Film Review: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

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In a lot of ways, The Incredible Hulk is the red-headed stepchild of the whole Marvel/Avengers franchise. It was a necessary re-invention for bringing the entire Avengers team to life, but it was also re-booting Ang Lee’s polarizing cinematic version of the Hulk that had been released only five years earlier. The film had the lowest growth of all the Avengers films at a $134 million (less than half of Iron Man’s box office ), people continued to struggle with the massive CGI-concoction that is a “real-life” Hulk, and a number of critics and fans lambasted the film for jettisoning Ang Lee’s weirder, more psychological take on the character. Worse yet, Marvel then chose not to even invite the notoriously hard-headed Edward Norton to reprise his role, begging the question of how well this film even syncs up with the climactic Avengers film.

Which might make it slightly weird that I’m about to argue that it’s the best of the Avengers films.

Don’t worry; I know this is likely to be an unpopular opinion. You should also be aware that it’s admittedly a bit of a “homer” opinion; the Hulk has been my favorite superhero since I was a child, and I won’t even pretend the film’s ability to tap into that nostalgia isn’t a massive check in the plus-column for me. All those things aside, I firmly believe that The Incredible Hulk actually does the best job of any of the Marvel movies at accomplishing what it sets out to do: deliver a jam-packed, action thrill-ride that’s not too taxing on the brain. You won’t get any unnecessary origin stories here, no rambling action-less scenes of blasé character developments, no massive build-ups to half-hearted action climaxes. Incredible Hulk steps on the gas from the opening credits, leaving a hell of a mess of rubble, twisted metal, and bodies in its path.

This is all likely both in response to Ang Lee’s slower original film (which delivers a pretty tepid take on Peter David’s early 90’s “new Hulk” storyline), and the effect of hiring a straight-up action director (Louis Leterierr, of The Transporter films.) At the same time, Marvel was blatantly trying to return to a more classical, comforting version of the Hulk audiences might know better – the 1970’s Incredible Hulk TV series with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. So the film skips the needless intro, and we get Bruce Banner as we know him best – a man on the run. Banner hides in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, trading information back-and-forth with an anonymous online identity, trying to cure himself of his hulk-outs. At the same time, he realizes his transmogrificaiton to the hulk is largely brought on by increased heart rate, learning methods to keep that under control. Of course, as always, Banner doesn’t find himself in situations that allow for such exercises. A misplaced drop of blood later, and the U.S. military is knocking down his door, bringing the Hulk forward for an intense destruction of a local bottling factory.

And that’s the way the hulk should be. Fuck the gamma-radiated super-poodles from Lee’s Hulk; here, the Hulk finds himself at the perfect point between monster and hero, smashing his way through the military forces that consistently try to capture and experiment on him. (In keeping with the whole Avengers world, they actually want to use the Hulk to figure out the same super-serum that created Captain America.) If there’s one thing Leterier can do, it’s stage tight action sequences – whether they be foot chases through the crowded streets of Rio, smash-ups with hi-tech military tanks, or massive monster-on-monster fistfight that puts holes on the strip in Las Vegas. The Incredible Hulk offers up the carnage in spades, and Leterier shoots it so you feel it.

Admittedly, you can kick Norton around for not being as charming a leading man as Downey, but he sells Banner’s desperation in a way that makes you feel for him. You can complain about the CGI monster mash-up that ends the film, but the Hulk and the Abomination look as good as any other computer-generated comic book creation (and their fight plays better than Iron Man’s underwhelming robot-on-robot snoozefest.)  And both William Hurt and Tim Roth sell the menace in their villains better than Bridges does in Iron Man. So, for serious, I’m arguing that Incredible Hulk delivers the best action spectacle of any of the Avengers films. As for its flaws, well, they can’t all have RDJ in them.

 
That said, even if you find Incredible Hulk one of the weaker entries into the whole superhero movie pantheon, there still might be some reason to rejoice. Norton has now been switched out for Mark Ruffalo in Avengers, and all the film’s pre-release buzz has been singing the praises about how it finally really gets Banner and the Hulk right. I’m avoiding full reviews until I see the film, so I can’t tell you what they’ve changed. But I can say that no matter what they do different, it shouldn’t take away from the solid slam-bang action flick that The Incredible Hulk already is.

Rating: 3.75/5 ★★★¾☆ 

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About Josh_C

Josh has studied film at the Universities of Missouri and Florida, and he is currently studying horror film and popular culture in the Communication and Culture program at Indiana University. He has previously worked with the True/False Documentary Film Festival and the Ragtag Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and he served as short-term production assistant on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. He is currently working on a dissertation on independent horror, horror film festivals, and horror fandom; feel free to contact him to discuss any of the above! He is also studying Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).

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