A number of reviewers have tagged 2008’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK (henceforth HULK ‘08) as “average” or “by the numbers.” This verdict bespeaks the inability of most critics to discern meaning in superhero films unless the film all but drives those meanings into the critic’s skull with a balpeen hammer.
HULK ‘08 is admittedly not a work of cinematic genius (whatever form that might take for the greatest of all possible Hulk movies). But for all of its flaws, it’s far from average—especially in that it’s a sequel to a previous attempt to bring the character of the Hulk to the big screen. Usually sequels are pale attempts to recreate the success of the original, but as directed by Louis Letterier, HULK ’08 is about as far as one could get from Ang Lee’s 2003 HULK. The latter shares the faults of many similar Hollywood renditions of comic-book properties: a tendency to borrow scenarios from comic-book properties without understanding their expressive potentials. In contrast, HULK ’08 captures the emotional core of the Lee-Kirby Hulk concept, as well as some of the later riffs on the concept, such as the Kenneth Johnson teleseries.
The TV show is the source of another wrong-minded critical broadside: that HULK ’08 is a virtual recreation of the series. Such critics have allowed themselves to focus on a few trees to the exclusion of the forest—here, a joke on the “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” line; there, snatches of the show’s theme music. But HULK ’08 has little in common with Kenneth Johnson’s conversion of the Hulk concept into a good-Samaritan wanderer, modeled on the classic FUGITIVE teleseries. The raison d’etre of Johnson’s “David Banner” was that his curse forced him to hike around getting mixed up in ordinary people’s lives, with the Hulk serving as an eleventh-hour reprieve from danger. But ordinary people barely exist in HULK ’08 except as background. Only once does Letterier’s Bruce Banner intervene in a common person’s life, acting to protect a female co-worker from a masher, but she immediately disappears, having served only to set up Banner’s later violent encounter with the bully-boy and his friends. No, this Hulk is not a wandering teleChrist, any more than he is Ang Lee’s bundle of twitchy anxieties. The ‘08 Hulk incarnates the same myth that Lee and Kirby spawned from their knowledge of one of the most basic themes of monster-tales: the theme of the savage rebelling against the repressions of civilization.
This is the theme of HULK ‘08 that many have overlooked, even those who have approved of Letterier’s greater focus on “Hulk Smash” action as against Ang Lee’s more lackadaisical effort. Some critics have noted that the screenplay credited to Zac Penn (but ostensibly rewritten by actor Edward Norton) has minimized its references to the Lee film, particularly with regard to the Hulk’s confused origin therein (Lee’s nanotech-thingies are happily forgotten). Instead, Letterier’s one flashback to events from the previous film arranges things so as to excise references to Ang Lee’s bad-dad villain. Instead the main adversary is General Ross, who both here and in the original comic-series symbolizes the Hulk’s most primal enemy: civilization, as incarnated by the military, the guardians of society’s boundaries.
I should quickly add that when I speak of the conflict of “savage vs. civilization,” I don’t want to fall in with the critical camp that thinks in terms of “subverting the dominant.” The guardians of society don’t represent some superficial icon to be knocked down by the rise of benevolent Marxism; they are a force that arises in every society, under every political philosophy—and they always present the danger of tyrannizing those whom they are theoretically supposed to protect. That’s why a monster-hero like the Hulk, raging like a child against all constraints, contains such a primal appeal for audiences, even though the soldiers he kicks around (and maybe kills—the film’s careful not to shoot that) are fundamentally “our boys.”
A full analysis of INCREDIBLE HULK #1—the Lee-Kirby opus that birthed the characters of the Hulk and his ensemble—is beyond the bounds of this article. But the first half of the story, setting up the Hulk’s origin, remains one of the most mythically-complex sequences ever to appear in the comic-book medium. Ang Lee’s film did at least bring forth a portion of the comic-book ensemble ignored by the teleseries: Bruce Banner’s girlfriend Betty and her “heavy father” General Ross, who disapproves of his daughter’s dalliance with a weakling scientist and who becomes, as I said, the Hulk’s most enduring foe for a couple of decades’ worth of comics-adventures. But Ang Lee’s Ross shows little of the comics-character’s bellicose temperament, which is a trait that Letterier brings back in full force. In addition, HULK ’08 gives Ross the status—albeit subtly implied— as the emissary of a military run amuck. In HULK #1, Ross represents the U.S. military that wants civilian scientist Banner to unleash the gamma bomb’s Promethean fire, which fire ends up consuming Banner. In HULK ’08, General Ross, not Banner’s wacky mad-scientist dad, is made ultimately responsible for the Hulk’s mutation, and he chases the Hulk for an even more forbidding reason than the comics-character does: not just to kill the monster, but to dissect him for use in creating a breed of super-soldiers.
It should be said that in the comics Ross is not as dislikeable as he is in HULK ’08. HULK #1 was written during the full bloom of the Red Scare of the early 60s, and so General Ross’ bellicosity doesn’t exist in isolation: certainly his creators see him as preferable to any agent of the Communist regime. Indeed, one could see the Hulk as the spawn of the conflict between the two superpowers, for the U.S. military funds the creation of the gamma bomb, but the aggressiveness of Russia makes it necessary, and one Communist agent is even directly responsible for Banner’s mutation. Again, without going into great detail about HULK #1’s story, the first two pages of the story introduce not only Banner, Betty and the General, but also Banner’s lab assistant Igor, who is also a Russian double agent. One wonders where Igor got his espionage-training, since he not only fails to change his name to something like “John Jones,” he also aggressively antagonizes Banner (towering over the shrimpy scientist at one point in a threatening manner). His hostility to Banner, arguably, doubles and reinforces that of General Ross, which makes Banner’s transformation into the mountainous Hulk even more resonant. When Banner rushes to prevent teenager Rick Jones from falling victim to the gamma-bomb test, he tells Igor to stop the test, and Igor, acting on behalf of his Communist masters, allows the bomb to go off, hoping Banner will die in the blast. Ironically this act spawns the creation of a monster that continually assails the military forces of both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. As I’ve said, this shows that the Hulk’s creators saw him as a savage at odds with all of society’s guardians.
