The excellent comic book review and discussion web site iFanboy recently released a vlog interview with Marvel comics Godfather and mascot Stan Lee. One of the questions asked of Lee, creator of such heroes as Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four, was what one creation of his, and long-time partner Jack Kirby, surprised even him with its level of success? His answer begrudgingly was The Hulk.
To that I say "of course," because the Incredible Hulk is the most uninteresting high-profile superhero in the Marvel universe, and I have always thought that. Always. (Sniff.) What? What is it? Okay, okay ... I may have gone back home over the Memorial Day weekend, and I may have opened up some of my long boxes from out my bedroom closet in order to read a few of the comic books of my youth, and maybe one of those boxes had about a 3-to-1 ratio of Hulk books to other books--annuals, team-ups, special cover editions, the whole nine. Apparently the 33 year-old me--cool as hell and snob to the end with my volumes of Scott Pilgrim and Criminal by the issue--had to face up to the 12 year-old me with his shiny flattop and Hulk-fetish.
Back-story: Hulk in the comics
So what were the root-causes for this early fascination of mine with the Hulk? Well first of all, at that time he was grey. Sometimes it's that simple (especially when you're 12). There was this period in the late 80's when Marvel comics returned the Hulk to his original grey skin. Original because famously Stan Lee requested that the colorist make the Hulk's skin grey for issue #1 of the series but because of difficult color combinations it wound up as green, which stuck. Kids who read comics -- and by kids I mean 30 year-old men -- can't resist two things: superhero costume changes (Spidey's black suit) and changes in a superhero's physical appearance (Thor's beard) ... oh, and Power Girl. Okay three things! Its always been a go-to move for both major publishers, DC and Marvel, and if you don't believe me, go pick up the most recent editions of The Incredible Hulk and you'll notice he's red now.
The other reason for my early regard for the Hulk had to do with the writer at that time, Peter David. David picked up the book in 1987, then established a seminal 12-year run of stories that changed and defined the character in the comics. His implication for the color switch was that when Hulk was grey, instead of green, he was more cunning but a little less savage or strong. He would constantly plot ways to rid himself of his weak alter ego Bruce Banner. Part of that run was also defined by the early artwork of Spawn creator Todd McFarlane. Their stories riffed on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic Jekyll and Hyde, and it fueled storylines for years, reclaiming along the way a degree of terror that had been absent; and terror is, I think, they key to any good Jekyll vs. Hyde scenario such as with the Hulk. In fact it's legendary comic book creator Alan Moore who set forth the best example with his depiction of the original Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde character in the pages of his landmark comic book The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Now, if you want to talk about comic book movies gone wrong, that just might be the best (or worst) example.
And what about that Hulk movie? First of all, it may be confusing to some that there was already a movie called Hulk that came out in 2003, and that, for some reason, none of those actors are in this one. That movie starred Eric Bana and was directed by Ang Lee. It got mixed reviews at best and then faded away with no talk of a sequel. This new film, The Incredible Hulk is not a sequel. It's its own thing, hence the entire change in cast and director. When Marvel Comics took control of its superhero properties and launched Marvel Studios, The Hulk was one of those properties they were eager to reintroduce to Hollywood. Why? There's been plenty of Internet swirl since the premiere of Iron Man that Marvel has planned a major rollout of 5-6 superhero movies, including an Iron Man 2 and a Thor movie, that will miraculously culminate in an all-star Avengers movie, starring all relevant actors from the previous films. Indeed, it's rumored that Robert Downey Jr. makes a cameo appearance in this new Hulk and the Sam Jackson cameo at the close of credits for Iron Man added kerosene to an already well-lit sun. I for one am seriously withholding enthusiasm for the chances of all this, but in any case, Marvel clearly would want the popular Hulk to play a role in their plans.
But if you're of a certain generation, even the earlier big-budget Hulk movie doesn't hold a candle to the definitive portrayal of the green beast, across any medium. It was the '70s TV show starring Bill Bixby as Bruce Banner and Lou Ferrigno as Hulk that best depicted the character. Bixby was the frail loner, working off-the-books jobs in no-name towns, who was constantly chased by fearful authorities and haunted by his much darker side. Right out of the gate, the new Incredible Hulk movie poster captured some of that lonely man angst in the movie poster. A good indication, to be sure, but there are other equally troubling things to consider.
