Rating: 2.5 stars
I’ll admit that Ang Lee’s Hulk, released in 2003, was a bit of a dud. It was overlong, overwrought, oddly joyless, and featured a drippy Bruce Banner played by Eric Bana. But still, it was, for all intents and purposes, an Incredible Hulk movie. The special effects were pretty cool. The Hulk was ginormous and green and hulky. If you were hooked on the comic book or the gloriously cheesy 70’s series, you would have probably seen it, and while you may have left the theater a bit disappointed, you certainly wouldn’t have thought, “I demand an immediate do over!!”
Apparently, the folks at Universal Pictures felt differently. So, five years later, they are trotting out a new The Incredible Hulk. (Ironically, the hipper title, Hulk, was taken by the first film.) In a surpising move, they went with another atypical action hero as the star—Columbia’s own Edward Norton. It goes without saying that Norton is a far better actor than Bana, but he’s still a less than obvious choice—we tend to associate him with brainy, art house type pictures, not summer blockbusters. (Then again, between Christian Bale as Batman and Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, casting real actors as superheroes is a cinematic trend these days—oh, Tobey Maguire, what have you wrought?).
Thanks to the work laid out by Ang Lee’s film, the filmmakers don’t need to go into Banner’s backstory this time. By the time we meet ol’ Bruce, he’s already been gamma-rayed and he’s already on the run from General Ross (William Hurt), who wants to harvest his blood to create an army of super soldiers.
Norton plays Bruce as a tragic figure—a lonely, hooded man trying to escape from himself and the havoc his alter-ego can create, while still too inherently decent to shun human contact altogether. That feels right, but again, a bit gloomy. So they try to ramp up the insider jokes: cameos by Lou Ferrigno and Stan Lee, a scene where Banner watches The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (starring none other than Bill Bixby himself), and a brief allusion to the TV show’s theme music. There’s also a very clever framing device: Each new set piece is introduced by telling us how many days Bruce has gone without “incident.” And there’s a really hot cameo toward the end—ruined by the film’s (somewhat desperate) advertising campaign, but I won’t spoil it here.
Still, in the end, this film doesn’t feel that much different from the first one. The two CGI-generated Hulks look remarkably alike—like really muscular Shreks, to be honest. (I thought Peter Jackson’s King Kong was a more realistic looking monster, but perhaps its easier to replicate a giant ape than a giant human.) Liv Tyler’s Betty (Banner’s hot scientist girlfriend) doesn’t look that different from Jennifer Connelly’s Betty. William Hurt’s General Ross, sporting a blond thatch of a mustache, doesn’t look that different from Sam Elliot’s Ross, etc. Yeah, the film is lighter on its feet and a bit more entertaining. It also delves more deeply into Banner’s attempts to control his own rage. (This I suspect, is what Norton was lobbying for more of in his now-notorious rift with the studio.) But does it justify its own existence? I’m not so sure. Only time—and a nation of comic geeks—will tell.