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The Incredible Hulk

By now, it should be absolutely no secret that Marvel is on a roll with its movie adaptations at present. Even without the success of X-Men: First Class, Marvel has done very well for itself with Iron Man and its sequel, as well as Thor and Captain America. Not only did all four of these movies make respectable box office bank, but they also laid the groundwork for a potentially enormous inter-film continuity while adapting beloved characters in a way that (for the most part) did the fans proud.

But wasn’t there another film in there somewhere?

Yes, The Incredible Hulk is the oft-forgotten middle child of the Marvel “movie-verse” films so far. Though to be fair, this film had everything going against it. For starters, Ang Lee’s attempt at the character was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and it landed with such a resounding thud that Universal was perfectly willing to give up their film rights to the character. However, they did stay involved with the next Hulk film in a distribution capacity, much as Paramount did for the other Marvel “movie-verse” films.

Compare that to Fox and Sony, who will probably be rehashing their Marvel film franchises for decades to come just to spite them. Hell, Sony won’t even let Ghost Rider go without a fight. But I digress.

With a new film coming out only five years after Lee’s attempt, everyone — especially those who weren’t comic or movie nerds — was confused about whether the new movie would be a sequel or a complete franchise relaunch. It also didn’t help that the movie premiered in June of 2008, perfectly situated between Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Amidst the excitement over Marvel’s successful production debut and the feverish anticipation of Christopher Nolan’s Bat-sequel, it was inevitable that The Incredible Hulk got lost in the shuffle. Then again, the movie’s reception among the geek crowd has been very mixed since release, and the argument about which Hulk movie is better is a contentious one.

But then came the coup de grace. In 2010, troubles behind the scenes (reports are vague and contradictory) led Edward Norton to bow out of any future performances as Bruce Banner. The Jade Giant was recast yet again, this time with Mark Ruffalo in the role. This naturally leads to the question of what purpose Edward Norton’s performance might have, since he only got one movie before the franchise started moving forward with a completely new Hulk.

Furthermore, just take a look at the trailers and teasers for The Avengers. Tony Stark is making new Iron Man tech, kicking a whole ton of ass, and delivering one great line of dialogue after another. Captain America is displaced and trying to find his way in the modern world. Thor is dealing with the fact that his own brother is behind a world-threatening disaster. Nick Fury, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Agent Coulson, and the rest of SHIELD are working to provide exposition and management to our heroes.

And where’s Bruce Banner in all this? What greater role does Hulk have in the story? Heck if I know. I’ll grant that the character is very CGI-intensive, so of course the PTB are skittish about releasing any premature glimpses of him, but still.

At this point, why would I bother watching The Incredible Hulk? Two reasons. First, it’s still the only film in the Marvel “movie-verse” that I haven’t seen. In fact, I still haven’t seen either of the Hulk films. And second, all of the Marvel movies will assuredly be flying off the shelves when May 4th gets closer. If I’m ever going to have a chance at renting and seeing this film, I’d better do it now.

Right off the bat, this film impressed me by presenting the Hulk’s origin in a slick opening credits sequence. It was a very novel and energetic way to express a whole ton of exposition in a very short amount of time. It’s very rare to see opening credit sequences anymore — least of all with this much thought put into them — so I found this one to be very refreshing.

Even better is that it gets the origin out of the way so we can focus on the rest of the story. That’s right: This film isn’t an origin story. Bruce Banner already has his powers at the start of the film and he’s kicking ass at full power by the end of the first act. I honestly think it was very smart of the filmmakers to realize that Bruce Banner’s development from suppressing his powers to accepting them was compelling and exciting enough without having to show that process from its very beginning. Plus, it’s good to finally see filmmakers who acknowledge that when they’re dealing with characters who are this well-known, there’s absolutely no need to go over where those powers came from. We already know the origin, so why waste everyone’s time?

Also, to paraphrase Patton Oswalt, watching a character be awesome is always far more entertaining than learning how that character got to be awesome.

Anyway, the next thing that caught my eye about this movie was in the visuals. More specifically, the colors. Director Louis Leterrier and DOP Peter Menzies Jr. somehow managed to squeeze the color green into nearly every frame of the movie. It’s not exactly subtle, but I’ve got to give them points for effort and commitment to the theme. Also, the colors of red and blue are used in some rather interesting ways as well.

As for the score… meh. The music is pretty mediocre overall, but it completely lost me at the 30-minute mark, when stock “sad piano” music started playing. Also, call me old-fashioned, but I like my superhero movie music to have some clearly identifiable theme. Something that I can strongly associate in my mind with the main character. Danny Elfman’s Batman theme and John Williams’ Superman theme are of course the most famous cases in point — and rightly so — though I also include the Captain America theme and “Driving with the Top Down” as two more recent successes.

For the Hulk, I’d personally go with an ostinato. A few simple, aggressive, energetic measures that could be repeated as many times as necessary. Something that could be played softly on violin to symbolize Bruce Banner’s quiet drive to keep his head down and find a cure, as well as something that could be played loudly on taiko drums or timpani when Hulk starts to smash. But I digress.

