Ang Lee's 2003 "Hulk" failed to please the fanboys and most of the critics, who deemed the director's grave, angst-ridden Freudian approach too serious for its own good, and mocked the too-cartoonish big green ball of rage for its clumsy CGI artificiality. Was this any way to treat a potential franchise? (I know it flopped, but I liked it: the images had a pristine, awesome beauty that, for me, overrode its deficiencies as a slam-bang superhero movie.)
Marvel, having taken the Hollywood production of its comic book heroes in their own hands, was not about to let one of its perennial faves fall by the wayside, and so, five years later, we have "The Incredible Hulk," this time starring Edward Norton as the tormented scientist Bruce Banner, and with Louis Leterrier, director of both the Transformers movies and "Unleashed," at the helm. Since Lee got the origin story out of the way, Leterrier's version, written by Zak Penn, picks up the story several years down the road in a Rio favela, where the fugitive Banner is hiding out working in a bottling factory, desperately trying to find a cure for his accursed condition, and trying to keep off the radar of his malevolent Dr. Frankenstein, Gen. "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt), who wants to use his freakish strength as an ultimate military weapon.
Despite stories of fractious postproduction fights between Norton and Marvel (he wanted a more psychological, character-driven cut; Marvel wanted nonstop thrills, and won). "The Incredible Hulk" is not the mess the bloggers were eagerly predicting. Its easy-on-the-eyes slickness is apparent in the first shot, a stunning helicopter panorama of the mazelike Tavares Bastos favela, where Banner, with the help of a fitness guru, is trying to gain a Zen-like control over his temper, lest he turn into the most destructive green giant in the universe. Needless to say, he will fail repeatedly: there will indeed be blood.
Leterrier has style, he's good with action and he's eager to give the audience its money's worth of bone-crunching battles. Still, once the movie leaves the atmospheric Brazilian settings, nothing in this "Hulk" sinks in deeply: its familiar genre pleasures are all on the surface. For me, there's a problem with The Hulk, always has been, though it hasn't seemed to bother the tale's legions of fans. When the sensitive, physically unprepossessing Banner/Norton turns into the gargantuan, muscle-bound, growling Hulk, there's a total disconnect. They don't seem remotely related to each other, which makes it hard to have an emotional through-line. The actor is replaced by a special effect, and though you may develop feelings for this heroic beast they aren't the same feelings you have for Banner. (To put it another way, Peter Parker is Spider-Man, but Bruce Banner isn't The Hulk--and doesn't want to be.) As good an actor as Norton can be, he thrives on ambivalent, shady roles, where you're not sure if he's to be trusted. But that's not what this role calls for: we should be instantly pulling for him, not slightly put off by him. Tim Roth is an equally odd choice to play his nemesis, the slightly over-the-hill special forces soldier, Emil Blonsky, famous for his combat skills. Tim Roth? (There's a moment when he's sauntering alongside Hurt's general, and the diminutive Roth's sashaying hipster gait is as unmilitary as body language can be.) The madly competitive Blonsky, brought onboard to capture Banner/Hulk, willingly subjects himself to the gamma rays that will transform him into a monster even more powerful than the Big Green One: he becomes The Abomination, just in time for the movie's knock-down-drag-out clash of the titans in the streets of Harlem. Liv Tyler replaces Jennifer Connelly as Banner's love interest, the general's daughter, Dr. Betty Ross. The lovers' chemistry is less than sizzling (she makes a more indelible impression in the spare horror film "The Strangers.") The movie's scene stealer is Tim Blake Nelson, making a comically welcome third act appearance as the unethical but madly enthusiastic scientist Samuel Stern.
"The Incredible Hulk" may well fulfill Marvel's hopes for another movie franchise--it hits its action marks squarely on the head. But it's telling that the audience's emitted its most audible approval in the movie's coda--a surprising in-joke I won't spoil, even though Universal is giving it away in their TV spots. Let's just say that in the end, the mammoth Hulk has to lean on even bigger movie shoulders to preserve and protect its Marvel-ous future.