Undaunted by the failure of Ang Lee’s cerebral approach to big, green Marvel superhero, the 2008 version of THE INCREDIBLE HULK succeeds where its predecessor failed. Cleverly re-imagined as a film noir, it is a dark and shadowy piece full of monsters, only some of them green. The real monsters are much more dangerous. They are the roiling anger that lurks in the frustrated id and no one is immune. Not even Hulk’s gentle girlfriend, cell biologist Elizabeth Ross (Liv Tyler), who reacts to the stimulus of New York City with a raging meltdown.
The genesis part of the story, how Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) was belted by gamma rays and turned into the Hulk, is played out as a montage under the opening credits. The point of this film isn’t how it happened, it’s how everyone deals with the fallout of Banner turning into a man-mountain of rage whenever he loses his temper. Part of coping has him going underground in a favella in Brazil. By day, working in a bottling factory, by night learning Portuguese by watching Sesame Street, and corresponding with a mysterious Mr. Blue who is helping him find a cure for his condition. Banner is, of course, Mr. Green in this encrypted and anonymous correspondence. While waiting for deliverance from his condition, he wears a pulse monitor to warn him if said pulse rate is getting into Hulking territory, as well as using mediation techniques taught by a martial arts master in order to control his anger by controlling his body. The idea of using the tenets of a violent sport to control violence is just one of the many piquant ideas tossed around here.
Doggedly on Banner’s trail for the last five years is General Ross (William Hurt) and the combined efforts of the military and intelligence agencies. The experiment had, of course, a military application that Banner discovered alas too late and using his work, and his blood samples, to develop super soldiers is not what he had in mind as his contribution to posterity. An unfortunate accident at the bottling plant leads said agencies to Brazil, headed up by Major Blonsky (Tim Roth) the special forces operative with a yen for mayhem that rivals that of the Hulk, but without the enhancement.
Roth snarls wonderfully, Tyler is the gentle antithesis to the Hulk, and Hurt is only slightly wooden as the military heavy. It’s Norton’s film, though. As the sensitive wisp of a man with a boyish charm fighting his inner demon, there is a taut caution to the calmness, the palpable sense that there is no moment when he is not exercising a tight self control. A bonus is that screenwriters Zak Penn and Norton aren’t afraid to toss in some tart farce, like when Banner and Betty realize that any sort of racing pulse could trigger a Hulk episode, or pretty much anything involving the film’s resident mad scientist, played by Tim Blake Nelson as a sweetly eccentric oddball with an overweening curiosity. Also nicely done is the introduction of the Hulk. His first bout with the military reveals him only in bits and pieces, shadows keeping most of him a mystery until the next encounter with Ross and Blonsky. And this Hulk has more than just a hyper-developed musculature. He’s got a face that reveals a range of emotions, all of them, even the tender ones, violently robust.
The theme of the story, the struggle between violence and reason with the seduction of the power that comes with the former being tough to resist is rendered with the proper cautionary air. Even Banner, the hero of the story, falls prey in an appropriately intellectual way, letting his hubris get in the way of his brain by using himself as the test subject for his experiment. Ultimately, though a Hulk film rises or falls on the problem of the pants. The ones that are shredded within the bounds of modesty when Banner explodes into the Hulk. Here again, the film succeeds. First, the Hulk is muscle-bound broad, but only about seven feet tall (only), and, in a key sequence, we observe Banner buying trousers. His exact words to the Guatemalan vendor are “Mas stretchy”.
THE INCREDIBLE HULK is everything a fantasy film about a Marvel super hero should be. Stan Lee makes a cameo, as do other salient persons. The action sequences are dynamic as good and evil duke it out with no car or building left intact. Pizza opens all doors, the military is always up to something, and true love is the strongest force of all.