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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The Incredible Hulk (review)

Not Easy Being Green

It sounds like praising with faint damns to say that Edward Norton and Tim Roth are so much more interesting to watch onscreen than their cartoon alter egos are. I mean, duh, right? Of course real human actors are always more interesting than CGI monsters. But here, I’m not kidding: these guys are supremely brilliant talents, and yet they’re so unshowy about it that you don’t appreciate the fullness of their genius until it gets yanked away from us.
It’s sort of bizarre, actually, why anyone would chose to make The Incredible Hulk this way: an hour and a half of well-crafted fantasy action and pretty intense superhero drama performed by powerful actors and commanded by a director with the know-how to pull off a less-is-more aesthetic… and then a final half hour that’s all-out, nonstop, cartoon-on-cartoon ultraviolence stripped of all character, all narrative, all filmmaking logic. Everything just grinds to a halt so that the Hulk and the vicious irradiated, mutated man-thing the Abomination can duke it out, law-of-physics-suspended CGI style, on a fakey New York City backlot. The action moves so quickly and so jarringly in those last minutes that it’s hard to make out what the hell is going on, but it barely matters because it’s impossible to care, except in that distant movie way that you know you’re supposed to cheer for the Hulk because he’s the “good guy.”

It’s like two different movies have been spliced together. Honestly. What’s really weird about that is that this Hulk offers two other examples of fantasy action CGI-heavy setpieces that work really well: that advance story and character and theme and are just simply thrilling to watch. So it’s not even like one can make sweeping dismissals of CGI or superhero movies or whatever. You kinda want to smack director Louis Leterrier (the Transporter movies) and ask him, How could you get it so right here and so wrong there?

It’s very strange.

The first of the three battle setpieces, in fact, gave me particular thrills, as a fan of both superhero action and brilliant actors. A commando team lead by General Ross (William Hurt: Vantage Point, Into the Wild) — the military heavy who wants to turn Dr. Bruce Banner’s process for hulking out into a weapon — has discovered Banner’s hideout in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, and they’re moving in to take him. Banner catches on at the last possible moment, and so we’re off on a spectacular foot chase across the favela rooftops, and it’s all about Norton (The Painted Veil, The Illusionist) here, how he conveys Banner’s terror through little looks thrown over his shoulder or in the way he quickly seduces the locals not to betray him as he dashes through, and all the while also keeping his fear under control, as he’s been learning to do, so that he doesn’t have an “incident.” (Leterrier is confident with his camera, too, swooping through the winding closes and steep stairs of the slum in such a way that we feel the possibilities for getting lost and those for getting caught at the same time.)

And then the action moves indoors, into the soda-bottling factory where Banner has been holding down a menial job for the dough, and now he does hulk out, though Leterrier is smart enough to keep him in the shadows for a surprisingly long time as the commandos winnow down to just Ross’s imported bulldog, the British Royal Marine Emil Blonsky. As Blonksy and the Hulk cat-and-mouse — this is where I knew we had something special here — we’re left, since Leterrier is keeping the Hulk mostly hidden, with Blonsky, and with Roth (Tsunami: The Aftermath, Dark Water), who is one of those amazing actors who seems to do nothing in a way that speaks encyclopedias of information. It seems like we learn everything about Blonsky we need to know in this one sequence, with nary a line of dialogue, just from Roth’s body language, the way he moves and the expressions that flit across his face. He’s a psychopath, and he’s in love with the idea of mutating into a Hulking supersoldier, and so he keeps on cat-and-mousing with Banner throughout the whole movie — well, at least up till that final half hour — as Banner searches for a cure and Blonsky searches for his own kind of twisted, gamma-irradiated anti-redemption…

It’s that deep duality we want to see in superhero / supervillain stories — the script is by X-Men vet Zak Penn and Norton himself, in his first credit as a screenwriter, and who knew he was such a geek? — and it’s surrounded by a lot of funny, touching stuff along the way: nods to the 1970s Incredible Hulk TV series; some stuff about the perils of sex with a mutated man (Liv Tyler [The Strangers, Reign Over Me] is her usual lovely genial presence as Dr. Betty Ross, Banner’s once and future girlfriend and colleague); and more.

And then it all falls apart at the end. It’s so frustrating. You can’t not see this, because everything before it falls apart is great. But what a shame that it can’t keep its shit together to see it through.

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MPAA: rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence, some frightening sci-fi images and brief suggestive content

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
  • JoshDM

    “and then a final half hour that’s all-out, nonstop, cartoon-on-cartoon ultraviolence stripped of all character … Everything just grinds to a halt so that the Hulk and … the Abomination can duke it out … on a fakey New York City backlot.”

