And so, with moderate fanfare and some head-scratching, Marvel decided to do a remake of The Hulk, this time letting you know it was going to be much better than its 2003 incarnation by adjectivizing its title: The Incredible Hulk. Of course, "much better" is relative. I find that I am in a minority when I talk about how much I actually liked the 2003 incarnation. Despite the advertisements, the earlier version was about much more than "Hulk smash": it spent some time dealing with the psychological circumstances that led to their being a Hulk, basing it on good part (it seemed to me) on Peter David's wonderful run on the comic. Unfortunately, the weighty mass of preconception that came with just the name "Hulk" combined with aggressive advertisements that focused on fight scenes created expectations that Hulk would just be a video game brought to film. So its slow and artistic moments, its character development, were lost on the fanboys who wanted to see destruction and mayhem. This is not to say it was a brilliant film—it certainly had some flaws—but that I enjoyed it and its potential and found it to be better than the general response to it would indicate.
My nephew and I went to see this latest incarnation last week, him looking forward to carnage and mayhem and me trying to get past the comparison automatically set up in my head. I suppose it's a good thing that, in that comparison's place, The Incredible Hulk spends a lot of time trying to formulate a different comparison, one with the 70s TV show starring Bill Bixby. The opening credits are a flashback sequence, giving a pictorial background to the story—and Edward Norton is doing exactly the Bill Bixby routine as he is irradiated, using a bright green set of crosshairs that aim directly for his forehead. Later in the movie, we get to see Bill Bixby in a cameo clip from The Courtship of Eddie's Father, and we even get to see a hitch-hiking Bruce Banner, trudging through the rain beside a highway, while the memorable hook from the TV show's theme song is played. All of these are a reminder to the audience that this movie is a tragedy—like the TV show, this story is about a man trying to overcome his personal demons that send him into a psychopathic rage and destroys any meaningful relationship he tries to have. Of course, a thoughtful analysis of the first movie would point out that that's exactly what it was about as well.
Edward Norton is pretty solid as the unwilling Bruce Banner. It doesn't take a lot of effort to have a range of emotion from mopey to thoughtfully depressed. Everything Banner does is suffused with a sort of weariness, as if he has done it all before and it's all going to fail; imagine Eeyore as an alter ego. It's only in the action sequences when he shows any other emotion, and even then it is generally limited to panic. Banner is also not a very deep character, but then, delving into the roots of the character is what supposedly killed the first movie incarnation. William Hurt does a fine job of scene-chewing as General Thunderbolt Ross, but again the role does not call for a lot of range as an actor. Hurt is especially strong when he repeats his self-promoting lies as his rationale for chasing Banner and the Hulk. Unlike the TV show however, Ross, as the Hulk's persecutor, never really gets his comeuppance and sort of fades away at the end of the movie, ineffectual and a target of derision for the cameo appearance of Robert Downey, Jr., as Tony Stark. Liv Tyler, as Betty Ross, is petulant and pouty…except before she finds Banner is back in her life. There is a lot missing here—fans of the comics know the relationship between Betty and Bruce, but if you are not up on the relationship, you have to assume a lot. Clearly Banner cares for Betty, but it's not clear for the majority of the movie whether or not this is a spoken affection or if he has hidden it from her. And though it seems pretty clear, there is still room for argument. They spend a lot of time not talking about themselves though there clearly is some emotion between them. It's just never really clearly defined, which may bug people who don't know the story.
Unfortunately, Tim Roth is woefully miscast as Emil Blonsky. It's clear that Blonsky is a bulldog type of character, never letting go of anything until it is defeated. But even when Roth is in his uniform, he doesn't look anything like a black ops soldier. He's short and not very developed…and why would an American soldier have such a broad English accent? Similarly, Tim Blake Nelson is a strange casting for Dr. Samuel Sterns, to whom Banner turns for help in resolving his radiation problem. Nelson is manic in his performance, a geek on speed, and mostly a distraction from the events of his scenes. I'm not saying his role requires subtlety, but he overwhelms what are supposed to be tense moments with Jerry Lewis-like mannerisms: I kept expecting him to paw Liv Tyler and shout "Lay-deeee!"
So, The Incredible Hulk has a lot of one-dimensional roles and a storyline that does not separate itself from earlier incarnations. That leaves the special effects. And frankly, they're "meh." There are three and a half fight/chase scenes, one not involving the Hulk at all (Banner being pursued over the rooftops of a city in Brazil) and the half involving a firefight between Blonsky's team and a Hulk who is never clearly seen. Of the two remaining, the fight on campus is the best, as Hulk tries to overcome the technology that Ross and Blonsky throw at him, including sonic guns. And the much ballyhooed fight between the Hulk and the Abomination just doesn't make sense. I expect a few liberties to be taken with science, but the ones used in the movie are extreme. And the tactics that Ross and the supposedly well-trained Blonsky employ are just ludicrous. At one point, Ross and his helicopter pursue the Abomination across the rooftops of Harlem, firing 50-caliber machine gun shells into the roofs of apartment buildings without any qualms. It was more than my suspended disbelief could handle.
What I left the movie with was a deep sense of ambivalence. It was a diverting way to spend an afternoon perhaps, but even my Marvel zombie nephew just sort of shrugged this movie off. There was very little memorable about it, and I suspect that has nothing to do with the acting, but the writing. It's not even very good eye candy.