Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Countdown to The Avengers, Part 2: The Incredible Hulk

Part 2 in our Countdown to the release of The Avengers, in which we tackle anger management issues of the large green variety with The Incredible Hulk...

THE FILM ITSELF: I set out to do this series specifically about the Marvel Studios releases, but it’s going to be hard to talk about 2008’s The Incredible Hulk without mentioning the 2003 Ang Lee film, Hulk. When production began, I remember it being the first time I heard the word “rebootquel.” Which is eye-rolling, but there’s not really a better way to describe the 2008 Hulk. Because the two films really aren’t related (I suppose if you squint really hard the ‘08 one’s like a sequel), but they complement each other nicely.

    The Ang Lee movie wasn’t exactly a disaster, but it was definitely not what anyone was expecting - a far more thoughtful, introspective film, one that set out to explore the deep recesses of alter-ego Bruce Banner’s psyche - which led to a somewhat slow, ponderous movie, one more concerned with psychology than the Hulk smashing things. Which is not to say there wasn’t any smashing in the original, but for most it came as too little, too late. The original gets kind of a bad rap, which I think is unfortunate, for a movie that aims to do what it does with a guy who turns into a big, green monster. It’s something to be commended, not demonized. But demonized it was, and when it came time to reboot the franchise (five years later!), it was decided that there should be considerably more smashing.

    And so we get The Incredible Hulk, directed by Luc Besson alum Louis Letierrer, streamlined into a more straight-forward, action-oriented approach to the big green guy, and one that would fit into the studio’s multi-film lead-up to The Avengers. So how does the film shake out? Did they overemphasize the smashing at the cost of the characters?

    Not really. It is a more action-oriented story, streamlined and shorter than the original by nearly a half-hour. But the script allows the characters plenty of room to breathe, at least until the third act madness starts. But we’ll get to that soon enough. First, the good stuff…

    Edward Norton steps into the purple pants this time, and fills them out quite nicely. He has the right look: Bruce Banner was always supposed to be scrawny (one thing beefcake Eric Bana could never get away with). But more importantly, Norton plays him with the right amount of quiet intensity; a man who bottles up his emotions until they have no choice but to explode out (i.e., Hulk). Norton, much like Robert Downey, Jr. before him, gets the character he’s playing (so much so he even did a pass over the movie’s script). The film echoes back to the old TV show, in that Bruce Banner is on the run, never staying in one place too long. When we first come across him, he’s hiding out in Brazil, taking breathing exercises to try and control his anger.

    Of course that doesn’t last long, and soon the U.S. military comes knocking on his door, led by General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, who has a mad hard-on for Banner and his green-skinned alter-ego; think of him as Ahab to Banner’s Moby Dick. General Ross is played by William Hurt, in a performance that’s a little too broad. Even though Ross never twirls his actual mustache, his character barely reads as two-dimensional, and Hurt doesn’t relish being the bad guy the way Jeff Bridges did in Iron Man. General Ross is kind of a thoroughly unlikable character throughout, chasing down Banner not out of any obligation to his daughter Betty, or even for the safety of others - he wants Banner so he can weaponize his gamma-irradiated blood. It’s not a terrible performance, but it is disappointing when considering what could have been.

    Faring much better as an antagonist is Emil Blonsky, a UK Special Forces officer on loan to Gen. Ross to help catch the Hulk. There’s not much to Blonsky on the page, but he has the good fortune to be played by Tim Roth, who could play this kind of role in his sleep. Honestly, it doesn’t matter how bad your movie is: if Tim Roth plays the villain? You’re guaranteed at least one great perfomance (see: Tim Burton’s abominable remake of Planet of the Apes). Roth digs into the role admirably, filling his performance with a strange, twitchy energy. Blonsky is given the super-soldier serum, making him somewhat like a junkie, and eventually culminating in his turning into the Hulk-like Abomination in his thirst for power towards the end.

    Also appearing is Liv Tyler as the love interest for Bruce Banner and daughter of General Ross, Betty. Tyler does a fine job, and she and Norton make a believable couple. The two of them don’t say a whole lot to each other, preferring awkward, longing glances. It’s quite a different dynamic than the rapid-fire banter of Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, but it gets the job done well enough. Not as much fun to watch, though.