One of the problems with the score is that it does Edward Norton no favors. Granted, he does a good enough job with what he’s given, very serviceably playing a man who could easily blend into a crowd. But that raises an interesting conundrum: How can a character be made interesting when he spends so much screen time trying to be a nonentity? The answer, of course, is to focus on the character’s inner turmoil. Music is one of the most valuable tools in any filmmaker’s kit toward this end, but it doesn’t completely work here because the score isn’t up to par.

Another key problem is that Norton isn’t given quite enough room to express these emotions, as most of the film prefers to focus on Bruce’s fugitive status. He spends so much time running from conflict of any kind that there’s precious little time to dwell on how he feels about his monstrous id. Instead, we get PTSD flashes of Bruce’s “Hulking” incidents. Clearly, the filmmakers were trying to express the emotional turmoil in an action-packed and energetic way, trying to have their cake and eat it too. Alas, neither Leterrier nor screenwriter Zak Penn are quite capable of pulling off this balancing act.

For another case in point, look at Betty Ross. Literally the very instant that Betty learns our hero is alive, the two of them rush into each other’s arms. This falls flat for multiple reasons, the first of which being that the score is still not good enough to sell the moment. Secondly, Betty is played by Liv Tyler, who does absolutely nothing for me as an actress. She’s a pretty face, that’s it. Last and most importantly, Betty had maybe two minutes of screen time until this point. We know absolutely nothing about her, except that she was Bruce’s lover before the accident and the two last saw each other when Hulk put her in the hospital.

I’ll repeat that: Bruce transformed into a giant green monster before her very eyes, beat her to near-death, spent five years out of contact with her as he went on the run… and she runs back into his loving embrace without a second thought. This totally incoherent bit of character development was clearly done by filmmakers who wanted to skip over all the internal conflict so we could get back to the action that much faster.

Still, there are a few exceptions. There’s one scene roughly halfway into the movie, when Bruce and Betty are trying to make out, though Bruce pulls away for fear of getting his heart rate too high. This is a perfectly sympathetic difficulty, and using Hulk as a barrier between the two lovers was an inspired move. There’s another scene later on, when Bruce tries to describe what it’s like to transform into the Hulk. There’s another very amusing scene in which Betty screams at a NYC cabbie. All of these scenes are really good and they provide a clear window into Bruce’s angst, though both are hindered by the crippling lack of chemistry between Norton and Tyler.

Speaking of overrated actors who are totally dull, William Hurt is on hand to play Betty’s father. I’ve never been a fan of the guy (Dark City excluded), and General Ross is a totally boring character in his hands.

Fortunately, there are two things this movie does right. One of them is Emil Blonsky, which is a role that Tim Roth thoroughly owns. Though the character’s development into Abomination is very predictable, Roth plays the role with such aplomb that he’s still entertaining to watch.

The second thing is Hulk himself. The visual effects do a stunning job of bringing this eight-foot green behemoth to life. His emotions and musculature appear very lifelike, even in close-ups, and the transformation looks awesome. What’s more, Leterrier made some brilliant choices in how he shot the character. The Hulk’s build-up and reveal are wonderfully done, and all of his action scenes are a great deal of destructive fun to watch.

Oh, and everything that I said about Hulk can also be said of Abomination when he finally appears in the climax. It’s not an easy thing to show two overtly CGI creations battle in an engaging way, but this film does it. Of course, it helps that the CGI on both characters is so good, but it also helps that the property damage is on a scale worthy of a clash between these two behemoths. Such a pity, then, that the climax leads to a terribly inadequate ending.

How this ending fails, let me count the ways. First of all, it introduces a new villain who won’t be seen again until well after The Avengers, if ever. Secondly, it provides an end for Emil Blonsky’s arc that’s somewhere between implausible and nonexistent. Third, it leaves Bruce Banner still on the run and no more a superhero than when he started out. Yes, he has better control and more acceptance regarding his superpowers, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a superhero. As for General and Betty Ross, their endings are both as dull and inconsequential as the characters themselves.

Honestly, the whole script felt very subpar. It felt like Zak Penn spent his time looking for the most convenient and lazy ways to move the plot forward, rather than the ways that made the most amount of sense. Also, the dialogue was extremely mediocre. Norton and Roth were both good enough and committed enough to make the awkward lines work, but everyone else — especially Tyler and Hurt — were left drowning.

That said, I’ll grant that the filmmakers had some very clever and amusing ways to reference the Hulk comics and TV shows. My personal favorite is a pizza shop called “Stanley’s.” Ha ha. There’s also a nice Ferrigno cameo and a shout-out to Bill Bixby. And of course, Stan Lee is given a very funny cameo. Yet any points that I give for all the affectionate in-jokes, I have to take right back for all the awkward and extremely forced product placement. I’d love to ask the filmmakers “Was that plug for Norton Antivirus really necessary? Or were you just joking about the lead actor’s name?”

There’s clearly a good film somewhere in The Incredible Hulk. All it really needed was another screenplay draft or two, some much stronger actors to play Betty and General Ross, and a director who knew how to balance action with character drama. Still, Edward Norton was clearly doing the best with what he had, and Tim Roth was apparently having a lot of fun. The action scenes are great to watch and the title character was masterfully brought to life.

It all evens out to a film that’s not necessarily bad, just forgettable. It’s mediocre, which is far less than most geeks have come to expect from Marvel’s recent output.

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