The Not-Terrible Hulk
In recent days, Universals been running a TV spot for The Incredible Hulk that gives away what should come as no surprise to any fanboy worth his action figure collection: the appearance of Robert Downey Jr. as, natch, Tony Stark. From the delighted, deafening squeals of at least one sneak-preview audience, its clear that the thought of an all-star Marvel Comics team-upAvengers, assemble!is a not-bad-at-all idea. Say this much for Ang Lee and James Schamus, who tamed The Hulk and his acolytes into submission with a dreary, hulking take on Dr. Bruce Banners rather unjolly green giant in 2003: Even they couldnt keep a good monster down.
Of course, it speaks to Universal execs worries about the fate of the franchise that theyve spoiled the spoiler for this complete reboot. For months stories have circulated that the persnickety Ed Norton, replacing Eric Bana as The Hulks timid alter-ego, was demanding final cut over a screenplay hes said to have beefed up with chatty character-building sequences since excised. Add to that the critical drubbing Lees take rightly received, and theres an inevitable and justly deserved fear: Hulk no smash. Cheers to lower expectations, then, because The Incredible Hulk is The Pretty Good Hulk. All things considered, of course.
Its still a superhero movie, with all the attendant noise and nonsenseand this time around, blessedly, the goofy geeks grin. (There are, at the very least, four tee-hee references to the old Bill Bixby seriesincluding the use of Joe Harnells Lonely Man Theme, which everyone I knew in junior high could play on the piano.) The Hulk franchise has also bowed to the inevitable: the villain lifted straight from yellowed comic book pages, a la Spider-Mans Green Goblin, Batmans Joker, and Supermans Lex Luthor. In this instance, its the Abomination, who made his debut in Tales to Astonish No. 90 way back in 1967. His origins been altered, but Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth, yet another A-actor playing dopey dress-up) is more or less the same as his funny-paper predecessor, roided up and ready to rumble.
Having dispensed with the origin story in the first film, the Incredible Hulk is bourne again. Bruce Banners on the run, he turns into the Hulk, he smashes some stuff, he meets up with gal pal Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). Rinse, lather, repeat.
Ang Lee tried to mix the somber and the sillyand all he ended up with were wide-screen comic panels gone deadpan and limp. Director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, really) and screenwriter Zak Penn (X-Men: The Last Stand and the forthcoming Marvel march) have far less interest in inner angst; their fascination and affection lie with the outer kaboom, bringing action to action sequences that Lee staged with the embarrassment of an artiste slumming in pornography. Abetted by a Hulk whos far less glossy and hollow than his predecessor, which looked like a wet gummy bear on HGH, Leterrier takes full advantage of improved technology and sets his he-man smashing up and down Brazil, Virginia, and ManhattanHarlem, to be precise, where its most definitely Showtime at the Apollo. Oh, and the climax here isnt an afterthought, as it was in Iron Man.
Then again, unlike in Jon Favreaus film, which featured a far more interesting hero than Banner, you need that big bang herethat cathartic exclamation point at the end of a long story. And Norton, try as he does with an almost heroic effort to make Banner as interesting as his towering, verdure-shaded beefcake within, doesnt possess Downeys casual radiance. Which isnt even all that noticeable, till Stark shows up for his precious few moments of screen time to remind the audience of the all-too-obvious: Iron Man was just a superhero movie too, only it was one that almost couldnt be bothered with the superhero part. It worked solely because of Downeythe unadorned, unfettered actor who was larger than life in nothing so much as a T-shirt and a smirk.
Nortons almost faced with a no-win proposition: Hes a perfect Bruce Banner, actuallyscrawny, guilt-ridden, beaten-down, and desperate to rid himself of the beast within. And the fanboys will certainly recognize him from the comic books, far better than they did Banas brooding, bulked-up version. (Norton looks like he stepped right out of the funny pages, especially the recent Ultimates snark attack from which Marvel seems to be shaping its film franchise.) But Banners a weakling in the comic booksto the point where writers have begun depicting him as suicidal, or almost eradicated him entirely. Which would have been just a wee bit problematic for Universal, who clearly wants another franchise to hawk. So the filmmakers and Norton trod the middle ground: Banners just a guy trying to excise his more interesting better half, for which I believe theres therapy.
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