    Can I say that if you replace “Hulk” with “Iron Man” and “Abomination” with “Jeff Bridges” and “New York City backlot” with “some science facility where Paltrow is suddenly phoning in her acting, both figuratively and literally”, you’d describe exactly how I felt during the last portion of Iron Man.

    Man, fuck fight scenes. Fuck them right in their asses.

  • Gloria

    I haven’t seen the specific sequence, but if my suspicions are correct, that “fakey New York City backlot” was downtown Toronto, Canada. Hometown pride! Sort of.

  • Kinda agree with you JoshDM. I thought the climaxes in both films were a let down, but the one in Iron Man was much worse.

    I do agree MaryAnn, however, the bits before it turns completely CGI were fantastic. Such good performances… It’s a pity a big green guy had to ruin it all…

  • amanohyo

    Fight scenes, like any kind of scene, can be done well or poorly. But it is really, really, really difficult to pull off a half-hour fight scene well, especially if only two combatants are involved, and those combatants are CG action figures instead of talented humans.

    My guess is that the filmmakers were trying too hard to differentiate this movie from the first one, and they went overboard. However, for some viewers (and reviewers), that final chunk was actually the most rewarding part of the experience, something to be enjoyed over and over again. I suspect those are the same people that think CG Yoda bouncing off the walls is the coolest thing ever, and that watching a lengthy cutscene in a videogame is just as exciting as actually playing.

    But there are also plenty of fight scene lovers that have enough taste to hate the bloated, tedious mess at the end of this film, especially when it clashes so strongly with the tone and quality of the rest of the movie.

    JoshDM, is it really fair to lump all fight scenes (or their fans) together and attempt to forceably engage in anal intercourse with the entire group just because of a few horrible examples? I understand your frustration, but maybe someday you’ll meet that one special fight scene that makes you forget the crappiness of all the others… you never know. I once lobbied for the swift and brutal execution of all romantic lobster-cooking scenes, but my whole outlook changed after I watched Annie Hall.

  • Hypocee

    I thought this would happen from the trailer. To paraphrase an email I sent to a friend at the time, the character is called the Incredible HULK. If you look in the dictionary, that means he’s BIG. There are plenty of bigger things in the Marvelverse, but he’s best when he’s kept away from them because slugging it out with something bigger is the single least interesting thing the Hulk can do. The Hulk, physically, is all about resisting capture, and his enemies are all about capture. Violent evasion and flight are the arenas where his powers are most interesting.

    I loved the final fight in Iron Man; fighting a bigger, more brutal opponent is a perfectly valid thing for Iron Man to do, IronMonger perfectly echoes Bridges’ physical presence, and the action was “filmed” in a way that avoided confusion or overload and let it have its own narrative with breaks in the action.

  • MaryAnn

    I’m not madly in love with the final fight scene in *Iron Man,* but I didn’t hate it — as Hypocee notes, it’s shot far more coherently than the one in *Hulk,* but it also has the benefit of some presence by Downey Jr and Bridges. What a waste to cast talent like Norton and Roth and not use them for a big chunk of the film.

  • the rook

    as i understand it, they put the big fight scene at the end because the whiners who complained about ang lee’s hulk movie said it didn’t have enough fight scenes in it – not enough hulk smash. so this time marvel wanted to make sure there was going to be enough of the hulk fighting to shut up the critics.

    as any good comic book fan will tell you, extended fight scenes are almost always boring. it takes a truly gifted comic book writer and artist to keep them interesting. in most comic books, a short fight scene – just a couple of panels is far more interesting and does more to propel a story than a six page slugfest.

  • Grant

    as i understand it, they put the big fight scene at the end because the whiners who complained about ang lee’s hulk movie said it didn’t have enough fight scenes in it – not enough hulk smash.

    I find that ironic. IIRC, the bigger problem with Lee’s Hulk – which I remember enjoying at least as much as TIH – was not that it was too talky, but rather that the last 45 minutes of the film involved not one but two extended fight scenes: Hulk vs. tanks and helicopters in the desert, and Hulk vs. wacked out Nick Nolte. The desert sequence in particular stands out in my mind as being painfully long, nearly as bad as the 12 minute Kong vs dinos in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. And then the movie just seemed to decided it wasn’t ready to be over yet.

