Sorry for all the words.
Until it utterly craps the bed in the finale, The Incredible Hulk is everything a superhero movie should be. Maybe not everything it could be, but for 85 minutes it does a pretty good job hitting the notes you expect it to (Showdown! Love interest! …SMASH!), without making you too conscious of the man behind the curtain.
Zak Penn’s script (or Ed Norton’s script, depending on whom you ask) wisely drops us right in the middle of the story, Bruce Banner having already hulked out, busted up a lab, gone on a rampage, and since fled to a slum in Rio where he lives alone except for (of course) his pet dog. On the run from the general (William Hurt) who wants to dissect him and keeping vigil for the woman he left behind (Liv Tyler), he works in a soda bottling plant and spends his spare time improving his Portuguese and learning to manage his anger.
Between the cool-looking, almost gratuitous sweeping shots of the Brazlian favelas and the director’s assumed license to film all manner of unrealistically hot extras, the setting is exploited to the fullest. Other than that, it’s mainly a repeating cycle of General Ross and his stubbly, loose cannon protégé played by Tim Ross getting a bead on Banner and Banner turning green and going on a rampage every time they corner him. But no complaints, half the fun of Hulk is anticipating what’s going to piss him off next.
Hulk doesn’t have the charm of Iron Man, but it’s a little unfair to expect him to. After all, in Iron Man, Tony Stark is the richest, smartest, coolest, most wise-cracking nerd fantasy on the planet who couldn’t be more stoked about becoming a superhero. In Hulk, Bruce Banner is a nerdy scientist who accidentally turned himself into a freak and has to live alone for fear of being captured by the government and accidentally smashing everyone he likes. Hulk’s script is more conservative but it’s also more nimble, keeping everything moving forward without requiring excessive suspension of disbelief (with the possible exception of William Hurt, whose comically gruff one-liners suggest he’s playing it a couple levels of camp above everyone else). The Norton-Tyler love interest is also better set up here, though also less fun.
Ahh, but what was it I said about the finale? Oh yeah, that. Four-fifths of their way into creating an entertaining, fairly believable world unto itself, Penn and Leterrier chuck everything out the window for an annoyingly self-referential and completely nonsensical ending that prioritizes sequel possibility above closure, catharsis, and even reason.
How best to illustrate what I mean… After Tim Roth gets mad scientist Tim Blake Nelson to inject him with gamma goo and turn him into evil hulk, er, Abomination, he rampages through the city of New York until General Ross’s only recourse is to send in Hulk to save the world from a greater evil. Having already established that the Hulk has intelligence and sensitivity beneath the green skin, he and Abomination trade witty repartee (albeit with growl-y hulk voices) while battling their way through upper Manhattan. Then, at that inevitable comic book movie moment where it seems the bad guy has the good guy dead to rights and all is lost, Abomination asks, "Any last words?" Hulk responds, and keep in mind this is a college-educated scientist who has up until this point displayed above average language skills, "HULK SMASH!"
Yep, in the climactic moment, Hulk relies on a self-referential, fanboy-inspired catchphrase roughly crowbarred (without lube) into a scene in which it makes no sense. Talk about "I’m the Juggernaut, Bitch" redux.
The sad part is, this character has a lot of potential. Imagine a Hulk whose rampages aren’t just an overgrown baby throwing his tonka toys around. Don’t get me wrong, the explosions are cool, but imagine Hulk rages that caused, blood, broken bones, massive human casualties… consequences! Not only would he be a superhero, he’d be fucking terrifying. In one scene, Liv Tyler, having recently been reunited with Bruce, her long-lost love, throws herself at him an attempt to consummate their reunion. But before they can get far, Bruce hears his heartrate monitor racing with the excitement and can’t seal the deal (imagine your spindly boyfriend transforming into the Hulk while he’s inside you). My point is, think of the possibilities. Grr, you wouldn’t like me when I’m …horny!
Point is, the Hulk is kind of character who’s completely unpredictable and always one-step away from doing something totally epic – the best kind of character. It’d be nice to see someone fully explore the possibilities. The Incredible Hulk seems content just to keep the franchise going.
Better than the 2003 Hulk? Yes, much. I fell asleep during that one.