Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

In their rush to praise The Incredible Hulk, the nominal sequel to - and technical reboot of - Ang Lee's widely disliked 2003 film about Marvel Comics' Jade Giant, critics and audiences seem to have overlooked one important detail: the movie is a piece of junk. Oh sure, Lee's version of the Hulk was a piece of junk too. But just because that movie was bad doesn't make the new one automatically better. It's just bad in different ways. Just because chlamydia isn't as bad as herpes doesn't make it "good," y'know? I'd rather have neither.

If you wanted a Hulk that toned down Lee's fascination with Freudian father-son interplay (and completely excised Nick Nolte's longform reenactment of his notoriously wackadoo mugshot), Louis Leterrier, whose testosterone-driven Transporter movies carry an undeniable dopey charm, would seem a good choice for director. And he certain obliges by smashing all of Lee's cinematic Hulkian mythos, although he too deviates from the original Stan Lee-Jack Kirby origin in several key ways which we'll discuss later. And he definitely amps up the action, even adding a big chase sequence involving Hulk alter ego Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) running for his life in the back alleys of Rio. But, for my taste, he dumbs the material down too far; if Lee's Hulk was a movie too brainy to be appreciated by anyone but Bruce Banner, Leterrier's Incredible Hulk is pitched right at people with Hulk-like brains: responding only to bright lights, loud noises, and the sizzle of pyrotechnics.

I'm with everyone who wanted a Hulk that delivered more of the goods in the whiz-bang action department but would it have killed Leterrier to make something out of the notion that Edward Norton's transformative episodes are classic addictive behavior beyond the cute use of an onscreen graphic that reads "Days Without Incident"? Or to flesh out the relationship between Norton's Banner and Liv Tyler's Betty Ross in a scene that doesn't involve someone looking longingly at the other's photo? Or to give us any sort of counterpoint to the idiotic military decisions made by General Thunderbolt Ross? I know we're supposed to think the guy is some sort of tactical badass, but he makes one boneheaded blunders after another. Where are this guy's superiors? The answer is: he's played by Samuel L. Jackson, who was only willing to put in one por gratis cameo this summer and he already did it in Iron Man. Much has been made of — and many have try to dismiss — Norton's disappointment with the final cut of The Incredible Hulk, and the fact that the studio ultimately cut 45 minutes out of an early version of the film that he preferred. If I was Norton, I'd be disappointed too; I suspect a lot of the stuff I wanted to see was left on the cutting room floor.

After two of these clunkers, I'm beginning to wonder if the whole Hulk-on-screen model is flawed. You cast these appealing actors as Banner — Norton, and his predecessor Eric Bana — and then you lose them for large swatches of the movie, including the big emotional climaxes, because he's completely replaced by a computer generated effect. And unlike, say, Spider-Man or Iron Man, where the loss of the actor's physical presence is compensated for by constant comments on the soundtrack which reinforce the idea that, yes, these guys we were watching without the masks are still the guys wearing them, the Hulk doesn't talk at all. In the comics, the Hulk tends to speak a lot. In both Hulk movies, he never speaks until the end. The rest of the movie he's just a whirling dervish of destruction whose motivations are kept away from the audience. We can sympathize with Spider-Man; we can delight at Tony Stark's freedom inside the Iron Man suit. And of course, both of the human beings inside can be hurt. All we can do when the Hulk goes on another one of his interchangeable rampages is savor the carnage as pure destructive spectacle. He's unstoppable and invincible (the madder he gets, the stronger he gets) so there's certainly no suspense in any of his fights. And though Lee's Hulk got a lot of flack for the computer effects, I think the ones in Leterrier's are more cartoonish, less believable in the interplay between the computer world and the real world, and certainly less involving.

Now, about that origin. In the classic comic book version, Bruce Banner is irradiated with gamma waves after saving a teenage who accidentally wandered into a bomb test field. Though Ang Lee's interpretation added some totally unrelated backstory mishegas involving Banner's crazy-ass pops , the basic structure holds: scientist saves another in an experiment gone awry and gets fried in his stead. Leterrier's reimagination of the Hulk's creation — heavily inspired, both visually and thematically, by this — removes the element of heroism and accident. Instead, Banner willingly experiments on himself. To my mind, this makes Banner a less tragic figure; instead of someone who was trying to do right and was punished for it, he was someone who was trying to do stupid and was duly rewarded for his goof. Instead of "Poor Bruce!" it's a little bit "Serves him right!"

Leterrier also throws in a few lines between Banner an Betty, or Ross and his underlings, about how Banner thought he was working to help aid victims of radiation, but the military wanted his research's military applications. This element, not really drawn from any Hulk comics I know, aligns Banner's character — who takes extreme steps to prevent anyone from coming into contact with his tainted blood — with the Tony Stark of the movie version of Iron Man, the remorseful weapons maker. That sort of makes The Incredible Hulk interesting in a meta way, by suggesting a larger thematic tapestry being interwoven between this first batch of Marvel Studios movies, but it doesn't really add anything to this text itself.

I'm a bit surprised people have reacted to this movie as favorably as they have. It is not that the movie is too low-brow; it's that it goes for low-brow and doesn't deliver the goods. Low-brow still needs excitement, emotion, and character; thrills, laughs, and real stakes in the action sequences. The Incredible Hulk has none of that. It's just a very fancy digital puppet show.



Blogger Wealthy Pete said...

By experimenting on himself, is he showing some of the qualities that the evil dad portrayed in the first version? The dad who experimented on his own son?

I haven't seen the new movie, just asking :-)

1:11 PM  
Blogger Matt Singer said...

Well the difference is that in the first one the father experiments on himself and then gives birth to this kid who bears some sort of genetic taint. Here Norton is responsible only for juicing himself and nobody else.

12:07 AM  
Blogger calvierude said...

Excellent review!!!! I also must say the cast is a lot better this time around. Edward Norton is far more convincing as Bruce Banner than Eric Bana was. Liv Tyler does a good job as Betty, Bruce's girlfriend, though I do like Jennifer Connelly a bit more. The supporting cast is also great. You can watch this movie with full length from here also. So go ahead and get it now. The Incredible Hulk Movie free download

3:26 AM  

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