Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Incredible Hulk: On the Money (with Many, MANY Spoilers)

It's been a crazy week so far and I've been absolutely swamped at work for the first time in... a while. But I did get out long enough on Friday to take in The Incredible Hulk. It's good. Not Iron Man good, but good. Some general stuff that stuck out to me:

- This is the Hulk I was hoping to see on screen. He's not just a mindless ball of anger and screaming. Hulk, in this movie, has his own personality and it's tied loosely to the psyche of Banner. We see him angry, sure, but we also seem him frustrated, sad, determined, etc. He uses basic tactics to accomplish his goals (which are loosely defined as trying to get away from people) and he uses his environment to facilitate that. The CG animation really puts a lot of depth to his emotions and his actions and it's nice to see a mind at work. I particularly like the scene with Hulk and Betty in the thunder storm (which, I believe, is lifted from one of the comics). And the moment went Hulk screams, "Hulk SMASH!" Oh, I was all aflutter.

- Speaking of which, what really makes this a better film than the last one, for me, is the fact that it's memorable. I didn't hate the first film, but I was completely indifferent to it. I couldn't tell you now what it was really about or how it ended. I have a vague recollection of Hulk throwing a tank like a discus and that's about it. This new movie is loaded with memorable scenes and memorable dialog. There's a lot of fun nods to the comic, to the TV series, etc. The movie sets its reality and it revels in it. It simply works.

- Edward Norton doesn't bring to Bruce Banner what Robert Downey Jr. brought to Tony Stark, but that's a pretty high bar. I think of Norton like I think of a starting pitcher who is unspectacular but can put in 200 innings a year for his team. Norton won't get a Golden Globe nod for his work, but he gets the job done.

- I can no longer see Liv Tyler in a movie and not see her as the elf, Arwen, crying. And I mean that as a bad thing. I loved the Lord of the Rings movies, but it was far too much of Liv Tyler close-ups being all weepy and now I can never watch her in another movie and see anything else. That said, she's far better in this flick than Katie Holmes in Batman Begins.

- William Hurt is spot on as General Ross. Not much else to say here. The dude is an insecure stuffed shirt who was hurt by the Hulk and now he wants to hurt the Hulk back, only he's got everybody else doing his dirty work for him. That's how it should be.

- The main villain of the piece (other than Ross) is an aging, but highly decorated and accomplished soldier by the name of Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth). Ross has brought him in to help capture the Hulk. After his initial failure, he gets himself hopped up on bad Super Soldier Serum (a lovely nod to the Captain America origin, which I'm sure will pay off when they make that film) and then goes a bit crazy trying to get more and more powerful (until he finally goes a giant leap too far and becomes the Abomination). For him it's all about denying his limitations and proving nothing can beat him. Up to the point that he becomes the Abomination he's an identifiable character. He's not even really a villain in most of the film. He's a soldier trying to do his job and I think that pays huge dividends for the film as a whole. For him it's a steady, but logical, progression, a devolution that ultimately ends with him falling into full goose gonzo crazy-monster thing. The progression, though, makes it a bit more believable than your stock villain whose just bad to get chicks or something.

- The end of the film is the pill that's hardest to swallow. The final battle between Hulk and Abomination... I don't want to say it's unsatisfactory, but for me, it was. I'm glad they didn't go the cliche route of killing the villain, but basically the Hulk knocks him out and, well, what happens next is up to the imagination I guess. The Hulk is allowed to get away and something (I assume) is done with the Abomination's prone form. We're not privvy to what that is, though, and I think that's a bit of a miss-step. There's also a plot thread with the character of Dr. Sam Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson) that was never going to be resolved in this film, but should've had a more satisfactory bookmark placed as a holdover for the next one.

- On the other hand, there are two great, great moments at the end of the film. The first is Banner, way off in the middle of nowhwere (Canada), putting techniques to use that we first saw him endeavoring to learn in the first part of the film, learning to control his heart rate and control his change. The last we see of him is his eyes turning green and a smile on his face. I don't know what others will take from that, but to me we're being told that Banner has learned to control his tranformation. Doing that, to me, is the first step towards putting the Hulk character into an Avengers film (which is clearly Marvel's aim). We've seen plenty of Banner's Hulk transformation being completely out of control. I'm ready to see the Banner that can use the Hulk as a tool to smite evil!

- There's a brilliant Tony Stark cameo at the end of the film. (You don't even have to wait for the closing credits.) Stark confronts Ross in a bar, they exchange pleasantries and then Stark reveals that he's putting together a rather specialized team (a nod to the Avengers). I just can't say how frigg'n cool it is that Marvel is sewing together all these separate threads from their universe. I'm actually bummed that there's nothing else coming out this year to continue the progression.

To sum up. If Iron Man is an A- movie, I give The Incredible Hulk a strong B+. When I go to a summer movie ready and willing to turn my brain off and enjoy some good action, this -and not the travesty of tripe like Crystal Skull or Transformers- is the kind of thing I've got in mind. The new Marvel Studios is now 2 for 2 and I can't wait to see what they do next.