Perhaps I was being a little too hard on Iron Man. Certainly lack of personality except in the form of a fantastically charismatic leading performance is not exactly the sort of thing that gets people leaving away from the cinemas in a grumbling hurry and, after all, we can still call Iron Man a good movie and look forward to watching it again and again as I have.
We cannot say the same thing about The Incredible Hulk, one of the first properties Marvel Studios regained control over and greenlit to off-shoot the apparent damage that Ang Lee’s 2003 picture Hulk had made on the potentials of the hero/property as a franchise. Well, Lee may not have made a great picture himself at all but it was clear that he truly wanted to make something.
The Incredible Hulk has the problem of not really wanting to do anything itself except run through the narrative numbers again very quickly like Iron Man did, to end itself with another nudge and wink towards an Avengers film. I mean it’s not like the movie itself is defectively constructed, like say Catwoman or Batman & Robin, but is there is a thorough lack of energy in any moment of the film, everything is just so shut down. I don’t know if we can blame it on the fact that lead actor Edward Norton, like he famously did on-set of American History X, attempted to have more creative control over director Louis Letterier than an actor is usually afforded, but while that clearly damages American History X severely, there is nothing within The Incredible Hulk to suggest it could have possibly been a good movie.
Anyway, one of the first better marks we can hand to The Incredible Hulk is having the deftness to avoid outright being an origin story by summing up the ordeal of Bruce Banner (Norton) as he finds himself exposed to gamma radiation that causes him to turn into a green behemoth every time he stresses himself to anger. This poses him as a danger to society and so he leaves behind his girlfriend Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) and runs across the continent to avoid capture from Gen. Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt), who also happens to be Betty’s father. And so after a disastrously failed suicide attempt (a deleted scene from the film, but later talked about in The Avengers so I think it’s safe to assume it canon), we see Banner hiding in South America attempting to channel his anger into something more not big and green.
And from there on, nothing much really happens in the way of plot so much as incidents. Banner runs, turns, attacks, then runs some more, and the closest we get to a plot point is how Emil Blonsky (a horribly underused Tim Roth) enters the situation, and how he exits with a big ass CGI setpiece that wasn’t impressive back in 2008 and certainly isn’t impressive today when we have movies upon movies upon movies devoting their action setpieces to CGI. I mean, it’s even disappointing by Letterier standards – this time around, the action isn’t what matters clearly to these scenes, so much as it is that things get broken down and tossed around.
What room the film finds to develop itself, it simply jams in with more in-jokes for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, essentially making this movie just a Trojan meat puppet for hype about a world that – while we now have seen enough of – was right now frustratingly absent from the final product.
One of my friends once tried to address this matter to me when I was ranting about the film… the matter that the Hulk is not a very compelling character himself. When in the form of Banner, he’s supposed to be that emotional and narrative anchor we all root for but the character just is too boring for us and we want to see more of the Hulk in action, in which case the character would be a one-note rock ’em sock ’em machine.
For a time I did believe that about the Hulk. For like about a day after hearing that observation. Then I recalled that Iron Man itself had the opposite of that effect – Stark was the man we wanted to see more of, not the action, not the in-jokes, Stark his own damn self (who does make a last-minute cameo at the end of the film to tie that “HEY WE’RE MAKING A MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE” noose). Entirely because Robert Downey Jr. works enough with the script to make a compelling performance and explore the psychology of Stark himself.
I know a lot of people are fans enough of Edward Norton to not want to hear this, but… Norton is not charismatic enough as Bruce Banner’s neurotic wreck and the script is not willing enough to dig into that neurosis to make me care about Banner in THIS film. What Norton does is put himself in a cold sweat occasionally and otherwise delivers his line in a pseudo-zen monotone that really just doesn’t catch the lack of stability Banner carries in himself as a person (Mark Ruffalo when we get to the Avengers is the only actor to date to have communicated this about Banner loud and clear without calling attention to himself). He bores me as Banner.
At least Ang Lee’s Hulk in its boldness was willing to give that aspect of Banner a shot and while Eric Bana is not a great performance himself, he’s better than Norton in that regard. In fact, Hulk, despite not being a good movie in my opinion, is one I find infinitely more rewatchable than The Incredible Hulk where if you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it all.
And The Incredible Hulk does not have itself a plethora of flaws like Hulk did. It just doesn’t have any strengths at all.
Luckily, not having any strengths is enough to keep it from being the worst movie in the MCU franchise so far…