In recent days, Universal's been running a TV spot for The Incredible Hulk that gives away what should come as no surprise to any fanboy worth his action figure collection: the appearance of Robert Downey Jr. as, natch, Tony Stark. From the delighted, deafening squeals of at least one sneak-preview audience, it's clear that the thought of an all-star Marvel Comics team-up is a not-bad-at-all idea. Say this much for Ang Lee and James Schamus, who tamed The Hulk and his acolytes into submission with a dreary, hulking take on Dr. Bruce Banner's rather unjolly green giant in 2003: Even they couldn't keep a good monster down.
Of course, it speaks to Universal execs' worries about the fate of the franchise that they've spoiled the spoiler for this complete reboot. For months, stories have circulated that the persnickety Ed Norton, replacing Eric Bana as The Hulk's timid alter ego, was demanding final cut over a screenplay he's said to have beefed up with chatty character-building sequences since excised. Add to that the critical drubbing Lee's take rightly received, and there's an inevitable and justly deserved fear: Hulk no smash. Cheers to lower expectations, then, because The Incredible Hulk is The Pretty Good Hulk. All things considered, of course.
It's still a superhero movie, with all the attendant noise and nonsense — and this time around, blessedly, the goofy geek's grin. (There are, at the very least, four tee-hee references to the old Bill Bixby series — including the use of Joe Harnell's "Lonely Man Theme," which everyone I knew in junior high could play on the piano.) The Hulk franchise has also bowed to the inevitable: the villain lifted straight from yellowed comic book pages, à la Spider-Man's Green Goblin, Batman's Joker, and Superman's Lex Luthor. In this instance, it's the Abomination, who made his debut in Tales to Astonish No. 90 way back in 1967. His origin's been altered, but Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth, yet another A-actor playing dopey dress-up) is more or less the same as his funny-paper predecessor, 'roided up and ready to rumble.
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Having dispensed with the origin story in the first film, the Incredible Hulk is born again. Bruce Banner's on the run, he turns into the Hulk, he smashes some stuff, he meets up with gal pal Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). Rinse, lather, repeat.
Ang Lee tried to mix the somber and the silly — and all he ended up with were wide-screen comic panels gone deadpan and limp. Director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, really) and screenwriter Zak Penn (X-Men: The Last Stand and the forthcoming Marvel march) have far less interest in inner angst; their fascination and affection lie with the outer kaboom, bringing action to action sequences that Lee staged with the embarrassment of an artiste slumming in pornography. Abetted by a Hulk who's far less glossy and hollow than his predecessor, which looked like a wet gummy bear on HGH, Leterrier takes full advantage of improved technology and sets his he-man smashing up and down Brazil, Virginia, and Manhattan — Harlem, to be precise, where it's most definitely Showtime at the Apollo. Oh, and the climax here isn't an afterthought, as it was in Iron Man.
Then again, unlike in Jon Favreau's film, which featured a far more interesting hero than Banner, you need that big bang here — that cathartic exclamation point at the end of a long story. And Norton, try as he does with an almost heroic effort to make Banner as interesting as his towering, verdure-shaded beefcake within, doesn't possess Downey's casual radiance. Which isn't even all that noticeable, 'til Stark shows up for his precious few moments of screen time to remind the audience of the all-too-obvious: Iron Man was just a superhero movie, too, but it was one that almost couldn't be bothered with the superhero part. It worked solely because of Downey — the unadorned, unfettered actor who was larger than life in nothing so much as a T-shirt and a smirk.
Norton's almost faced with a no-win proposition: He's a perfect Bruce Banner, actually — scrawny, guilt-ridden, beaten-down, and desperate to rid himself of the beast within. And the fanboys will certainly recognize him from the comic books, far better than they did Bana's brooding, bulked-up version. (Norton looks like he stepped right out of the funny pages, especially the recent Ultimates snark attack from which Marvel seems to be shaping its film franchise.) But Banner's a weakling in the comic books — to the point where writers have begun depicting him as suicidal, or almost eradicated him entirely. Which would have been just a wee bit problematic for Universal, who clearly wants another franchise to hawk. So the filmmakers and Norton trod the middle ground: Banner's just a guy trying to excise his more interesting better half, for which I believe there's therapy.