Movie Review: The Incredible Hulk
By Matthew Huntley
June 19, 2008

Someone's compensating.

In the indomitable (and seemingly endless) slew of Hollywood superhero movies, The Incredible Hulk is about as good as Iron Man, and for many, that's saying a lot. Both fall under the newly independent Marvel Studios banner, which obviously cares deeply about preserving its comic book franchises with quality films. They're perhaps not as grand and memorable as Superman: The Movie or Spider-Man 2 (not yet anyway), but they yearn to be.

For most Hulk fans, this 2008 version will be the first theatrical movie to do the titular hero justice. It baffles me why Ang Lee's Hulk (2003) wasn't so well-received. I actually consider it the better of the two films, but as far as stories go, the two are, in many ways, incomparable. Lee's Hulk was darker, more layered, and told a bleak story of two wounded adults coming to grips with their distant fathers - not exactly an expected plot for a comic book adaptation. The fact that Bruce Banner even turned into the Hulk seemed beside the point. It was heavy, compelling and emotional.

Louis Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk, on the other hand, is more about action. The human story within it, while palpable, takes a back seat to the fight scenes and special effects. Bruce Banner and his alter ego spend most of the movie being chased, running away, throwing forklifts, smashing cars and fighting other mutated beings. The good thing is it's all very well done. Leterrier, whose credits include the silly but well-staged Transporter movies, is a born action director, and if The Incredible Hulk was to be about action, Leterrier is a fine choice to make it happen.

The movie's best quality is its pacing. Leterrier and editors Rick Shaine and John Wright unfold the story and action with a confident rhythm that never stalls. It flows better than the 2003 version and we leave the theater wanting more because we're so entertained instead of fatigued.

Unlike most superhero movies, the origin story this time is told during a quick montage over the opening credits. The filmmakers seem to believe audiences will already know the general Hulk story going in and don't bother with a traditional setup. It recalls classic shots from the 1970s TV series that starred Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno (both of whom make cameos).

During the opening, we see scientist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) experiment on himself with gamma radiation in order to test its effects on human biology enhancement. Under the jurisdiction of General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), nicknamed Thunderbolt, who wants to cultivate a team of "super soldiers," the experiment goes terribly wrong and Bruce overdoses. From here on out, whenever he gets angry, a chemical reaction transforms him into the green, monstrous (and monosyllabic) hulk. Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) is Bruce's lover and the general's daughter. She's injured during the experiment that forces Bruce to leave the country.

All this is relayed, more or less, in flashback. When the present story begins, Banner is a fugitive from the U.S. government now living in Brazil. He has gone months "without an incident" and works for a soda pop factory. Desperate to find a cure for his condition, he chats online with a "Mr. Blue" for ideas on how to get the radiation out of him. To keep his cool, he practices martial arts and breathing exercises. He also wears a heart rate monitor to let him know if there's a chance "he" could break out.

At the soda factory, Bruce pricks his finger and a spot of blood falls into one of the bottles. When an old man in the United States (played by none other than Stan Lee) drinks it, he has a reaction to the gamma radiation and General Ross is able to track Banner's location. He sends in a highly trained team of soldiers, led by the Russian-born Brit, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), to grab him, which results in one of the movie's best action sequences - a foot chase through Brazil's shanty towns. This also leads to our first glimpse of the big green guy.

We see the effect Banner's transformation into the Hulk has on this poor man. After an episode, he wakes up half-naked, cold and disoriented. All he can do is beg for change on the street and start his research over again (Craig Armstrong's music theme, an obvious homage to the TV series', is a nice touch during these moments). Banner has no choice but to return to his West Virginia University, where he accidentally re-connects with Betty.

Meanwhile, Blonsky becomes envious of Banner's power and is determined to capture him. He volunteers to be a guinea pig and gets injected with a super serum, which allows him to compete against the Hulk...sort of. In the movie's second great action scene, the Hulk faces off against tanks, helicopters, sound waves and the advanced Blonsky, who can now run, jump, flip and fight with major skill. The movie's best special effects allow Tim Roth to seamlessly appear as if he's really moving this way.

Eventually, Banner and Betty flee to Manhattan to talk directly with Mr. Blue (Tim Blake Nelson). Without giving too much away, their meeting gives way to Blonsky turning into the Abomination, a gigantic beast with a pointy spine whom only the Hulk can hope to defeat.

Though The Incredible Hulk lacks the amount of character insight we'd prefer with a story this rich in humanity, it does allow us to sympathize with the tortured Banner. By the end, we're not just in it for the action and special effects but for the genuine human story. But even though it satisfies us enough, I believe it could have been greater.

It's well-known there was a lot of Incredible Hulk footage left on the cutting room floor, which we'll probably see on the DVD as either deleted scenes or part of an extended cut. Leaving this footage out allegedly started a riff between Edward Norton and Marvel, and I'm not here to argue whether or not that's true, but the footage might have made for a richer experience. Or it may have slowed the movie down. We can't say for sure.

Right now, the movie feels concise and lean, but perhaps too much so. It's always moving and stays exceptionally entertaining, and it contains strong performances, but I believe it could have been better with more moments where we get to know Banner outside of his scientist and Hulk role. Norton is an easy match for Bixby in the way he's able to make us care about him, but I wanted to know some things that don't necessarily have to do with his alter ego. Where did he grow up? Does he still have parents? What are his like and dislikes?

Fans of this uncommon superhero will surely be satisfied with The Incredible Hulk. They'll sense the dedication of the filmmakers, who wanted to do the popular Stan Lee and Jack Kirby comics justice. It's fun and exciting, but perhaps not as long-lasting as the great superhero movies. Comparing it to the recent Iron Man, it's not as funny, detailed or insightful in regards to its characters, but on an action level it feels more kinetic and the third act has a better payoff. The movie also has an open ending, suggesting it has the confidence to know it's good enough to warrant a sequel. Like Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk is very good, but perhaps the next installment will be even better.