In the June of 2003 Ang Lee put out his take on the comic book character The Incredible Hulk amidst a flurry of huge budget blockbusters like X-Men 2 and The Matrix Reloaded. The simply titled Hulk, was just coming off the success of the original Spider-Man, and Ang Lee could have easily churned out a cookie-cutter blockbuster and turned a huge profit. Instead Lee decided to take chances on his trip up to the superhero bat and essentially made a superhero drama as opposed to a superhero action movie. The result was a very interesting if somewhat flawed exploration of the genre. Of course this didn’t sit to well with the 13 year old males the studio marketed the film to and the movie famously dropped 70% in its second week, after a very respectable opening. Now, five years later, the superhero genre has gone from being a fad to being a decade long institution and Marvel has no intention of letting one of it’s biggest franchises sit around collecting dust. So they’ve decided to “reboot” the franchise, and this time they’re doing everything they can to pander to the 13 year olds.
After a quick introduction, the film opens in the Brazilian fravelas where Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) has been hiding for the last five years. Through really convoluted means General Ross (William Hurt), who’s been tracking him, manages to locate him in Brazil and sends a team to capture Banner. The leader of this team, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), spots Banner while he’s in Hulk-form and becomes obsessed. Shortly before he’s chased out of town by the Special Forces team, an anonymous scientist calling himself Mr. Blue (Tim Blake Nelson) contacts Banner and tells him he has found a cure for Banner’s ailment (perfect coincidental timing). With this in mind Banner decides to travel to New York in hopes that Mr. Blue’s cure works out, but while he’s there he runs into his old flame Betty Ross (Liv Tyler).
The film recounts the origin story of Bruce Banner in its first three minutes while the opening credits are rolling; it generally assumes the audience to be familiar with the character from the get-go. This makes the film’s place as in independent story a bit awkward. Ignoring that opening one could conceivably pretend that this is indeed a sequel to Ang Lee’s Hulk, albeit one with different actors. The relationship between the pursuing General Ross, his daughter, and Bruce Banner seems to have carried over, and there’s nothing to contradict Lee’s film except the opening scene; in fact the film opens in South America which is where the coda for the 2002 film was set. There seems to be something rather confused and tacky about this reboot attempt, it reminded me in some ways of The Sum of All Fears, which was another film that tried to pretend the rest of its series never happened for no good reason.
There’s a film related podcast I’ve been listening to for the last couple of years called The Hollywood Saloon (which I highly recommend). The hosts of that show have come to coin the word “McMovie” which refers to bland Hollywood blockbusters which seem to be churned out for the sole purposes of making a lot of money. These movies that take no chances do not try to achieve any form of greatness; people like Brett Ratner, Tim Story, or McG usually direct them. A comparison between Ang Lee’s Hulk and this new film from Louis Leterrier (The man behind The Transporter series) provides a perfect example of the differences between a serious film and a McMovie. While Lee’s film was a thoughtful meditation, Leterrier’s film settles on loudness. It’s not just run of the mill loudness either, I haven’t seen a theater rattle like that in a long time. Lee’s film was heavy on plot and story telling, Leterrier’s film is heavy on CGI, so heavy in fact that it was often hard to distinguish the film’s trailer from the advertisements for its videogame adaptation. Lee’s film took chances within the context of it’s genre and tried to develop characters with real histories and problems outside of their comic book crisis, Leterrier’s film on the other hand feels like it was written by a marketing committee.
Of course McMovie’s aren’t always terrible, in fact they’re often quite competent, but by their nature they’re never great. This is by no means a terrible film and there’s actually a lot to like in it. Firstly, the cast here is quite good. Edward Norton is one of the best actors of his generation, and he’s really overqualified for this role, but the same could be said for almost anyone cast in a superhero movie. Norton seems to be taking his work here pretty seriously, and he brings his inner tortured soul out pretty well. William Hurt is also doing quite well picking up where Sam Elliot left off in the same basic role in Ang Lee’s film. I also really liked Tim Blake Nelson’s work in a small but important role that looks like a setup for a future sequel.
There are however definite problems with other casting choices. Particularly problematic is the casting of Tim Roth, an actor I’ve never been a huge fan of, who is supposed to be playing some kind of badass elite special forces member. Roth generally doesn’t seem very military in the way he carries himself, and he generally looks a bit too short and skinny for the buildup he’s given as “the best of the best” so to speak. Liv Tyler also has some serious problems, as I don’t think she’s evolved much as a performer since Armageddon. She seems pretty young for her role as a major biology researcher; she must have been twenty-five when Banner had his accident. Tyler seems really mild mannered at some points and highly assertive at others. Her character just isn’t very well defined or developed and she doesn’t have much to do. None of the actors here improve on their counterparts from Ang Lee’s film at all, and were recast for no reason other than to differentiate reboot from that unpopular project.
From an effects point of view the film does not live up to the standards of other movies like Iron Man, though this admittedly has a lot to do with the inherent challenges of the Hulk character. While Iron Man was largely cased in lifeless steel, the Hulk effects team had to replicate a creature of organic flesh. Characters like Spider-man can at least have some sort of humanity under all the CGI and even King Kong had a lot of fur and a real world creature to be based on, all the Hulk can really be is a walking special effect. These obstacles may have been why Ang Lee choose to focus on a very human story with his film, even the 70s T.V. series mostly focused on Bill Bixby and only used the Lou Ferrigno creature sparingly. Here on the other hand we deal with numerous extended action sequences and once a second creature emerges the film becomes increasingly CGI dependent.
The first two actions scenes have a certain level of respectability to them, particularly the first scene that is mainly a foot chase through the favelas with an un-transformed Banner. The chase is pretty exciting, at least until Banner coincidentally runs into someone from earlier in the film. A second action sequence on a college campus also has a lot going for it, though I don’t think it’s ever explained why this university is completely devoid of bystanders. The third fight scene, however, quickly devolves into a pair of CGI hulks mashing into each other.
The film generally suffers from a number of plot holes like Mr. Blue’s coincidental discovery of the cure at just the right time, and the ludicrous way the military finds Banner in Brazil, which the filmmakers try to cover up by distracting the audience with a Stan Lee Cameo. Throughout the film the military have an uncanny ability to cover-up the fascistic behavior they use to capture this escaped scientist, and the Hulk jarringly begins to sprout a conscious at the most convenient (read: sequel preserving) moment. The film also has a lot of lame attempts at humor. There’s also a tacky cameo scene that’s clumsily tacked onto the end, it exist for no reason other than to be an inside joke and it robs the movie of a naturalistic ending. Iron Man at lest had the decency to hide its tacky coda after the credits.
This is a great example of Hollywood marketing run amok, it’s a blatant attempt to reestablish the franchises brand with a run of the mill film intended to appeal to the ADD crowd. The film seems perfunctory and if you saw any of the films advertising you already saw almost everything the film had to offer. Admittedly, the film never descends to the level of stupidity found in something like Transformers, but it also features very few creative ideas. As far as these things go there are much worse ways Hollywood could have you spend two hours, but this is still a very forgettable experience.
**1/2 out of four