Of all of Marvel’s core canon superheroes, the Hulk has always been my least favorite, if for no other reason than few writers have ever done anything convincingly interesting with Bruce Banner, the Hulk’s alter ego. For the most part, he’s simply a milquetoast afraid of the beast that lies within, filling up panel space and providing a deus ex machina for the Big Green Machine to get from point of destruction A to point of destruction B. He also lacks the villains’ gallery to be a particularly interesting hero – most of those are either stolen from other characters’ castoffs or else entirely uninspiring. Bi-Beast, for instance, once had a showdown with Squirrel Girl. Squirrel Girl, for God’s sake.
But still, there’s always hope for the guy. Peter David managed to put together a thoroughly interesting run with the character in the 90s by going to the core of the character – Banner’s fractured psyche. It was a long, grueling ride that took years to get through, but it was most definitely worth it. 2003’s Hulk, the not-really-predecessor of this movie – Incredible Hulk picks up where the former left off, but does so with only tangential references and none of the same cast – took part of the David ethos (an intensive character study), and then sucked all the joy out of it, taking two and a half hours to tell one of the simplest origins in comics: guy gets hit by radiation, guy becomes uncontrollable rampaging green monster.
Incredible is thankfully less ponderous than its predecessor, coming in 24 minutes shorter, and the better for it. It’s leaner, faster, and more logical. And yes, it’s better…but the original was awful, so that bit of faint praise shouldn’t tell you much. The part of Incredible that’s the hardest to get past is just how much the makers of the movie are trying to do with it. From the previews, you know Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is in the movie, introducing the Avengers team-up concept. (Yes, this movie constitutes the first official big-screen superhero crossover.) The movie also has allusions to 2011’s Captain America – again subtitled “The First Avenger” – and is spending most of its time with the knowledge that it has to make up for the first movie and set up the hopeful sequel.
It’s better not to think about all that.
The fundamental plot of the movie is threadbare and predictable – Banner’s on the run, Banner gets found, Banner Hulks out, things get destroyed. But there are flashes where you realize that the people making this actually seemed to have fun, where they gave up the ghost, took the film’s embedded conflicts and relationships, and just said, “Okay, we’re doing this.” It’s not deep, but it doesn’t need to be
The movie’s shining strength is in its climax, a massive battle between the Hulk and the Abomination (the monstrous CGI alter ego of Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), given an origin that screams, “Fuck it, it’s a comic book movie”) in the streets of Harlem. The first reason? Michael K. Williams (Omar from The Wire) makes a completely unexpected appearance for all of five seconds. It almost makes you wish they’d given him a brief scene to whistle “Farmer in the Dell”. The second reason is that it’s a climax that not only makes sense from a storyline perspective, but the action is clear and comprehensible, relying on the fludity of (CGI) motion and the clear portrayal of contact and reaction in the context of a fight. It’s a welcome break from the normal action movie trope of action-by-cut, where you get the sense things are happening because people are flying and the angle is changing every second. Even though the scenes are, at best, half real and half computer-generated, it still feels more intimate and more real than 95% of movie slugfests out there.
Incredible Hulk features a lot of very good actors (Edward Norton, William Hurt, Liv Tyler, Roth) not doing very much. Bruce Banner is no Tony Stark, Liz Ross is no Pepper Potts. There’s a tentativeness to a lot of the movie that’s reflected in every aspect of it, a lack of confidence that comes through. Everything it’s being asked to do is done, at the very least, competently, but you get the sense that if Ang Lee hadn’t made a two and a half hour epic that ended up in the middle of the desert with a giant Nick Nolte blob face screaming to the heavens above, this would be a much lighter and much better movie.
If you have interest in the character or movie, there’s nothing in it that should make you shy away from seeing it. But be prepared to see a lot more Hulk Smash and a lot less Banner Emote.