Monday, June 16, 2008

The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk is a competent film, and it's a heroic improvement over the 2003 Ang Lee version, but it still falls short of being truly special.

This version assumes that by now you know who Bruce Banner, the Hulk, Thunderbolt Ross and Betty Ross are. A seventy-minute origin sequence was filmed, but it's been ripped out and replaced with a two minute montage that plays behind the opening credits. The story opens with Banner on the run and trying to control his Hulk problem, while General Ross organises a violent pursuit.

This isn't a sequel to the last movie; it throws Ang Lee's misguided creation onto the scrap heap and starts afresh. The story hinges around Banner's search for a cure. Banner is played by Edward Norton (Fight Club, American History X), who also had a hand in the final script. William Hurt is Thunderbolt Ross, and Liv Tyler is Betty. Tim Roth gives a scene-stealing performance as Emil Blonsky, a soldier under General Ross' command who eventually transforms into the monstrous Abomination.

The bulk of the movie is a direct answer to Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk. The moral greys and soul searching are gone, replaced by sequence after sequence where the Hulk shrugs off bullets and pulverises vehicles. It's like they took the amount of "Hulk smash" in the last movie and then subjected it to gamma radiation until it tripled in size and developed an attitude problem. The few occasions when smashing isn't occurring are used to show Norton and Tyler angsting at each other.

This is undeniably the Hulk of the comic books. Norton's portrayal of Banner (and indeed much of the plot) is drawn straight from Bruce Jones' recent run as writer of the comic book. The Hulk himself falls short of being incredible but is at least recognisable. Ultimately, to say that the film is hit-and-miss is really only to say that it's true to its four-colour roots.

It's all reasonably entertaining, but it's let down in the end on three fronts. Firstly, the characterisation just isn't there. The General Ross of the comics is famous for being a man who is not evil, merely misguidesd. William Hurt is well cast as Ross, and does his best given the material, but is ultimately tarred by the script as a fairly one-dimensional villain. Likewise, although the relationship between Bruce and Betty is front-and-centre there's absolutely no exploration of why these two people are even attracted to each other, let alone invested in saving each others' lives.

Secondly, the CGI isn't up to the task. The Hulk just isn't believable on screen. You won't believe he's really in the same physical location as the live-action actors, and in certain key scenes you'll swear that he's made with claymation. Even worse, the CGI Hulk is utterly charmless, devoid of any real emotion or personality. You won't love him, you won't fear him, you won't even really believe that he's pissed off, let alone the angriest one there is. The same to a lesser extent goes for the implementation of the Abomination during the final battle sequence.

Finally, the movie misses the mark thematically. Marvel is famous for the pathos and resonance of its heroes, but there's none of that here. Bruce Banner's heroism comes too easily, and he never really has to make any sacrifices or overcome any obstacles. He has his girlfriend, his self-respect and a potential cure all handed to him on a plate; he never works for any of it, and he throws himself into battle without any real moral struggle.

I'm particularly upset on this last point, so let me say it a little clearer. The Hulk should not get into dilemmas merely because he happens to be the star of the movie. The final battle of The Incredible Hulk could have been resolved just as neatly by Spider-Man or the X-Men. What makes the Hulk franchise memorable is that the Hulk is an archetypal force; he is the embodiment of rage. He stands when we are told to sit, he roars when we are told to be silent, and when all others are tired of fighting he is only just beginning to tap the depths of his fury. He is the Last Angry Man.

Furthermore, the very powers that enable Bruce Banner to be a hero are a curse to him. In The Incredible Hulk, Banner comes very near to a cure, but the plotline is deeply misplayed, as Banner uses the cure, finds it to be not totally effective, and then goes on to save the day. The absolute core of the Hulk is that Banner can either do the right thing, or be happy, but not both. The film should have had Banner forced to choose between either being cured, or defending others.

For all these reasons, this isn't the Hulk movie that fans have been waiting for, but it's a perfectly reasonable stopgap to fill the time while we wait for another iteration. If you're only going to see one superhero film this year, make it Iron Man, and if you have time for two then I suspect The Dark Knight will be next. But if you're a dedicated fan or an inveterate cinema-goer then it's fair to say you won't feel cheated by The Incredible Hulk.

UPDATE: I've just realised that these are almost the exact same criticisms I made of the Ang Lee version a couple of years ago. So at least I'm consistent.

No comments: