14 June 2008

hulk smash... hit?



I loved The Incredible Hulk TV show. Sure, I wasn't old enough to watch it when it was actually on, but I've caught plenty of episodes on reruns. Day-long marathons of the show on the Sci-Fi Channel are a fond memory of mine, and they were one of a very small number of things that I seriously considered skipping entire days of college for. There was something so powerful about Bill Bixby's lone hero, forced week after week to make some kind of positive difference in this world than shuns and fears him because of his curse, that change in his body chemistry that causes a startling metamorphosis to take place whenever he gets angry... It was such a '70s TV show, and it was such a B-show. But it was trying so hard, and it was cast so well.

I also was not at all blown away by Ang Lee's Hulk. It had its moments (and most of them involved Nick Nolte challenging Al Pacino for the coveted "most scenery chewed in one movie" award), but so do most movies, and it's not like I don't appreciate a sincere, somewhat-intellectual take on a superhero, but, just like Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, it was, for the most part, goddamn boring (I should comment on those few times that the movie broke up the image into a series of comic book-like panels - I really liked those. It gave the movie a visual identity that it otherwise terribly lacked). There was too little Hulk and too little adventure and too much father-son drama... it might've been interesting if it wasn't a Hulk movie, but it was supposed to be a Hulk movie, so it wasn't interesting.

I'd been unenthusiastically following news of a new Incredible Hulk movie for a while, but once I heard that Edward Norton (who would've been my preferred Joker, until I saw Heath's) was on board to play Bruce Banner, and the director of The Transporter had been signed to helm, I thought there was some real possibility for awesome. One of the unassailably best actors of his generation, paired with a guy who has a serious flair for action (not that Ang Lee doesn't, but he obviously allows himself to explore other aspects of his moviemaking... sometimes to the detriment of the movie) might mean that we finally would get the Hulk movie we deserved.

I've never had much of an opinion on Liv Tyler, for good or for ill. She's always been pretty good in the movies I've seen her in, but those movies have rarely been better than competent (Weekend at McCool's, for instance, was not even approaching competent, while the Lord of the Rings movies were obviously more than competent, but she didn't really show up much after Fellowship). It takes an actress of some skill to play Betty Ross, I think, because it's pretty much a given that you're not going to have a lot of material to work with, so you have to be good enough to rise beyond your character's limitations. Jennifer Connelly is a good enough actress to do that (did she? That's debatable), but Liv Tyler? I figured I'd wait and see.

Tim Roth? Sure, fine. No complaints here. William Hurt? I can't think of a movie I've seen him in where I was wishing his part was played by a different actor. I certainly wasn't as excited for The Incredible Hulk as I was for Iron Man (maybe the best superhero origin movie ever? Can I say that in a world where Richard Donner's Superman was made? I'm going to say yes), but it looked as though the pieces were finally falling into place. Finally, maybe the Jade Giant, the Green Goliath, the Hulk was finally going to get the movie he deserved.

Then, the kicker: Leterrier's a fan of the show. See? How could I doubt it after that? The guy's a man after my own heart. Not even word that Norton and Leterrier were feuding with the producers, with the studio, and were complaining that the movie we were going to get wasn't the best it could've been. As a fan, it somewhat pains me to admit this, but I don't need the best possible Hulk movie. I just want a good Hulk movie, with smashing throughout.

Despite the depressingly predictable fact that I was the only person in my close circle of friends that was even halfway excited for the movie, I remained steadfast in my belief that maybe, just maybe, it would be enjoyable, and not in a, "Well... It was interesting, I guess..." way.

Guess what? The movie delivered. It's not the greatest movie ever made, not even the greatest comic book movie ever made, but it was fun. Ever so much fun. A high-quality, B-sci-fi/action movie where a monstrous man-creature runs around, hitting things and tearing them apart.

When a movie like this gets made, where the budget isn't going to be all that high, and the writing isn't going to be all that great, the weight rests heavily on the shoulders of the performers (Bruce Campbell, anyone?). They didn't quite carry the day as thoroughly as RDJ, Mrs. Coldplay Guy and Terrance Howard, but the name actors in the movie, particularly Mister Tim Blake Nelson - who I'd say deserves a quirky show on USA if any of those quirky shows on USA were any good, they all brought their A-game to the project.

Norton, particularly, evoked the spirit of the old show in his portrayal of exhausted, scared, but still intractable Bruce Banner. Bixby played a worn-out hero as well as anyone before him, or since, has ever played it, but anyone who says that Bixby is a better pure actor than Norton is out of their mind. A Bruce Banner that must allow the world to believe that he is dead, until he can control the raging spirit within him, is key for a successful Hulk. Whether Norton will ever get the chance to bring his more character-driven Incredible Hulk to audiences is another question entirely, but I think it'd be a missed opportunity to prevent him from doing so.

All of the other performers probably deserve their own paragraphs, but I'm honestly getting tired of writing this posting, so I'm going to try and move onto other areas of the movie.

I think the story, while less than spectacular, was a far more servicible Hulk story than, say, the first movie. The Hulk is not the most sophisticated character in the history of American fiction; he, unlike the Batman, or Adam Warlock, does not really require a story with a morass of plot twists, character arcs, and spectacular revelations. As long as you can put him face-to-face with an interesting villain, give him opportunities to smash things, and allow him a moment or two with his lady love, the Hulk doesn't really require anything else. Well, a good sense of humor. Like with any good B-movie, a sense of humor is essential.

I've read a lot of people complaining about the CG for both Hulk and Abomination, and I can sympathize with their complaints. If you could generate a Hulk that could somehow split the difference between the realism of the man-in-green-paint Lou Ferrigno and gigantic digital Hulk, I could understand wanting to. This Hulk looks closer to the one we know and love from the comics, and, yes, he looks digital, but what do you really want: a fake-looking digital Hulk or a fake-looking Hulk costume? Both require serious suspension of disbelief, but one at least allows for the possibility of impossible, awesome stunts (not the costume). We've seen so much CGI at this point that we're pretty much desensitized to it, so it's really more what you're able to accomplish with the budget for digital effects than the fact that you have a budget for it.

The action was imperfect, sure. It built nicely until the end (getting bigger and bigger, raising the stakes), where it just sort of turned into two gigantic guys hitting each other on a roof. The Hulk is capable of so much more than that, and like some other movie reviewer said, when you have the whole of New York City to play with and break apart, you fucking use it. Like Mark Millar in the first Ultimates storyarc: if you can send the Hulk on a mad rampage across Manhattan island, you do it.

Of course, mentioning the RDJ cameo at the end of the movie is an opportunity that I can't pass up. In the same way that many of the best Marvel stories came out of the mixed universe in which the characters found each other (see the Busiek/Ross masterwork Marvels for an engaging explanation of just that), the Marvel movies sliding themselves in the direction of THE AVENGERS is an obviously fantastic choice. Visions of the Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, perhaps even Janet Van Dyne and her ex-husband Hank Pym, or the ever lovin' Hawkeye, or Magneto's children the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (should they choose to address that ever-present "mutant" question - actually, the hell with the Maximoffs. Give me Hank McCoy, whose portrayal by Kelsey Grammer was the sole highlight of the trainwreck that was X-Men: How Many Fucking Endings Does Brett Ratner Need?)... The possibilities are truly exciting.

Sure, The Incredible Hulk wasn't perfect, but it was a good [re]start. That's all I needed, and that's what I got.

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