Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Incredible Hulk

With The Incredible Hulk, Marvel Studios have proven a few things comic book movie fans already knew, but perhaps studio executives did not:

(1) More is not always better.

I'm not saying this movies should be low-key or action-less. The Incredible Hulk gets rather outsized in the second half, to great effect. But it's not overloaded with tons of characters, constant computer-enhanced spectacle or a loud, booming soundtrack. Sometimes, taking your time, developing some tension and telling a simple story well is all it takes.

(2) Continuity matters.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of serialized comic book-style storytelling is the forging of connections between characters, creating an entire alternate reality, with its own rules. Marvel writers have spent decades fleshing out their's ridiculous that, in translating the stories to film, they have been unable to introduce it to audiences until now.

The Incredible Hulk
, even more so than this summer's triumphant Iron Man, really introduces the Marvel Universe on-screen, setting up not just a future Avengers film but a whole collection of potential connections and stories. The movie strikes just the right balance, including some references and nods to events going on outside the margins without getting too inside or complicated.

(3) The Incredible Hulk's backstory is not the stuff of high drama.

I personally think that Hulk, and his Bruce Banner side in particular, is among the least interesting mainstream comic book characters. Banner's just this kind of meek guy who's afraid of his powers. And while it's tremendous fun to see The Hulk smash things, he's basically just a buff monster. We're not talking a character the way Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne are characters. We're talking about a cipher.

Ang Lee tried to make an entire movie out of Hulk's origin, turning it into a Shakeapearean story about Fathers and Sons, when it's really just a bunch of silly nonsense about gamma rays and then a riff on Jekyll and Hyde. This new film wisely dispenses with it during the opening credits.

Though the new movie represents a complete break from Ang Lee's dull, plodding, nearly-Hulkless 2003 version, it nonetheless picks up pretty much right where that film left off. Bruce Banner (Ed Norton), doomed to transform into the out-of-control, violent Hulk whenever he gets angry, has fled to Brazil in the hopes of finding a rare flower that might cure his condition. Back in the U.S., Banner's girlfriend Betty (Liv Tyler) has moved on with her life. Her father, General Ross (William Hurt), has enlisted the aid of a notorious British soldier, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), to help him find the Hulk. (Ross wants to capture Banner, naturally, in the hopes of turning his Hulkness into a weapon).

Most of the film is taken up with this chase, with Ross and Blonsky pursuing Banner across the globe. A variety of not-particularly-convincing circumstances will slowly turn Blonsky from a normal man into the monstrous Abomination, leading to an epic final showdown in the streets of Harlem.

The film's major strength is in its simplicity. None of the technology or science is ever explained, because that stuff doesn't matter. "This machine will cure you from Hulking Out, or maybe it wont. Let's find out!" And because Incredible Hulk doesn't bother with an origin story, and keeps the narrative strongly focused on the chase, and the larger relationship between Banner and the Rosses, there's plenty of time for (1) large-scale, extended action scenes and (2) development of the Hulk's world and environment without rushing everything.

The decision to open the action in South America, in particular, really pays off. The movie's just visually interesting, even when there's no Hulk or explosions. Banner himself can be something of a blank (though Norton does a nice job of expressing his inner angst without getting too emo), but the world he occupies is very inviting and compelling on its own terms. Director Louis Leterrier has a tendency to show off a bit, throwing in a lot of visual noise and flair unnecessarily, but he nevertheless has made a good-looking, fast-paced film, and knows how to put an action scene together.

The only time things really slow down is when Tyler's Betty Ross takes center-stage. Zak Penn's script pretty much lets her down here, setting her up as a brilliant scientist and then giving her essentially nothing to solve and even less to do. It's essentially the same part Tyler played in Armageddon - the girl who really really loves the hero - and her boredom with the part is palpable at times. (Her one real bonding scene with the Hulk reminded me of some of Naomi Watts' work in King Kong, only I actually think this film plays slightly less ridiculous.)


excalipoor said...

dude. i agree with ya. even though the movie is not ironman level, but it's still telling a better story than ang lee's version. i don't understand why they bring ang lee for the 1st one in the 1st place. seeing bruce play by a skinnier edward norton is a better deal. is betty ross suppose to be that weak? or just liv tyler play the character really weak. betty ross part is bad. Your post on incredible hulk is dead on. nice work!

patrick said...

this new Incredible Hulk is a lot more fun than the first one with Eric Bana; plus you can't beat Ed Norton when he's in his element, doing the the "split personality" role

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