Sunday, September 2, 2012

Marvel Movie Project #6: The Incredible Hulk

Aimee here! First let me apologize that this project is slowing down. It's 100% on me--I'm on the final stretch of my pregnancy and only interested in laying down and eating donuts. Anyway...

I thought I'd take the lead on this one because, well, frankly, this is my X-Men 3. This is the movie I love and defend despite the fact that everyone seems to hate. And I mean hate.

First of all, I don't know what more you want out of a damn Incredible Hulk movie.

There's no bothersome origin story here. The "backstory" is told through open-ended flashbacks and illustrated through the narrative--which I frankly find more enjoyable. With a film like this, you have to expect that at least 75% of your audience is going to be at least mostly familiar with the character.

We spend a good amount of time being introduced to meek, unassuming scientist-in-hiding Bruce Banner. A peek at his life reveals much about his character. Edward Norton knocks it out. I feel like he's perfect for the role here. Bruce Banner is not a body builder. He has a lot of issues. He's a scientist. He's not really the "super hero" type. He's at odds with what he wants his life to be versus what the big guy brings to the table.

I also love the terrific nods to the Incredible Hulk TV show. The show has very little to do with the comic, to be honest, but it's still an interesting and sensitive take on the character. I think Norton models a lot from Bill Bixby, and frankly, it works. They both seem like guys who wouldn't have a monster lurking inside--which is the very reason watching them grapple with the Hulk is compelling. This is why "I'm-the-Hulk-all-the-time" Eric Bana is horrible choice and a miserable Banner.

I'm glad to see a more interesting Thunderbolt Ross in this iteration; although I do believe by the end he's gone a little over-the-top. Same with Blonsky. I actually really enjoy Tim Roth in the role initially; he is off-kilter and compulsively power-mad, so his eventual transition to the Abomination makes some sense even if it, too, is an over-the-top addition to the film. More on this later.

I like Liv Tyler in the role of Betty. I don't mind that they've made her into a fellow scientist. It's not unbelievable and gives Betty something to do other than be tossed around by hapless fate. She and Bruce do seem like a fairly believable couple, although I do question Betty dumping her current boyfriend in two minutes just because Bruce came back. He's trying not to make waves, but she's all the way in without any hesitation. Maybe that's what would happen; I don't know.

The plot revolves around traveling to New York in order to make an attempt at curing Bruce of his affliction--again, feeling like a TV Hulk nod--and ultimately having a throw-down with Thunderbolt and his cronies, one of which winds up being the out-of-control Abomination (thanks to Samuel Stern's intervention with Bruce's unique gamma poisoning...)

This is where the movie gets...uh...stupid. I know, I know. I love this movie for its wonderfully sensitive portrayal of Banner and his demons. But... well, Iron Man. It came out earlier in the same summer. What does that mean? Big Hollywood Ending.

1. The Abomination looks stupid. I'm sorry, he does. I hate the character design; it's not the worst take, I guess, but the big bone-cracking transformation seems...ridiculous.

2. What's that? Sensitive portrayal? No no no, we need to have two "big guys" slug it out in traffic. It won't be a good movie if we don't do the thing where one of them picks up a car with a family in it. That hasn't been done many times.

3. Let's do that thing where after "ridding" the main character of his powerful flaw, we need him to have it again so he can stop the other thing that was supposed to kill him.

My complaints are mainly based on the design and execution of the ending here. I do feel that the character of Blonsky has been groomed appropriately to become the Abomination. Pay attention to that, because you're going to see me bring this up again in another review. But on the whole, it's overblown and unnecessary and kind of ruins the credibility that we were building for this movie.

On the whole, I absolutely believe this movie belongs in the top 10; I actually advocated early on that it belonged much higher. Unfortunately for it, it just can't edge its way out of the 6 slot due to the stiff competition and its disappointing conclusion. It has the distinction of what I feel is the best Banner (although Avengers is a game-changer) and will probably always be my underdog dark horse favorite. My apologies to those who thought it was stupid and boring.

Stan's Take

My Lovely Wife is exactly right.  This is the smartest, most thoughtful treatment of the Hulk character since Peter David's run on the Incredible Hulk comic book and the surprisingly high quality TV show.  Norton's performance is smart and nuanced.  He is Banner in every sense of the character.  The supporting characters are equally strong and while Roth's Blonsky is a bit of a departure from the source, his portrayal of a man mad with power is frighteningly compelling.

The characters are the backbone of this film's success, but the storytelling deserves some recognition for putting those great characters through their paces in a way that makes you really care about the them.  Banner is believed to be dead and is hiding out in South America as he works on a cure for his condition.  The movie opens with him being discovered and on the run.  Right off the bat you are invested in Banner's survival and his escape.  This is partly due to Norton being so damn likeable and partly because of the sympathy he generates for his plight.  Even though we are put right into the action and are only given a glimpse of the Hulk, the story is instantly engaging. 
Later, when Banner returns to the US and he is hiding out near his old university trying to get his hands on his research, there is a chance encounter with Betty where Banner must run from the person he loves the most rather than risk putting her in danger.  Moments like this make the heart sink and further drive home the cost of the curse of the Hulk.

With all of this drama you might worry that the movie is light on action, but with the exception of the ending, this movie does an incredible job of pacing the action with the drama and using action to raise the stakes for each character.   The best action scene in the film takes place on the campus of Banner's old university.  Giant sonic cannons are brought into play to subdue the Hulk.  There are extremely, carelessly powerful missiles and flamethrowers in use.  Tanks, jeeps, and army dudes by the score descend upon the campus to kill Banner before he can become the Hulk.  Of course, the Hulk wins the day by smashing everything to tiny bits (and putting the serious hurt on Blonksy), but he also takes a beating for the sole purpose of protecting a foolish Betty who runs out on the field of battle because she has the brain damage (only reason I can think of, although the movie would suggest it is to stand against her father's Moby Dick-esque obsession with the Hulk).  Make no mistake the moment is all action, but at its heart are great characters being put to the test.

And then, the whole thing just devolves into standard Hollywood blockbuster nonsense.  It's a Hulk movie so the Hulk has to fight some other kind of Hulk who is somehow stronger than he is and overcome him to win the day.  I have no idea why.  The movie was set up to be much smarter and subtle, but America's lowest common denominator prevails and instead we get a Transformers level smash-em-up instead.  It is kind of fitting, however, since the only watchable part of the first Hulk movie was the last 10 minutes.  It only makes sense that the only cringe-worthy part of this movie was the last 10 minutes.

I would be remiss in overlooking the fact that while still not perfect, the Hulk CG does look much improved in this film.  The Abomination is a sad cartoon, but the Hulk looks pretty good.  We have to wait for the Avengers for the Hulk to look his very best.

Ending aside, The Incredible Hulk is an exceptional film and although it is ranked #6 on our list, it really represents the beginning of the true Elite Marvel Movies.

Next time we'll crack the Top 5 and take a look at the very cream of the crop in Marvel Movies.  See you next week!