The Incredible Hulk (2008)

I’ll say this: it was better than I expected…if only because my expectations were so low. This sequel was long in coming, and all its flaws flow from the fact that no one (apart from me, it seems) enjoyed its predecessor.

Well, I hope you’re all happy. This movie is, in almost every way, a repudiation of Ang Lee’s Hulk, a one-eighty degree turn that falls all over itself to push all our Pavlovian buttons and make us squeal. Like a pile of red meat delivered to your door, it looks good but it’ll plug you up like a clogged septic tank, stuffing you with meaningless noise, flashing lights and disjointed images…much like the way Dr. Bruce Banner describes his experience as the Hulk: “It’s like someone poured ten gallons of acid into my brain.” I don’t know who Bruce is getting it from. Around these parts, you can get the same effect with a fraction of that dosage. Costs about as much as a movie ticket anyway (less if your date wants popcorn–mine, fortunately, did not) and you can enjoy it in the privacy of your own home, away from other people’s children, comments, loud laughter, and ill-timed cellphone usage.

A lot of people will like this film for all the wrong reasons. It tries so hard and succeeds admirably at being exactly what it set out to be…which turns out to be “not much, really.” It’s your typical summer action movie, dressed in the Incredible Hulk’s trappings. Obvious, you might say…but five years ago the first Hulk film surprised me. It was insane to believe lightning would strike twice.

Ang Lee’s Hulk became one of those films, still snidely decried in choice corners of the internet even years after its release. It didn’t do as well as hoped. The pile of cash Universal Pictures raked in was only slightly smaller than a High Sierra. Their accounting department projected something closer to a Cascade or even a San Gabriel, so of course the director, writer, producer, and the entire cast had to be replaced. Who cares about continuity anyway?

Therefore, it’s not the first film that plays under the opening credits, but a different version of the Hulk, starring Edward Norton and Liv Tyler. You get the impression that you’re watching the sequel to a movie from a parallel dimension. Surprise: you are.

I tend to think of it as a dream sequence–Bruce Banner’s hyper-active subconscious playing with metaphor and image. Hence the wink he gives Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) as the gamma-ray gun (complete with radioactive-green crosshairs in a nice nod to the credit sequence of Bill Bixby’s TV series) blasts him in the face. We awake with Dr. Banner in Sal Paulo, Brazil. It’s something like five years after his transformation, and the Good Doctor has at last gone to ground. He’s got a job at a soda bottling plant, where his super-scientist stockpile of technical knowledge has made him invaluable to the floor bosses. He keeps the plant’s electrical system from shorting itself out, dodges the boss’ obligatory “What’s a smart guy like you working in a place like this?” questions, pines of the hot chica a few steps down the assembly line, and learns Portuguese off of local children’s television. A helpful, beeping title-card informs us that, with the aid of breathing exercises and a pulse monitor in his wrist watch, Bruce has managed to go over five months “without incident.”

And as ever, when the day is done, Bruce searches in vain for a cure, a way to “take it out of me,” as he says to everyone who asks. Over an encrypted satellite link, he chats with a colleague in New York, Mr. Blue* (Banner’s handle being–what else?–“Mr. Green”), who’s fascinated by the entire process–in a scientific way, of course–and eager to lend an electronic hand. Unfortunately (and predictably) their collaborations have gone to pot. “Then it’s time to meet,” Mr. Blue IMs. Banner, of course, rejects the idea as “Too dangerous.”

*[The use of that name initially gave me a spark of hope. After all, who in Marvel Universe’s community of super-scientists would dare use that screen name? Let me crush your dreams right now: it’s not Dr. Henry McCoy. This is a Universal film, and 20th Century Fox owns Hank’s movies rights, along with the rest of the X-Men.]

As if he’s living a risk-free life south of the equator. Events soon conspire to upset his applecart when an accidental cut over the assembly line floor sends a drop of Bruce’s blood back to the United States, c/o the {insert name here} soda company. General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (now played by William Hurt) is on the case, instantly dispatching an elite, if faceless, team of manhunters to Brazil. In an egregious act of tactical stupidity, General Ross chooses not to brief his team on just who (or “what” if we slip into Bruce’s language) they’re tagging and bagging. It’s up to team leader Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to discover that for himself when, after an over-long chase through Sal Paulo’s less-scenic alleyways, the Hulk makes his first appearance, devastating Blonsky’s team (and Bruce’s place of work) in the process.

