The Incredible Hulk (2008)

hulkThere is, I believe, a small resurgence in the kind of cheesy, action / adventure / horror-oriented films we love to remember from the 70s and 80s. They’re called comic book movies.

The Incredible Hulk begins much the same way as some of those pulpy old reels, giving us muted snippets of our hero’s tragic back story/origin over the opening credits. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) worked as a bio-tech scientist helping out the Army with experimental research until one of his tests went awry, and he zapped himself with gamma radiation. Now, whenever Banner gets too angry or too excited, he becomes a monstrous green hulk, fueled by terrible rage and fury.

Hiding out in Brazil, Banner works in secret to find a cure for his disease, communicating with the elusive Mr. Blue (Tim Blake Nelson). A contrived accident, which supplies Stan Lee his requisite cameo, alerts Gen. Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) to his whereabouts sending him and his new point man Maj. Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) out to extract Banner’s curse for use in their secret superhuman/weapons program.

First-volume comic book adaptations will invariably spend too much time boring the tears out of an audience with an origin-story before cutting to the meat of the narrative. Hulk jumps right into the story, but trips whenever it begins to borrow pages from the old ‘80s action paradigms, and relies more on contrivances than any real character motivations.

The cast picks up the material and turns out solid work to help make up some of the difference. Norton delivers a sympathetic hero with a believable pathos, similar to The Fugitive, with enough charm to lend itself some credibility. General Ross in particular receives a thorough treatment, and Hurt provides the warmth and menace needed to address the character’s moral complexities.

Roth does what he can with Blonsky, a dedicated, self-aware fighter fully confident in his abilities. His sudden obsession with obtaining the Hulk’s power never receives an explanation, other than Blonsky’s unquenchable desire to fight, making him a caricature more the likes of Itchy and Scratchy than a viable antagonist.

Banner’s relationship with the general’s daughter, Betty (Liv Tyler), picks up without any real context to help anchor the audience’s sympathies. Tyler is best when she can add a little range to her typical mellifluous voice—her reaction to a Mario Andretti-inspired cab driver injects a little more life into an otherwise stock Liv Tyler performance. She needs a chance to spread her ability around a little, and the filmmakers never give her that chance.

I would suppose the need to keep as faithful to the source material as possible (so as not to upset the fan base) compels the filmmakers to avoid taking these relationships any place other than what’s found on the comic book page. Watching Bruce and Betty, and given their loyalties and challenges, you almost hope for a kind of tragic/flawed romance similar to Rick and Ilsa. But Norton and Tyler are no Bogey and Bergman, and this is certainly not Casablanca. There are no grand moments of inspiration to set the film into its audience’s consciousness in any kind of meaningful context. Blonsky’s obsessive behavior simply rises out of the plots need for a villain for Hulk to defeat. Betty Ross appears to fill requisite role of the hero’s girlfriend. Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) cameo lends a serialized quality to this film, and the idea that these movies are moving to one larger effort creates a grander sense of scope, but only on a superficial level.

Hulk represents a real danger for Marvel’s heroes as they evolve on screen if this is the level of excellence they hope to achieve from film to film. Heroes appeal to the audience when they inspire meaning and hope. Hulk has the muscle. What it lacks is the heart.


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November 2008
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