What do you get when you cross a serious actor like Edward Norton with a summer mega-hit? Maybe "cross" isn't the the best descriptor. This Frankenstein's top half is Norton-fueled character drama, while the lower end is all CG car-tossing. The Incredible Hulk manages to keep its continuity pants on, tattered though they may become. (Speaking of pants, this flick really makes a point of exploring how the Hulk finds a way to keep them on in spite of drastic size changes.)
This is no origin story. We find an already Hulk-infected Bruce Banner living in a claustrophic, densely populated town in Brazil seeking a cure for his condition. One of the best moves this film makes is to place pre-transformation, panicky Banner in close-quartered chase scenes. With the surroundings closing in, the suspense of the Hulk's inevitably emerging mass increases.
He fails at curing his gamma sickness—which is what causes the green giant to appear—and evades capture by the U.S. military. Banner makes his way back to girlfriend Betty Ross, a brainy Liv Tyler whose secret powers include a monster pout and a dewy look of childlike wonder. That and her ability to calm and tame her occasionally rage-filled man.
The details are filled in with the first military-guy conversation about how the accidental creation of the Hulk was part of a U.S. plot to make a super-soldier. From this point forward, it's pretty obvious what track the film is on. Of course, an old, leathery soldier (Tim Roth) wants a little of the super juice for himself. And, of course, he turns into a monster like the Hulk, but uglier and meaner. And the Hulk has to go in and fight to help the very military that's been chasing him around for most of the movie. Send in one monster to battle the other. It happens. Just ask King Kong and Godzilla.
The big fight scenes are decent eye candy because, as always, the Hulk is a dumb, carnal fistfight kind of guy. Even so, the wealth of possibility in a good old-fashioned "Hulk smaaaash!" wilts unexploited. Maybe filmmakers are holding back so there's still something left for the sequel. Or maybe they just ran out of CG budget.
Comic franchises often labor under the burden of having so many differing incarnations of their character out there. Born in 1962, the Hulk’s been the focus of a comic, a TV series, made-for-TV movies and an animated series. Only five years ago, Ang Lee directed Hulk, though 2008’s The Incredible Hulk completely ignores that movie and instead attempts to reboot the Hulk mythos.
Who is the Hulk, really? Is he a dull-witted, accidental do-gooder? Is he a beast trying to restore his human elements? Is he selfish? Is he an abomination? These are questions of intent. A brief conversation between Banner and sweetie Ross begins to approach the subject. Banner doesn't want to control the Hulk; he wants to get rid of him.
Still, at the end of the day, something's missing. Banner finally wraps up his dilemma inside three or four lines of dialogue, but it's hard to say why. The Incredible Hulk will be pretty good for most audiences, comic book fans or otherwise. But it's doubtful that it will really wow anyone the way Batman Begins did three years ago.
This comic book adaptation succeeds because Marvel picked the right man for the job. Norton's intensity brings a buoyant brutality to the screen à la Fight Club, just as Iron Man’s Robert Downey Jr. added his perfect blend of flippant party-boyishness with hints of broodiness. But let’s just say the final moments of The Incredible Hulk become an unsatisfying advertisement for future Marvel films.