Screening Log #62: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Written by Zak Penn, based on characters by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Directed by Louis Leterrier
Starring Ed Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, and William Hurt




Having made mention in my Avengers post of the varying takes on The Hulk – and alluded to their correspondingly varying levels of making the character engaging – I thought it might be fruitful to revisit Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk. Being that this film represents the in-universe introduction to the character of Bruce Banner, and consequently, The Hulk, it has to function in much the same manner that Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, insofar as it must acquaint the audience to the character, provide an involving and self-contained story on its own, while still creating an organic segue into the larger world that Marvel was building toward in The Avengers.

Leterrier’s film begins with a very clever sequence that foregrounds the credits of the film against the events that led to Banner’s, Edward Norton, becoming The Hulk in the first place. This sequence serves to introduce Banner and the supporting characters, Elizabeth Ross, Liv Tyler, and her father General “Thunderbolt” Ross, William Hurt while also minimizing the time to the needs to take to establish the character’s relationships and origins. This is a doubly effective gesture as the film follows a scant five years after Ang Lee’s Hulk which provided these details. This film begins with Banner hiding from the government in Brazil, working a factory job while working on a cure for his “condition” with the help of a scientist known only through encrypted chats as “Mr. Blue”.

The film makes a few small gestures to establish that Banner is a good man, working hard at his job in the soda bottling plant while looking out for a young woman co-worker who seems to be the chosen prey of a swarthy – and somewhat rapey – worker. There is, despite this, a sense of isolation to Banner’s life, an ascetic self-denial in pursuit of emotional self-control. The intimation is that, despite his more overt gestures of goodness, Banner’s isolation is his most noble act of altruism and generosity. In this regard, the film betrays its own aim to ingratiate Banner to the audience. It is not enough to briefly show his good nature before removing him from all context beyond his own solipsistic concern with his condition, the viewer will resist investing emotionally in a character who is so completely closed off, emotionally, even if this closure is committed under the pretense of protection.

Despite Leterrier’s repeated sprawling depiction of cluttered Brazilian suburbs – shot from above at a distance great to enough to abstract the beauty of the crowded houses from the clutches of their twinned poverty – an accident at the factory quickly leads Ross to locate Banner and enlist his military influence in retrieving him. The goal, naturally is to exploit Banner’s condition and weaponize it to use in service of the government. The film becomes, tacitly through this, a refutation of the government’s exploitation of the private lives of its populace; the Hulk’s emergence, being the result of a private emotional state of a citizen, becomes a radically and brutally physical manifestation of this emotive internal life. Ross is aided by a special ops agent, Emil Blonsky, an atypically miscast Tim Roth, with the encounter axiomatically leading to the emergence of the Hulk and an intercontinental race for Banner to get the data he needs to hopefully cure his condition before being cornered and exploited by Ross.

The romance between Banner and Elizabeth Ross, only somewhat retarded by his transformation into an impervious creature fueled by anger, provides something of an emotional core around which the chase section of the film orbits. Hulk’s protective impulses for Elizabeth foster some sense of moderation in the creature in conjunction with Leterrier’s overt attempts to demonstrate that while the Hulk may smash when he is on screen, humans never fall under the category of “objects smashed”. Blonsky’s increasing obsession with overpowering the Hulk, the beauty of its brute force, and Banner’s misplaced trust in “Mr. Blue”, results in the creation of an abomination of a monster that the Hulk must face during the film’s climax, naturally.

The multitude of larger Hulk referents and allegories remain intact in the film, if frustratingly unexplored and uncomplicated; this modern day, comic book, interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde is disappointingly straightforward. This version of Banner appeals less to the audience’s sense of empathy, his function seems too obviously to be that of a sort of place-holder until the spectacle of the Hulk is loosed on screen. Norton is a strong actor, but perhaps slightly too cold in demeanor, his humour a little too reserved to counterbalance the isolation and distance the script requires of him. Ultimately, the viewer is given little reason by the film to care what happens to Banner, beyond that he live long enough that the Hulk may come out to play again. Arguably the least developed of the Marvel pictures that preceded The Avengers, The Incredible Hulk provides all the excitement and spectacle offered by its siblings, but without the same level of nuance, character, or complexity. This Hulk is equal parts rage and the spectacle of existentially empty destructive power, lacking the key of joy or humour to let anyone in, and erroneously asserts this is for our own good.

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  1. […] into a gigantic green muscle-packed monster. Apparently his skin is bullet proof and he is highly damage resistant and full of superhuman strength. He appears to be […]

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