June 13th, 2008

the incredible hulk posterCritic smash stupid Hulk movie

Those of you who saw the first Hulk movie back in 2003 will no doubt recall how Marvel’s less-than-jolly green giant was developed into a sensitive family drama in which Oedipal conflicts were fought out between an irradiated Bruce Banner and his amazing absorbing Dad who climactically transformed into a large translucent green green jellyfish as if to demonstrate the diffusion of phallocentric power in the face of sensitive new age masculinity. Or something like that.

Apparently, like the first outing, the current movie uses the TV series as a touchstone.
It is hard to believe that The Hulk TV series was, at the time, the longest running science fiction series in US television history at a staggering five seasons long and some made-for-TV movies. So it is not surprising that Marvel money men should share fond memories of the absurdly body painted Lou Ferrigno and the tedious premise that was nicked wholesale from the Fugitive. Ferrigno and Bill Bixby turn up in cameos but anyone hoping for a thought provoking drama about the impact of alcoholism, child abuse, corrupt zoo officials (insert issue of the week here) on middle American family life will be thankfully disappointed.

Stan Lee has a cameo too (‘natch), but blink (ho ho) and you might miss (not likely at all) the ridiculous sequence where he becomes the hapless victim of a bottle of soda contaminated by Bruce Banner’s gamma poisoned blood. I’ve long been adverse to scenes of people taking things from a fridge shot from inside the fridge since Hitchcock pointed out the problem of whose perspective the camera is taking. Think about that. It will keep you awake night after night after night.

This time out, there’s a real super villain in the form of Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky a.k.a. the Abomination. This is a good idea because seeing Ferrigno beat up on every day Joe’s each week just seemed like a form of abuse. The CGI creature lives up to all the expectations anyone could have of a CGI creature, but Roth’s performance as the swaggering man from the military is poorly judged.

It is hard to imagine that an officer with military training would slope about unshaven and adopt a chimpy gait no matter how much of a highly decorated loose cannon he is supposed to be. I can imagine Roth’s Stanislavkian method acting coach now- “Tim, baby, when you walk, walk like a man whose has seen too may battles, too many deaths and now, in the twilight of his career, reflects on his own mortality, his physical and mental scars and decides that what he really longs to be is a grotesque CGI monster that wants to throw a few cars around. Can you do that walk Tim? Can you do it for me? For the world?”

There’s plenty on show to satisfy the inner fan boy. The Abomination’s origin is tied in with the origin of Captain America who is mooted to be the focus of one of the forthcoming Avengers movies. The canisters of super-soldier serum are marked as sealed by a Dr Reinstein (aw). Unwittingly, Bruce Banner is sucked into the post WWII weapons development programme of which The Hulk is just the latest product. Sadly, The Hulk’s origin, told in a TV style montage over the opening credits, is based on the television series. A shame since, in the latest Indiana Jones movie, Spielberg pulls off a great sequence in which Indy escapes from a nuclear bomb test, which left me longing for the Gamma-bomb- Rick-Jones-rescue in the original Hulk comic.

incredible hulk number 1Looking back, it is hard to remember that The Hulk, after struggling through the cancellation of his own six-issue comic, went on to be a major star in the Marvel Universe. The Hulk was the prototypical Marvel superhero, a bravura mix of Universal Horror movies and 50s SF. The super hero genre is often talked about as if it never changed from the arrival of Superman, but in fact it has gone through a number of transformations since then. The Fantastic Four marked one of these transitions as the definition of hero morphed from a square jawed clean cut man’s man, to a variety of scientist geeks mutated by radiation and transmogrified into grotesques. Kirby’s original Hulk was heavy set, low browed and only came out at night- a plot wrinkle that only made sense if the readers’ expectations were derived from the conventions of gothic horror.

It’s tough to pick out exceptional runs of The Hulk comic, although cognoscenti enjoy Peter David’s version of the character in which the creature became a wise cracking bouncer for a Las Vegas night club. The Hulk has gone through a number of colour changes. There can’t be a fan who doesn’t know how the character was supposed to be grey but the early Sixties colour printing didn’t work so he became green with issue two. No one seems to have asked how Marvel managed to print grey rock monsters, androids and even buildings. Looking at the first issue again, it seems more likely that a number of dramatic lighting effects were attempted with the colouring and someone just thought green looked better-or made a mistake-or couldn’t be bothered.

In a bizarre marketing decision the current Hulk is a red Russian or, elsewhere, Hercules (don’t ask). So I can’t see the new comic movie boosting sales of anything except the Essential Hulk reprint series which has happily reached the Herb Trimpe glory years. No, seriously. Trimpe was the definitive Hulk artist and his big, blocky characters suited the strip well, well certainly better than it suited everything else he drew. Amazingly, looking at a late Seventies photo of Trimpe, the artist based many of the characters’ faces on his own long faced, slightly snub nosed, lantern jawed looks.

