Untamed Ego: Revisiting The Incredible Hulk

Was second time the charm for Marvel’s green meanie? Cal doesn’t think so. 

The second of two Marvel projects to be released in 2008, The Incredible Hulk is a huge step down in quality after the superlative Iron Man. Initially designed as a sequel to Ang Lee’s much-maligned 2003 film Hulk, the project eventually materialised into a reboot, aiming to address the extensive criticisms levelled against its predecessor. Thus, while Lee aimed to mount a patient arthouse film with blockbuster elements, The Incredible Hulk is pure junk food cinema, a commercial action picture that’s anything but incredible. Directed by Louis Leterrier (The Transporter) and written by Zak Penn (as well as an uncredited Edward Norton), it’s a completely sub-standard production, leaving us still starving for a truly iconic and memorable solo film for Marvel’s big green guy.

During a laboratory accident, scientist Bruce Banner (Norton) was poisoned with gamma radiation which damaged his cells. As a result, whenever Banner is angry, he transforms into a huge green rage beast known as the Hulk. In an attempt to control the mutation, Banner heads to South America to hide out, hoping to escape the hands of General Ross (William Hurt) who wants to use Banner to create an army of super-soldiers. Compelled to head back to America, Banner is reunited with long-time lover Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), who wants to help cure the genetic mutation. Hot on their tail, though, is ruthless British military specialist Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), who yearns to harness Banner’s power.

Instead of extensively exploring the Hulk’s origins once again, The Incredible Hulk briskly reboots Banner’s backstory during the opening credits. It’s a wonderful montage which effectively conveys the story so far, instilling a sense of promise that the film is never able to capitalise upon. While the first half-an-hour or so does a great job of setting up the narrative, especially with fitting character introductions and a “less is more” approach towards Banner’s alter-ego, everything goes downhill afterwards, abandoning all sense of psychological depth and subtextual heft in favour of straight-ahead narrative velocity. The Incredible Hulk is better-paced than Lee’s overstuffed film, but anything that isn’t purely surface is discarded here. The structure is incoherent and jumpy as well, while the dialogue is conventionally corny action movie speak. Apparently the film was originally a lot longer, with Norton lobbying for more characterisation and dialogue. But the studio intervened, apparently trimming as much as seventy minutes. As a result, the structure is puzzling. Consider, for instance, that Banner travels from Guatemala to California despite having no money or official documents, and despite having his face plastered on every government watchlist. Characters disappear as well, including Betty’s boyfriend who seems to be simply tossed aside upon Bruce’s return. Some of the scene transitions are so choppy that it feels like the studio haphazardly took out random reels without smoothing out the rough edges.

The Incredible Hulk eventually transforms into a string of action and devastation, undermined by dreadfully phony CGI and underwhelming action set-pieces. Leterrier’s visual style is very run-of-the-mill, lacking the timing and polish which made Iron Man such a summer delight. This film was produced five years after Lee’s Hulk, and Leterrier was working with a massive budget, but the digital effects nevertheless look pathetically unfinished. Everything from the helicopters to the environments look absurdly unconvincing. Although the sweeping Hulk movement is accounted for, clarity is lacking and the beast lacks vital crispness. The climax literally looks like something from a sub-par video game cutscene. Whenever the CGI Hulk appears, it feels like someone is tapping you on the shoulder to whisper “Hey, you’re just watching a movie.” In other words, the concept of total immersion is ruined, and it’s hard to get involved in the movie in any capacity. I’d give up all the thunderous explosions that litter the picture for a single scene of genuine awe. For a film titled “Incredible,” the digital Hulk is anything but. Iron Man was actually produced for a smaller sum, and its effects bordered close to photorealism. What the hell happened here?

Furthermore, the film lacks vital brains. The climactic battle in particular is a total mess. Several minutes into the smashdown, civilians still appear to be running away from the action. And some of those civilians are shown to be tossed around in the mayhem. Surely several innocents are killed, yet there’s never an ounce of sentimentality displayed towards them. Plus, millions of dollars worth of damage is perpetrated without any real consequences. It may seem odd to complain about such things in an action film, but it doesn’t even properly deliver as entertainment due to its horrendous special effects and skewiff direction. Added to all of this malarkey, there’s a particularly terrible scene involving the Hulk and Betty sitting inside a cave at night in the rain. It feels shamelessly copied from King Kong, and it lacks the tender touch of a skilled filmmaker to give the scene any substantial impact. Consequently, it comes off as trite, ineffective and cheesy. To be honest, the best moment in the film is the pre-credits scene, featuring Robert Downey Jr. who cameos as Tony Stark.

For those desiring tons of action involving the Hulk, quality be damned, The Incredible Hulk is a film for you, as there’s enough pandemonium to keep you happy. And by all means, it does deliver in the entertainment department at times. But where Ang Lee’s film succeeded (i.e. actual depth and thoughtful dialogue), this film fails. Meanwhile, this Hulk adventure contains plenty of action and momentum, which was lacking in Lee’s effort. If only a blend of these two extremes was achieved, we’d have the definitive Hulk adventure. Interestingly, for a constituent of Marvel’s big universe-building monopoly, The Incredible Hulk severely underperformed at the box office, unable to so much as double its budget worldwide.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The Hulk, as portrayed in this film, was created through a blend of motion capture and key frame animation (by Rhythm & Hues). Hulk‘s VFX were carried out by Industrial Light & Magic, with its director Lee providing motion-capture.
  • It took the VFX artists over a year to construct a shot where Dr. Banner’s gamma-irradiated blood falls through three factory stories into a bottle.
  • After the Hulk appears at Culver University, two students are interviewed in the news, named Jack McGee and Jim Wilson. Jack McGee was a tabloid reporter who attempted to track down the Hulk in The Incredible Hulk, and in the comics Jim Wilson was a young orphan who befriended the Hulk.
  • Paul Soles who portrays “Stanley”, the owner of the pizza shop, provided the voice for Dr. Bruce Banner in the 1960s Hulk animated series. The character’s name may also be another tribute to Hulk co-creator Stan Lee.
  • There are references in the film to Marvel Studios’film, Captain America: The First Avenger. Firstly, there is a portrait of Steve Rogers, the original Captain America, seen in the General Ross’s office. Next, a label can be seen on the storage tank reading: “Dr. Reinstein.” Reinstein was the doctor who developed the Super-Soldier serum that transmogrifies Rogers into the Captain. Louis Leterrier mentions he shot a scene where Banner encounters Captain in the Arctic, but it was cut out of the final cut of the film. It is on the special features options of some DVD editions, however.

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