Last month’s Iron Man was the seventeenth feature film based on a Marvel Comics superhero since 1998’s Blade kicked off the current superhero movie cycle. Of those seventeen, none divided critics, movie-goers or fans as sharply as Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk.
It was by far the artiest and most experimental of them all, but something of a mixed bag—a well-acted, compelling melodrama with an all-special effect superhero that looked embarrassingly unconvincing, a badly botched ending and far too little smashing.
Which perhaps explains why The Incredible Hulk falls somewhere between a remake and a sequel, but far closer to the latter than a former. The entire cast is different, the creators are all different and the only reoccurring characters are the three principle ones. The origin of the Hulk, that which Lee occupied himself with for almost two hours before getting to the smashing, is told here in a minute or two, as flashes of information occurring behind the title sequence.
That’s how badly director Louis Leterrier (a disciple of Luc Besson whose filmography consists of action movies Danny The Dog and the Transporters) wants to make sure this Hulk movie delivers what the last withheld.
His is very much an action movie, albeit one that, like the better superhero movies, manages to be one without falling too hard into action movie conceit traps and occasionally seeming to be about more than just the titular character fighting things.
Our new Bruce Banner is Edward Norton, an actor just as well suited to playing the emotionally troubled as Eric Bana was, but with the benefit of being a lot less dreamy and thus more scientist-y looking. When we first meet him he’s living in Brazil, searching for a cure for his condition, while keeping a safe distance from his former lover Betty Ross (Liv Tyler, whose soft, whisper voice makes her a nice counterpoint to her anger-prone co-star) and trying to elude her father/his archenemy General Ross (William Hurt, stepping into Sam Elliott’s moustache and uniform).
Leterrier lets his Hulk out early and often, keeping the mostly CGI character in the dark as much as possible. It still looks pretty silly, but it’s definitely an improvement over the one Lee’s effects people whipped up, and it’s given a lot more to do, including fight a villain. That would be Tim Roth, who plays a government soldier type who keeps upping doses of “super-soldier serum” until he’s a big, bony monster capable of trading punches with the Hulk.
Some of their battle gets awfully messy in close-up, the way scenes of two CGI characters fighting over CGI backgrounds tend to do, but the previous scenes of Hulk action are much better, and there’s a great deal of Hulk-free action as well, including a pretty fun chase scene through the rooftops of Brazil involving Norton’s Banner.
The script, by serial superhero movie writer Zak Penn and Norton himself, includes some interesting innovations, like having Banner wear a beeping heart rate monitor which makes literal the ticking time bomb nature of the character, and comparing the results of his affliction to a sort of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (Wow, timely!). All while including plenty of tossed off in-jokes, like beefed-up roles for Stan Lee and Lou Ferigno, a Portuguese riff on the Banner’s TV catchphrase and a joke about big purple pants.
What was probably most remarkable, however, is the way The Incredible Hulk was constructed to work as a companion to Iron Man. Stark Industries is mentioned, S.H.I.E.L.D. is mentioned and its logo shown repeatedly, there are nods to comics fans tying the Hulk to Captain America (whose film Penn is also writing), and, in a scene mirroring the after-the-credits Samuel L. Jackson cameo in Iron Man, Roberty Downey Jr. shows up to talk to Ross about a team he’s putting together. In other words, expect Hulk and Iron Man to team up in an Avengers movie in a few years (box office receipts for 2010’s Thor and 2011’s Captain America permitting, of course).
This is the sort of franchise cross-pollination that was and is the bread and butter of Marvel Comics, of course, but this is the first film based on their characters to seriously attempt to emulate that element. A cohesive, shared setting is pretty rare for film in general—the old Universal monster movies and franchise face-offs like Alien Vs. Predator aside—so it should be interesting to see if it can successfully be transported from the one medium to the other, particularly since the stakes are millions of dollars higher in film than in comics.