The Incredible Hulk  (2008)

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Hollywood hates Ang Lee’s Hulk so much that instead of making a sequel, they’ve “re-imagined” the story only five years later. Fuck you, Hollywood.

And it’s cool that they’ve brought in Ed Norton as Bruce Banner, but replacing Jennifer Connelly with Liv Tyler? Are you kidding me??

The new director is Louis Leterrier, who made The Transporter, a cool stylish action piece. Now nobody wants a cool stylish action Hulk... but what ended up happening is that Ed Norton took over a lot of creative control of the story, and the end result is really not the least bit Transporter-y. Instead, what we have is a take on the Hulk that’s more or less based on the old Bill Bixby TV show. Which I liked fine at first, being about mood and character at least as much as about action, but it jumped the shark in season 3.

Apparently the real reason Marvel threw out Ang Lee’s version to do this is not so much because they hated it or wanted to wash their hands of a semi-flop, but because it was Not Invented Here. They want to make a new set of movies entirely in-house, where everything is controlled by Marvel and they can link the stories together. This film is the second entry in what we might call the Avengers Series — the first being Iron Man. There’s years and years of material they could put into this Avengers Series, especially given that each individual character can have its own set of sequels (Iron Man 3 is already a signed deal, for instance). This script did start out as a sequel to the Ang Lee movie — that’s why the action begins in Brazil... and one rumor (which I’m not sure I find convincing) has it that it was Norton, rather than the suits, who led the effort to convert it from a sequel into a reboot. But other rumors say he tried to make it almost as cerebral as the old one.

So how did the result turn out? Let’s compare it to the Ang Lee version. Areas in which this film improved on Ang Lee:

  • Ed Norton
  • use of Brazilian location

Areas in which this film fails to measure up to Ang Lee:

  • Liv Tyler
  • William Hurt
  • the CGI:
    • the character designs
      • the new Hulk doesn’t look nearly as “hulking” as the old one did
      • nor does he bear any visible resemblance to Ed Norton
    • the animation of how they move
    • the way the faces of the Hulk and the Abomination, when fighting each other, distort until they seem to be made almost entirely of teeth
  • the score (by Craig Armstrong)
  • the writing:
    • the dialogue
    • the overall story arc
    • the personalities of Bruce, Betty, and General Ross
    • use of techniques such as symbolism and foreshadowing (we’re talking serious clumsy here)
  • the reason they come up with for Bruce to become the Hulk
  • the pacing — the tension just never really varies from one level
  • the “science”
  • which brings up Liv Tyler again
    • she makes about as convincing a scientist as Tara Reid
    • why is she taken seriously as a professional actress?
  • and the score again... it was truly annoying.
  • the obligatory Stan Lee and Lou Ferrigno cameo appearances
  • the bogus artificialized sounds that get used for hulky voices (and Ang Lee’s was kinda bad here already)
  • the villain:
    • and the reason they have to fight
    • and the bogus way he’s left alive at the end
  • at least two completely bogus super-stunts pulled by the Hulk to save Betty
  • having the military characters act military
    • (come on, it’s not difficult)
  • handling the delicate issue of big stretchy pants
  • the intrusiveness of the constant call-outs to bits of Marvel lore recognizable to fans, and to past versions of the Hulk, including Ang Lee’s
    • such as showing Bill Bixby clips on TV
    • or having Banner sneer at wearing purple pants
  • and the film’s overall levels of:
    • originality
    • intelligence
    • maturity
    • believability
    • insight
    • emotional depth
    • visual aesthetics
    • ability to identify with the characters
    • overall artistry
    • and meaning.

About those intrusive call-outs: this is not just a minor quibble. Those references and nerd easter-eggs were so damn incessant that I wouldn’t be exaggerating much to say they ruined the movie for me. They just would not let up!

The one element of this movie that its creators seem to be truly proud of, which they boast about and pat themselves on the back for in their promotional and making-of footage, is the new CGI realization of the Hulk’s body. It’s so much more advanced, it’s so much more detailed, it’s so much more realistically modeled... it even has a heartbeat to make the veins throb!... they’re completely convinced that it’s far more real and solid and believable than the 2003 CGI model. Well, IT’S NOT. It’s no better! They still haven’t figured out how to let muscles go slack, and the fact that they gave the muscles body-builder striations just emphasizes the issue. And the face, despite the expressions being based on motion capture of a real face in a far more detailed way, ends up looking a lot more cartoonish than the old one — the 2003 Hulk face was twice as convincing as the new one! And the neck and shoulder area is just bad — not believable at all. For every area they’ve improved, they’ve lost ground somewhere else. Overall it’s a wash at best, and if you leave aside all small technical quibbles and just concentrate on the big overall impression, I think the new version loses badly. Its face and neck is just too cartoonish, and the pale translucent skin (which they give him in order to show off the veins and striations) is a complete blunder. This is a fashion-model hulk: built for posing and photo shoots, not for fighting.

And things are no better in the one area where the previous film is commonly said to need the most improvement: the action scenes. People who wanted to see lots of HULK SMASH are supposed to get what they want here, which they didn’t get last time. Now the hulky action scenes in the older film may have been a bit thin as a portion of the running time, but they are certainly memorable and contain a good share of moments of awesome. Such moments are, to my eye, distinctly scarcer in the new film. The big fight at the end is frankly a bore. Let me put it this way: the single best action scene in this movie is a chase of Banner before he transforms!

Compared to its predecessor, this is indeed basically just a big dumb action movie. Or maybe not dumb — I can’t really call it stupid, but it does pretty much hew to uninspired action formulae. Including the old Sci-Fi Channel chestnut about something going Terribly Wrong due to an experimental attempt to create super-soldiers. I wouldn’t call it a bad movie, but I can’t exactly call it a good one either.

But I do have to give it credit for the wonderful way the setting of a Brazilian slum is used in the opening act. That bit, if nothing else, was masterful. And unfortunately, since this is at the start, everything is downhill from there... in fact, one could say with all too much truth that this Hulk movie turns to crap the minute the Hulk first shows up.

Did the new give-the-fans-what-they-want action Hulk at least outperform the cerebral Hulk at the box office? No, it did not. Financially the two versions performed more or less the same — in fact, the new “don’t make me Ang Lee” version was the less profitable of the two.

I’m not sorry I watched it, but my overall response is still “fuck you”.