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The Incredible Hulk
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)

Starring: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Lou Ferrigno

Written By: Zak Penn (Uncredited: Edward Norton) Directed By: Louis Letterier

The Short Version

The Incredible Hulk is not an action movie; it is a drama and a love story with action sequences in it.

The lead casting is amazing, with one exception.

The callbacks to the Hulk’s comic and TV history are fabulous.

But it’s almost impossible to get past the CGI.

The Incredible Hulk is still better than you’ll expect.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

BLEU CHEESE.

When you first look at it, it’s all veiny and menacing looking.  But when you get your hands on it, it ends up being delicate and light, and it tastes like a whisper.  A flavorful whisper.


Pairs Well With...

INCREDIBLE HULK.

Couldn't resist.  It’s two ounces each of Hpnotiq and Cognac (Hennesey being the recommendation for the latter), chilled.  Of course it’s green.

“I can’t get too excited.”

“Not even a little excited?”


The Incredible Hulk is not the movie you probably expect.  This is not an action movie; it is a drama and a love story with action sequences in it.

Whether or not this comes as a shock to you may depend on whether or not you realize that this isn’t a fresh start movie for the Hulk, as often supposed, but is instead considered a sequel to Ang Lee’s Hulk film from 2003.  (Box office returns for that one dropped over 69% between its first and second week of release, at the time the steepest decline for an initially Number One movie in history, and a lot of people like to forget it ever happened... even though it did turn a handsome profit.)  Not that this connection matters very much, when all is said and done (indeed, this film turns a blind eye to a lot of what happened in the previous one and even changes several details, making the connection dubious); every major part has been recast – mostly for the better, with one exception – and the story stands quite well enough on its own.

And that story, like the Hulk himself, is much more complicated than the green exterior would initially suggest.

Let’s start with the setup.  In a move that may at first seem jarring to those audiences who forgot the 2003 film or who’d hoped this was a revamp thereof, the Hulk’s origin story is not covered in detail.  There are quick flashes during the credits for the newbies, and that’s it.  Those flashes do cover enough for most people to get the gist, and there’s a dialogue-laden scene about halfway through the movie that spells it all out for the slow class, but by and large, the makers of The Incredible Hulk expect that you already know the title character’s origins going in.    As it turns out, it’s an artistic choice that works.

Now for the drama.

Many action and/or hero movies pretend at drama or take a few small bites of it, but The Incredible Hulk defines itself by it.  Divide up the screen time and measure it by the overall tones of the scenes, and drama’s going to win by a mile here.  For those who know the Hulk, this actually makes perfect sense.  At its core, the story of The Incredible Hulk is the story of Bruce Banner (did your brain just want to call him David?  Caught ya!) desperately trying  to find a cure for what he considers the disease of transforming into an aggressive, bulletproof, green-skinned menace whenever his pulse hits 200.  This is the story of a man with deep personal conflicts, and Edward Norton turns out to be the perfect choice to bring it to the screen.  For many, the late Bill Bixby, who played Dr. Banner on the TV series (which is why your brain wants to call Dr. Banner “David”, because the series did), is the iconic portrayal, and frankly, he deserves to be considered as such.  But if anyone has ever matched what Bixby brought to the role back in the day, it is Edward Norton.  He plays Banner was tremendous depth, and you can see the character’s psychological burdens even when Norton isn’t saying a word.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in a very brilliantly done scene early in the film wherein Banner is quietly walking through the streets of Brazil and then stops, tired.  He says nothing, but his body language says it all… with a very beautifully included cue from the “Incredble Hulk” TV series theme music as the soundtrack.  (This is easily one of the best scenes in the entire film.)

And yet, for all the emphasis on Banner’s psychological issues and the drama associated therewith, The Incredible Hulk does not carry the depressing “downer” tone that made so many want to forget the 2003 film.  This script knows when to pull back before it becomes too much to bear, and so does Edward Norton.