Returning to himself beside a dirt road in the ass-end of Guatemala, Bruce decides enough is enough. Through the usual inexplicable means available only to movie characters marching toward their next action sequence, Bruce makes his way to Virginia, where Betty Ross (daughter of the General, and still the only woman Bruce ever loved) still lives and works after all these years (though they were both working out of Berkeley in the last film–god, this whole remake/sequel thing is seven different levels of annoying). Ingratiating himself with an old friend at a pizza joint, Bruce makes a play to retrieve his old data. It’s gone of course, so he can only find it after a tearful reunion with Betty, so pat it even takes place in a rain storm. By a highway. And complete with the usual, tearful admonition: they can never be together. Betty still has a normal life to live. She’s got a job at the University, she’s dating a psychologist named Dr. Sampson (Ty Burrell) (and, yes, absence of green hair notwithstanding, he is meant to be that Dr. Sampson), she deserves more than a life as Bruce Banner’s nursemaid. But what she deserves is never in question.

The fact is, her father’s had her watched (as any rational being would) and once Bruce starts sniffing around campus it’s only a matter of time before the blackshirts make their appearance, complete with tear-gas, tranquilizers, and enough live ammunition to take out a small, Middle Eastern city (say, Falujia). All of which succeeds, as it must, in pissing Bruce off mightily. And we do mean mightily.

The resulting fight (impressively filmed in full daylight, giving the Hulk’s size and strength its first proper showcase) allows Our Villain, Emil Blonsky, to redeem himself in combat against the angry green giant. Because after that SNAFU in Brazil, Blonsky put his head together with General Ross, who (it just so happens) has his own pipeline to Bruce Banner’s research. It seems that the U.S. military, unbenounced to Bruce, always planned to use his research to revive their heart’s dream, the Super Soldier program. Moth-balled since World War II (when, as we all know, its one successful test subject rode a Nazi nuclear missile into the cold waters of the North Atlantic), Ross decides, seemingly on a whim, to brush the dust of the ol’ Project Rebirth formula and give Blonsky a few hits of that shit.

And good shit it proves to be. Despite the formula’s vintage (and the intra-spinal injections apparently needed to administer it) Blonsky holds his own against the Hulk…for, like, a second and a half. But we all know who’s the strongest one there is…except for Blonsky. In a last minute of ill-timed bravado, he allows the Hulk to drop kick him half way across campus, ending up with a bone structure “like crushed gravel,” to quote his attending physician. Banner and Betty take refuge in a nearby national forest, with Dr. Ross once again called upon to sooth the savage beast so they can both get some sleep.

The next day Bruce and Betty go on the lamb, bound for New York and Mr. Blue, the only one who can help them now. Here the movie forms a lop sided square, with Bruce and Betty’s roadside adventures paralleling Ross’s manhunt and Blonsky’s miraculous recovery. Our happy couple’s domestic scenes give the movie its few slivers of heart (though when they’re played for comedy–as when Bruce and Betty almost trigger an “incident” in the act of getting it on–they fall a bit flat). Ross and Blonsky keep the plot moving. Up on his feet after only a week, Blonsky’s chomping at the bit for “round three,” all too happy to take another hot shot of Super Soldier serum. Beats any meat injection…though its effects aren’t all flowers and healing factors.

New York finds Our Happy Couple well, all set for another fight scene. “Mr. Blue” proves to be one Dr. Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson) who’s a little too enthused to be working on this particular project. He’s already synthesized and entire lab full of Banner’s blood and there’s a cure all cooked up and ready to pop. Not that anything is certain. And, indeed, after inducing an “episode” it seems all is lost: Bruce’s veins and eyes take on that tell-tale emerald hue and the straps holding him down strain against their buckles. It’s up to Betty (in one of the most Freudian scenes in the film) to literally climb the mountain her man is slowly becoming and shout into his expanding face, “Come back to me.”

