Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Incredible Hulk

2008 will certainly go down as the year of the superhero movie. There was a string of surprisingly great romantic comedies ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall," "Zack & Miri Make a Porno," and, in my eyes, "Wall•E"), but this is the year that comic book films finally gained legitimacy. "Iron Man" launched the commercial comeback (he never stopped doing movies) of über-actor Robert Downey, Jr. and offered up a sleek superhero you couldn't help but love, the "The Dark Knight" came 'round and decimated everything in its path. Complete with superb performances not only from Ledger but most of the ensemble cast, it set a new standard for the genre by focusing on how a hero affects the world around him, and how those reactions filter back to him.

Even "Hellboy II" was a masterstroke; it just had the rotten luck of coming out a week before TDK. Yet that film overflowed with humor and visual splendor (if not necessarily plot), and I love it more and more each time I see it. But there was another superhero movie that came out last year that slipped through the cracks somewhat. It lacked the buzz and, frankly, the quality of the other films, but it still made a decent amount of bank. I’m talking about a little film with a big green hero: “The Incredible Hulk.”

The last Hulk movie was a total disaster. There are those who try to convince me that Ang Lee (maybe the most overrated director working today) created a complex Hulk, one that focused more on Bruce Banner’s psyche than on mindless action. I know what Lee was trying to do but, from the bottom of my heart, I don’t care. I don’t give a good goddamn if the complete lack of lighting symbolized the darkness of Bruce’s repressed memories, or if the poodles represented- well, horrible writing. It was dull, pretentious, and didn’t even tackle the psychological aspects of Hulk properly. I know Bruce Banner is a deeper character than anyone gives him credit for, but couldn’t he just hit something every now and then? After a few years, Ed Norton and Louis Leterrier came in to try to clean up the mess with a reboot. Did it work?

Yes and no. “The Incredible Hulk” is a pure action romp. For just about the totality of its near two-hour running length, Banner will be on the run from the military, pausing only to transform and punch a few of them. Eventually, the army will do something stupid, and Banner will have to save the day because it’s right, yadda yadda yadda. The point is, Norton Hulk smashes all over the place in fine fashion.

How can I tell this won’t try to mine the same psychological issues as the last film? The totality of the plot is presented in the opening credits montage. Apparently what Universal took away from the venom lobbed at “Hulk” was plot of any kind was bad and people just want to see punching. Judging from some of the more fanboyish reviews I’ve seen, they might not have been totally wrong. Actually, what little plot there is seems to be lifted almost entirely from the old “Hulk:” General Thunderbolt Ross knows Banner is radioactive, and considers him U.S. Army property and tracks him down. Meanwhile, Banner is in love with Ross’ daughter, which just pisses the old man off. Really, the biggest difference in these three characters is that the Banner of this film accidentally radiated himself rather than live in a house too close to a weapons testing site as a child. I like this version better.

Ross tracks Banner down in South America, and sends his top lackey Emil Blonsky (a Russian-born man who is now British, I guess because Tim Roth didn’t care enough to try to be American) and a team of commandos to subdue Banner, who promptly gets angry, and you know what happens next. Blonsky becomes Banner’s nemesis; the thrashing he takes at Hulk’s hands leaves him wanting a rematch. He gets one, and this time the Hulk actually hits him, to devastating effect. Oh, it’s on now. As the broken Blonsky lies in a hospital bed, he agrees to a dose of Super Soldier serum to fix his wounds so he can fight get the piss beaten out of him once more.

But wait! Emil knows that even with the (faulty) serum, he cannot win. So what does he do? Blast himself with radiation in the hopes that he too will be a giant beast thing because, as we all know, the best way to fight fire is by dousing yourself with gasoline. Despite the fact that Banner’s survival is billed as a miracle, the exact same thing happens to Blonsky, only thanks to the serum he is stuck in the mutated body.

So it all comes down to a showdown between freaks. Ross picks the lesser of two evils, and Banner agrees to help because…well, I don’t know why, but he must have a reason. Maybe he just wanted to be near Betty, which is kind of sweet but also stupid. This is all nitpicking, of course, because the final fight is suitably bad-ass. We all know who’s going to win, but it was a pure piece of blockbuster action in comparison to the more serious fare (even in the explosions) of “Iron Man” and TDK.

So how does the film fare in the end? I certainly didn’t dislike it, but the total rebellion against plot greatly hurts the film. What attachment am I supposed to have to these characters? Even though I know of their importance and decades-long history, within the context of this film franchise I couldn’t care less who lived or died because we never truly delve into them. The superb cast has so little to do that I’d rate the performances of the actors in Lee’s “Hulk” over them, because at least they did something.

The details of production are somewhat infamous; Norton and Leterrier wanted a much deeper movie, but the people with the money cut it to make pure action fare. The DVD comes with a slew of deleted scenes (though I suspect there are more), and they addressed almost every plot hole or rushed look in the movie. In a year of unprecedented creative control for comic book movies, “The Incredible Hulk” reminds us just how little the people with the money know and how much they’re capable of screwing up. This new “Hulk” is not a bad film by any means, but it’s instantly forgettable. Somewhere between the mindlessness of this fun ride and the dense psychological drama of the previous iteration lies the true Hulk film. I do not know if they’ll make a sequel, but if Universal gives Norton and Leterrier some freedom, they might have a big hit on their hands.

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