Thursday, June 19, 2008

‘Hulk’ do-over gives the fans what they want

The fanboys got what they wanted. So did Marvel Studios, the Hollywood-based corporate sibling of Marvel Comics.

The fanboys wanted a Hulk movie that was non-stop action, with none of the pesky psychological drama and fancy editing of Ang Lee’s “Hulk” getting in the way. If there’s one thing they’ve made clear during the past five years, it’s that they didn’t appreciate Lee’s attempt to do something artistically ambitious with Marvel’s Grumpy Green Giant.

I’ll say this: There’s nothing remotely psychological about Marvel’s do-over, “The Incredible Hulk.” In terms of plot, this movie is about as thick as the Hulk’s skull. But that doesn’t prevent it from being a decent enough summer action movie. It just doesn’t aspire to be anything other than a decent summer action movie.

Marvel Studios, meanwhile, wanted a second hit to carry forward the momentum its first in-house production, “Iron Man,” generated last month. And Marvel’s studio executives must be pleased with a $55 million, No. 1 opening.

But let’s put things into a bit of perspective. Lee’s unfairly maligned 2003 version also opened at No. 1 and grossed about $8 million more during its opening weekend than the new model did. The only thing director Louis Leterrier’s 2008 edition has going for it is the lack of a fanboy backlash, which should soften the second-weekend drop-off that doomed Lee’s film at the box office.

If “The Incredible Hulk” has the legs that Lee’s adjectiveless “Hulk” lacked, Marvel’s plan for a multi-character franchise will be in good shape. If not, Marvel Studios may be holding its breath until 2010, when “Iron Man 2” and “Thor” are set to open.

Honestly, there is a lot to like about “The Incredible Hulk,” and if I seem overly hostile to it, it’s because my own inner fanboy is also a bit of an art-movie snob, and I still haven’t gotten over the drubbing comic-book fans gave “Hulk.” To me, the Hulk’s alter ego, Bruce Banner, is the more interesting character of the two, and Lee’s movie grasps that. The Hulk is Banner’s abused inner child throwing a tantrum — a literal “monster of the Id,” to quote the 1950s sci-fi film “Forbidden Planet.”

As played by Edward Norton, however, Banner isn’t particularly tortured. He just has an unusual medical problem. There is no real reason for his alter ego to be so angry, apart from constantly having to fend off an Army unit led by Gen. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt).

Ross wants to capture the Hulk and find out what makes him tick, so that he can use it to create super soldiers. As an added complication, Ross is also the father of Banner’s estranged love interest, Dr. Betty Ross (Liv Tyler).

Drawing more from the “Incredible Hulk” TV show starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigo than from the comic books, the film shows Banner in hiding, taking menial jobs and searching for a cure for his condition. That is, until Ross and Capt. Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) track him down. Then it veers off into virtually nonstop action scenes: Banner vs. commandos, Hulk vs. commandos, Hulk vs. the Army and, finally, Hulk vs. Blonsky, who uses a cocktail of super-soldier serum and Banner’s blood to turn into the equally hulking Abomination.

All of those combinations work well, except for the last one. Fight scenes should amount to more than two CGI cartoon characters pounding each other.

But “The Incredible Hulk” makes even my jaded inner fanboy smile by placing itself firmly in the larger Marvel Universe. Scattered throughout, if you know where to look, are references to other Marvel characters like Captain America and Nick Fury. The film also cleverly sets up the villain for the sequel.

Best of all, however, is Robert Downey Jr.’s uncredited cameo as Tony Stark — aka Iron Man.
Still, when the best thing about a movie is the actor who reminds you of a better movie, maybe there’s a problem.

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