Bill Bixby's Hulk impressed on me the quintessential rendition of the monster, which made Eric Bana's take all the more monstrous. I have spent the last five years submerging memories of that 2003 Hulk film, and I worried that this summer's second attempt at the green giant would be more of the same. But with the reassurances of Marvel devotees, I paid my admission and steeled myself for the worst.
It's amazing what a difference is made when a film's star shares my opinion. As Ed Norton said on Jimmy Kimmel, "We're trying to rescue this franchise from the crapper!" He thus took a heavy hand in the scripting and editing of this outing, resulting in a much more engaging and fluid tale.
From the opening, it's clear this film is neither sequel nor remake. Dr. Banner's backstory is told primarily through brief vignettes that play out under the opening credit sequence. This encapsulation suffices for comic book buffs; others will pick up the details from ensuing dialogue. The story is clearly an homage to its television namesake: Within the first few minutes of the opening is a cameo by Bill Bixby, and later there's Lou Ferrigno in a much more noticeable and respectful appearance than in the last Hulk film. This is not a movie-length episode of the television series, but there are many common elements, such as a protagonist on the run, looking for a cure, which could not be present in an "origin" story such as Ang Lee's. The renewed focus on character development is a welcome change from the 2003 version that featured arena-type combat, a ridiculous villain, and a hero we could neither understand nor sympathize with.
The supporting cast here creates a valuable context for Banner to develop in. Like Jeff Bridges in Iron Man, William Hurt has aged into an excellent villain almost unrecognizable from his usual throwaway fare in films such as Michael and A.I. His brassy, hard-as-nails general is someone whose motivations we can almost understand, smartly keeping him from being the true villain. General Ross is also a more interesting father figure than the one Nick Nolte tried to play in the last Hulk film; Banner's relationships are sufficiently complex and painful without introducing unnecessary and villainous family.
As for the Hulk's actual adversary, I was hesitant by what the trailers suggested: essentially an evil Hulk, manufactured through the same means that brought us our original hero. Yet the smallest of details banished my concerns and instead subtly incorporated the Hulk into the rich Marvel mythos. It seems the gamma radiation which put Banner on the lam was a byproduct of research into creating the perfect "super-soldier" — a phrase that should hold meaning to any fan of the Marvel universe.
The Incredible Hulk has a good mix of action and dialogue. Banner is subjected to only three transformations, and in the style of Alien, his first appearance is kept almost entirely in the dark. Action fans may've expected more of the title character and less of his human counterpart, but I think the film's focus is exactly where its cinematic predecessor showed (by counterexample) it should be. (There could've been even more; I'm told there are over 70 minutes of deleted scenes, several of which are visible in the trailers.) Director Louis Leterrier deftly works the threat of the Hulk into even non-action sequences. There's a tense scene in which a metamorphosis begins and Betty climbs atop the thrashing figure to offer calming words, piercing Banner's confused haze to remind him who he is. Perhaps this act struck me for being so similar to my mother's own actions when my father had a seizure.
There are a few inconsistencies. When Banner is driving at night with "a person of interest", he ducks down in his car seat; but the next morning, he feels comfortable strolling through an open glade with her in broad daylight. When threatened, he pushes his love interest away for her own safety — but later, when he knows he's about to transform, he makes no such gestures. Is this guy a brilliant scientist or not??
More to the point: is The Incredible Hulk a brilliant film? I'd say yes, and it's almost enough to make me wonder if the 2003 film was Marvel Comics' attempt at New Coke to make us appreciate the reboot all the more. Iron Man is still the summer film to beat, but as superheroes go, Ed Norton has created an unexpectedly incredible movie.