The Incredible Hulk, like most comic book based summer blockbusters, has a lot of hype to live up to. Its trailer(s), if we’re being perfectly honest with ourselves, left a little to be desired. They painted it as a by-the-numbers action flick with 2 or 3 major action setpieces we’re supposed to get abnormally excited about. The Hulk himself, the big reveal in the trailer, still looks as ridiculous as an oversized green man can look under the circumstances. His veins pop and ripple with digital life to set himself apart from Ang Lee’s previously plastic and bulbous monstrosity.
So, do we expect a continuation of Ang Lee’s almost universally reviled recreation of a television icon and 60’s counter-culture pulp icon? Will we be given highly concentrated doses of Greek Tragedy, operatic melodrama, and/or infrequent and unsatisfying action sequences designed more specifically to enrage its audience rather than its lead character? The answer is a resounding no. The Incredible Hulk is no Hulk (2003).
The title reverts back to the actual name of the comic itself, a throwback to Stan Lee’s penchant for throwing adjectives in front of every single noun and pronoun he could, whether or not the source lived up to it within the actual text. The act of naming was all that it took to create the mythology of the character. It is apt in this case that a reboot would just go back to its roots. Its style differs greatly, expanding the mythology of the character in such a way to remind us of that oft-offending adjective.
Louis Leterrier’s film earns it. The man who brought us a rousing Jet Li vehicle and a new action renaissance to Jason Statham, successfully manages to direct a film that envelops and engages. It is visceral and real, and begins not with reliance on questionable CG and explosions. It opens in a Brazilian ghetto where our protagonist is hiding out, learning Portuguese from a tattered dictionary and Grover off of Sesame Street. He works in a soft drink bottling plant, putting his technological talents to use by fixing the dilapidated factory’s innumerable electrical problems. This is what our intrepid, optimistic world-changing scientist would do with his expertise. Of course, this will never last, and the U.S. government is hot on his trail soon after.Edward Norton brings the Bruce Banner character to this point much more effectively than Eric Bana did. Norton is thin, almost malnourished. Bana was ripped, and might as well have been painted green rather than computer generated. Norton exudes determination, the kind that someone fighting with his considerably screwed duality problem should be exhibiting. So when he runs across rooftops and bookcases we feel his plight. So that when his digital avatar appears, we can forgive the presence/absence of an appropriate “Uncanny Valley” response.
The story centers significantly around our hero’s conflict with Tim Roth’s Emil Blonsky character as well as his romantic conflict with Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross. Neither of them seemed all that relevant for us to consider, their tropes being so instantly recognizable. Betty and Bruce are locked into an infinite loop of longing that gets them nowhere because of his potential as a person of mass destruction. One more lustful grunt than prescribed and Betty could be a goner. All of Bruce’s “love” is reserved for Emil and his employers. Time after time they butt heads, and in that initial confrontation in the bottling plant the film’s purpose shines.Emil is just as dedicated as Bruce. He fights and inflicts pain as effectively as Bruce synthesizes cellular cocktails. In this, the film gives us an out and realizes its meaning. General Ross (played sternly by William Hurt) quips to Emil, “He’s a scientist, he’s not like us.” In that, they will always have the advantage. Their purpose is to subjugate the need for conflict, through more conflict. Banner’s interest in science is meant to do the same through societal and cellular means. The film goes Emil’s route, giving us a barrage of dazzling action sequences and brutal battles to feast our eyes upon.
I’ll admit the hold it had over me, these emotions unfolding onscreen. It had my blood boiling and I was in awe a lot of the time. It fulfilled every obligation that it promised with its trailer. I’m not particularly well-versed on Hulk mythology. My major knowledge of it is cobbled together from Bruce Jones’s own controversial run on the book. Portions of his style were much like this film, visceral and unflinching in its portrayal of the character. Bruce is on the run, much like his film counterpart. He is wracked with guilt from supposedly causing a child’s death after a building has toppled. He is out to find a cure, to rid himself of the potential for such horrors happening once again, and perhaps even his guilt will be absolved. It devolves into fantasy and reality, at times so crystal clear in its thrilling pulp sensibility that it harkens back to Norton’s Banner likening his experience to acid burning into his skull. Parts of that run were so exciting that I was hoping to see it replicated on this film here, and it delivered on that account somewhat.
It’s a blockbuster action film, and it will get your blood pumping. I enjoyed it immensely. It made no metaphorical leaps and bounds. It was not classical opera. It had no pretensions about itself whatsoever. It gave the big green lug a playground to enjoy himself on. Now if only we could get that Ultimates film. The one in which Banner is ignored and vengeful, his body and mind a weapon that brings nothing but utter desolation.