When acclaimed director Ang Lee’s cerebral take on comic book anti-hero the Hulk hit screens in 2003, the reaction was hardly a positive one. Fans of the comic books fumed over the script straying from its source material, whereas critics and audiences alike mused over the effectiveness of the philosophical ruminations in lieu of crowd pleasing action sequences. All of the above criticisms appear to have been taken by Marvel Studios (now producing their own franchises) seriously, revamping and continuing the green behemoth’s tale with a more action focused story and whole new cast. And while The Incredible Hulk may not quite live up to the no holds barred action epic its premise promised, it proves a satisfyingly bombastic smackdown to appease both fans of the comics and audiences alike.
The inherent imbalance in the script lends credibility to the rumours of creative disputes between Edward Norton’s and the studio. While opening sequences detailing Banner’s fugitive life in Brazil prove breathless, tense and tremendously gripping, taking more than a few notes from the Bourne series, upon returning to the United States, the promising start lags, as continual run ins with the military become increasingly repetitive and unoriginal, with the raucous fun of the periodic Hulk battles now saddled with a flimsy romantic subplot, entirely failing to compliment the intrigue. Here the script begins to falter, tripping over itself during certain crucial emotional moments with contrived lines and confusingly stilted character motivations, while the sidelining of certain characters initially presented as major players (most noticeably Ty Burell’s Doc Sampson) reeks of hasty last minute cuts. By the film’s obligatory big climax, it becomes clear that the creative reigns have shifted – all the prior gritty realism has vanished, replaced with a more conventional and less enjoyable action finish. As the occasional throwaway comic moments (some more effective than others) prevent the film from descending into the realm of melodramatic self importance, the film’s primary redeeming factor emerges – despite the steady descent into excess stupidity, it is never afraid to have some fun, the quality Ang Lee’s incarnation sorely lacked.
Of course, the primary draw for superhero blockbusters is seldom the screen writing, and Transporter director Louis Leterrier’s unapologetic “smash first, talk later” approach does generate some exhilarating action sequences, but the increasingly unimaginative fight choreography and relative sparsity of action set pieces for an action focused film detracts from the glorious destruction that could have been, the attempted juxtaposition of emotional intensity only slowing the gleeful mayhem. Thankfully, CGI special effects make this new, grittier Hulk about as close to feasibly photo real as one could hope for, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Norton himself, though certain fluctuating details (the Hulk appears smaller or less muscular at various points) give the impression of patchy continuity, and the movement of both Hulk and monstrous adversary The Abomination appears too mechanically humanoid to properly capture the otherworldly feel of gargantuan muscular mutations – nonetheless, an impressive and exhilarating effort overall.
Despite the laudable use of quality actors over conventional blockbuster stars, even the astutely talented performers prove they can only do so much with such a steadily flimsy script. Edward Norton of course proves the exception, his passion for the project and standard blistering intensity making tortured protagonist Bruce Banner a truly fleshed out and tragic character. Burning with nobility and pathos, his plight genuinely moving and his battle with the monster raging inside of him truly gripping, Norton truly convinces in the crucial role. In contrast, Liv Tyler is saddled with an embarrassing less fleshed out role, exemplifying the worst aspects of comic book love interests, with nothing to do but scream the hero’s name and stand around statuesquely looking worried – it is a shame to see such a talented actress descend to such banality. Tim Roth similarly suffers, infusing tragically two-dimensional antagonist Emil Blonsky with all the steely menace and petty arrogance and ambition he can muster, but his talent is still diminished by the overwhelming predictability of his role. William Hurt is appropriately grim as obsessive general “Thunderbolt” Ross, thankfully eschewing the scene chomping which could have resulted all too easily, and Tim Blake Nelson delivers a bout of much needed irreverent goofiness as overeager scientist Samuel Sterns, his brief but enjoyable role hinting at a larger character progression in any ensuing films. Finally, the film’s slew of enjoyable cameos do not disappoint, from Stan Lee and Lou Ferringo appearances to the highly anticipated Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man lead Tony Stark, a fitting and classy way of bridging the gap between superhero franchises as well as planting further seeds for the upcoming Avengers film.
While the film may disappointingly fall short of its true potential, comic book fans can breathe a hearty sigh of relief that the green behemoth has been firmly returned to his less philosophical and more action filled roots. If nothing else, Leterrier’s more singular vision is laudable, never losing track of its true intent: even during the fumbling between dramatic clout and exhilarating action, the film never fails to entertain. While the superb cast may flounder with underwritten characters, Norton’s incendiary lead performance and the enthusiastic action sequences make The Incredible Hulk a solid edition into the realm of guilt-free summer entertainment – despite the criticisms, Hulk finally smashes.
7 out of 10 stars