On behalf of all those who bitched about Hulk back in 2003, I'd like to apologise to Ang Lee. His one and only foray into the comic book movie was undeniably flawed, but it had a surfeit of ambition, maybe even too much - not a sin that the subgenre commits all that often.
Ambition certainly isn't something that Louis Leterrier's quasi-remake, pseudo-sequel The Incredible Hulk has to worry about. In the eight years of the modern superhero wave, I'm not sure that there has been such a perfect example of a wholly mediocre comic movie, not as crushingly awful as Fantastic Four or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but still lacking even the slightest hint of inspiration on any level. To belabor the pun that everyone else has already belabored, there's nothing about it that's even a little bit incredible.
Probably the best thing that the film does is its opening five minutes, in which the Hulk's origin story is swiftly retold in a manner not especially consistent with Hulk, nor with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's first comics: Bruce Banner (Edward Norton), a biologist, subjects himself to what he thinks is an experiment in creating increased radiation tolerance in humans, but is actually a government supersoldier experiment. Quicker than you can say "Hulk smash!" Banner is cursed with a condition that turns him into a mindless green giant whenever his pulse rate spikes, particularly when he's angry. Fleeing the evil army spooks, Banner ends up in Brazil, right where the first movie left him, and we catch up to him five years into his self-imposed exile, trying desperately to find a cure with the help of his online buddy, a scientist hiding behind the pseudonym "Mr. Blue".
That's as far as a plot recap can really take us, for nearly all of the almost two hours of The Incredible Hulk consists of one two things: Banner sneaks around, hiding from the army in the form of Gen. Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) and professional bounty hunter Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), or the Hulk punches things and roars. A handful of scenes that pretty much rip off King Kong in all the ways that matter demonstrate that Banner still has feelings for his long-lost love Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), the general's daughter. And really, unending scenes of plotless mayhem are not bad per se - it was indeed among the chief flaws of Lee's film that he doled out action scenes so sparingly. But come on, it's 2008. I truly doubt that the modern viewer has much excitement left for awesome CGI battle sequences qua awesome CGI battle sequences, and no matter how many times we see a computer-generated Hulk who looks just a tiny bit like Norton throwing computer-generated tanks about, it doesn't feel revelatory in even the remotest way. It just feels rote, especially in the Hulk's climactic battle with the evil Hulk-analogue Abomination: one block of green pixels smashing the shit out of another block of tan pixels.
It's amazing to be alive at a time when what can be depicted on a movie screen is limited only by filmmakers' imaginations; it is terribly frustrating to be alive at a time when filmmakers' imaginations are so hidebound. Leterrier is probably best known for directing The Transporter 2, a fairly silly-minded action movie that nevertheless finds plenty of entertaining ways for Jason Statham to destroy things and people. The Incredible Hulk enjoys none of his style nor even the small level of invention involved in that film. Even Michael Bay's wretched Transformers last summer managed to come up with some pretty hellzapoppin' ways for large, fake robots to beat each other up; The Incredible Hulk just has explosions like you've seen a dozen times and things getting smashed on New York streets like you've seen a dozen times, and the only reason any of it is remotely exceptional is that it's the only place you get to see those things on a big screen right this week.
Marvel's last big-budget tentpole, Iron Man, is still a mere six weeks old; though it's no kind of masterpiece, that film was exciting and fun in ways that this here picture never even tries for, a comparison made especially inevitable from Robert Downey, Jr.'s cameo as Tony Stark, a non-surprise that surely ranks as the summer's worst-kept secret. The relative quality of the two is an instructive study: Iron Man didn't really do anything super-creative either, certainly nothing we hadn't seen in basically the same form in one movie or another, but it was made with energy and a sublime lead performance. The difference between these do films is the difference between doing a comic book movie well, and just doing a comic book movie. The Incredible Hulk goes through the motions, but it has no real sense of fun, and despite Norton's well-publicised battle with Marvel over the film's psychological content, it has no heart either. Ang Lee at least tried to explore Banner's internal struggle, unfortunately choosing the magnificently dull Eric Bana to showcase that struggle. Leterrier and screenwriter Zak Penn (whose story credit on X2 has become an unjustified excuse for setting him loose on way too many superhero properties) just show a dude who turns into a big green dude, without any apparent guilt or anguish other than his irritation that it keeps happening.
You know what The Incredible Hulk does have, instead of a story, compelling characters, or nifty action setpieces? A whole fucking boatload of Marvel Universe in-jokes, enough that it feels like you should have a compendium handy when you're watching it. Frankly, it's that overwhelming sense that everything is all interconnected that makes reading modern-day superhero comics in all their tens of iterations such an unrewarding experience; it makes it hard to jump in to the stories and leads to all sorts of hellish continuity knots that get "resolved" in bizarre affairs like DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths. It's something the comic movie has been free of so far, and to see it sneaking into films like this one and Iron Man is a bit disheartening - I for one don't want ever summer movie for the next three years to be a crypto-prequel to The Avengers. Thank God for the Chris Nolans of the world, I say.
For all that, The Incredible Hulk isn't an atrocious film. It's a profoundly typical one. It might well be the exact average for all the comic book movies that have come out since X-Men changed everything back in 2000. It's like everything you've ever seen, and it's a tedious, perfunctory bore.
(And, as pointed out by Nathaniel of The Film Experience among others, it's not even the box-office success that some people are trying to paint it as: it made back 33% of its cost on its opening weekend, whereas Ang Lee's "bomb" made back 45% at the same point).
Reviews in this series
Iron Man (Favreau, 2008)
The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008)
Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010)
Thor (Branagh, 2011)
Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011)
The Avengers (Whedon, 2012)
Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013)
Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015)
Ant-Man (Reed, 2015)
Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016)