Almost (but not quite) trumping Norton for lead casting genius, though, is Liv Tyler.  Yes, just to get the obvious out of the way, she’s gorgeous, but the genius is in her performance.  Too often in hero films, the love interest is just a throwaway character, there to give the bad guys someone to threaten or the hero a reason to live or whatever.  It could’ve happened here, too, but Liv Tyler is having none of that noise.  She gives Betty Ross real life and real emotion.  When she says “it’s okay,” you believe her, to the point where if you were having a bad day before watching this movie, your own blood pressure will go down.  She makes sure that the audience cannot escape the fact that Betty Ross isn’t just some girl, but is in fact an extremely integral part to Bruce Banner’s story.  And, most importantly, she makes sure that the audience believes that Betty Ross really, truly, unquestionably loves Bruce Banner.

I don’t mean the superficial stuff.  This isn’t melodrama.  This isn’t the awkward sexual tension that’s the standard norm in these movies.  (Calling Tony Stark and Pepper Potts…)  This is a dynamite portrayal of the real thing.  It starts with Tyler herself, and then it’s sold by the excellent screen chemistry she establishes with Edward Norton.  They don’t even need to speak; they can just be sitting together and not saying a word, and it shows.  Betty Ross and Bruce Banner as played by Liv Tyler and Edward Norton may in fact be one of the best-portrayed screen couples I’ve ever seen.

This is supposed to be a movie about a massive green dude who smashes things, right?

Tim Roth makes sure to remind the audience of that; he’s spot on as the badass soldier who’s seen and done it all but is scared to death of having to leave the jungle in favor of that desk he should have started sitting at five years before.  It shouldn’t be too hard to guess where that road leads his character; what Roth does here is to make what may seem to be a series of irrational decisions make sense.  Sure, the script gives the frame, but Roth himself sells the context.

Rounding out the top four, William Hurt is a fine actor, and most films would be lucky to have him.  But the sad truth is that he simply has no business portraying a man nicknamed “Thunderbolt.”  His voice has the nature of a self-hypnosis tape, and even when he’s acting angry and yelling, it’s almost impossible to imagine his pulse ever going over 60.  Hurt is just too calm and too controlled for the part of “Thunderbolt” Ross, and as such, represents the only real lead casting blunder of the movie.  This also makes Sam Elliott the only member of the 2003 Hulk cast whom this film would have been better off having back.

There are, however, two people who did come back in small roles.  As always, comic creator Stan Lee puts in his Marvel movie cameo appearance; this time, he’s a poor fellow from Milwaukee who drinks some tainted juice.  Trumping that, however, is the apparently ageless Lou Ferrigno (who played The Incredible Hulk himself in the TV series and subsequent TV movies), who not only comes back as a security guard, but also supplies the voice of the Hulk.  This is a very, very classy nod to what for many people is the most beloved incarnation of the Hulk, and worthy of some major applause.

However, this also brings us to the single greatest misfortune of The Incredible Hulk as a movie.  When Lou Ferrigno was the Hulk on TV from 1977-1982 (and again in TV movies after), Lou Ferrigno was the Hulk.  The makeup crew painted his skin green, and off to the races they went.  Sure, you didn’t get a ten foot tall Hulk that way, but hot damn, it worked.  This movie incarnation of The Incredible Hulk, however, suffers from the curse of being made in the 21st Century.  We don’t do anything more complicated than eyeliner with makeup anymore.  No; we do everything as CGI.  (Computer Generated Imagery, in case you wondered.)  And so, being way more complicated than eyeliner, the Hulk is rendered entirely in CGI.

Yes, the effects technology is getting better, but Gollum from The Lord of the Rings was an aberration, not the rule.  The CGI Hulk stands out from the live action crowd just as surely as a hand drawn Roger Rabbit did back in the day.  There’s just no getting past it.  For all the realism and all the amazing attention to humanity that colors the rest of this film, the CGI Hulk is still a cartoon.  A very well-rendered cartoon, to be sure, but a cartoon nonetheless, and it’s jarring to the eye, especially whenever he’s in the frame with a flesh and blood human being as contrast.  It doesn’t reach the level of complete silliness – millions upon millions of dollars buy that much – and it’s not enough to completely kill the movie, but there’s still no getting past the obvious.

This all comes to a head during the final duel between the Hulk and the Abomination, who is, of course, also rendered as full CGI.  Save for the moments when the camera cuts back to flesh and blood people trying to keep out of the way, this entire sequence feels less like the climax to a feature film than it does a cutscene for a very high end video game.

