The Incredible Hulk

Last night I watched the 2008 version with Edward Norton. I also somewhat recently watched, via Hulu, the pilot to the TV series.

Now, I really disliked the 2003 Ang Lee Hulk. I thought it was boring, self-important, and nonsensical. I also thought it learned absolutely nothing from the TV series, which I adored.

The 2008 movie was somewhat less boring and self-important, but it was every bit as nonsensical. It learned a couple of things from the TV series, I suppose. For one thing, Edward Norton is a much better Bill Bixby substitute than Eric Bana. Because I have a thing for Edward Norton, where I just kind of want to watch him doing stuff on screen, which is similar to my childhood thing for Bill Bixby, except that Edward Norton is even better because I want him to take his shirt off.

Also, they work in a brief musical quote of the "lonely sadness theme" or whatever they called that piano music that always played over the ending credits when Dr. Banner was hitching his way out of town again. (Ah, apparently it’s called "Lonely Man Theme." Okay.)

In fact, the opening segment of the movie, with Banner working in a soft drink factory in a visually amazing teeming Brazilian hive city, is a bit like the setup for an episode of the TV series, if they ever had the budget to shoot on location in Brazil, which would have been all kinds of awesome.

It has all the elements — the pretty co-worker in a bad situation, Banner’s heroic impulses that we just know are going to get him in trouble, the loneliness, oh God, the loneliness. It sort of works, for the first twenty minutes or so. I think it would have worked beautifully if it had been treated as more of a standalone story, and if the action had been held to a smaller scale.

But, they don’t do that. One of the problems of action-adventure movies, compared to action-adventure television, is that any given episode of a television show assumes it is telling a story. Movies seem to feel they have to tell the story. They go too big, too fast, and then they have nowhere to go.

In this movie, The US Army descends upon the Brazilian hive, wrecks a lot of stuff, and fails to capture the Hulk. Then Banner goes home to try to find some information that he thinks might cure him. He runs into his old sweetie (played by Liv Tyler), and the army wrecks a lot of stuff and fails to capture the Hulk. Then Banner and sweetie go on the lam briefly, looking for this Helpful Scientist Guy who might cure him. Then, because he might be cured, the army succeeds in capturing Banner without wrecking a lot of stuff.

Meanwhile, Tim Roth is an army psycho who wants to become a kind of, I dunno, Yellow Dinosaur Hulk? So he does, then he wrecks a lot of stuff, then the other army guys sic Original Hulk on him, then hulks battle, and they wreck a lot of stuff.

Then, I think Original Hulk fails to kill Yellow Dinosaur Hulk because Liv Tyler says "No!" But then they treat it like Original Hulk won the battle, and they show Yellow Dinosaur Hulk on the roof not moving, so I’m not entirely sure what’s supposed to be happening there. And there was that shot of the Helpful Scientist Guy maybe getting infected with hulk juice and becoming yet another hulk? But we never get any follow-up on that. Then Original Hulk goes to Canada. Where he meditates and becomes the Hulk on purpose because now he likes it? I don’t know. It’s really baffling. Then Iron Man shows up and maybe there’s going to be a sequel, but who cares.

On the plus side, the above action involves Edward Norton taking off his shirt a lot.

On the minus side, the above action is actually pretty dull. The only part that got to me was when they maybe shot the dog. But they might have shot the dog with only a tranquilizer dart. I wasn’t too clear on that. There was a lot of stuff I wasn’t too clear on. Anyway, The Incredible Hulk has about as much story as a porno movie. It’s just a flimsy excuse to have big battles where a computer-generated Hulk is wrecking stuff.

The makers of the movie had a good idea — that they could get me interested in the conflict by having Hulk and anti-Hulk played by Edward Norton and Tim Roth. Then they had a stupid idea, that I would be even more interested in the conflict once the characters were played by video game CG. So they spend way too long being played by CG and not nearly enough time being played by actors.

I can only sit there going "oh my God, the Hulk is completely indestructible!" for so long. Then I get bored and want something different to happen.

(Also, can I mention that the army comes across like a bunch of complete idiot wankers here? Because you’d think after the first time they would get it, okay, our weapons cannot harm the Hulk, we must try something else. But apparently the lesson they take from this is just "oh, no, we need bigger weapons!" Which, since I think this is actually a sequel to the 2003 movie, didn’t they already try a nuclear bomb? And that didn’t work? I mean, when you can’t destroy something with a nuclear bomb, why even bother with the rocket launcher? It makes no sense at all.)

The movie is just exactly like a video game. Instead of a story punctuated by action sequences, it is action sequences punctuated by short dramatic scenes. So, if you really like watching other people play video games, maybe you will really like this movie.

What I liked was finally seeing the pilot to the TV series. When I watched it as a kid, I missed the pilot somehow, and I don’t think the pilot showed up in the rerun cycle, so I had never seen it.

In some ways it’s serious science fiction, in some ways it’s completely goofy. The special effects are all over the place. But one thing they get right — and got right consistently throughout the series — is the audience tension over whether we want Banner to become the Hulk. He gets beaten down, abused, tormented, and we know the Hulk is powerful, so we want the Hulk to emerge. But we also know that his fragile connections to other humans, the tiny bits of a normal life he tries to cobble together for himself, we know that the Hulk will smash that just as surely as he will smash the bad guys.

Also, as an audience, we really believe that Banner doesn’t want to become the Hulk. The audience sees the Hulk as heroic, because we see him act with a primitive ethical impulse, but Banner doesn’t see that and doesn’t trust that the Hulk has any ethical impulses at all. The show also emphasized the contrast between the gentle, careful, and intellectual Banner, and the Hulk, who is none of those things — he’s like a really powerful five year old throwing a tantrum.

The TV show was ridiculously contrived in a lot of ways, I saw that even as a kid. But that central underlying tension really worked for me, the want/don’t want of the Hulk transformation.

Both movies have a similar problem, compared to the TV show. They don’t play up that tension, which means there really isn’t anything left driving the story. The 2008 movie assumes I want him to be the Hulk all the time, when actually I never want him to be the Hulk at all.

The video game CG is a big part of that. I know a CG character can work — Gollum from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy proves that. But that was CG modeled on top of an actor’s real performance. That — or maybe just the skill of the animators — kept Gollum in the same space as the other characters. Most importantly, he had body language and expressions that convinced us he was a real creature.

Neither movie makes the Hulk an actual character, so when he’s smashing stuff, I just don’t care.


  1. I think you’re right; I actually DO enjoy watching other people play video games, and found the movie to be the same kind of mildly enjoyable, now that you mention it.

    1. Author

      I have watched people play video games. I find it interesting for about ten minutes.

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