Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Incredible Hulk

I have a confession to make. I see comic books. In addition to being addicted to the wonderful world of living color, I read comic books like there is no tomorrow, and there won’t unless I find a way to stop spending twenty bucks a week on the damn things. That being said, I have no regrets, especially now that the powers that be (thank you Angels fans for getting the reference) are obliging my addiction and giving it new meaning with a string of mostly high quality comic book adaptations. Yes, some definitely fit into the black mark aisle of your friendly neighborhood assault on the psyche, but so far this summer we’ve had two solid adaptations that have shown me Hollywood is in fact capable of transporting a character, in this case a giant green snarling one, onto the big screen without screwing it up too badly.

Okay, I know I beat around the bush, so provided you keep reading this, which you obviously are, please bare with me. I am of course referring to the lean, green smashing machine known as The Incredible Hulk starring Edward Norton as the jolly green giant in hiding, Bruce Banner. I’ll admit, I have largely jumped on the Ed Norton band wagon, the guy does soft spoken, introspective and intelligent better than virtually anyone alive, a great pick for the eternally lonely figure that is everyone’s favorite gamma irradiated scientist. You can’t help but feel sorry for the guy, unable to stay in any one place, always hiding and running and jumping and on occasion, smashing.

Drenched in half tears and calling out to Stella, I cheered for Banner when the ever so lovely Liv Tyler came to his emotional rescue playing Betty Ross. But then of course I started actually listening to her speak and my eardrums started to hurt. Don’t worry, I wouldn’t pass the aforementioned judgment if the film overall, in a crunchy nutshell weren’t worthy of watching and keeping said nutshell down. That being said, listening to Tyler’s Betty talk is painful. Maybe she always talked that way but I seem to remember her Arwenian voice as more forceful and a little less annoying. A pretty face and compelling love interest I’ll give you, but she’s far more the hapless, clueless girlfriend than she is the brilliant and strong feminine influence. I have to fight back pity for her pitiless father, the thundering Thaddeus Ross of the ever charming William Hurt with his gleaming baby blues when Betty squeakily declares her love for Bruce and hatred of her father.

Then there’s my buddy Tim Roth playing the eternally despicable Emil Blonsky, destined to become the Hulk’s greatest nemesis, the Abomination. Roth nails power mad and angry, a scary, scary spook I sure as hell wouldn’t want on my tail. The same, unfortunately, can not be said of the way the script plots out his motives. Maybe there just wasn’t time to depict the aging warrior desperate to return to that which is wasted on the young. But then you just don’t feel it, the Oh Woah is Me, I’m Getting Too Old For This Shit! feels really contrived and hastily done. Then of course there’s the actual transition from spy to monster, (SPOILER ALERT) where Blonsky actually has a short period where he takes the super soldier serum that created Captain America in Project Rebirth back in WWII. Okay, I know that might not seem like the biggest of deals, but it kind of goes against one of the core principles of Captain America, that the super soldier serum was lost the night he was created. The pain ends abruptly when Blonsky turns scaly and green, an Abomination that tears up the streets of Manhattan where he is promptly challenged by that most lovable of unstoppable smashing machines, the raging beast within, the Mr. Hyde to Banner’s Jekyll, you get the idea.

The fight between the two monsters is one hell of a slugfest, but it’s also one of the weirder beat downs in superhero history. Not weird in terms of viewing pleasure, they do in fact beat the living crap out of one another and the innocent pavement around them. But the climactic finale like the rest of the films action sequences seem a little, well, not incredible enough. There is no question that these are two horrifically powerful creatures, but you never get the sense that they are the two most physically powerful beings in the entire universe. To the mayhem artist lurking deep inside, they just don’t do enough damage, and neither seems like they’re capable of lifting skyscrapers and taking on whole armies.

Blonsky’s Abomination is lovably loathable, but post transformation it’s difficult to see the man-monster inside. It’s possible for audiences unfamiliar with the back story to actually think Blonsky is gone and Abomination is all that remains where in fact, the Abomination is the antithesis of the Hulk, retaining his full intellect in his transformed state.

For better or for worse, that most lovable of green goliaths has exactly six words, count ‘em, in the entire film. The first three absolutely capture the ever present theme of the Hulk in needing to be left in peace, and the other three are pretty great geek outs. The only problem is they’re also incredibly random, grunting and snarling for the bulk of his giant green tongue movements, you really have to wonder why they’d put in those lines when they did. There just doesn’t seem to be any point unless the Hulk said it more often. Instead, they seem to have spent the entire movie saying “wait for it, wait for it,” by the time they give the go ahead, it comes across as incredibly random.

What isn’t random is the story, a wonderful cinematic homage to the original Bill Bixby television show of the same name. You feel genuinely sorry for Banner and really hope he’ll find some semblance of solace. You care for his character on a deep emotional level, heartstrings and all. The Incredible Hulk is quite simply a good story, complete with believable plot, good action and compelling acting.

But therein also lies some of the problem. The movie feels like a good story, but not necessarily a good comic book story. They try their darndest to tie it in with the larger Marvel Universe like Iron Man before it, but the emotional connection is never made. You feel and hope and cry and occasionally chuckle, but there is never any of the amiable humor, the p’nash, the sense of wonderment that accompanies even the darkest of Marvel comic books.

Perhaps it’s the unique nature of the Hulk himself, a lonely antihero instead of just a regular hero. That status may very well make the translation of all the wonderment difficult from page to screen. Whatever the reason may be, those moments that should be funny barely manage a chuckle. You know it’s supposed to be funny but it just, isn’t.

Ultimately, Incredible Hulk does in fact affirm my faith in Hollywood. It may not be the best of comic book movies, but it is enjoyable. The story is compelling and the action is well, incredible. I’m looking forward to seeing what the actors can do with more time to develop and grow and growl.

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