After being violently pressured to do some actual reviewing, this reporter was send to a local theater armed with a pencil and a flashlight and asked to give some kind of insightful commentary on one of this year’s lesser seen comic book adaptations: THE INCREDIBLE HULK. This latest example of Marvel Studio’s push to streamline their various franchises in one single definite universe picks up where Ang Lee’s 2003 “quote” artyfarty “unquote” depiction of the superhero left us bored and suicidal. With cinematic auteur Lee now replaced by whoever directed THE TRANSPORTER 2, THE TRANSPORTER 3, and the even worse DANNY THE DOG and with a completely refreshed star line-up, THE INCREDIBLE HULK forgoes the character-focused slow paced set-up of the 2003 version for straight-forward HULK! SMASH! action. Now, there was certainly enough wrong with the angst-y introvert emo execution of our green hero in the first movie, so a bit of readjustment in that area probably wasn’t a bad idea. But, while HULK at least ended up being a small beacon of originally in the decaying wastelands that make up a majority of comic book movie genre, THE INCREDIBLE HULK flies us straight back to the plains of mediocrity and cliché. The film never succeeds in conjuring up real emotions or any sense of immersion and instead just uncomfortably and unconvincingly tries to go through the motions like an aging prostitute with mysophobia.
Ang Lee’s initial HULK feature film – from what I remember before turning off the television and gladly started cleaning my room – was primarily focused on how the experiments of Banner’s father resulted in him passing those genes to his son. The new film on the other hand awkwardly tries to ignore (and change) the humble beginnings of the man-monster and instead underlines the beast’s more practical usefulness as a potential crime fighter. Nevertheless it’s only through a beautifully shot plot exposition of the character’s origins that the film rushes out of the gates and gains momentum. During this opening credits the most necessary elements of the back story are detailed in a number of creatively cut flashbacks, which show the events leading up to Bruce Banner’s transformation. We are looking in when General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) hires radiation expert Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) to revive a World War II era military bio-force enhancement research project. Banner eventually exposing himself to gamma radiation in an ill-advised experiment and we see how this miscalculation results in him becoming the giant, green-skinned monster we all know and love, hospitalizing Ross’ daughter along the way and turning himself into a fugitive from the American armed forces. This sequence is probably the single best executed moment in the entire movie, which is telling because it’s mostly a rehash of themes that have already entered the public conscious and actually hold limited importance for the movie’s plot.
This year’s new Louis Leterrier helmed Hulk flick begins with our favorite nuclear cursed protagonist Dr. Bruce Banner hiding from the American government in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Banner quietly spends his time working in a bottling factory and picking up martial arts skills to help keep his temper in check. In the meanwhile he stays in touch with a mysterious Internet friend, called “Mr. Blue”, who’s keen on helping him find a cure for his condition. Although it’s understandable that no one would be entirely content living in the poverty-stricken gang controlled favelas of Brazil and needing to share personal information with complete strangers over the internet, our protagonist has other reasons to get back to his home town. As expected a mandatory plot device conveniently requires him to get back in touch with Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), who not only remains his “one true love”, but also holds important scientific data necessary for Mr. Blue to demine Banner’s cure. While sadly very underdeveloped it’s only in these early scenes that Ed Norton gets a chance to shine. For most of the film his performance will be limited to laying exhausted in the gutter, while Lou Ferrigno’s groans and the CGI effects take center stage when his more aggressive self is active. The only glimpses of the Banner character we get to see is when he is just presented as a common man faced with a condition he will never fully recover from and he in fact is responsible for. There were potentially interesting plot opportunities looming here for subtle stabs at the limitations and dangers of scientific progress or even at social criticism, but the film never seems interested in actually delving into the character’s past choices or motivation. Instead of investigating how this men’s honest work have made a life in normalcy impossible and turned him into a fugitive from the United States Army, the movie just leans on established clichés about “dangerous” cooperate government bodies, “cursed” experiments and evil scientists. It seems that the creators were afraid of falling in the same “art house” pitfalls that supposedly made THE HULK a box-office failure, because they constantly refocuse attention away from Banner’s experiences and instead highlight the explosive military efforts made by General Thaddeus Ross to capture The Hulk.
