It turns out Marvel Studios knows how to make solid movies out of Marvel Comics. The production arm of Marvel Entertainment is 2-for-2 in 2008, hitting home runs with "Iron Man" and now "The Incredible Hulk." "Iron Man" has more wit and style, but "Hulk" is a neat thrill ride with an intelligent script by Zak Penn and smart, well-paced direction by the French director of "The Transporter" series, Louis Leterrier.
The film does represent a sea change from Ang Lee's "Hulk" in 2003, which had the temerity to delve into Oedipal conflicts, repressed memory and scientific hubris. This movie emphasizes action over introspection, but star Edward Norton, who reportedly tinkered more than a little with the script, makes certain the hero still broods over the curse of his cells poisoned by gamma radiation.
The film is poised to carry the weekend buoyed by an unbeatable combination of buzz and hype. The franchise is safe -- a worry because of the sharp drop-off after the opening weekend of Lee's film -- and at the end, the Marvel folks hint that they might be thinking of a way to team Iron Man with the green fighting machine.
The movie brightly starts off long after former scientist Bruce Banner (Norton) has turned himself into a freak show in an unwitting experiment that produces a man who when angered becomes a green monster many times his size. Bruce is hiding out in a Rio favela, learning Portuguese and working as a day laborer in a bottling plant. He is training to curb his emotions, a kind of anger management that is going well until his nemesis, Gen. Ross (William Hurt), shows up with a military unit led by Russian soldier-of-fortune Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth).
The first of the large-scale action scenes has Bruce chased through the hill-clinging shanty town before getting very angry. He then works his way back to the U.S., where his former girlfriend, Dr. Elizabeth Ross (Liv Tyler), the general's daughter, and a cellular biologist (Tim Blake Nelson) might hold the key for his return to normalcy.
Meanwhile, Emil is given treatments by scientists to turn himself into a foe on an equal footing to the Hulk dubbed the Abomination. As we wait for the inevitable showdown, Bruce struggles to shake off the mantle of his Hulkness. So the story -- a combination of the Frankenstein and King Kong myths -- essentially is about a man trying to escape his superpowers. Yet the movie keeps throwing at him villains -- first the general and then the Abomination -- that force him to continue being the Hulk.
Some silliness leaks into the story. You wonder why Dr. Bruce keeps worrying about a neighborhood being "safe." When a guy can turn into a creature that repels bullets and flips Humvees like Frisbees, what's to worry? There is even confusion about what triggers green episodes. Previously, anger was the trigger. But this movie more than suggests that sexual excitement can cause a metamorphosis, which is not the same thing.
The confrontation between the Incredible Hulk and the Abomination is a CGI pig-out, so all contact with story or characters is lost. But the film has built up enough good will to withstand this third-act letdown.
Production: Universal, Marvel Studios, Valhalla Motion Pictures. Cast: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, Tim Blake Nelson, Ty Burrell, William Hurt, Christina Cabot, Peter Mensah. Director: Louis Leterrier. Screen story/screenwriter: Zak Penn. Based on characters created by: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby. Producers: Avi Arad, Gale Anne Hurd, Kevin Feige. Executive producers: Stan Lee, David Maisel, Jim Van Wyck. Director of photography: Peter Menzies Jr. Production designer: Kirk M. Petruccelli. Music: Craig Armstrong. Visual effects supervisor: Kurt Williams. Costume designer: Denise Cronenberg. Editors: John Wright, Rick Shaine, Vincent Tabaillon.