June 11, 2008

The Incredible Hulk

You break it, you bought it.

Grade: B
Director: Louis Leterrier
Starring: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, William Hurt, Tim Roth, Ty Burrell, and Tim Blake Nelson
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 1 hour, 54 minutes

Among its many failings – mediocre casting, visual effects, and scriptwriting, for starters – the cardinal sin of Ang Lee’s The Hulk was miring itself in the middling morass of its protagonist’s split psyche. Once the thematic mainstay for comic book-based film adaptations – Superman II and III; Spider-Man 2 and 3; every Batman movie ever made (Bruce Wayne even dated a shrink in Batman Forever, for Pete’s sake) – this Freudian well began to run dry just in time for Lee’s turgid rendering of arguably the comic book kingdom’s ultimate exemplar of “duality of soul.” Batman Begins succeeded because Christopher Nolan, perhaps the preeminent surveyor of fractured cinematic psyches, expanded the “crisis of conscience” motif from the micro to a meta-examination of our post-9/11 world (which early indications suggest will continue in The Dark Knight). And, Iron Man was a box-office breath of fresh air partly because Tony Stark, while reshuffling his priorities, never veers from his basic wiseacre, fun-loving persona.

The CliffsNotes’ version of Bruce Banner’s psychological journey in The Incredible Hulk, the unofficial sequel to Lee’s 2003 misstep, goes from battling to suppress/eradicate the not-so-jolly green giant to harnessing and maybe even living in harmony with his inner-Id. Holed up in a Brazilian favela, we find Banner (Edward Norton) living in a clandestine self-exile, wiling away his days searching for an ever-elusive cure and new ways to keep his heart-rate below 200 beats per minute. He is beleaguered, cursed with access to an astounding brute power that, by also proscribing physical exertion, strong emotions, and even sexual potency, ironically robs him of his manhood. He is also besieged, still being hunted by his nemesis, Gen. ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross (William Hurt, taking over for Sam Elliott). Ross enlists the aid of a past-his-prime military commando, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), who eventually takes a shine to the Super-Soldier serum he receives in order to better combat The Hulk.

Ross and Banner’s explosive, CG-enhanced enmity stretches from South American slums to a college campus in Virginia to the Big Apple, where Hulk must lock horns with Blonsky’s abominable alter-ego after it goes Cloverfield on the streets of Harlem. The Captain Ahab-Moby Dick traveling roadshow grows redundant, whilst Banner and Betty Ross’ (Liv Tyler) star-crossed romance suffers from lazy development, Tyler’s stilted performance, and evident allusions to King Kong and Beauty and the Beast. Louis Leterrier, working off a script co-written by Norton and Zak Penn, sets up easy, trite bogeymen – the government; man’s proclivity to play God – for a paper maché plot that, for all its wise refocus of purpose, eventually devolves into the F/X realization of the idiom “Hulk Smash!”

This is a fanboy’s Hulk, from its visual razzmatazz to the expansion of its characters base to the copious nods to the erstwhile television series, including a shot of Bill Bixby as Banner watches an episode of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, a brief reprise of the show’s plaintive closing ditty, and the de rigueur Lou Ferrigno walk-through (“You’re the man,” exhorts Norton’s Banner). However, the most enduring aspect about The Incredible Hulk might be found in the few minutes comprising its opening credits and, later, the closing cliffhanger. During the former, as imagery of The Hulk’s gamma-induced birth is recreated using Norton’s Banner and Tyler’s Betty (essentially attempting to rewrite/erase the history of Lee’s original?), a collage of news reports and government documents flash fleeting glimpses of two names: Stark Industries and Nick Fury. Along with the film’s coda, and its much-ballyhooed Robert Downey, Jr. cameo, the two bookends hint at the ongoing assembly of a contiguous Marvel movie universe first teased by Samuel L. Jackson’s cameo after Iron Man’s closing credits.

It is illustrative of the state of the genre (and season) when the director of The Transporter movies conjures more popcorn-munching verve than Ang Lee. It is also indicative of The Incredible Hulk’s relative stature when Downey’s mere 2-minute throwaway overshadows the 112 minutes that precede it.

Neil Morris

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