Deeper into Movies: "The Incredible Hulk" (2008)

The Incredible Hulk: Mostly Incredible

You won’t like him when he’s hungry. Er, angry. One of The Incredible Hulk‘s few moments of levity during its draining but mostly rewarding two hours is an early scene in Brazil, where Ed Norton fumbles over his Portuguese while trying to deliver one of the comic book’s iconic lines. It’s line that reveals more than it intends; for all its meaty action, the film isn’t quite a full meal. It’s not supposed to be. [Continue reading…]

Perhaps the most common criticism levied at the green goliath’s second silver screen jaunt is its failure to arrive at a satisfying climax; a cheat in the service of setting up the next few Marvel films. Robert Downey Jr. has a cameo as a post-Iron Man Tony Stark, and release dates for Captain America, Thor and the film that’ll hopefully bring them all (millions of ticket-buying geeks in tow) together, Avengers, are already set. But I think both comic book readers and superhero film aficionados will catch something here that critics are missing. Marvel is a universe of heroes, not a collection of unrelated stories; the set-up, the context, is necessary if the company’s newly minted film studio is going to transfer its ink-soaked icons to tape.

And more than that, the narratives of characters with 40+ years of storytelling behind them were never intended to be told in a single sitting. Hulk‘s real flaw, if it can be called one, is that it plays like part of an ongoing story rather than a self-contained epic. Like a few issues of a comic book. As that, it’s satisfying enough, and a vast improvement on Ang Lee’s 2003 dud. Norton is fantastic as Dr. Bruce Banner, the scientist whose rage or fear (or erections, in moment of levity #2) turns him into a behemoth fueled by gamma radiation. Following the events of the first film (recapped in a quick opening credits montage, sans Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly, of course), we arrive in Brazil, where Banner has lost himself in the Where’s Waldoian immensity of the favela, captured in a long, soaring shot. But the cameras don’t stay airborne for long.

It’s been a while since the Hulk’s emergence, as indicated by a wry “Days without incident” subtitle; Banner has learned to stay calm while hunting for a cure, communicating with an anonymous Mr. Blue who promises help with the reception of more data. He obliges, sending over a blood sample that will come back to haunt him (and poor, trampled New York). But that’s an hour away. First there’s a Bourne-like pursuit through the city’s cramped corridors sliced deftly into quick cuts as General Ross’s troops try to hunt him down. That, obviously, doesn’t end well, at least not for anyone not in the audience.

Liv Tyler as Betsy Ross with her dear old dad the general

Plot-wise, the film hits some predictable bases: Tim Roth as the power-hungry, blood-thirsty mercenary who inevitably grows green muscles and spiked elbows to match his inner ugly; Banner, on the run from the fuzz, running into old flame Betsy Ross (Liv Tyler), who promptly forgets her new boyfriend and plays a tougher Fay Wray to the Hulk’s King Kong; and enough bullets, explosions and green-fisted fight scenes to make Indiana Jones’ recent shenanigans look like a walk in the pink alien park. But as with so many Marvel heroes, it’s the human end of the story which imbues the rampant destruction and brawny battles with worth. Unnecessary Kong-aping aside, the emotions that overtake the dangers and forces between Banner and Ross are palpable; their reunion is far from easy or immediate, and for the suffering scientist, it’s a sympathy-drawing earning after his years on the lam.

All in all, it’s another thrilling couple hours in the life of a misunderstood anti-superhero, pulsing along with the increasing tension of Banner’s heart meter. But The Incredible Hulk, like Iron Man, isn’t quite an awe-inspiring film; the major ambition of both movies is to move forward with a minimum of error. There’s something to be said for consistency, but what’s art without risk? As the Marvel machine continues to set its chess pieces, its visionaries would do well to remember the 1960s, when a pair of creators named Stan Lee and Jack Kirby made a universe of pop culture icons by throwing out the rules.


Oh, and just because I don’t know when else I’ll get the chance to post this, I met Stan Lee last month. It was awesome.


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