The Ole' CGI Special
As I mentioned before, Iron Man had a built-in advantage of technical believability when it came to special effects. All of Tony Stark's superpowers are technology-based. The Hulk has almost as much a disadvantage in this respect. It's much easier to believe in a flying robot than a 600 lb. green muscle man. Judging from the trailer, they've done a better job at it than in Ang Lee's attempt, but even still there are limitations. The Hulk's skin is still rubbery and synthetic-looking, his ripped pants look painted-on, and the action sequences are derivative of most any video game. There is also one outlandishly bad CGI scene from the trailer when Ed Norton, strapped to a surgeon's table, begins convulsing and his skin stretches and undulates to suggest he's getting ready to turn. It looks like they took CGI they used in Flubber and tried to remake the movie Inner Space. According to his filmography, the director Louis Leterrier doesn't have much experience dealing with large amounts of CGI in storytelling but that's not automatically a knock. What is a knock is he directed both Transporter movies. Even in the Hulk, there's not likely to be anything as unbelievable as the plane crash scene in Transporter 2. Spoiler!
But here's the interesting observation: the Hulk looks weirdly handsome. Yes he's beefed up, raging and green but there's also a Hellenistic quality to the face. It forms boldly, unlike what you'd expect for an ogre. The Hulk's eyes are white, not green or red as in many comic book depictions, and his haircut makes him look like a buffed up emo kid. It's like Conor Oberst got struck with gamma rays at a Sunny Day Real Estate concert. A more handsome Hulk, I think, reflects a choice in the movies tone that I'll pick up on in a bit.
Tell Me A Story
What is the Hulk, anyway? Is he a hero, an anti-hero, or a manifestation of humanity's inhumanity? At the most interesting point in the Hulk comics -- the Peter David run, especially -- Hulk was always the villain and the hero -- a semi-intelligent brute who despised his alter-ego Bruce Banner for his weakness and who only helped others begrudgingly and out of some self-gain. If we loved him, it was when his ugly brutishness drove him to some heroic endeavor. Hulk as hero is much more in the >Jake LaMotta mold than, say, Rocky Balboa, and that's not exactly a mold definitive of a classic summer movie hero.
Considering those varying degrees of heroism at play, it takes a sophisticated hand to steer such a ship. It's why I was actually a fan of the Ang Lee version from 2003. It wasn't the perfect movie (fighting gamma-irradiated dogs for example) but the overall moodiness of the story, and the macabre performances turned in by Nick Nolte and Jennifer Connelly, made for an a-typical comic book movie. The big error was casting the studly Eric Bana as Bruce Banner, a character traditionally frail -- it's a problem that the new Hulk has done well in avoiding, but more on that later.
In terms of actual plot, this Hulk movie aims to split the difference of Hulk's propensity for heroics and villainy. The first part of the movie it would seem he is more of a villain, despised not only by Bruce Banner who is actively seeking a cure but also hunted by the army and General Thunderbolt Ross (the cryptic William Hurt). Norton stays on the run looking for a cure to the effects of the gamma radiation that created this monster, aided by his one true love Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). As I can imagine, all of this leads to the second half of the story -- the eruption of The Abomination, who is exactly his name. An even more powerful, gamma-irradiated monster, much more savage and far uglier. My personal preference would have been to see Hulk battle with another of his arch villains, the Leader, a gamma-irradiated foe who gained mental power and an oversized head from the radiation rather than brute strength. Regardless, it's been foretold that the closing fight sequence in the movie between the Hulk and Abomination runs nearly 20 minutes and that Edward Norton and the studio disagreed on the tone of the overall picture, with Norton rumored to have lobbied for a more cerebral, psychological story. With a 20-minute fight scene, you might guess who won that fight.
Greatest American Hero
Iron Man had one absolute thing going for it from the beginning, perfect casting. Robert Downey Jr. was made to play Tony Stark, and it showed up on screen. Likewise, Hulk upped its pedigree by casting a serious, complex actor in the lead role. Ed Norton makes for a great Bruce Banner not only because of his acting chops, but also his physical frame. Unlike Bana, Norton is slight, wiry, and exudes an intelligence befitting a scientist of Dr. Banner's caliber. Also, Banner is slightly crazy. He's an oddball in society; what you'd expect from a genius lab technician. A man whose tender psyche may erupt into a rage-out on par with an earthquake, you need to have the sense that Banner is always a little off kilter. It's exciting and terrifying that way. With Ed Norton, you have an actor who has already proven that kind of range. His performances in American History X and Fight Club stand as testaments.
But here's the problem: for all of Norton's acting and believability in this world, the main draw is the raging green giant. Even when Iron Man was in his armor, it was Downey's voice you heard. Superman is Superman when he flies, Batman the same. When Banner turns into the Hulk, there's nothing left for Norton to contribute. It wouldn't necessarily be bad if, say, Peter Jackson were director of the movie. Peter Jackson is not the director. We have to spend the key moments of this movie -- the ones that are bringing asses to seats -- caring for Hulk, not Bruce Banner. So the first, middle, and last burden of this movie is -- even with pedigree actors and whopping special effects -- does the Hulk have a heart? If the answer is "yes," we can all start to look forward to that 2012 Avengers: Initiative movie. If not I hope at least they turn him grey.
To read our reviewer's take on the new Hulk movie, click here!