The new version of The Incredible Hulk has a few questions to answer. First, when you jettison everything that was turgid, arty or downright bizarre about Hulk, Ang Lee’s 2003 take on the same character, do you also lose everything that was interesting? Second, how does Bruce Banner manage to find pants that still fit after he transforms into a 9-foot-tall muscle-bound colossus?
The second question is easily answered. After limping through Central America with his tattered trousers held up by a piece of rope, Banner (Edward Norton) goes to a Mexican marketplace and requests something “muy stretchy.” (Later, his girlfriend Betty Ross [Liv Tyler] shows her love by buying him a purple XXL monstrosity that was probably on sale at Wal-Mart.)
You’d think Banner would have solved this problem earlier, since the movie picks up the Hulk story in medias res. It opens with a rapid flashback montage in which we see Norton’s mild-mannered scientist expose himself to “gamma radiation” and go medieval on his colleagues and the U.S. Army. When we catch up with him, he’s doing menial labor in Brazil and exchanging furtive emails with a contact named “Mr. Blue,” who promises to provide an antidote to his condition. But not even yoga breath-control techniques can keep Bruce from getting ticked off from time to time, and when he does, the growling green monster within comes out to play.
As comic-book superheroes go, the Hulk has an appeal Freud would have understood: Who doesn’t sometimes feel as if they’re repressing a rage that could flatten military installations? In the 1970s TV series — which clearly influenced this film’s script, by Zak Penn with uncredited help from Norton — Banner was a forlorn figure always on the run, both from pursuers and from himself. For his Hulk, Ang Lee concocted a byzantine origin story in which both Bruce and his love Betty struggled with daddy issues — then mixed it with action sequences featuring giant irradiated pets. Naturally, audiences made clear their preference for the more primal “Hulk smash!” formula, and Marvel Comics hired director Louis Leterrier to oblige.
Like Iron Man, this Hulk has a fairly snappy script, but casting is what saves it from being as dumb as the title character. Unlike burly Eric Bana, who played the role in Lee’s version, Norton is wiry and geeky-looking, but also capable of generating mega-watt intensity, as anyone who saw his turn as a neo-Nazi in American History X knows. British actor Tim Roth, another scary, slight guy, brings his general air of derangement to the role of antagonist Emil Blonsky, an aging career soldier who eagerly volunteers for radiation treatment after General Ross (William Hurt) decides he needs a “super-soldier” to go mano a mano with the Hulk. (After enough of these paycheck roles, one wonders, will anyone remember that all these actors were highly deserving Oscar winners or nominees?)
But it all goes to hell once CGI action takes over the movie. Leterrier used motion-capture technology to give the animated Hulk Norton’s facial expressions, but nothing can stop the Green One from looking like a weightless 3D cartoon thrust in the middle of live action. Worse, in an effort to make him slightly more soulful, the archetypal Neanderthal has been given eyelashes like My Little Pony.
A coda featuring Robert Downey Jr. in his Iron Man character indicates that Marvel is preparing to team up some of its beloved superheroes in a mega-franchise, X-Men-or Fantastic Four-style. It’s hard to imagine the eccentricity of character actors such as Downey and Norton flourishing in that format. While Lee’s movie was a cockeyed failure, at least he — like many of the talented folks who wrote Hulk comics over the years — had a vision. That’s missing from this flick.