The Incredible Hulk is Hollywood’s latest incidence of what has become known as a “reboot.” The term came out of the comic book world, with further derivations in computer terminology. When a franchise begins to show its age with stalled creative energy and declining sales, its owners may opt to check it into surgery to be refreshed with a new cast, creative team, and updated plot particulars.
Warner Bros. and DC Comics kick-started their valuable but stagnant Batman and Superman feature film properties, making them relevant to 21st century audiences, and now it’s Marvel Comics’ turn. Emboldened by recent successes with Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four (and conveniently ignoring the failures Daredevil and Elektra), Marvel has obtained funding to independently produce its own films with greater creative control and, presumably, a larger chunk of the financial return. The massive success of 2008’s Iron Man seemed to prove their instincts correct.
Remarkably, The Incredible Hulk comes only five years after Ang Lee and James Schamus’ Hulk, itself a reboot of the comic book, cartoon, and television series. Even before Marvel announced it was to start over from scratch, the original Hulk film had already been seen as a critical and commercial failure, even though the reviews were not actually terrible (54 on MetaCritic and 61 on Rotten Tomatoes, both about the same as what The Incredible Hulk scored) and it earned $245 million worldwide.
I fully realize this is the minority opinion, but the Lee/Schamus version is a far, far better film, not only in comparison with its successor but also on its own terms. To paraphrase a review I recall reading at the time, “only the director of Eat Drink Man Woman and Sense & Sensibility would look at the Hulk comics and see ‘sprawling family melodrama.'” Lee and Schamus saw the core story as more than a simple Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde retread, and instead chose to tell a deeper tale of fathers and sons. The Hulk himself was created using motion-capture technology using Ang Lee’s own body language, and realized on screen as a giant green petulant baby (which is both absurdly funny and oddly moving, like the original King Kong). I still maintain it is one of the most brilliantly edited films I’ve ever seen, the closest in flow and visual style to a comic book a film has ever come. It’s also just really fucking weird, in a good way.
With Marvel in total charge of its own intellectual property at last, The Incredible Hulk had low artistic ambitions and was unsurprisingly crafted with comic book geeks in mind. In harsh contrast with arthouse mainstays Lee and Schamus, it was directed by action film specialist Louis Leterrier (of Transporter 2 and Danny the Dog) and written by Zak Penn, who has apparently cornered the market on super-hero scripts (including X-Men 2 & 3, Elektra, and the upcoming Avengers and Captain America). The backwards-facing film gives the fanboys a nod with admittedly fun cameos from Lou Ferrigno (who also voiced The Hulk’s few lines, and who also seems not to have aged one bit) and original Hulk co-creator (with Jack Kirby) Stan Lee. But the CGI is surprisingly unconvincing for a film that should have been state-of-the-art; the Hulk looks like he’s made of string cheese and quivering gelatin.
Truth be told, I was actually rather enjoying the film, until one niggling fault grew to an unignorable degree that ruined the entire experience for me. Key character Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) remains tragically underdeveloped. Any screenwriting student (hell, any film fan) should know the storytelling mantra “show don’t tell,” and yet Blonsky’s motivations are only hinted at in one or two lines of dialogue: he’s a career soldier grumpy about turning forty. Blonsky eventually evolves into the Hulk’s nemesis The Abomination, a hideous beast that lives to destroy. As the two creatures smash Harlem to bits in the final reel, there was no sense that the Abomination was once a man. What drove him to this? Interestingly, Roth plays a not entirely dissimilar character in Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth: a man who uses up his youth in pursuit of an unattainable goal. In each case, the opportunity for a second chance is a mixed blessing.
Rumor has it an alternate, significantly longer cut of the film will eventually be released on DVD, preserving more of Edward Norton’s reported script doctoring, so this blogger hopes he will be able to revise his opinion at a later date.