There’s your cure. Not that any of the supposedly-brilliant people in the film give it notice. Dr. Sterns voices some obligatory objections. “We don’t know if it’s a cure, or if we’ve just suppressed this specific episode.” General Ross’s forces are in no mood to let them find out. Cornered, taken, our heroes submit to custody, Betty following Bruce rather than take the easy-out her father offers. “Don’t ever speak to me as your daughter again,” she tells him, completing a character arch only half-begun in the last film…though by the end of that picture, father and daughter appeared to be moving in the opposite direction, toward some form of reconciliation…

In retrospect, it might’ve been better for all concerned if the Hulk had leveled Dr. Stern’s lab and the surrounding acreage. Buoyed by Banner’s capture, General Ross fails to notice Blonsky, who remains at the lab and threatens Dr. Sterns into a little ad-hoc experiment. Our Villain (and Blonsky is nothing of not a villain from the first moment we see him) wants more than General Ross is selling. He wants that uncut, pure Banner, straight to the vein, and he’ll have it or he’ll have Sterns’ balls for early breakfast.

Dr. Sterns is leery of mixing Super Soldier Serum with Banner blood…even with the later at only 14% Proof. The effects, he warns, could produce “an abomination.” And so they do, spawning a massive, demihuman engine of destruction, an anti-Hulk to at last inspire Our Hero to get off his mealy-mouthed, puny human ass and do something with this strange new life he’s created for himself.

“One of yours?” Bruce asks General Ross once Blonsky makes the news. (Doesn’t take long; a nine foot-tall, gray-skinned, skull-faced monster starts rampaging through the Bronx, and by God, CNN is there.) So after all this chase-movie nonsense it at last falls to Bruce to do what he should be doing in the first place: man up and be a hero. “If I can’t control it,” he says to Betty, before jumping out the back of a helicopter, “maybe I can aim it.” As if the Hulk were a cruise missile, its guidance system sacrificed to make room for more boom.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly what’s wrong with this film. It a nutshell, we’ve seen all this before if we’re at all interested in the Hulk and the kinds of stories his creators chose to tell about him. This time around, his creators stop the story short of a crucial final stage of Bruce Banner’s character development. Sure, evil’s punished, the threat is removed. Anger, when focused and properly directed, becomes a useful tool in the service of the Greater Good…but Bruce Banner doesn’t learn a damn thing about himself, and he doesn’t even begin to come to terms with what–or who–he is.

Imagine the last fifteen minutes of first Hulk squeezed to feature length. Then you have this film all sown up, right down the blocking during Liv Tyler’s scenes opposite the CGI Hulk (who, form her perspective, was purely imaginary). She stairs longingly into his “we’ll-put-them-in-in-Post” eyes with the same reverence Jennifer Connelly managed. But, in a telling difference, at the end of this film, the Hulk chooses to flee under her gaze, rather than instantly reverting to his everyday form. Off to another adventure, another sequel. God help us all, it’ll star Dr. Samuel Sterns as The Leader and it will, in all probability, suck. I’m so glad I saw this film for free…

What were we talking about? Ah, yes–Bruce Banner, and his psychological problems. Which are numerous and illustrative, none more so than his annoying habit of externalizing his socially-inappropriate emotions, erecting walls within his consciousness for the specific purpose of keeping the Hulk under “control”…as if such a thing were even possible. This externalization never helps, proving as useless as his various “cures,” and it never will so long as Bruce Banner continues to view the Hulk in the maligned, distrustful light of “The Other.” The Hulk is no kind of Other—no alternate persona, separate and aloof from Bruce Banner’s civilized mind. Bruce Banner is no “husk of flimsy consciousness” as his father believed in the last film. Banner is not two people. As Bill Bixby said to Dr. Carol Marx waaay back in the original Hulk TV pilot, “I want to be Dr. Banner, not Dr. Jekyll.” Well have no fear, puny human; you’re Dr. Banner and nothing but, a fact so blithely obvious even the Hulk him(not “it,” but “him”)self realized it over twenty years ago, in issue #315 (Jan, 1985). “Hulk is you,” a mental vision of the creature said then, to a mental vision of Bruce Banner. “Your anger, your rage.” And until Bruce Banner admits the truth of this all his cures will come to naught.

Which is fine in the serialized medium of comics, when Bruce really can go on and on with on…and on. But movies are different. Finite in space and time, they must provide some modicum of resolution in order to satisfy on anything other than a purely visceral level. And they’d better damn well be complete in and of themselves. And, you know, I’m not expecting miracles here…but it might be nice if the titular character (no pun intended) “grew” or “changed” over the course of the film. Sadly, this is beyond The Incredible Hulk‘s scope.