After a drop of Banner’s blood accidently dripped into a soda bottle eventually drunk by an ill-fated consumer (a short but sweet Stan Lee’s cameo), Ross has been made aware of Banner’s location and was able to pinpoint his hide-out in the slums. Somewhat ironically it turns out that the most effective weapon available to the American army for the capture of Banner is a Russian-born British special operations expert called Emil Blonsky (played by a sadly wasted Tim Roth). He is put in charge of the team send to Rio de Janeiro and ordered to sedate Banner before he has a chance to turn into the monster. Sadly for Blonsky the heckling of a couple of Brazilian lowlifes made Banner transforms just in the nick of time and the Hulk subsequently eliminates Blonsky’s team during a fight in the bottling factory. After this spectacular failure an astonished and vengeful Blonsky is informed by Ross about the origins of the monster and quickly becomes obsessed with how the enhanced physical abilities the technology offers might profit him personally. He agrees to be injected with Vita-ray serum Ross has kept in cold storage, giving him enhanced physical abilities. After fleeing from Blonsky’s team Banner traveled to Culver University, where his original experiments took place and Betty Ross still lives with her new boyfriend, psychiatrist Leonard Samson (Ty Burrell). Banner eventually reunites with Betty and she gives him the earlier mentioned data (our McGuffin du jour) necessary to uncover a cure for his condition. When Banner eventually decides to leave, Ross and Blonsky’s forces attack him, forcing Banner to transform. The serum has made Blonsky athletic and agile enough to compete with the Hulk, but the combined forces are still not enough to contain the Hulk. After breaking two sonic cannons and every bone in Blonsky’s body, The Hulk flees and takes the unconscious Betty with him. After a terrible King Kong-esk scene in which Betty calms the monstrosity down and Banner again become human, the two agree to travel to New York City together to meet “Mr. Blue”.
During this voyage Betty magically forgets about her current fiancé and again falls in love with Banner. Obviously these narratives are almost mandatory by law, but while for instance IRON MAN actually benefited greatly from the chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow, the love affair in THE INCREDIBLE HULK just feels unneeded, forced and – literary – impotent by comparison. Liv Tyler’s performance is especially cringe worthy in this regard. Truth to be told, she didn’t had much to work with in the first place – her role is pretty much limited to repeating the phrases “bruce,…” “you’re ok,…” and “it’s ok,…” over and over again – but she manages to exclaim those lines in the most obnoxious way possible. Combined with Ed Norton oozing self-pity and despair from every bodily opening, the whole romantic side-story just feels a-sexual affair and terribly redundant to the plot. Anyway, the two supposed lovebirds maintain a low profile as the Hulk’s existence becomes public knowledge following the posting of the university battle on YouTube and eventually reach “Mr. Blue”, aka Dr. Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson).
Dr. Sterns, your usual “power-hungry-unethically-wizard-like-pure-scientist” stock character, claims to have developed a possible antidote that may cure Banner’s condition, or merely reverse each individual transformation. Never one to learn from pervious mistakes, Banner again agrees to experiment on himself despite considerable risks. After first triggering a transformation of the Hulk, Stern injects Banner with his antidote and successfully reverses him back to his human self. Shortly after finishing this treatment Banner discovers that Sterns has synthesized his blood samples into a large supply with the intention of enhance the human condition to the next evolutionary level. Appalled by what Sterns had done and fearful of the Hulk’s power falling into the wrong hands, Banner attempts to convince Sterns to destroy the blood supply, but he is attacked by Ross’ forces and taken into custody. A recovered Blonsky then forces Sterns to inject him with the Hulk’s blood. Sterns warns that the combination of the supersoldier formula, which Blonsky has already overdosed on in order to strengthen his skeleton, and gamma treatment would be an unpredictable combination that could turn him into an “abomination”. Unconcerned, the power-drunk Blonsky makes Sterns administer the gamma charge, mutating him into a hideous but powerful monster. He knocks Sterns aside and starts a rampage through Harlem in an attempt to draw the Hulk out. At the lab, an irradiated sample of Banner’s blood-derivative drips into an open wound on Sterns’ temple, causing his cranium to mutate and expand, while at the same time conveniently setting up a return of Blake Nelson’s character as The Leader in a possible sequel.
In the final part of the movie the oh so common theme of “the dangerous repercussions of scientific process being exploited by power-hungry government agencies” come to a close when army and Hulk team up to defeat the Abomination on the loose. Realizing that only he can possibly stop the monster, Banner convinces General Ross to release him. He jumps from Ross’ helicopter as it hovers over the city, hoping the fall will trigger a transformation. This ridiculous plan somehow succeeds and the now pseudo-restrained Hulk and power-drunk Abomination clash. After a brutal battle, the Hulk is able to finally defeat Blonsky by nearly strangling him to death with a huge chain, relenting his grip only after Betty’s plea. In the epilogue, we then find an escaped Banner in Bella Coola, British Columbia attempting to initiate his transformations in a controlled manner. As his eyes turn green, a pleased grin appears on his face, indicating that the Banner might finally have gained control over the power his other side offers. With this open ending the dead horse franchise is still somewhat battered back to life and other sequels could still be a possibility, although looking at the box office that doesn’t seem very likely. As reboots go, THE INCREDIBLE HULK was in the end a very lackluster attempt. It brings nothing new to the table and just seems to be happy going through the motions of what is generally expected from comic book adaptation. By comparison the movie feel emotionless and clichéd, lacking both the original atmosphere and deeper meaning of say Nolan-verse Batman or the pleasant chemistry that made IRON MAN such a success. THE INCREDIBLE HULK just delivers action, straightforward HULK SMASH action, and if you like big muscular green men beat each other up you might want to check this out. But only when it’s out on DVD. On discount. And when someone else is paying.