Let’s get one thing straight: I LOVED Ang Lee’s “Hulk” for what it was: An art-piece that came closer than almost any other attempt at visualizing the dreamlike pace and offbeat drama of superhero comics. Taken on it’s own merits, including it’s ambitious symbolist themes and Nick Nolte’s brilliant Kinski-esque bad guy turn, I consider it to be a singular pop-art masterwork.
What it ISN’T, however, is an especially compelling narrative. While it fit with Lee’s fresh take on the concept to present a Bruce Banner blown about by the winds of fate who ONLY ever takes charge of his life as The Hulk – it didn’t precisely make for compelling drama and it certainly wasn’t the sort of audience-friendly actioner Marvel was going to want as one of the support-beams of it’s new joint-continuity buildup to “The Avengers.” And so here we have this “reboot” which presents itself more as a sequel to an imagined “more conventional” version of the first one.
Predictably, “The Incredible Hulk” (I’ve always liked the adjective in there to help separate him from all those other Hulks who are merely credible) opts to answer the criticism of Lee’s film as too talky and introspective by charging hard in the opposite direction and being as terse and surface-oriented as it can be without outright becoming a Marvel themed fireworks display: Bruce Banner is on the run, trying to cure himself of the Gamma Poisoning that causes him to morph into Shrek whenever his pulse crests 200. General “Thunderbolt” Ross is chasing him, hoping to weaponize The Hulk, and to that end he injects hardcase soldier Emil Blonsky with WWII-era “super-soldier” chemicals that eventually turn him into an “anti-Hulk” named The Abomination. Ross’s daughter Betty is also Banner’s former girlfriend, and is pretty torn up about the whole thing. That’s about it this time around.
The film takes this fairly bare outline and barrels ahead with it from action scene to action scene, always cohesively but with precious little downtime to deal with characters or expand on the story – though it does find time for a great scene in which we’re reminded of the Hulk’s childlike nature when he get’s into a (literal) shouting-match with a thunderstorm. This straight-on pacing isn’t a major flaw, but it does leave one with the sense that a more complex film has been whittled down to the bare essentials.
When the film DOES take a time-out, it’s usually to drop hints at Marvel’s ambitious plan for a united continuity: Off the top of my head, Doc Samson, Captain America and SHIELD all get direct or indirect nods; and those rumors you heard about Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark showing up for an Avengers-teasing cameo were spot on.
I will say that I’m given to wonder if all this fan-service won’t eventually baffle the larger audience. For example, the secondary plot of the film concerns Banner’s attempts to contact an internet pen-pal who’s helping him research a cure. The film twists itself into a pretzel to keep us from seeing him or knowing his name, and when he turns up it’s just Tim Blake Nelson as a well-meaning mad scientist. Now, fans are going to go apeshit because his name is Samuel Stern whom they all know will be transforming into Hulk uber-enemy The Leader at some point… but I can imagine some audiences will be a little perplexed as to what the point was of all the secrecy. At the very least, there’s enough of a tease as to his probable fate in there to at least give non-fans a basic idea of where he’s going, and Nelson couldn’t be more appropriately cast.
Another thing I like is that they aren’t sheepish about the whole “names” issue: Hulk refers to himself in the third person when he bothers to speak at all, and The Abomination gets handed his new nickname in a manner wholly consistent with the 50s monster movies the Hulk franchise has always emulated. I’ll never understand why, out of all the weirdness there is to grapple with in adapting comics, filmmakers tend to get so hung up on twisting the script around to over-explain why these guys give themselves (or are given) elaborate monikers – Am I the only one who gets the sense that, if your someone who’s gonna get hung-up on the illogic of someone branding himself “The ::Insert Color:: ::Insert Animal::” before embarking on a supervillian career, you probably aren’t going to go see these movies in the first place.
One hopes there’s a longer, more character-driven version waiting on DVD, but at present “The Incredible Hulk” is a welcome actioner and easily the best monster movie to play theatrically since at least “The Host.” You get your giant-rampaging-ogre money’s worth, and as a bonus the promise of all this paying off bigger down the road – seriously, the degree to which this film doubles as a “tease” to both it’s own hoped-for sequels AND the Iron Man and Avengers followups is really kind of amazing. Reccomended.
FINAL RATING: 8/10