaniac, but then that would require some form of facial expression from the usually reliable John Hurt.
The general’s daughter also strikes me as a pale shadow of her former self. Five years prior, Jennifer Connelly played Betty as a soulful child-abuse survivor with her fair share of regrets and bitterness. In fact, a good quarter of Hulk pertained to her complex psychological trauma and hers alone. Compare this to Liv Tyler’s version of the character, who devotes her every action to Bruce’s welfare, including buying him clothes, getting angry at a New York cab driver when he can’t, and abandoning her new boyfriend Leonard (Ty Burrell) without so much as a word. That’s not a woman. It’s a man-child’s pathetic fantasy of a girlfriend.
I find this unfortunate because The Incredible Hulk has otherwise effective (if not affective) romantic beats, not that they pay off in any way, as the story gets cut off two thirds in for a pointless and seemingly endless fight sequence between the Hulk and his would-be successor: the Abomination. Words cannot describe my utter boredom as I watched the two gamma-powered monsters punch each other over and over again, occasionally breaking laws of physics one wouldn’t expect CGI creatures to follow anyway. I’d say my interest level, already low, decreased by about sixty percent, which incidentally corresponds to the film’s box office drop-off after just one week in the theatres. I guess the fanboys couldn’t flame anyone into sitting through it a second time.