Movie Review – The Incredible Hulk (2008)
by HELEN GEIB
The Incredible Hulk follows Iron Man as the second in a planned series of films produced by Marvel Enterprises and adapted from popular Marvel comic books. Scientist Bruce Banner and his super strong, rage-filled, green alter-ego The Hulk are the subjects of a long running comic book series (and appear in crossover stories in other Marvel series) and previous TV and movie adaptations. Prior success is a double-edged sword to a comic book movie. On one side is a loyal fan base and high public recognition of the title; on the other, the artistic constraints imposed by fandom-demanded fidelity to the source and the sometimes conflicting brief to create a work that will appeal to an essentially indifferent public.
That’s another way of saying that Hulk, like all comic book movies, must navigate the shoals of fan expectations and the demands of the general audience. Because it wants and attempts to be both a movie for fans and non-fans, it is to a degree two films in one. I came to it as a non-fan with no more prior knowledge than the average woman on the street in touch with popular culture. However, I saw it with a friend who is a serious Marvel comics fan and this review is written with the benefit of our post-movie discussion.
Hulk respects its fan base and wants to please it. The story and characters are faithful to the source and the movie retells popular and significant parts of the character’s origin story. In addition, the filmmakers work in a shout out to the fans in numerous places by including seemingly throwaway bits of dialogue or visual cues that fans are able to read as meaningful references to the comic universe.
Hulk also aims to please non-fans. The story is straightforward and uncluttered. (The in-references included to please fans are, almost without exception, unobtrusive and unlikely to alienate those not in the know.) There are several lavishly staged action sequences spaced at regular intervals. The principal human cast consists of three excellent actors, Edward Norton, William Hurt, and Tim Roth, plus the less accomplished, if much better looking Liv Tyler. A reasonably well-executed CG Hulk and antagonist the Abomination round out the main cast.
Unfortunately, in the desire to make a film that will be all things to all people, the filmmakers have smoothed out the complexities of the Banner/Hulk character to the point he is psychologically flat. The Banner of the comic is a tragic hero in a classical mold. He is a good man, but he is not psychologically whole; he has buried his darker impulses instead of coming to terms with and integrating them into his personality. The monster is a physical manifestation of the man’s sublimated rage and violent desires, a literalizing of a split personality. This characterization can be read into the film without violence to the fabric of the story, but it must be read in. Nothing in the film contradicts it, but nothing supports it either. Standing on its own, the film depicts Banner as just a likable average Joe who is the unfortunate victim of medical research gone wrong, and the Hulk as a purely physiological response to a nasty drug.
Hulk is unsatisfying to fan and non-fan alike because Banner’s dilemma, the heart of a serious and generally somber film, is not sufficiently dramatic or emotionally compelling. Comparison with Iron Man is instructive. Iron Man is unquestionably the better realized adaptation and the more entertaining film. Its principal strength is the characterization of Tony Stark (especially as it is realized in Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance). Stark is not a one-dimensional good guy. His character arc is dramatic and emotionally compelling precisely because he is a flawed man with both good and bad impulses and character traits. He is interesting. The Banner of The Incredible Hulk is not.