The verdict is in and the decision is, to say the least, confusing. When Ang Lee’s interpretation of the classic green-skinned Marvel character arrived in 2003, it was considered a massive failure, not only commercially but critically. Fans of the anger-inspired behemoth were not pleased with all the psychological mumbo jumbo, and the father/son issues explored seemed to take a back seat to any kind of recognizable action or spectacle. A mere $140 million at the box office and a marginal 61% “freshness” rating at Rotten Tomatoes remains its unfairly marginalized legacy.
So when it was announced that the comic book company itself was “reimagining” the potential franchise, righting the graphic novel geek wrongs attempted by Lee, the fanbase celebrated. After all, anything had to be better than an excessively dramatic take on the radioactive rage-aholic Dr. Bruce Banner and his oversized inner demon, right? Well, not exactly. With a very similar sounding $140 million in revenue and a 67% “freshness” assessment at RT, it looks like once a Hulk, always a Hulk. Of course, we might have had a monster movie version of The Dark Knight had star Edward Norton and director Louis Leterrier had their way. On the recent DVD release of the summer smash from Universal, the filmmaker discusses the ambitious version of the narrative that was shot down by a studio that wanted more bang and less brooding.
It’s been several years since Bruce Banner accidentally overdosed on gamma radiation, changing the entire genetic make-up of his body. Now, whenever he gets too excited, or angry, he turns into a monstrous behemoth, a creature capable of unbelievable strength and unconscionable violence. Just when he thinks he’s stumbled upon a possible cure, Army General Thaddeus Ross reenters his life. The man in charge of Banner’s initial experiments, he lost more than a potential weapon the day his subject went haywire. His daughter, the dedicated scientist Betty Ross, refuses to forgive him for what happened, and she’s now disowned him. When a Russian/English mercenary named Emil Blonsky decides to undergo a similar procedure, he doesn’t become the “ultimate solider”. Instead, he becomes an ‘abomination” that the ‘hulk’ must battle.
Again, it has to be said that one of the most “incredible” things about this so-called reinvention of the Hulk is how close it is to Ang Lee’s vision. Those who claim it far surpasses the 2003 original are merely applying their own form of aesthetic selective memory. Though Louis Leterrier has a limited pedigree as the creator of big time blockbuster fare, at least his time taking the Transporter franchise through the action genre motions means this version of the Marvel monster can really kick some butt. Sure, our French filmmaker is still enamored with a chaotic, quick cut style of cinema that renders carefully choreographed battles a blur, but there are moments in this movie where his constantly moving lens add authenticity to the otherwise fantastical elements. There is one sequence in particular where Hulk battles the military among the trees and grounds of a college campus. Here, Leterrier’s style clearly complements the ballistics.
The Incredible Hulk also gets an upgrade when it comes to casting. Norton may not be everyone’s idea of a solid superhero, but he brings the right amount of humanity to the role. He manages to enrich even the most routine lines, and he’s a clear step above the rather sedate Eric Bana. Similarly, Liv Tyler trumps the zombie like zero that was Jennifer Connelly in Lee’s version. Sure, Betty is still reduced to emotional eye candy, standing by her shapeshifting man through thick…and thicker. But Tyler retains her dignity. Tim Roth’s arrival as the main villain, Emil Blonsky is okay, if nothing truly spectacular. After an opening sequence where he slaughters anything that moves, we never really experience his true evil. It’s just a given, considering the lengths he will go through to get to the Hulk. With William Hurt hilarious in a wry, smirk supporting moustache and Tim Blake Nelson as a helpful scientist with a secret agenda, this is a capable company of performers.
Still, there are parts of the script that can’t help but get in the way. If Banner says it once, he says the “weapons” line about 20 times. It’s as if Norton loved the idea of playing on the “military industrial complex” nature of the character and went overboard. Also, there’s no real backstory built in. The opening credits feature a recreated montage of material straight out of the old TV intro, but we never discover why Banner is in exile, how he has battled the armed forces to maintain his privacy, why Betty would be against his attempts at curing/helping his affliction, and how our hero could continue his research in what looks like one of the more squalid slums in Brazil. Between the initial encounter/take down with the factory worker bullies to the eventual arrival of superbeast Abomination, there’s a lot of interpersonal padding, material that seems mandated by Norton’s desire to tread as close to Ang territory without pissing off that other important Lee - Stan.
Of course, this was not always the case. As we learn countless times during the DVD presentation, there was almost an hour of material cut from the original Incredible Hulk release. Per distributor mandate - and over the fiery objections of Leterrier and Norton - the character complexity and darker nature of the narrative was undermined so there would be an emphasis on popcorn pyrotechnics and the usual Summer season bombast. Prior to the films opening, the filmmaker had hinted at a Special Edition release of his longer, more involved “director’s cut”. Sadly, as of now, this is not included as part of any Incredible Hulk digital package. The one disc set has a small selection of deleted scene. Multi-DVD collections have some more (including a sneak peek at Captain America), but nothing else.
All of which begs the question of intent. If Marvel took back the control of its characters to make sure another Ang Lee experiment wouldn’t occur, why did they allow Universal to destroy that conceit? Why make a new Hulk if you were simply going to improve the cast and yet walk down the same mental/emotional path? Norton does give things more gravitas, and when he turns into the title creature, the CGI is smoother and more striking, but that’s about all. Unfortunately, no one is comfortable enough with the technology to allow for that all important full blown head on transformation money shot. There is an “almost” moment when Banner is undergoing the experimental treatment that may cure him, but Leterrier’s cutting countermands any awe. In fact, there is so much down to editorial earth control over the context that the cautiousness grows aggravating.
There are those who have likened The Incredible Hulk to Marvel’s other Summer stunner, Iron Man and argued for the company’s retention of creative control. Granted, the comic company made many of the right decisions, especially when it came to allowing real actors and capable directors to helm their efforts. Yet before the accolades get too bulky, one thing is certain - this reimagining of the big green beast with unfathomable brute strength is not the success of his metal suited brethren. Historically, both Hulk and The Incredible Hulk will be viewed as decent, dependable hits, with the latter satisfying the all important nerd contingent. In that regard and that regard alone, it was a success. All other aspects demand a draw.