In Hollywood you rarely get a second chance to make a first impression, as the makers of Daredevil, the Rocketeer, Godzilla and other stalled franchises can attest. But the Hulk is made of stronger stuff, a durable Stan Lee-Jack Kirby creation who trails only stablemates Spider-Man and the X–Men in lasting popularity and merch sales. So when celebrated director Ang Lee's gloomy, psychologically dense take on the jade giant took a major belly flop in 2003, the bean counters at Marvel refused to surrender, and quickly launched plans for a retooling. Lee's graceful art house touch was scrapped in favor of the action-oriented bombast of Transporter helmer Louis Leterrier. The result is a louder, shallower Hulk, but a more entertaining and satisfying exercise in summer movie fluff; more fitting for a flick about a 9-foot-tall radioactive monster known for smashing stuff to a fine powder.
Where Lee favored a dark, analytical approach that made the Hulk an expression of deep childhood trauma, this version is more about adult anger management, with heavy nods to the beloved late '70s Bill Bixby TV version. The movie borrows the show's basic super-powered fugitive structure, with Edward Norton's Dr. Bruce Banner constantly on the run, and layers on other touches, from the mournful piano theme to the close-ups of bright green eyeballs signaling the wiry doc's transformation into the muscle-bound brute. Though it's filled with nerdy allusions, unlike the tedious Superman Returns, Incredible never gets lost in nostalgia, and works hard to put a fresh spin on the material. An opening credit sequence is used to push the reset button and erase the old continuity altogether, with a brief origin montage to set up the backstory: a scientist on the run from the Army after his cellular regrowth experiment goes haywire.
The next step is building a better Banner, and Edward Norton is a superior choice for the part over Eric Bana, who spent most of his time looking pensive and lost. This doctor isn't simply trying to suppress the beast within, but actively attempting to find a cure. He's been hiding out in Brazil, learning breathing tips from a jiu-jitsu master and making healing tonics out of rare Amazon flowers. He's got a day job at a soda bottling plant, but a drop of his gamma-tainted blood contaminates the assembly line and tips off the feds, and the chase is on.
Leading the charge to catch him is Ahab-like General "Thunderbolt" Ross, played to the hambone safety limit by William Hurt, along with beyond gung-ho Lieutenant Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth). In fine comic book dramatic symmetry, Banner's true love, Betty (Liv Tyler), who's also a doctor, just happens to be Ross' daughter, and the usual complications ensue. In an attempt to compete, Blonsky has been getting "super soldier" steroid injections in his spine that, when mixed with a dose of Hulk blood, turn him into the very nasty, unstoppable Abomination, just in time for the slam-bang finale.
The script by superhero specialist Zak Penn (with a rewrite from Norton) isn't as witty as Iron Man's but it keeps things crisp and simple, and credit the high-quality cast for making us care until the inevitable CGI monster slugfest starts. Norton has the perfect twitchy intelligence for the role, giving us a real human to root for — and he has nice romantic chemistry with Tyler. Top-notch sidemen Ty Burrell and Tim Blake Nelson get to shine in bit parts that Marvel zombies will recognize as major players primed for the sequels. Indeed fans will be awash in green geek juice, but everyone else will still get their money's worth. Here's a fun popcorn picture that won't leave anyone roaring in anger at the screen.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].