  • andre

    I’m hoping a few of the upcoming superhero films will begin to take some chances with their final scenes. TIH was spiraling towards that conclusion since Abomination was announced as the villain. All of the X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman, Hulk and Iron Man films seem to have settled for the duke it out finish. I imagine you can add Blade, Superman, Ghost Rider, Daredevil, Fantastic 4 (who have conclusions I’m not 100% sure about) and the ‘superhero ending’ is positively etched in stone. Spider-Man actually had Mary Jane captured in every single film. I’m waiting for one of these movies to portray a final 30 minutes I could not have written from seeing the previews. Maybe that could never work with these films but it surely does in the source material like The Long Halloween, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Batman Year One…

    Well done to Marvel though. You have found your footing in this game. Time to start urging writers to avoid the, “a girl, a bad guy, our hero, and an urban destructible scenery finale”.

  • StruckingFuggle

    Out of curiosity – and i’m not trying to start a whole stupid ‘bah, like you could do better!’ thing, here, I’m just curious – how would you have liked to see it end?

  • JoshDM

    Don’t get me wrong here. I like some fight scenes; my final sentence wasn’t a blanket statement (though it seems to have been taken as one). Heck, the sequence in Iron Man where he takes out the guys in the little podunk Middle Eastern town and has to take out a tank was pretty damn sweet. Iron Man was a letdown (to me) during that last sequence, which I think would have been better left to a movie like The Hulk. And Gwenyth did nothing to add to it. Acting direction to her was “ok, talk on the cell phone like you’re in front of a green screen”, so she did. That was lousy.

    I don’t expect much from the Incredible Hulk fight scene, except that it will be long and drawn out. Unfortunately, that’s really the only way you can “go” with a Hulk fight scene between two indestructible opponents.

  • andre

    I know my alleys, as George Costanza says, and the Hulk is not one of them. I’ve never even read Hulk Gray which is by my favorite creative team Loeb and Sale. For instance though, if I were in charge of shaping the third Batman movie, a topic I know infinitely better, it would go like this. Two Face killing corrupt cops similar to Dark Victory story line, Gordon trying to capture him with a new DA, and Batman ignoring the problem because he felt Gordon was not cleaning up his own force fast enough. So you get Batman vs the GCPD with Batman not being a killer, a very familiar storyline but run it with Gordon at head to make bigger stakes. Throw in another villain so Batman doesn’t fall to an unlikable level, and you have an interesting movie. It would question everything Batman does, and not feel cliche’. It would also be wise to make Batman a Detective again. They spend a lot of time explaining how well trained he is, we know he is not going to lose any fist fight. Take a note from The Long Halloween, and have him searching for a killer.

  • Capetonian

    “…and then a final half hour that’s all-out, nonstop, cartoon-on-cartoon ultraviolence stripped of all character, all narrative, all filmmaking logic…”

    I disagree, I thought the fight scene was a logical extension of Tim Roth’s character, an ultra-aggresive soldier whose only purpose in life seems to be the thrill of combat.
    You could see it as a commentary, albeit exaggerated, of the kind of psychological affect warfare can have, triggering certain people with a predisposition for violence into agressive, blood-thirsty menaces. Or it could be that he was kind of a nut to begin with, or perhaps a bully, which is why he joined the military, constantly in search of a fight, yearning for that ultimate battle, and eventually getting it with the Hulk.

    I thought it’s one of the few comic book films where the climactic showdown is actually justified. And I thought it was impressively executed too.

  • Maurice Webb

    Great film. I love how they summed up the “origin” in a flashback. We all know that story, so there’s no need to spend too much time on it.

    On top of that, I’m so excited at how all the recent Marvel flicks are being tied together. The upcoming “Avengers” movie will have a lot to live up to, and given the commercial success of these films, and the amazing talent they’ve begun to attract, I’m sure they’ll deliver.

    Of course, if you compare the recent Marvel Comics films to the awful, low-budget, laughing renditions of “Spider-Man”, “Captain America”, and “The Fantastic Four”, that I watched (and adored) as a kid, I suppose anything is an improvement.

  • Jackolantern

    Idiots!!! What did you go to the incredible hulk expecting? Complaining about fight scenes? Its the hulk the whole movie should have been a fight scene. Get real pussies!!!

  • andre

    Jackolantern, you’re falling into the trap of being an easily content fan. Casino Royale wasn’t made because it was the next logical step in the Bond series. It was made because critics and fans deemed Die Another Day an indigestible piece of self-parody. Batman Begins wasn’t created as an extension of Burton and Schumacher. It was the answer to the camp of Batman and Robin. Comic book movies don’t have to be a low genre. Anyone who has read Maus, or Epileptic, or Persepolis or The Dark Knight Returns knows the power of the medium. The entire point of giving the series’ creators a hard time is to guarantee another Batman and Robin is never made. Approaching source material from a serious but fun enough perspective, just watch RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, generally yields the most satisfying results.

