SPOILER WARNING: The following contains some spoilers for "The Incredible Hulk," released this weekend in cinemas.
Released in the United States this weekend, Marvel Studios' "The Incredible Hulk" is largely a far more enjoyable remake of the regrettable 2003 effort by Universal Studios and director Ang Lee, crossed with memorable components of Marvel Comics' Hulk-starring, alternate universe comic book series "The Ultimates." As such, neither of the Hulk films released this decade are particularly faithful to the work of creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, although director Louis Leterrier's extended remix is considerably dancier (read: way more ultra-violent), with better production values (read: Hulk doesn't look so fake) and quite a great many samples (read: lots of comic book references, cameos) thrown in to get the crowd's hands in the air.
"The Incredible Hulk" opens with the sort of high-techy, hard-to-read fonts kind of credits sequence that audiences have come to expect from Marvel Comics films, and depicts in thankfully short order how this version of the Hulk came to be. With Lee & Kirby's tremendous, Earth-shaking explosion apparently deemed too boring an idea to film, both Hulk movies approach the origin as a genetic experiment gone horribly wrong, but with some differences. While actor Eric Bana's Bruce Banner found himself Hulkified by a sequence of events too convoluted for even Ang Lee to explain, Edward Norton simply infuses himself with some nasty serum that immediately transforms him into the green goliath and consequently sets him on the run from the evil US government, personified in the film by William Hurt's General Ross.
The classic Hulk myth is thus: Banner is always on the run, looking for a cure, General Ross is always chasing him, and Betty Ross is always feeling sorry for him. The cast plays each part well and exceeds the accomplishments of their Ang Lee-directed predecessors. But regardless of how badly depicted it was, we've still seen this story before, very recently, and the "The Incredible Hulk" differs from that in only the most superficial ways -- although annoyingly, this version found another way for the Hulk and Betty to hang out in a forest and share their feelings. Why can't we see a movie with the Hulk riding on the hood of a spaceship and punching asteroids? There is no good reason why not.
"The Incredible Hulk" endeavors to develop the character of Bruce Banner more interestingly than 2003's "Hulk." For example, Banner spends an extended period of time in picturesque Brazil, where after an initially puzzling sequence detailing the dangers of poor hygiene standards in soda bottling plants, we learn he's searching for a rare plant that may hold a cure. Leterrier takes advantage of the crazy network of rooftops, balconies and stairways found in the Brazilian location and films a European cinema-style footrace through the city that may or may not have much to do with the concept of the Hulk, but it's fairly excellent nonetheless.
Ross discovers Banner's whereabouts when an American falls ill from gamma radiation poisoning after drinking a soda contaminated with Banner's Hulk blood. That American is played to great comic effect by Stan Lee himself, in perhaps his most lengthy cameo yet. It is fun to imagine all these Marvel film appearances by Stan Lee as him playing the same character, a kindly old security guard who seems to get around. We somehow suspect this character survived his bout with gamma radiation and will be seen again soon.
The Brazil sequence is beautifully filmed, taking advantage of the colorful, literally wall-to-wall homes that cover every inch of hill and earth for miles all around, and does much to facilitate Banner's desperation to find a cure, but it also serves to introduce one of the film's many dubious representations of military action. Surely, the US government sending a team of soldiers into what appears to be the most densely populated neighborhood on the entire planet should come with some consequences, particularly given that it's on foreign soil.
"The Incredible Hulk" shows similar insensitivity to believability in other parts of the film, such as when General Ross literally invades a college campus as zealously as he might a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, with only two students even noticing. Shockingly, they think to capture the event on their camera-phones -- although neither manage to get a shot of the Hulk, of course. Later, in pursuit of
Doomsday the Abomination, Ross orders gunmen to fire indiscriminately into Harlem, leveling much of the neighborhood and presumably killing a number of innocent people.
Occasional plot-level stupidity aside, "The Incredible Hulk" is never boring, and the amount of glorious ultra-violence easily surpasses that of its painfully em0 predecessor. Indeed, the filmmakers seemed to have Mark Millar and Byran Hitch's over-the-top "Ultimates" battles in mind when designing the movie's many memorable action pieces, as there is quite a lot of bone-smashing, building-breaking and tank-humping in "The Incredible Hulk." As seen in the film's advertising materials, Banner even falls out of a helicopter in an effort to prompt the emergence of the Hulk, a scene directly out of "The Ultimates."
Director Leterrier deserves accolades for presenting the Hulk as a genuinely imposing figure, and for really delivering on the action, which eclipses the relatively vanilla fights seen in Marvel's previous film, "Iron Man." Everything the Hulk does should be phenomenally powerful and destructive, and that is absolutely true in "The Incredible Hulk."
The greatest flaw of Marvel Studios' new Hulk film is, paradoxically, the direct result of its most enjoyable aspects. The film makes numerous, numerous references to the greater Marvel Universe (particularly to another genetically-altered hero) and the potential of a filmed version of that fantastic tapestry of characters and stories is so exhilarating, it easily overshadows the mostly functional but sadly still filler-esque movie before us.
However, it seems the filmmakers are aware of this problem, and with more than just an eye towards realizing those grand live-action ends, "The Incredible Hulk" concludes with a scene between General Ross and a visitor from that greater universe that does what every classic story must: it leaves you wanting more.
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