This summer brought us a whole new slew of superhero movies. And in between Iron Man and The Dark Knight came Marvel's latest take on the Hulk, and seemingly slipped through the cracks. Sure it did decent enough bank, but really it was the other two everyone was talking about. And perhaps rightly so as both movies pushed the genre forward; Iron Man was a return to form after a series of some lacklustre comicbook offerings (Ghost Rider and Elecktra I'm looking at you), and The Dark Knight raised the bar considerable not only for super hero flicks but blockbusters in general, with Nolan proving that you can make an action film with intelligence, in-depth characters and themes, and still have massive appeal to a general audience.
As it was, I completely failed to manage to get it together to see The Incredible Hulk while it was on release, hence I caught it when it surfaced on DVD. Now I'd read the reviews which were somewhat mixed but I was still intrigued to see the movie, and I wondered whether appearing between the big two had perhaps caused it to be judged a little harshly. A common complaint seemed to be that it was just two CGI monsters knocking seven shades out of each other. Now call me cynical, but really what else were they expecting from a Hulk film? A complex meditation on the life of Mahler?
Anyhow I went in with a fairly open mind... or rather I'd tried to. The problem is that The Incredible Hulk actually is over shadowed – but not by this summer's other superhero movies, but by Ang Lee's earlier adaptation, Hulk. And a very long shadow it is too. Now the problem isn't the fact that this latest take on the Hulk is neither quite sequel or reboot. Now potentially this could have been a disaster but in fact turns out to be one of the film's strengths is that it could be seen as either and also wisely sidesteps the problem of telling the origin story yet again. The real problem is however, it's hard not to watch this movie without playing a mental game of compare and contrast as it unspools.
Of course the sixty-five pence question is this – is The Incredible Hulk better than Hulk? Now to be fair to Ang Lee's film, it's not without its merits and indeed has won some admirers. But, like most people, I found that the film just did not satisfy and felt that somewhere along the way Lee completely dropped the ball.
I wouldn't call it a bad film; I mean it's streets away from the depths of truly terrible cinema – the fifth straight to DVD instalment of a third rate slasher franchise for instance - but neither is it actually very good. Arguable there is a good film trying to get out, but that possible movie isn't a decent screen treatment of the Hulk either.
Hulk falls into that strange critical hinterland which only talented directors can reach; a strange nebulous country where a film cannot be judged clearly as neither good, bad or mediocre. A place where a film has too much merit to be classed as a mess and yet not enough flair to be deemed flawed. It is, to coin a term, the cinema of exasperation. And Hulk is the perfect example; every good point it has is evenly balanced with a lousy one. So while he have great performances from the cast, we have extraneous subplots, and while the action scenes are dynamic, the ending just fizzles.
As I said earlier this its film with a long shadow, which until the release of The Incredible Hulk, has fallen mainly over Lee's career. I'm sure I'm not alone in that further viewings of his other films have led to the detection of cracks in his directorial armour. For example, post Hulk I've started to feel there are similar pacing problems and muddled plotting in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; I mean does the film really need that bandit subplot? And when he announced Brokeback Mountain, aside from seeming like a calculated attempt to win back the arthouse crowd with it's subject matter after the Hulk debacle, I couldn't help flippantly wondering whether the gay cowboys thing was also going provide a thematic link to the film's structure when the arse falls out of the third act.
But enough beating on Ang Lee and back to it's successor. The Incredible Hulk starts well with an opening montage that fills us in with the origin story and quickly gets on with telling a new tale. And very swiftly it's hitting all the marks Lee's version missed. There's pleasing references to the wider Marvel universe, with mentions of S.H.I.E.L.D and retconning Banner's original experiments as work on the Captain America super solider serum. Furthermore the film manages to capture the spirit and looks of both the comics and TV series. We get an early Hulk-out which is both teasing as satisfying. And while Liv Tyler and William Hurt don't quite have the same dramatic weight as Jennifer Connelly and Sam Elliot, Edward Norton is electric, easily eclipsing Eric Banana, sorry, Bana. Both his performance and the script focus the movie on the real meat of the Hulk mythos - Banner's fight to control 'the raging spirit that dwells within him'. Stan Lee has always said that at heart the Hulk is simply a superhero riff on the old Jekyll and Hyde story and this movie understands that perfectly. It also understands that the Hulk is a monster, albeit a sympathetic one, and riffs on both King Kong and Karloff's portrayal of Frankenstein's creation.
Up to about the halfway point, Leterrier's film is delivering the silver screen Hulk exactly the way we've always wanted to see. However by the two thirds mark, the cracks begin to show. During production there was apparently a good deal of friction between Norton and the director and a good deal of wrangling and tussling occurred over the final cut. And sadly this is becomes very apparent in the last section of the movie. In fairness, the plot holds still together and does reach a proper conclusion but it just seems to lack the sparkle of the first half. Whereas the first two acts have verve and depth, the final section feels somewhat uninspired and descends into a by-the-numbers popcorn movie. To draw a superhero movie analogy, it starts like X-Men and ends like Fantastic Four.
As for the CGI issue, to an extent this is something of a sticky wicket as there's no real way to do the Hulk without it. And for most of the film the computer effects work is fine. But it is in the film's climax where the Hulk goes toe to toe with the Abomination that it does start to grate. On balance, the actual animation is fine, but the problem is there is just so many other CG effects. At some points during the final battle, the movie starts to look like a Pixar outing with virtually everything in shot being digital. Now while these sequences look very close to the original comics, tonally they don't really mesh with the rest of the film; you can't help feeling that it's missing the human elements which gave the earlier action scenes their impact.
As it stands though, The Incredible Hulk manages to even out at 'good'. It's just a shame there was the argy bargy between Leterrier and Norton, as really this movie could have been great. The DVD contains a weighty selection of deleted scenes and one can't help wondering what a directors cut would be like.
And is it better than Ang Lee's movie?.Well, in many ways technically Hulk is a more competent film despite it's unsatisfying nature, but Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk , for all it's flaws, is a hands down better Hulk movie.
JIM MOON, 7th February 2009