The Incredible Hulk Review
Five years after its release the first big screen adventure for the Incredible Hulk still provokes fierce debate. Ang Lee’s stab at making a more thoughtful, slower-paced comic book film disappointed those fans of Marvel’s not-so-jolly green giant who just wanted wall-to-wall Hulk smashes for two hours, but while its low-key, art house approach was not to everyone’s taste it is still a movie easy to admire for its ambition to be different, even if it’s a fairly difficult film to actually enjoy. Unfortunately, rewatching it shortly before this not-quite-a-sequel was released, I was disappointed to find that there’s a lot more in it that doesn’t work than does; the cast, with the notable exception of Sam Elliot, is resolutely uncharismatic (Jennifer Connelly doesn’t change her expression once in the entire film) and the so-called psychology on which it lays its thematic foundation is trite rather than profound. Nevertheless, it’s a very interesting failure, one which still has many ardent defenders. The Incredible Hulk on the other hand, could not technically be classed as a failure as unlike the Lee film it achieves exactly what it sets out to do, but as those aims are far more modest than than its predecessor that is not necessarily a compliment. To use a culinary metaphor, If Lee was the equivalent of a three-star Michelin chef unsuccessfully attempting to fuse the cuisine of two entirely disparate nationalities, resulting in a menu which failed to capture the taste of either dish sufficiently, Louis Leterrier is the manager at your local drive-thru, serving up tasty rubbish for undemanding customers after a quick fix. The Incredible Hulk is the Happy Meal of the superhero genre, an instant sugar rush with so little substance that its audience leaves the experience full but utterly unnourished. Intentionally designed as the antithesis of Lee’s effort, it's fast and dumb where that was slow and thoughtful and is determined to compensate for the lack of excitement last time around by filling it with noisy Hulk action.
Given such aims, it's unsurprising that there is little discernable plot. There has been much discussion in fan circles since the film’s release as to whether it could be considered a sequel to the first but it doesn’t really matter – while technically the origin story is different, anyone with only a hazy memory of the Bana film will feel that this follows on perfectly acceptably. The action kicks off with Banner (Edward Norton) in Brazil, working in a bottling plant by day and searching for a cure to his condition by night while all the time hiding from a US military determined to track him down. As before it is Colonel Ross (William Hurt), father of Banner’s on-off girlfriend Betty (Liv Tyler) who is leading the hunt, propelled not so much by a desire to keep people safe from the Hulk’s rampages as wanting to use him in the army’s secret Super Soldier program. Sad to say, Banner is obviously suffering from severe stress, as when Ross does finally locate him and force him to flee Brazil he does the stupidest thing he possibly could by returning home to his university campus and making contact with Betty again, thereby almost guaranteeing that his pursuers will catch up with him. Unsurprisingly the army soon turns up, but things go awry when one of their number, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) decides to turn himself into the Hulk-like Abomination and, possibly because he’s jealous at all the attention the Hulk is getting, goes on a rampage in New York City. As the monster tears the city apart Ross (evidently haven taken the same stupid pills as Banner) decides the only possible thing to do is unleash the Hulk to take the Abomination down, thus doubling the carnage and proving that he is as susceptible to watching a superhero smackdown as the rest of us. The two monsters dutifully tear apart a few apartment blocks before the Abomination keels over and surrenders and everyone goes home happy they’ve had their yearly fill of watching CGI monsters do battle while being simultaneously relieved they’ve left without getting the same headache as Transformers gave them last year.
Pre-release, there was much entertaining gossip reporting on-set tensions between Norton and Leterrier, with the former busily rewriting the script and telling the director how to make his movie, but it’s very difficult to tell from the finished product exactly where his input was – it would seem most of his efforts have ended up in the Deleted Scenes section below, as the final cut’s interest in its characters is only on a very rudimentary level. Instead, when it’s not sowing the seeds for either a sequel or the planned Avengers movie, the screenplay is working simply to get from one big set piece to the next. Rather like one of the poorer Bonds, the three big Hulk sequences were evidently planned first, before the bare bones of a script were slung around them to get us to each in turn, but while the film is hardly going to challenge The Dark Knight in the intellect stakes, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Dumb can be fun, and Leterrier keeps up the pace sufficiently to ensure things never drag while at the same shooting the film in an attractive manner which makes for some picturesque shots and sequences, far more akin to the subject’s illustrated origins than Lee’s “comic-book panel” efforts. However, the approach does mean that the ultimate success or otherwise of the movie relies entirely on how good the big moments are, and perhaps what sums up the film better than anything is that while they are all reasonably effective, none are truly memorable. The city-bound finale is actually far more satisfying than Iron Man's curiously anti-climactic battle between its hero and villain, but falls far short of what remains the ultimate city-based super-hero showdown of Superman 2 and has nothing to distinguish it from similar set pieces from The Matrix Revolutions or, indeed, Transformers. Equally, the confrontation between the Hulk and the army, while being more impressive than the equivalent desert-set sequence in Lee's film, doesn't provide any truly memorable moments, all of which means that the film as a whole is lacking a certain inspiration, and often feels like a Marvel-by-numbers effort.
