The Incredible Hulk is everything the 2003 version of the Marvel Comics' superhero wasn't — and, unfortunately, isn't some of what it was. • Morph the best parts of each movie, and Iron Man might have competition for the year's best comic book flick. The not-so-jolly green giant still isn't exactly incredible, but he'll do.
After only two movies — this and Iron Man — Marvel's move from mere branding for other studios to all-out production looks brilliant. Not only does Stan Lee's gang garner more profits, they also maintain creative control. (If Marvel Films had existed in 2003, filmmaker Ang Lee couldn't have turned Hulk into a mope carrying more psychological baggage than Sigmund Freud's valet.)
Director Louis Leterrier (Transporter 2) offers the clobberin' action Marvel fans expect from their heroes. The new and improved Hulk gives his alter ego Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) a better run for most screen time, smashing through more interesting settings than the Mojave Desert that Lee finally unloaded upon. There's more humor (although still not enough) and an actual nemesis rather than Hulk just fighting to stay alive.
However, Leterrier never approaches the visual elan Lee brought to his version, a lively mix of camera wipes, reverse zooms and split-screen effects that made his movie resemble a comic book. Say what you will about Lee's Hulk — and generally it won't be kind — but he knew how to transfer painted pages into alluring film frames.
Casting Norton as Bruce is The Incredible Hulk's most noticeable improvement. One of our more intuitive actors, Norton isn't challenged here but lends the proper amount of gravity to Hulk's predicament, rather than Eric Bana's blank-faced sulking in the first film. Norton doesn't pull off a Robert Downey Jr. here — Bruce isn't as fascinating or as funny as Iron Man's Tony Stark — but he's solid.
Disregarding nearly everything that happened in Hulk, the reboot begins with a montage of Banner's gamma ray experiments going wrong, leading to a rampage that injures his girlfriend, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler, who's no Jennifer Connelly), and angering her father, Gen. Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt). Banner/Hulk escapes to Brazil where he's studying anger management yoga and working in a soda pop bottling plant.
Gen. Ross wants him found to continue the Army's "super-soldier" program. Meanwhile, Banner is communicating with a mysterious scientist about a possible cure for his mutation issues. Ross traces the communiques to Brazil where a military hunter named Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) nearly captures Banner but turns tail when Hulk appears.
Banner sneaks back to the United States and another encounter with Blonsky, now hopped-up on super-soldier formula. Later, Blonsky will get juiced into the Abomination, an even scarier version of Hulk, for a final showdown in Harlem. We get just about the right amount of science-speak and emotional longing from Banner and Betty between brawls.
The Incredible Hulk ends, like Iron Man, with a Marvel cameo setting up the long-discussed Avengers project that's looking more likely by the day. In that moment, this film's ultimate review can be heard from the audience, which reserved its loudest cheer for a hero from another movie.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.