    Rounding out the main cast is Tim Blake Nelson playing Samuel Sterns, a university professor who takes an interest in Banner’s unique dilemma. Nelson excels at playing weirdos, and is natural for the twitchy, not-really-sure-if-he’s-on-your-side-or-not Sterns, who Hulk fans know goes on to become arch-villain The Leader. His transformation is set-up here, but sadly, I don’t think will be followed up on. Which is a shame - a giant-headed Tim Blake Nelson would have been something worth seeing.

    Leterrier handles the direction well, treating the film as Bourne-styled action thriller. And when it comes time for the Hulk to smash, he does so with aplomb. The effects work is fantastic, with the Hulk yelling at the thunder during the rainstorm being a standout piece of work (the effects in the ’03 movie don’t hold up nearly as well, sadly). The only problem with the film really is a problem that seems endemic to all these Marvel Studios joints: a weak third act.

    Banner basically spends most of the film obsessing over a cure for his Hulk condition, finally getting a strong chance to be rid of it once and for all upon meeting Samuel Sterns. So he and Betty meet Sterns, they strap Banner to a table, he Hulks out, Sterns injects a cure of some sort, and the Hulk reverts to Banner. It seems the cure has worked, but Sterns informs the two of them there’s no real way to know. And before they can find out for sure, Gen. Ross and Co. come barging in, take Banner into custody, and fly off. Only Blonsky turns into the Abomination and, well… you can guess what happens from there.

    They had a chance to make an interesting arc for Bruce Banner, in wanting to find a cure for the Hulk, realizing there isn’t one, and coming to accept the Hulk as a part of who he is. There’s a strong, universal story of learning to accept who you are, but by the end, it gets lost in the shuffle. Everything happens too fast, too quickly to develop any sort of interesting conclusion to Banner’s arc, instead preferring a slug-fest that, while impressive, goes on a bit too long.

But on the plus side, we get to hear the Hulk say, “Hulk Smash!” You win some, you lose some.

OTHER THOUGHTS: Despite taking a more audience-friendly direction, The Incredible Hulk took in roughly the same amount as Ang Lee’s version. Is there something about the Hulk concept that audiences just can’t connect to? Nah… It’s probably more to do with it being a reboot of a not-too-well received movie that was only five-years old at the time.

There’s a lot of strange, blink-and-you’ll-miss it cameos in the film, such as Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks, Party Down) and Omar Little himself, Michael K. Williams.

Of course, Lou Ferrigno has a cameo, a nice little scene between he and Norton, although they gave him one too many lines (you can tell he’s trying to say, “God bless you, brother” but it comes out more like, “Gdblsxzyuzbruduh”)

Ferrigno also voices the big green guy himself. Since he only says two words, it’s a bit easier to understand.

THE MARVEL CONNECTION: On first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much connective tissue between this one and the other Marvels, but look closer and you’ll see plenty.

First off, the super-soldier serum given to Blonsky to help him fight the Hulk is described by General Ross as, “an old project from WWII.” Yep… It’s that Super-Soldier serum.

Also, in a deleted scene where a suicidal Banner travels to the arctic, we catch a brief glimpse of Captain America on ice.

SHIELD, for a change, is barely involved in this film - their logo appears briefly as one of Gen. Ross’ subordinates does a search on their database.

And lastly, the most obvious one, Tony Stark showing up to console a drunken Gen. Ross. It’s clear that this scene was designed as a post-credits tag, but the breakout success of Iron Man and Robert Downey, Jr. meant this got pushed up to being in the actual movie. Marvel really hoped fans of Iron Man would show up to this one too, as Downey was in nearly every TV ad that ran for the movie. You’d have thought he was co-starring or something.

STAN THE MAN?: Stan Lee’s cameo in this one is actually a part of the plot - he plays the old man who drinks the bottle accidentally dosed with Banner’s gamma-irradiated blood, giving Gen. Ross enough to go on to trace it back to Brazil.

FINAL THOUGHTS: While not nearly as much fun as Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk is a solid film in its own right.

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