Unfortunately, there's little else to divert the attention. Because the script is so shallow, the characters fail to engage – while there are Superman Returns-like homages to the Bill Bixby TV Hulk (including an amusing cameo from the man himself) Norton’s Banner is an oddly vacuous hero, so quiet as to barely register while failing to bring across properly what should be the internal conflicts of a modern-day Jekyll and Hyde. As has been proved time again over recent years, superhero movies are at their most interesting when the masks are off – the most recent example being Iron Man, actually a fairly generic superhero movie elevated almost solely through the sheer charisma of its leading man – and in theory Banner is one of the most interesting of all comic book alter egos. Again, in reference to the Lee film, while that earnestly if unsuccessfully tried to portray that conflict at the heart of the character’s psyche, in this film it is only a function of the plot, and Norton’s underplaying doesn’t help, a blank page where the soul of the film should be. When the most effective emotional note of the entire film is an underwhelming riff on King Kong set in a rain-drenched forest you know the film-makers’ hearts lie elsewhere. It’s unfortunate that his supporting cast is equally uninteresting – Tyler is as one note as Betty as Connelly was, while Hurt’s Ross is far inferior to Elliot’s in the first.
All of which add up to explain why, in a summer season which saw no less than five (if you include Hancock) superhero flicks, The Incredible Hulk has been almost completely overshadowed by its competitors. The deeply conventional pyrotechnics can only take it so far, and the rest is deeply underwhelming, having neither the tongue-in-cheek fun of Iron Man, the quirky splendour of Hellboy 2 or the sheer scale of ambition of The Dark Knight. At its heart though, there is the same difficulty that scuppered the first film, namely that even though he’s one of the most popular characters in Marvel’s ensemble, Hulk is often one of the hardest characters to write for. As an antihero it’s often difficult to deal with him as the star of his own title, and it’s a problem neither of his big screen appearances have managed to solve. Taken on its own terms The Incredible Hulk isn’t bad – it’s more entertaining than Lee’s ponderous take and makes for a reasonably diverting couple of hours – but in trying to overcompensate for the failings of that first film it has gone too far the other way and is (ironically given its hero) a very lightweight entry into the Marvel canon. . Looked at on its own terms it is not the failure in the way that Lee’s was, but whereas that first Hulk is still provoking discussion to this day, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone will remember, let alone still be talking, about this film in another five months, let alone five years.
The film is available on Region One in both a one and three DVD set, with the former including a third of the deleted scenes and the commentary, and the latter (on review here) the rest of the deleted scenes and other extras on the second disc and a third disc that holds a Digital Copy of the film. Disc One opens with trailers for Beethoven’s Big Break, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, Iron Man and a trailer for Marvel Animation before leading into the Main Menu. Fortunately for those still trying to get over the exciting news that Beethoven is back, the Menus are simply navigated, although the mumbling of Banner that plays on a loop gets very irritating very quickly. The film itself, and all the extras with the exception of the commentary, are subtitled.
The Video is mildly disappointing. The contrast levels seem to have been hiked up a couple of notches, resulting in flesh tones that don’t look especially accurate (even in non-Hulk mode) and daylight scenes which are somewhat dark. There’s also some noticeable blockiness in backgrounds, and overall while the picture isn’t enough to make you go into a Hulk-like rage, it’s not nearly as good as one would expect. Fortunately the Audio redeems matters somewhat, having a satisfying depth and resonance in the big set pieces (hear Hulk roar!) that makes full use of all five channels.
The most noticeable thing in regards to the Extras is what they don’t mention, namely the creative differences between Norton and Leterrier. Instead we get reams and reams of bland, EPK-style documentaries, unsurprisingly concentrating on the effects work of Rhythm & Hues rather than story development, and all depressingly generic and familiar. If you’ve seen one Making Of featurette about a SFX-heavy blockbuster you’ve seen them all. The Making Of Incredible (29:54) (Sponsored by Volkswagen!) and Anatomy of a Hulk Out (27:50) (which looks in depth at the shooting of the three big setpieces) are exactly as you would expect: talking heads, followed by shots of crew members on set standing around and coordinating things as actors fly round on wires. The only one of these which is even slightly noteworthy is Becoming the Hulk (9:23) which, in between explanations showing how the CGI Hulk was developed and animated, featurea scenes of Norton in effect directing Leterrier as to what he wants to see happen – the looks of annoyance on Leterrier’s face are pretty telling and the one sign of the elephant (Hulk?) in the room which the rest of these documentaries studiously ignore (the sister piece to this, Becoming the Abomination (10:16) isn’t so good, although Tim Roth reminds us at least twice he’s getting on a bit).
As such, the main interest in the supplementary features are the Alternate Opening (2:34) and Deleted Scenes (42:13). Early reports of seventy minutes of missing material have proved a bit of an exaggeration, but there’s still a hefty amount to be going on with, nearly all of which is character-related. There are a large number of scenes expanding on the love triangle between Bruce, Betty and her new boyfriend Leonard, much of it fairly tedious, as well as longer versions of scenes featuring Ross which expand on the Super Soldier back story. Given that the film at times feels a little too edited, at least some of what is featured here could have fitted in very easily, especially as it fills in the blanks regarding, for example, Dr Sterns, the guy helping Bruce develop a cure, but others are superfluous to requirements and deserved to be snipped. (That said, one can’t help feeling that had much of the material here been included we would have got rather closer to the version of the film Norton wanted us to see rather than what eventually ended up on the screen.) The Alternate Opening, meanwhile, is already famous for featuring a freeze-frame cameo of Captain America (he’s at 2:25, bottom right corner if you can’t see him) but wouldn’t have made a very interesting start to the film.
Nevertheless, those scenes are one of the main attractions of this disc. The most satisfying extra, however, is also the simplest. From Comic Book to Screen (6:33) animates a scene from the comic Hulk Grey on which was based the sequence in the cave from the film, and while it’s no great shakes is done nicely. There’s also a commentary with Leterrier and Roth which isn’t especially gripping, coming across as a general chat rather than a focused series of reminiscences.
A mildly diverting film gets a very generic set of extras in what is overall a rather lean release.