In today’s movie marketplace no one bats an eye anymore when franchises get rebooted every few years. Yet, back in 2008 this wasn’t incredibly commonplace. Marvel took a risk by taking the rights back to movies featuring the Hulk, so that they could reboot the franchise in-house. Universal retained distribution rights to the movie. An examination of Hulk and The Incredible Hulk is almost a study in how to do two movies about the same subject matter in almost exactly opposite ways. The fact that so little time passed between the making of one and the other allows them to be compared fairly in a way that a comparison between the 1989 Batman movie and Batman Begins would not be. While this review will stay focused on reviewing The Incredible Hulk and its DVD/Blu Ray release a comparison between The Incredible Hulk and Hulk is inevitable.
Two things that really work well for this movie are its pacing and structure. Arguably one of the greatest sins of Hulk, The Incredible Hulk goes with a very traditional story structure. There is one “Hulk out” per act and each one is a turning point in the relationship between Blonsky and the Hulk. The stakes get greater and the spectacle increases with each combat, so that the movie hits its climax as the Hulk and Blonsky fight in Harlem. It then leads into the surprise ending where Tony Stark arrives in a Hulk movie and suddenly audiences realized that these superhero movies would no longer be stand alone and that Marvel in-house movies would have their own internal continuity. Although this had been hinted at by a brief mention of SHIELD earlier in the film the actual appearance of a character from another movie is an exciting moment and helped to keep audiences interested in what would come from the Marvel universe for years afterward.
It also works in this movie’s favor that it goes for a more conventional artistic style. Ang Lee tried to convey that he was making a comic book movie by using comic book panels. While in some ways this was interesting as it allowed parallel action to be depicted, in most instances it was used as a gimmick and did not provide any advantage over traditional techniques. Many in the audience felt that it was cheesy. The Incredible Hulk director Louis Leterrier doesn’t abandon artistic license altogether, but his choices seem to be more in-line with what is currently popular. There are some slow-motion action sequences that try to convey the great power of the characters involved. There’s also several shots done in the “student home video” style as several people observe the combat with the Hulk. Neither of these felt jarring and the more traditional elements seem to resonate better with audiences.
Tim Roth is a fantastic villain. The Incredible Hulk doesn’t need to worry about the deranged antics of Nick Nolte. Instead, Tim Roth nearly steals the show by portraying a combat veteran who lives for the thrill of the action but feels as if his body is betraying him. Every scene that he’s in is more interesting because of his presence. He has an incredible intensity and even though he’s a relatively short man he sells the fact that he could be this hardened black ops soldier who feels like he could take on the Hulk. It’s almost a shame that he eventually has to become the Abomination as all the nuance of the performance is lost in the spectacle of the giant battle.
On a far more negative note the casting choices in The Incredible Hulk weren’t particularly good. Aside from Tim Roth and Ed Norton, none of the other actors really work well for the roles that they’re cast in. Leterrier was hellbent on disconnecting his movie with the earlier film, so he appears to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Norton is a fine alternate choice for Banner although Eric Bana was fine as well. Yet even Leterrier was forced to admit that he would have wanted Jennifer Connely for the role of Betty Ross except that he didn’t want any connections to the previous movie. Instead, he makes the maddening decision of casting Liv Tyler in a key role. Liv is a well-known actress and has been in the blockbuster Lord of the Rings movies, but as evidenced by the commentary and interviews on the blu-ray and DVD, her casting seems to have been based almost entirely on the fact that Leterrier and Norton believed that she looked like Betty Ross from the comics. While that can be a consideration in getting fan buy-in on casting it does seem like a strange thing to hang one’s hat on as it’s the least important element for developing the film story. Onscreen Norton and Tyler have absolutely zero chemistry together. It takes a lot of suspension of disbelief to think that the two of them are in a relationship. When considering how important that relationship is to the development of the story it seems like a poor decision to go with looks over acting ability.
Tyler is not the only strange choice for this movie. William Hurt seems completely out of place as General Thunderbolt Ross. If any man had been born to play this role it was Sam Elliot. Hurt really struggles to be the hard nosed general. He never seems like his heart is really in it and you don’t get the sense that he’s on an Ahab-like hunt for the Hulk as the story implies. He plays it as if it’s a job like any other and you don’t get much depth of feeling from him. Another poor choice was Tim Blake Nelson for the part of Samuel Sterns. While he was adequate for the role that they gave to Sterns he seemed far too goofy. While that could just play into the eccentric scientist trope, it seems that there was some idea to do a sequel to this with Sterns as the Leader and in that role, Nelson’s performance would have been a complete distraction. He doesn’t have anywhere near the gravitas for the role and perhaps its a small mercy that Marvel never went forward with a sequel. The Stan Lee cameo this time also felt very indulgent and forced. The implication is that there’s a large green Stan Lee running around New York, but this was during the period when all the movie companies seemed to have run out of ideas for Stan Lee cameos and when he appeared it always seemed to be a shoehorned in scene to indulge Stan.
Another striking thing about this movie is that the Hulk exists almost as a special effect only. He lacks most of the character and nuance that it had before. This seems to be because the movie portrays the Hulk as something akin to a man hyped up on drugs. It’s all about the physical elements and the Hulk is just a product of spectacle. Gone is any implication that the Hulk is part of a psychological trauma that has found expression through Bruce’s anger. Instead he simply emerges when Bruce’s heart rate hits a certain number. This leads to silly situations like Bruce not being able to make love for fear that he’d Hulk out in the process. It also means that the Hulk is no longer a tragic, childlike figure. It’s a man hyped up on drugs. Bruce can remember what he does as the Hulk albeit unclearly. This Hulk leaves a trail of bodies behind him. He lacks the childlike innocence of the comic book character. This leads to a disconnect with the audience. If we see the Hulk as an exciting spectacle we’re not emotionally invested in him. The movie wants us to be emotionally invested in Bruce and Betty but their lack of chemistry works against that. By not allowing us to be emotionally invested in the Hulk it means that the movie can be an interesting romp but will not really have the emotional impact that excellent movies have.
The DVD and Blu-ray are very similar for this movie. The only difference is that the blu-ray has a greatly enhanced picture. They both have many other extras such as a commentary by director Louis Letterier, an alternate opening sequence showing Bruce trying to commit suicide, a making of featurette, a featurette on creating the Hulk, one on creating the Abomination, deleted scenes, and several other technical features. For those interested, the deleted scenes reveal an interesting nod to the comics. Most of the cut scenes involve more stuff between Betty and her boyfriend. It turns out that the boyfriend is Doc Samson. The removal of that extra thread didn’t hurt the film, but it’s nice that they were trying to set up another established Hulk supporting character although the fact that he had a sexual relationship with his patient was a little odd.
In the end, The Incredible Hulk was an amazing cinematic spectacle that lacked the emotional connection that audiences required to make them really invested in the character. This stemmed from a misunderstanding of the Hulk as a character as well as some truly awful casting decisions. The movie is notable for featuring the first crossover with a star of another Avengers movie and it did lay the groundwork for audience expectations on the road to making The Avengers.
Universal Pictures/Marvel Studios
Directed by Louis Leterrier
Produced by Avi Arad, Kevin Feige, Stephen Broussard, Gale Anne Hurd, Stan Lee, David Maisel, Michael J. Malone, John G. Scotti, Jim Van Wyck, & Kurt Williams
Screenplay by Zak Penn
Based on the character Hulk created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby