by Tony Dayoub
Place me firmly in the camp of those that think that Ang Lee's Hulk (2003) is almost criminally underrated. Bringing his art house sensibilities to the project, Lee chose to focus on the complex, rage-filled father and son relationship that fueled Bruce Banner's anger management issues.
Giving it an icy counterpoint in the father-daughter relationship between his girlfriend and her dad, the movie dug beyond the superficial gamma radiation explanations of the comic book origin. Instead it showed the underpinnings of Banner's rage to be firmly rooted in real world psychology. And the film managed to tell its tragic story without ever forgetting its graphic heritage, with Lee choosing to frame the images in a dynamic, split-screen effect that replicated the artistic masterworks of a Steranko or an Eisner, masters of the comic book panel layout.
The movie failed to meet expectations at the box-office making only $132.2 million domestically after a rousing opening of $62.1 million in its first weekend. Much of the blame was laid on the feet of Lee, though I feel he was only the scapegoat for Marvel's ambitious plans for the Green Goliath. After all, if there was one franchise where they could afford to be a little riskier, it was this one. The Hulk was a property that was pre-sold even beyond such other Marvel heroes as Spider-Man or the X-Men. Those characters had been successful on the page, yes. But the Hulk had been successful on TV for five seasons in a popular series with a beloved actor, in Bill Bixby, as its lead. Marvel's directive, however, was to ignore the TV show, and be faithful to the comics. Poor Lee was blasted in the fan community for committing what amounted to an act of heresy (by the same fanboys who lash out at film producers for casting a blond instead of a dark-haired 007), for doing what fans generally prefer in these types of movies, sticking to the established comic book continuity.
When the idea to revisit the character was introduced, great pains were taken to assure its success. The fans were assured this would not be an art house retread of their beloved idol, but rather an action-packed take on the monster. The motivations behind the Jekyll and Hyde metamorphosis would be left unexamined, in favor of getting down to the nitty-gritty hulkouts that were being clamored for. I was holding my breath, unhappy that what was essentially being said was that the movie would be dumbed down for its target audience. Was it really necessary? Especially since comic fans long for the day when their favorite medium will earn the respect of others as a viable and thriving mode of delivering artistic masterpieces on the order of Alan Moore's Watchmen or Maus by Art Spiegelman?
The Incredible Hulk opened on June 13th, and guess what? The reviews weren't bad. But they were a bit in the backhanded compliment vein. Glenn Kenny, formerly of Premiere, but now blogging at Some Came Running wrote, "some CGI issues aside, it was a credible (ar ar ar) enough action thriller in the contemporary commercial comic-book-adaptation mode, and that its quality is such that it'll be better received by audiences than its initial and persistent "bad buzz" had indicated." Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman writes that the audience "may not mind that The Incredible Hulk is just a luridly reductive and violent B movie — one that clears a bar that hadn't been set very high." Not bad, but certainly not great reviews.
Here are some ways Universal and Marvel Studios circumvented the fickle fans, and successfully course-corrected their struggling franchise to the tune of $96 million-plus and counting in only its second week at the box-office.
Hire an action film director. I don't know Louis Leterrier. I have never seen a Louis Leterrier film. But I do know this... Louis Leterrier is an action director. All I have to do is see a trailer for The Transporter or Transporter 2 or Unleashed, and I can tell he knows how to direct action. Now, does he know how to direct a performance?
Recast the entire movie with actors who won't let you down. That's not to say that the first cast would have let anyone down. You had Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Josh Lucas, Nick Nolte, and Sam Elliott as the villain, General Ross... wait a sec, Sam Elliott. I like Sam Elliott, but he's not exactly villainous. And Eric Bana is great but he won't open a movie the way Edward Norton does. Okay, Ed Norton it is. and for the villain? William Hurt. Throw in Tim Roth to support him. And Tim Blake Nelson to set up the inevitable sequel's next villain. Love interest? Liv Tyler's kinda hot, and she can act, too. Oh, and by the way, Norton loves the Hulk, so he can help you rewrite the script. He's a smart guy. He'll make it even better. Louis Leterrier (you must always say his entire name)? You worry about the action... these guys have got the performances covered.
Pay homage to the character that got the butts in the seats in the first place, stupid. That character was TV's Incredible Hulk, David Banner, not comic's Hulk, Bruce Banner. Little touches throughout the movie evoke the nostalgia of watching the well loved series. From an appearance by Bill Bixby on TV (in a rerun of another of his series, The Courtship of Eddie's Father) to original Hulk Lou Ferrigno as a security guard, to a cameo by intrepid reporter Jack McGee (here working for a college newspaper), to a blisteringly quick refresher on the Hulk's origin over the credit sequence (complete with blinking red Danger Light) that paraphrases the show more than the last movie, the film is targeted at the core fans of the show. Even the title pays respect to the series.
Hedge your bets by making this movie a reboot AND a sequel. Sure, it's a new movie... I know you didn't like the first one. Oh, you did? Well, it's a sequel. See how Banner ended up in South America at the end of the first one? He's still down there at the beginning of this one. And see how he became the Hulk while working on secret government projects for his girlfriend's dad at a University lab? He returns to the lab to find his girlfriend in this one... just ignore that this one is called Culver University while the original was Berkeley. That's just to throw off the folks who hated the first flick. Ala the 007 series, the films are loosely related and invoked on an as-needed basis only, in order not to load things down with too much continuity.
Remember, it's a comic book... play by comic book rules. Ah, but you like continuity. Well, this movie is for you. Starting with the opening credits, you see documents that belong to Stark Industries, and the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division or SHIELD, both organizations that appear in Marvel's other 2008 film Iron Man. You have Banner seeking help from an expert in gamma radiation, Dr. Samuel Sterns, fated to become one of Hulk's arch-enemies, the Leader, in the comics and presumably the next film. Ex-girlfriend, Betty Ross's new boyfriend? Well, I believe they cut out the explicit reference to his name, Dr. Leonard Samson. A noted psychologist, he later becomes the green-tressed hero, Doc Samson. And Tim Roth's Emil Blonsky is warned by Sterns that he may become an "abomination" if he chooses to test one of Stern's serums in combination with the Super Soldier serum given him by General Ross. The Abomination is Hulk's greatest comic book opponent.
Get an assist from your bona fide, genuinely more successful superhero younger brother. Want to get fanboys into your less than promising new superhero flick? Bring your star hitter to the party. Iron Man is the first film of 2008 to break the $300 million mark. So when Marvel started promoting that Robert Downey, Jr. would appear at the end of this movie as Iron Man Tony Stark, offering to help General Ross with a team he's putting together, the sound of millions of fans simultaneously reaching orgasm echoed throughout the land. Now that Marvel Studios has most of its characters under one roof, it's far easier to cross-pollinate franchises, like they do in comics. Word is, that Thor and War Machine will be spun off into their own films after appearing in Iron Man 2. They'll all be reunited in The Avengers, the story of that super-team Stark and SHIELD's Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) are putting together to stop the rampage of... you guessed it, the Hulk. Luckily, since the Hulk is CGI you don't really need Edward Norton to return for that one.
Leak info to the press, no matter how untrue it actually is. Apparently, Edward Norton was going to be conspicuously absent from the promotional tour for the film since he was unhappy with a number of his script ideas being ultimately discarded from the film. Nothing like getting a lot of free promotional mileage out of actor vs. studio controversy. And the press was all over it. But wait, who's on Jimmy Kimmel promoting the Hulk on June 12th with a hilarious film making the YouTube rounds? And what about the widely promoted Captain America cameo rumors that circulated for days on the Internet (reported on Cinema Blend and Sci-Fi Wire) with Louis Leterrier only shooting it down after finding a way to flip it into a promo for the inevitable extended-cut DVD?
And given my appreciation for the Ang Lee version of the Hulk, what did I think of The Incredible Hulk? It wasn't bad, and it's an entertaining start to what appears to be a franchise with the potential to thrive for a long, long time.
This entry first appeared on Blogcritics on 6/23/2008.