And yet…

Every hero movie is supposed to have a moment that makes the audience cheer.  Thanks to Edward Norton and Liv Tyler, The Incredible Hulk provides many, many moments that make the audience feel, but not cheer.  So here we are near the end of the movie, where pretty much anything human has been cast aside and what’s on the screen is less of a movie than it is part of a video game, and the opportunity for that one, great moment seems to be gone.  And then the script comes in once again to save the day.  Because of that, during a sequence which had up to that very instant felt just too entirely wrong, I spontaneously cheered.  I won’t completely spoil it for you; I’ll just say that the moment is absolutely iconic to the Hulk, and given the dramatic tone of the film overall, was quite unexpected but oh-so-fitting.

Speaking of fitting, one can’t walk away from a discussion of the Hulk in a forum that has “cheez” in the title without taking a moment to discuss… his pants.

The Hulk’s pants have always defied the laws of physics.  When Bruce Banner becomes the Hulk, he triples or quadruples in overall mass, and every article of clothing from his shirt to his shoes is shredded… except for his pants, which of course, are usually the first things to go whenever someone bulks up too much in real life.  The real reason for this is obvious, of course.  This isn’t Watchmen, after all, so we can’t have giant green plumbing swaying in the breeze, can we?  The Incredible Hulk makes a partial go of things.  The pants still expand, but when Banner wakes up as a normal person again, they don’t shrink back, and are so huge that they’d fall right off if he didn’t hold them up by hand.  Betty Ross takes a stab at practicality with it, actually buying Bruce a pair of “the stretchiest pants in the store,” though he refuses to wear them.  Perhaps it’s an odd thing to ponder, but what Hulk fan hasn’t?  (Abomination, by the way, does shred all of his clothing, but he is designed as having a partial exoskeleton, so that even though he’s naked, he has a built-in codpiece.  Either that, or the worst case of steroid genitalia in history.)

At the end of the day, it’s what you might not have been expecting from The Incredible Hulk that makes it a good movie.  There is definitely enough action to keep the audience from getting bored or forgetting that this is a hero flick, but it’s the drama that brings this one to the top of the mountain.  That’s also what saves it from the inevitable shortcomings brought on by what you were expecting: namely, a computer-generated cartoon thrashing about in a live action world.

Bottom line, I didn’t expect to like The Incredible Hulk very much, but instead, I came out blown away by everything it got right.  Too bad it suffers from the 21st Century curse of CGI, but, what are you gonna do, right?

There’s enough significance to some of the extras that come along with The Incredible Hulk that they’re worth a moment’s mention. 

First is the “alternate opening”, which features a suicidal Bruce Banner in Alaska.  Personally, I like the movie better without it; for one, it just doesn’t fit Banner, and two, it just doesn’t flow right.  (This, by the way, is where you’re supposed to have the little tease of finding a frozen Captain America, if you’re quick; probably best it wasn’t used, since we’d later find out that Cap didn’t crash in Alaska.  Nice tie-ins throughout the movie suggesting that the Hulk’s origins are an offshoot of the same line of experimentation that created Captain America, though.)

Then there are the deleted scenes.  The Incredible Hulk officially runs an hour and 52 minutes; if you tack on the two and a half minutes for the opening, the deleted scenes amount to an extra 45 minutes of footage.  Not the grainy stuff, either; this is all fully polished and ready to show.  Even noting that some of these scenes are extended versions of what was already used, you still get an extra third of the film’s initial runtime tacked on.  That’s impressive.

Overall, it’s easy to see why most were cut, however; the careful pacing that kept the drama from completely overtaking the action elements would have been destroyed with this stuff kept in.  But it’s definitely worth watching after the fact.  About half of the material expands on the “my old boyfriend was better than my new boyfriend so I have to go with him now, see ya!” subplot of Betty Ross taking off with Bruce; it only further enriches the depth of feeling one already could perceive between the two characters.

Oh, and that Avengers tie-in scene you might have been expecting at the end of the credits on the regular movie?  It isn’t there.  The editors put it before the credits, instead.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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