You won't like me when I'm boring
The Incredible Hulk is instructive. It’s a good reminder that superhero movies aren’t inherently cool, just the good ones. And what’s more, just trying to redo Iron Man won’t automatically net you a home run.
As the second entry in the increasingly sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel is lucky that The Incredible Hulk, not to be confused with Ang Lee’s Hulk from five years earlier, didn’t sink the franchise before it ever really got going. It’s not an all-time stinker, but it’s dull and angst-ridden where Iron Man was energetic and fun.
Whatever failures the movie makes, it’s not a problem with the underlying character or story. The Incredible Hulk is a much more fascinating and dramatically rich character than the large majority of other superheroes. A billionaire making a mecha suit is nifty fun, but a man who becomes a monster he can’t control if he ever expresses strong emotions promises a much more compelling slice of human drama, especially as the narrative thrust becomes whether or not he can cure himself of the disease that robs him of the basic human experience of “feelings.” It’s almost harder not to find metaphor in the premise than it is to take it at face value.
The film gives us a quick flashback montage to show us Hulk’s origin. Bruce Banner, played by Edward Norton, is a scientist searching for an experimental cure for radiation disease in a program that’s actually a cover for a “super soldier” operation led by General “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt). Banner inadvertently mutates his blood with the “gamma radiation” he’s trying to cure (or something like that… the opening exposition is a bit rushed and confusing). The outcome of this is that he turns into a hulking green monster whenever his heart rate goes too high. As the Hulk, Banner becomes an unstoppable killing machine.
Unfortunately for The Incredible Hulk, the movie’s problems are already piling up just from the elements introduced in the first few minutes. The first is that Norton delivers a limp, sulky performance in the lead. He obviously suffers in comparison to Robert Downey Jr.’s sparkling performance in Iron Man — and when Downey Jr. appears for 30 seconds in the film’s credit sequence, it’s an immediate reminder of what charisma looks like. But even in a vacuum, Norton is disappointing, with none of the soulfulness or broken heart that Banner requires to be compelling. Banner would be recast before his next appearance, and it was the right choice.
Nearly as problematic as Norton’s performance is the film’s dependence on mediocre CGI. Hulk is supposed to be a fearsome force of nature and raw power. But he has such a boring, generic design and an uncanny execution that he’s never even slightly intimidating or imposing. The only moments where Hulk is even a little scary are before we actually see him for the first time when he’s just a creature in the dust and shadows during his first transformation in the story.
The film picks up after the introductory montage in Rio de Janeiro where Banner has hidden himself to both cut himself off from his past life, where he’d be a danger to those he loves, and to hide himself from the US government who wants to harness his Hulk power for their super soldier program. I’ll point out here that The Incredible Hulk makes Marvel two for two in which the stories’ real villain is the greedy military-industrial complex.
Before long the military tracks Banner down right at the same time that he gets in a fight with a local bully. Thus, we get our first underwhelming Hulk action scene. I do like the build-up to it, though. As mentioned, it includes some spooky build-up to the reveal of Hulk, and takes place at a soda bottling factory, which is a fun setting for an action scene with lots of smashing.
Banner finds himself on the lam again, and this time he tracks down the lover he abandoned, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), who just so happens to be the daughter of the “Thunderbolt” Ross who is hunting for Banner. Tyler is an incredible actress and one of the shining spots of my favorite movie of all time, That Thing You Do. But she is undeniably a bit flat here. She doesn’t have any sparks with Norton, which is kind of the whole point of her character. There are rumors her character may reappear in a future Marvel story, but for now, Tyler remains one of those high-profile actors it’s easy to forget appeared in just one MCU movie.
As all this has been going on, Banner has been secretly communicating with another scientist, with the codename of Mr. Blue (Tim Blake Nelson). With the lengths that the movie goes to build up the reveal of Mr. Blue’s identity, you would think it would be someone interesting. Instead, he’s the cheesiest stock version of a slightly loony egghead you can imagine. And you know that he is coded to be smart because he uses big thesaurus words where they don’t quite fit. He’s truly a horrible piece of writing.
One interesting idea the movie plays with in the second half is some King Kong “’twas beauty killed the beast” vibes. Banner and Betty run off to the woods, and she tries soothe him out of Hulk mode. I really wish Tyler had played up the idea that she was turned on by Hulk in monster mode, because it really would fit in there, and a little perversion would have been fun in such a dreary film.
The main villain is played by Tim Roth, a power-thirsty soldier who gladly injects himself with Hulk powers extracted from Banner’s blood by Mr. Blue. Thus, we have the second consecutive Marvel movie ending with a noisy, climactic action scene where our hero faces off with a mirror version of himself. It’s already starting to feel like a cliché, and we’re only two movies into the MCU.
What really makes The Incredible Hulk disappointing isn’t anything conceptual or big picture. It’s all in the details and execution. Director Louis Leterrier gives everything a muddy, dark-tinted, low-energy look. The quips are really dumb and poorly delivered — one of the first lines of the film is Norton saying “you won’t like me when I’m hungry.” Groan. That’s the level we’re dealing with here.
The low lighting in particular is problematic. The design of the Hulk is desaturated and almost gray-skinned, and the majority of the action scenes take place in illegible darkness. This is one problem that would linger throughout the MCU’s duration, though it’s as much a reflection of trends in modern action filmmaking as a deliberate creative choice.
So, The Incredible Hulk is a bit of a low-charm sophomore slump for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It goes without saying they’d eventually bounce back, but I would have been pessimistic circa 2009. For round 3, they’d turn back to Iron Man, Jon Favreau, and Robert Downey Jr.
- Review Project: Marvel Cinematic Universe