The Incredible Hulk first published by EyeforFilm, 10 June 2008
We only have ourselves to blame.
In 2003, Ang Lee (of all directors) brought us Hulk – a comic book adaptation like no other. Broody and lumbering in its pace, unduly interested in character, with almost a full hour elapsing before the jolly green giant put in his first appearance, this was a film that seemed more Hulk-ish in its whopping 138-minute duration than in anything else. What is more, with its inherited interest in out-of-control rage and an all-new father-and-son motif, it seemed to resonate deeply with the prevailing mood of post-9/11 America, where everybody seemed afflicted with raw, unfocused anger, and where Bush Jr was resuming his father’s blood feud against Iraq. Add to that Lee’s inventive use of multiple moving frames and rapid dissolves to mimic the look and feel of a comic book while unfolding the backstory with great economy, and you had that rare thing, a superhero movie that dared to be different, a Marvel adaptation that was aimed at adults.
Needless to say, the film, for all its qualities, was a critical and box-office failure, demonstrating our own limited expectations of the genre. Realising that the world didn’t like the Hulk when it was Ang Lee, the director retreated to more traditional outlets for his arthouse sensibilities – and now Hollywood has heeded our cry, and given us exactly what it seemed we wanted, in the form of the utterly conventional, bog standard superhero flick The Incredible Hulk.
Don’t expect it to be anything like Ang Lee’s Hulk – it does not even acknowledge the existence of the earlier film. Here, Hulk’s origins are entirely rewritten in an introductory montage that erases his father (and the Oedipal politics of Bush) from the picture. Here, with Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, and William Hurt as her father General Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross, all the principal characters have been entirely recast. Here a reliably straight action director, Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, Unleashed), has been brought in to deliver the action goods. Happy now?
Unfortunately the results are just predictable popcorn pap, in what feels exactly like the holiday filler that it is. For this is a truly homogenised summer experience. Just as the Hulk blends in with rather than stands out from the green backgrounds (jungles, national parks, university campuses) that dominate here (perhaps as metacommentary on the heavy use of green screens in superheroic epics like this), the film itself fails to stand out in any way from its comics-based competition (and there is a lot of that this year).
As Bruce Banner struggles with his own powers, with the authorities that hound him, with his complicated love life, and with an abominably mutated foe (Tim Roth) who is really just Banner himself seen through a glass darkly, it is difficult to shake the feeling that we have seen all this before – not least when we witness Banner delivering pizza like Spidey, or the Hulk sitting with his gal and morosely taking in the view like Kong. Even the cameos from Stan Lee (familiar from every Marvel adaptation) and of TV’s Hulk Lou Ferrigno (as a security guard, just like in Ang Lee’s Hulk) come across as a little tired, as do all the jokey references to Banner’s need for stretchy pants.
The Incredible Hulk certainly does deliver on scale, but all the hammering, pounding and vehicle-tossing leaves no room for subtlety, so that after a while one monumental fight merges into another, and only the scenery ever really seems to change (from the favelas of Brazil to a leafy college campus to the streets of New York), with little sense of narrative progression, or even tension. And while CGI now enables us to see the purple-trousered behemoth’s every rippling muscle as he repeatedly resists whatever force that pesky military can throw at him, the Hulk is so intrinsically ‘incredible’ that no effect will ever be able to render him convincingly as anything other than a cheesy beefcake who looks a bit off-colour.
The most interesting thing going on in The Incredible Hulk is the casting. Edward Norton is engaging enough to carry almost any film, and has already in Fight Club (1999) proven his talent at playing emasculated host to an inner alpha male. If you are sensing the emergence of a pattern here, as unexpectedly decent (and rather puny) actors such as Robert Downey Jr, Tim Roth and Norton are being cast to bring in audiences who would not normally venture to superhero flicks, then your suspicions will only be confirmed when Downey Jr himself puts in a final-reel appearance, holding out the promise of a ‘new-man hero’ crossover sequel. Which is to say that we can look forward to yet more homogenisation of a product that is already labouring under its own excessive generic in-breeding. Perhaps William Hurt’s performance as the morally confounded General is what really gives the game away. Hurt is himself a titanic figure in the world of acting, but here he can barely bring himself to make an effort with such weak material.
It is a pity, really, because in playing a top brass who has lost his way as he obsessively pursues an outdated cause and endlessly covers his own failures, Hurt bears the film’s only serious reflection on the American military’s contemporary exploits abroad, struggling to contain a destructive problem of its own making. Everything else in the film is just blandly directed, ham-fisted sound and fury, battering your brain for attention, but leaving you with little to take away except, perhaps, a mild headache.
Where is Ang Lee when we need him?
Strap: Louis Leterrier’s Hulk offers transitional superheroics, abandoning Ang Lee arthouse experimentation for MCU mega mayhem
© Anton Bitel