For those who have blanked it from their memory, a little flashback: In 2003 Ang Lee directed a film version of The Hulk. It was hotly anticipated. It was stylish and featured a heavily CGI-ed green giant. And it was a bit of a disappointment.
"Far from the overblown Shrek of the previous movie, this Hulk is often hidden in the shadows, a film noir touch which suggests him as Banner’s dark side."
Part of the problem was that, as well as appealing to new, younger cinema-goers, the film was speaking to a generation accustomed to the TV series, in which the Hulk was played by a real man – a huge piece of muscle called Lou Ferrigno. When the film came out, the gap between this memorable figure – all poignantly confused eyes and incoherent rage – and the inflatable, bounding cartoon presented by Lee was just too wide.
After a disappointing box office reception following negative word of mouth for The Hulk, revisiting the character was a risky move. But then, The Incredible Hulk is not quite a sequel, but what Marvel terms a 'reboot'. It picks up approximately where The Hulk left off but we have a different director (Louis Leterrier who is most widely known for The Transporter) plus different actors and a fresh style. The result is a bit like when you turn your PC off then turn it on again – a lot of the niggles have disappeared.
The film gets off to a pacy start. In the first five minutes we have swept through a prologue which efficiently and engagingly explains how Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) got a gut-full of gamma rays, bust out of the lab, injured his scientist girlfriend Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), and, now on the run from her dad, General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), is working in a bottling plant in Rio.
This is a lot of information to take in with the opening credits, but it is expertly done and leaves the rest of the film free to explore some of the other, equally interesting aspects of Banner’s situation – the hunt for a cure, his estrangement from Betty, his determination not to allow the General to use the Hulk’s gamma power as a weapon of mass destruction.
So, we see Banner attempting to control his anger by controlling his breathing. An on-screen message pops up sporadically indicating the number of 'days since incident', like a big, green Bridget Jones (only with bigger knickers). When his position is compromised he’s off again, linking back to his old life and to a new hope, in the form of the mysterious Mr Blue (Tim Blake Nelson), while attempting to evade the General, who has enlisted the help of bonkers KGB-agent-turned-super-solider Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth).
The film manages a delicate balance – its characters have the boldly drawn outline and simplicity of a comic book, yet they’re sympathetic and convincing on-screen. There are numerous nods and jokes which simultaneously celebrate and poke fun at the Hulk story, and some brilliant cameos to please the devoted fan.
The casting is also excellent. Like Robert Downey Junior in Marvel’s Iron Man, Edward Norton may not have been the most likely suspect to play Banner, but he’s a strong actor and great in this role, channelling a little of the sensitivity of the TV show Banner, Bill Bixby. The chemistry between Norton and Tyler is also wonderful, their relationship touching and refreshingly uncomplicated.
Best of all is the depiction of the Hulk. Having learned from Lee’s mistakes, getting flashy with the CGI is saved for the astounding special effects. So, far from the overblown Shrek of the previous movie, this Hulk is often hidden in the shadows, a film noir touch which suggests him as Banner’s dark side. Indeed, in the transformation of Banner to the Hulk there are shades of Jekyll & Hyde, King Kong and, especially, Frankenstein’s Monster, as the film raises the question – how much of Banner is the Hulk and how much of the Hulk is Banner?
Those cinema-goers who can’t get enough of these Marvel films will be excited by the cameo at the close of the film by Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. He tells the General, 'We’re thinking of putting together a team,' – a reference to the forthcoming Avengers film, slated for release in 2010 which may feature Iron Man and Hulk, as well as other Marvel characters such as Ant-Man, Thor and Captain America. Stark's line alone is enough to make a comic book enthusiast wet his Spiderman pyjamas.
Until then, there’s The Incredible Hulk, a great summer superhero movie, likely to fare much better at the box office than Lee's effort.
“Hulk Smash!” Yeah, what that big green guy said.
The Incredible Hulk is on general release