The Hulk franchise, take two
If the Incredible Hulk isn’t a better film than Ang Lee’s The Hulk (which, for the record, I enjoyed), it certainly is more satisfying. In this latest iteration we finally get to see Hulk smash with aplomb; there are many, smart easter eggs for fanboys to find that also don’t get in the way of average viewers’ enjoyment; and Edward Norton is just an all-around better actor than Eric Bana, and more appropriately cast as well.
Norton’s Bruce Banner here is an inversion of his unamed character in Fight Club. Whereas in Fight Club, his character released his male frustrations through one-on-one combat and weird sex both as himself and through an alter-ego (Tyler Durden/Brad Pitt), in The Incredible Hulk, Norton as Banner spends the movie learning to avoid both the fight and the sex, and it seems the alter-ego (HULK!) is the only one capable of doing either.
Both versions of Hulk infantilize Banner to some degree, but I’d say Incredible Hulk does it better — more effectively and with less hammers hitting our heads. Ang Lee’s version was heavy with Oedipal father issues and featured a mesomorph Banner riding a small bike with a stupid safety helmet. This new one places a skinny Banner in clothes many sizes too big for him and unfashionable even if they did fit. Functionally, this is so he’ll still be wearing pants should he Hulk-out, but in effect it renders him as a little boy in ill-fitting hand-me-downs. There’s a great little moment where Betty Ross/Liv Tyler adjusts his cap and Norton mutters “too tight, huh?” It wonderfully recalls a first day at school, taking place on a University campus as Ross is reluctantly sending Banner away into the world.
The (non) sex scene with Ross is the most recognizable instance of this, which I see as infantilizing rather than desexualizing (as I’ve noticed it’s being labelled on some blogs). It’s not a scene of impotence, as Banner can clearly be excited and is desireable to the opposite sex. Rather, he is afraid of being TOO excited and the problems this will cause. You could say he’s afraid of the power of his phallus (which would make Hulk his big angry penis), but really, I think this scene is ultimately just a nod to fanboy speculation the likes of “Dude! How does Superman fuck Lois without KILLING HER?”
It’s ultimately a mistake. Banner’s Hulk-outs were about anger. True, the comics have featured many versions of the Hulk and what causes the Hulk, but at the core of the character’s mythology was always the anger issue. That’s where Ang Lee got it right, even if he didn’t construct the best movie around it.
This new film says Banner Hulks-out over excitement of any kind. It’s a matter of mastering your adrenaline which, though it leads to some exciting chase sequences where the obstacles are Banner’s heartrate and breathing patterns as much as they are cars and balconies, is ultimately a shallow concept. Banner lives life like any old dude with a heart problem, instead of a forever-repressed beast-within-all-of-us. I should concede that the film’s opening martial arts sequences are a great depiction of Banner’s repression issues, but it is not much later that we realize it’s not about not losing your temper, it’s about keeping your heartrate low.
The film uses two neat devices to measure and communicate the importance of Banner’s pulse: a watch that he wears to track his heartrate, and a title card that tracks the “days without incident”, i.e. how many days since the Hulk took over Banner’s body. I love both of these devices in the way they shape viewer expectations and add suspense, and also because they are both somewhat hokey and perfect for an elevated B-movie.
While it’s un-rewarding as a concept, Norton as an actor makes these heart-rate scenes shine. When the martial arts instructor teaches Banner to breathe and then slaps him across the face and instructs him to stay cool, Norton’s facial expression is in wonderful conflict. You see clearly both the rage and the suppresion of the rage. Simultaneously, Norton is a dude with tempermental problems and also a Zen master. I don’t know how he does it, but he does it consistently throughout the movie.
Unfortunately, Norton’s strengths highlights the supporting cast’s weaknesses; Liv Tyler’s reliance on merely whispering to convey affection and to position her on the balancing scale opposite Hulk; Tim Roth’s exaggerated, and very un-military like, swagger; William Hurt’s lack of any nuance; Tim Blake Nelson’s Bat-villain level manic mannerisms (the film is also Blake Nelson’s origin as a villain for, I guess, the franchise’s next installment). They aren’t bad performances, but they aren’t the level they could be, especially given the pedigree of Roth and Hurt.
The film works very well overall but its parts work against each other. It’s a Big Picture movie — it successfully erases Ang Lee, restarts the franchise, gives us a star who shines, deftly sets up several plots for possible sequels and other Marvel movies (Super Soldier serum! “Canadian hunters”! Dr. Sampson! The Leader!) and excitingly positions Hulk to play a part in Marvel’s building movie universe (The Avengers!). It doesn’t work as cohesively as Iron Man did, isn’t as thematically rewarding as Ang Lee’s version, but in the end, The Incredible Hulk serves all its goals and does a bang-up job of it. I ain’t mad at it.
You wouldn’t like me if I was mad at it.