The Marvel Marathon leading up to 2019’s “Captain Marvel,” etc continues with the most under appreciated installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), “The Incredible Hulk.”
Edward Norton is the best of the cinematic Bruce Banners. He plays the role smart and desperate, and that’s the purpose of Dr. Banner once he is left to be on the run following his unfortunate encounter with gamma radiation. Norton enhances a script credited to Zak Penn. As such, we are treated to the efforts of Banner to rid himself of the raging monster within. He communicates with a mysterious “Mr. Blue” by means of encrypted email as he hides out in the stacked, labyrinth tenements of Brazil. This setting presents an early high octave foot chase over rooftops and through narrow alleyways as Banner is pursued by General Thadeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, bent on using the hulk effects as a means to an develop an army of super soldiers. Banner knows nothing good can come of this and therefore has to run until he finds a cure. To make things more complicated, Banner must keep his true love, Betty, out of harm’s way. Betty is the General’s daughter.
Louis Leterrier directs under a lot of expectations following the unforeseen success of “Iron Man,” and before that, the disappointing bore delivered by Ang Lee with “Hulk.” For the most part Letterier gets it right. Three high stakes action scenes featuring both Norton as Banner and later as a very gritty, very angry and very strongly aggressive nine foot green monster are well choreographed blends of CGI and principle photography. A well cast adversary in the form of Tim Roth is great as he willingly gets experimented on to match the power of the Hulk. Roth plays Emil Blonsky as an eager soldier bent on getting superior to the might of the Hulk. Letterier shoots Roth gradually changing physically but more importantly in performance. The center of the film shows Roth sprinting across a college campus to confront the Hulk head on. He then demonstrates well presented agility with leaps over the Hulk’s head. It’s a great match up.
William Hurt plays the General. I’d never consider him for this part based on Hurt’s previous resume. Yet, if you put him in a camouflage uniform, slap a thick, silver mustache on him, and grizzle his voice, he works well in the part.
Like Jeff Bridges in “Iron Man,” the villains offered up by Tim Roth and William Hurt are another two of my favorites in the MCU. Again, they are not after world domination. One is motivated by the discovery of advanced power. The other is moved by misguided opportunity.
Not much can be said about Liv Tyler. She screams. She cries. She yells at a New York City cabbie and she gets to kiss Edward Norton.
What I like about this film is the approach from the beginning. The opening credits offer all you need to know, so that it can quickly jump into the action and the pursuit. Penn, Norton and Letterier dodge the go to origin story to tell us instead where Bruce Banner and the rest have left off. It’s efficient storytelling.
Letterier also cuts his action and attention to the Hulk quite well. Sure, we all want to see the Hulk but let’s see his ultimate power first. Letterier recognizes this is part monster movie. So when an early set piece takes place in a dark soda factory, we are quickly familiarized with the architecture and we believe the monster to be hidden under cat walks and in dark corners ready to swipe a thug leaving only a sneaker behind. Eventually you see his silhouette, followed by his eyes accompanied by a Lou Ferrigno growl and now you are sitting up at full attention. Later, Letterier sticks to a similar routine by showing an enlarged hand bursting from a gas cloud.
This iteration of the Hulk is the best. He’s dirty and built like a linebacker with shaggy green hair. His expression is of one “STOP BOTHERING ME AND LEAVE ME ALONE.” Compared to the later installments, this version is better. He’s not as clean, not as disciplined and thus we are more nervous around this Hulk than other Hulks we see in later films.
It’s still disappointing that Norton did not continue on with the role. I believe his “lonely man” interpretation, inspired by the late Bill Bixby’s TV version. A sad man in an unfortunate circumstance. Comparing his portrayal to Mark Ruffalo, the latter seems trapped in unconvincing dramatics. The internal conflict never seems that challenging to Ruffalo like it does to Edward Norton.
Though my only wish was that some unraveled threads (The Leader, The Abomination. Right, Marvel fans?) were not left unresolved in later MCU films, as an actor with several dual personality roles on his docket (“Primal Fear,” “Fight Club,” “The Score”), Norton is the better Banner, and its because of Norton, Tim Roth and William Hurt that “The Incredible Hulk” is really one of the better Marvel pictures.
A Favorite Stan Lee Cameo: What happened after he drank that soda????