Though screenwriter Zak Penn (the man who wrote X2, 3, and Elektra…the man who is–God help us–set to write the Captain America movie, due out in 2011) gets full credit in the film, Edward Norton apparently put the script through a laborious re-write process in an effort, one would hope, to flesh out his paper-thin role. He and Liv Tyler apparently spent hours conversing about their character’s pre-Hulk lives, and I’m sure it wasn’t just out of boredom. None of this comes through, necessarily, except in the actor’s ease and comfort with each other. This helps…I believe Bruce and Betty as a couple, brought to life by actors who are dead serious about their trade. I just wish they’d gotten more to do.

The same goes double for Our Villain, Blonsky, the Abomination. Him I won’t buy for a dollar. His transformation is so poorly handled it’s as if someone purposefully set out to design a one-dimensional villain, violating Stan Lee’s Great Law of Villainy, which insists that the villain much possess at least as much motivation as the hero. “I want to be a fighter,” just doesn’t cut it for me, bub, though it fits well with my extracurricular research into the character and his history. We’re meant to intuit that Emil is a career soldier cresting to top of–if not already over–his life’s hill. And then he sees Bruce Banner; nerdy, wiry, perpetually ungrateful for the power fate dropped into his lap when by all rights he should’ve lived and died a lab jockey, allowing those who appreciate his gifts to wield them as they saw fit. Envy, more than anything, has always driven the Hulk’s villains. Even Dr. Banner, Senior, in Ang Lee’s film, longed for his “real” son’s power, considering it the final stepping stone on his personal path to godhood. None of them are smart enough to realize the price they inevitably pay for such power, and it always falls to Bruce to straighten them out with his fists or his brains.

The problem is, I know all this already. And the realization that other people haven’t wasted their lives keeping up on Bruce Banner’s continuing adventures does nothing to mitigate that. In these days of CGI-everything, when special effects and franchise rights mean more than telling a story, I can’t find any excitement for this movie within myself. It feels like a misguided love note to everyone put off by the last film, right down to the movie poster (a blatant homage to Amazing Spider-man #50, the famous “Spider-man No More” cover). I was not one of those people, so this is not my Incredible Hulk. It might be yours. As the credits rolled, my theater audience broke into applause. But for me, it’ll be another one of those films I painstakingly critique and then immediately put out of mind.


2 thoughts on “The Incredible Hulk (2008)”

  1. The Incredible Hulk, IMHO, makes the exact same mistake as the Ang Lee movie in that we only get a hint of why we should give a **** about either Bruce Banner or the Hulk. My favorite parts of the movie aren’t the fight with the Abomination or the battle on campus, well-crafted as they were, but seeing Ed Norton’s Bruce trying to get the hot chica from unwanted sexual advances and repairing the bad wiring. The Avengers has the most popular Hulk and, for me, there’s a reason for that. Bruce is a medical Doctor for poor people, the Hulk protects the innocent. Both of these people are the kind of people you want around your homes.

    That’s the irony, of course, that you should want Bruce and the Hulk around. Not be glad when he leaves or is chased out. The Hulk in this movie kills people and probably wiped out an entire unit of Ross’ soldiers along with smashing to pieces Blonsky. He’s not a menace, anymore than you could say someone poking a rattlesnake (I mentioned this in my previous view) isn’t an idiot. However, he’s a danger and there’s no reason we should like the Hulk.
    As you mentioned, the movie is thoroughly unambitious.

    You could drive a semi through all of the plotholes like how General Ross seems to have functioning super-soldier serum which works just fine near as we can tell, why Edward Norton seems to suddenly want to use the Hulk, and why the increasingly unstable Blonsky is allowed anywhere near any of this after disobeying orders twice. I don’t have any problem with the Abomination in the movie as a villain. However, the real villain is General Ross who speeds through the moral event horizon like he’s attempting to reach another dimension–and yet gets off scott free.

    I also object to Bruce and Betty not getting it on–a celibate Hulk is just wrong. Don’t ask me to articulate why.

    1. Don’t worry – no need to articulate. As a Superman fan, I’ve spent twenty years dealing with fools who parrot the “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” line and thinking they’re being clever instead of being twelve-going-on-forty-year-olds. (And “edgy” ones at that, because sex is “gross” since girls are “icky.”) Not that they’ve ever read Larry Niven’s essay, or even care who Larry Niven is, but they sure can copy-paste a speech from Mallrats. Just like Kevin Smith copy-pasted it from Niven in the first place.

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