In issue after issue, The Hulk beat up what must have eventually been the entire cast of the Marvel universe. His black and white UK reprints in Mighty World of Marvel reintroduced me to superhero comics buying. A friend’s dad had bought him a copy by mistake. I think my friend wanted the Beano but just asked for a comic. What a fateful day that was. Within weeks we were both drawing superhero comics and I had created The Power Crazed Two Year Old a villainous toddler, part Mekon, part Leader whose bulbous head and withered body were supported only by parts from his Meccano set. Believe me-Vengeance was his!

wendigo vs wolverine vs hulkBack in the day, The Hulk was the one character you could guarantee to administer a right old thumping with little sign of a conscience. Then with one snikt the Wolverine changed the rules of superhero engagement forever and the Hulk seemed somehow tame. You can pick up the Wolverine origin story reprinted in King-Size Hulk currently on sale now. There’s three new stories including a nicely drawn but unpleasantly gory Art Adams Wendigo story. The only quibbles I have are with the back up strip – the beautifully drawn but irrelevant Lady Liberators Avengers story –and with the title. In what way is king-size Hulk more impressive than Hulk size Hulk? I mean what King are we talking about here? Henry VIII?

The movie appears to reference the Hulk-Wolverine storyline in a throwaway line from General Thunderbolt Ross that two hunters in Canada are among the Hulk’s victims. At the end, but not thankfully after the credits, Robert Downey Jnr. turns up as Tony Stark and, name dropping Fury, offers to help Ross with his Hulk problem. And we also witness the origin of The Leader as drops of Banner-blood fall on the head of the mysterious Mr Blue, a research scientist who is just one eccentric performance too many.

It is fun to see Marvel developing its own cinema universe, but it needs to be more confident with its plots. In comics, Marvel mastered the art of blending soap opera melodrama with super heroics and its characters need this to support them. The movie’s script pales beside what is currently being achieved on US TV. There’s an impatience at work that means even clichéd scenes that would have involved us in the supporting cast are absent: couldn’t some time have passed between Banner being cured and then being forced to ‘Hulk out’ to stop the Abomination so we could have seen his relationship with Betty develop. And couldn’t Roth had had a slightly more convincing motive to become the Abomination – like being a spy for a foreign power (the Ten Rings?) wanting to acquire the super-soldier formula?

There also seem to be scenes missing. When Banner is told that there were other test subjects using his blood, I had hoped to see iron cages with ‘Hulked out’ bunny rabbits (chortle) trying to batter their way to freedom. Then there are scenes we could do without: the owner of an Italian restaurant serves as a blatant plot function-someone our characters can bare their souls to because frankly they can’t convince me that they are interested in each other.

Norton is fine as the panty waste Banner and his attempts to control the monster within are entertaining (he turns to Kung Fu). But the Hulk still doesn’t live as a character in his own right. Partly this is a problem with the CGI. The Hulk is dramatically rendered as the veiny Muscle Beach bruiser painted on the covers of Rampaging Hulk magazine. But there’s little attempt to animate a sympathetic, or even recognisable character performance. Instead The Hulk strikes useful poses for licensed tie-in products. Here he fights like a computer game character; there he poses like a limited edition statuette at the back of Previews magazine.

cgi hulk shouting

The main problem is a script that over represents The Hulk as a disease of which Banner needs to be cured and under develops Banner’s personal life. The Hulk just roars a lot but says three words “Hulk Smash” and “Betty” – the latter being unintentionally hilarious for British audiences who remember it as Michael Crawford’s catch phrase in ‘Some Mother’s do Have ‘em’.

Considering that Betty’s new boyfriend is a psychologist there’s little psychological depth to any of the characters and their interrelationships are taken for granted. The results are some incredibly strained scenes between Norton and Tyler who devotes all her attention to talking very, very softly. Although the relationship does result in one good gag: Betty buys Banner an out-size pair of stretchable purple trousers, which he rejects.

In the end, The Incredible Hulk doesn’t deserve to be smashed but it does deserve a short sharp clip round the ears. Norton wanted to explore the psychological aspect of the Banner-Hulk relationship. Given the decidedly sketchy attempts at psychological motivation for Roth’s character, it is probably a blessing that the movie avoids this. But Marvel are going to have to do better because if they have a raft of similar product planned not even a twelve-year-old is going to want to sit through a computer game they cannot actually play and adults will be avoiding the cinema in droves. Is The Incredible Hulk better than Ang Lee’s Hulk. No, it is just different.

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