“Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
Anyone who’s ever read a comic book or watched an episode of the Bill Bixby TV series knows that, in the Marvel Universe, these words are a cue to take cover. It doesn’t matter what incarnation of the beast you’re dealing with, when The Hulk is on the rampage, nothing and no one can stand against him. Which makes it difficult for any film adaptation to mount an antagonist against him that poses a genuine threat whilst remembering that it’s all ultimately gonna end in fisticuffs.
Ang Lee‘s Hulk was all about the Hulk’s fleshly mortal alter-ego, Bruce Banner, and his daddy issues, but, despite some authentic comic book visuals, took itself far too seriously. Lee has since won a Best Director Oscar for Life of Pi, but Eric Bana‘s emotionally closed-off, slightly stare-y take on the character has more or less fallen by the wayside. In each of his three appearances on film – 2003, 2008, 20012 – Banner has been portrayed by a different actor, a testament to the difficulty of bringing Marvel’s definitive anti-hero to the big screen. Avengers director Joss Whedon himself has recently said as much.
Edward Norton, a man well known for playing multiple personalities – from Primal Fear to Fight Club – seems like a natural fit for the role, a solid if uninspired choice. If there’s one main critique to be levelled against The Incredible Hulk it’s that: from Louis Leterrier‘s direction to the screenplay by Zak Penn – who also wrote several early drafts of Hulk – the whole thing smacks of competency. William Hurt slots into place as Thunderbolt Ross while Liv Tyler makes for an alluring Betty Ross.
From the title sequence that lays out The Hulk’s new, more brutal origins to the incident counter that keeps track of the number of days since Bruce’s last transformation, the film understands, more than its predecessor, that this is the story of a man struggling to keep control. Picking up in a Brazilian favela – a callback perhaps to Hulk‘s rainforest epilogue -, Bruce is attempting to synthesise a cure from a rare flower, using meditation to stay calm. However, a single misplaced drop of blood puts the implacable Ross back on his trail and reminded me that The Incredible Hulk is actually pretty good.
Norton’s Banner is neither as cocky as Mark Ruffalo‘s new model or vulnerable as Bana’s old. The film takes a less-is-more approach to characterisation. Tim Roth‘s primary antagonist, Russian-born British Royal Commander Emil Blonsky, has a clear if uncomplicated motivation: he’s over the hill and he wants the power of The Hulk for himself. Though he initially seems like just a man doing a job, from the moment he kills Banner’s adopted dog we know this is the Bad Guy.
From a chase through the slums with Banner’s pulse escalating towards transformation to the first appearance of The Hulk himself, obscured in shadows and wreaking havoc in a soda bottle factory. I previously dismissed the film as “underwhelming” based on vague recollections, but this sequence shows that, although The Incredible Hulk may not quite live up to its title, the film certainly deserves a place in the top tier of Marvel films. The eventual reveal of The Hulk’s face, turning back to snarl at Blonsky, is ultimately a far more dramatic introduction than in the Hulk: here the first Banner-to-Hulk change occurs mostly off screen; in the second we see his hand morph, pressed against the glass of a smoke-filled hallway; it’s not until the third time on a table in a laboratory that we witness the full transition between man and beast.
The film also manages to be less dour than its predecessor: from Banner’s sizing up of a pair of stretchy “pants” against a large woman at a market to the obligatory cameo by Stan Lee as the unfortunate consumer of a bottle of soda contaminated by Banner’s blood, The Incredible Hulk at least manages occasional wryness. There’s also the matter of a certain Super Soldier serum, not to mention a pre-credit by S.H.I.E.L.D.’s unofficial “consultant” (give you a clue: his theme song’s by Black Sabbath) – Leterrier’s film, to a large extent, stands as early connective tissue for much of the MCU.
On a performance front, Norton and Tyler share good chemistry as star-crossed lovers Bruce and Betty: a scene in which they like awake in two separate beds, clearly thinking of one another, straddles the cliche because of their believability as a couple. However, that’s not to say the romantic element displaces the action. Hurt’s Ross repeatedly faces down The Hulk on the grounds that he’s supposedly military property, blasting him with sonic cannons and calling in gunships.
We get Tim Blake Nelson in a supporting role as Samuel Sterns, a fellow scientist who offers Banner assistance in uncovering a cure. His true intentions remain uncertain, however, and fans of the comics will recognise his name… In any case, the film falls apart a bit towards the end as the military converges on Bruce’s location in downtown New York and Blonsky forces Stern to dose him with Banner’s blood thereby transforming him into the Abomination. As I’ve said before, it all ends in a monster brawl. The Incredible Hulk lays on the messianic imagery pretty heavily towards the end – Banner’s arms-wide plunge from the helicopter, his reemergence from an asphalt tomb like an irradiated Jesus. The ending is physical rather than emotional and the film basically surrenders any thematic territory it might have laid claim to, but it’s nevertheless hugely entertaining. Where else can you see a giant green man clap out an explosion?
The film ends, as it began, with Banner in isolation, meditating, but ends with a green flash in his eyes and an ambiguous smile. That this was supposed to provide the possibility of The Hulk as villain for The Avengers says a lot about The Incredible Hulk as a film, namely one very much subservient to the needs of the greater MCU. Much like Banner himself, the film is resigned to fading into the background, but, as with its mild-mannered protagonist, it might well surprise you.