Now, Igor was merely a spear-carrier sort of character. After his act of malicious neglect, the newly-born Hulk comes across Igor and thrashes him, inadvertently serving the forces of democracy by exposing the lab-assistant as a spy. After that, Stan Lee never wrote another story with Igor, but he uses the same type of character (“Covert Soviet Operative #677) to create another Hulk-villain, the Abomination. In TALES TO ASTONISH #90, writer Stan Lee and artist Gil Kane had spy Emil Blonsky gain access to a gamma-ray machine created by Bruce Banner, and with said machine Blonsky deliberately changes himself into a “second Hulk,” albeit with more dinosaur-like features and full intelligence. He was not initially allied to General Ross, as they stood on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but after Blonsky deserted the Communist cause, he sometimes found himself working for Ross as a living weapon to take on their common green-skinned adversary. In all likelihood the HULK ’08 script is influenced by some of those later Ross/Abomination alliances.
Just as the Hulk of the comics cannot attack his real foe Ross without ending the conflict immediately, Letterier’s monster-hero can only fight Ross’ catspaws, be it big machines (like the film’s excellent sonic cannon) or villains like the Abomination. Arguably the sections of the film that build toward creating a super-powered opponent for the heroic monster might be fairly criticized as “average.” In the film the character of Emil Blonsky is a former Soviet commando now working hand-in-glove with the American military, who is enlisted by Ross to go after Banner with a squad of operatives. (The squad’s flagrant pursuit of Banner across international lines into Brazil perfectly summarizes contemporary Bush-era military attitudes.) When Banner does his Hulk thing, Blonsky—whose character seems to be that of a danger-junkie—avidly desires the Hulk’s power, and Ross endeavors to give it to him, though the first application seems to make Blonksy into something more on the level of Captain America. (In all likelihood the revision of the Hulk’s origin as being the result of a “super-soldier formula” will probably tie in with a Captain America film down the cinematic road.) This is where the film does lose its way slightly. Whereas Ross is never less than the total incarnation of the military mind, willing to do almost anything to anybody to insure the army’s superior firepower, Blonsky is never quite credible as someone who would be willing to risk becoming a hideous monster to attain superior power (which would have made him like an even darker version of Ross, who is ruthless but not utterly villainous inasmuch as he sees himself as serving his country). In my view Blonsky would’ve been better served had he been played not by modestly-sized Tim Roth, but by some would-be Schwarzenegger-type who had attained the biggest biceps possible to man, but felt himself outclassed by the Hulk’s boulder-shoulders and so desired his power.
Nevertheless, even if the film’s Abomination isn’t that deep a villain (any more than he was in the comics), Letterier’s military serves that purpose. Ang Lee’s HULK gave audiences some acceptable Hulk-rampages, recreating such comics-scenes as Hulk ripping the tops off of tanks—but these conflicts were superficial, since the central conflict evolved out of the bad-daddy concept (also loosely derived from comics-continuity, albeit not that of Lee and Kirby). This time, though Letterier doesn’t venture into Kent State territory—i.e., showing innocents actually shot down by the military in their obsessive quest for power—he still gets damn close when he has army jeeps and copters besiege a peaceful college campus when Banner goes there to contact Betty during his search for a cure. But I’m glad Letterier didn’t go the obvious route of trying to make the soldiers into obnoxious villains. Like the pilots who shoot down King Kong, the soldiers are just ordinary grunts trying to rein in what they think is a creature dangerous to society. (And since this time the monster has been created by the military, the military itself is ultimately more responsible for any deaths or injuries caused by the Hulk than the Hulk is.) As in the original KING KONG, only the audience has perspective enough to see the beauty at the heart of the beast. Indeed, when the Hulk flees the college with Betty Ross, and takes refuge in a cave with her, the scene recalls a similar scenario between Kong and his female prisoner in the 1933 film. This scene alone does more to establish a personality for the Hulk than did the Ang Lee film or the entire run of the Kenneth Johnson teleseries. In addition, the CGI that creates the Hulk seems much improved this time around. When the Hulk stands next to Betty, he seems to possess enough weight to crush her with one finger, and many of his facial grimaces recall those used by such comics-raconteurs like Jack Kirby and Bill Everett.
If Tim Roth was not the perfect choice for his role, I favor Edward Norton, Liv Tyler and William Hurt for Banner, Betty and Ross over the actors chosen for the Ang Lee outing. Hurt’s Ross is, as I said before, marked by a single-minded obsession with his military duty, while Banner has more of the incisive quality one might expect of a genius-scientist and Betty is simply more feisty. (Of course, some of Tyler’s scenes-- trying to make love to Bruce, helping Banner restrain the Hulk-persona-- are better material than anything Jennifer Connelly had to work with.) The savagery vs. civilization theme could have been exploited a bit more, but since it’s been said that a lot of scenes didn’t make the final theater cut, it may be that a HULK ’08 DVD will reveal further depths—which, of course, won’t be appreciated by most critics any more than the theatrical release was.