  • MaryAnn

    What did you go to the incredible hulk expecting? Complaining about fight scenes?

    Do you not comprehend that I complained about that last fight scene *because it is not as brilliant executed as the earlier fight scenes*?

  • Allen Darrah

    I think it’s worthwhile to note that The Incredible Hulk is intended to be both thoughtful and thought provoking in scenes with Banner and savage, incoherent, and brutal in scenes with The Hulk. So your comments on the fact that it seems to be two movies sewn together is, I think, appropriate both in the sense that you noticed it and the sense that that’s how it should be.

    It’s also worthwhile to throw out there that I’m a big comic book fan but have never really gotten into The Incredible Hulk for various reasons, mostly the simple concept of “Hulk Smash!”

  • MaryAnn

    But the Hulk *is* brutal and savage and preverbal in those earlier fight scenes, too.

  • Allen Darrah

    I agree, but there’s a sense of dizzying mayhem that, well, it wasn’t initially “lacking” really, but the early scenes were different. I liken it to the third Bourne movie; a lot of my friends had issue with the incoherence of the action sequences but I felt what I think was intended in that it was so hectic that I couldn’t catch my bearings. A real-deal balls out hand-to-hand fight for survival is horrible and disjunctured to the participants; I can appreciate an attempt to draw me into that as if I were involved and not just watching. This is, likely, why I enjoyed Cloverfield so immensely: I felt like it was, moreso than most movies, happening to me instead of before me even though, admittedly, there were times when I couldn’t put my eyes and brain around what was happening.

  • MaryAnn

    A real-deal balls out hand-to-hand fight for survival is horrible and disjunctured to the participants

    True enough. But the participants in that last battle weren’t people: they were cartoons.

  • Pharlain

    I apparently am in the minority, but as a HUGE comic nerd and fantasy nerd, and kung fu nerd, and nerd of fight scenes in general I actually really enjoyed the last fight scene. There was the desperation, there was the justification, there was the beautiful play of humanity vs. beast and was the huge monster with a conscious mind the monster or was the animalistic creature with little mental facilities the monster? Most importantly it got my blood pumping and had me on the edge of the seat. Was it the best fight scene? No, the scene at the university wins that one, but I do think it was well excited and a good way to end the movie. You may disagree but this is an action movie and I really do *want* the climax to be a half hour fight scene. The Recent Superman Returns didn’t really have a good climactic fight scene of note, and while I loved that movie I do believe it suffered for it.

  • MaryAnn

    It’s fine if the climax must be a half-hour fight scene. But it has to be a good one. There’s no humanity in the last hour hour of this film.

  • James T

    “There’s no humanity in the last hour hour of this film.”

    That’s a problem with the Hulk in his character arc in both the ’03 Hulk and TIH. But the problem is somewhat inherent to the comic book story of the character, namely he is an out of control monster and thus not human.

    However, I have great hopes for the next movie because of the way Banner’s eyes lit up while meditating at the end. In the comic book, Banner learns to stay lucid as the Hulk. I think a movie where Banner is in control or learns to control the Hulk would make for a much more interesting story, IMO, and could, if directed correctly, be used to bring the humanity that is missing to the character of the Hulk.

    I liked both Hulk and TIH preferring TIH over Hulk. That hulk poodle in Hulk just lost me. TIH was much more true to itself.

  • MaryAnn

    But the problem is somewhat inherent to the comic book story of the character, namely he is an out of control monster and thus not human.

    Okay, but there’s no monstrosity, either. He’s just a bland cartoon.

  • Robert

    Edward Norton and Tim Roth are so much more interesting to watch onscreen than their cartoon alter egos are.

    Both of these guys are interesting in that they’re somewhat unlikely movie stars. You think of guys like Charlton Heston, Clark Gable, Denzel Washington, etc.

    If you saw Roth or Norton walking down the street as non-celebrities, I wonder if you’d say “that guy oughta be in movies”. Yet they both come across powerfully.

    My first logical discontent was when Banner was first found out. After he sent them on a wild goose chase, why didn’t he just wait around for a few to make sure the coast was clear instead of immediately fleeing while they were still in the vicinity?

    I concur with what appears to be the majority consensus regarding the final battle scene. There were moments that just plain didn’t make sense, where they obviously just threw some elements together to fill time.

    When they opened up on the bad Hulk with the gattling gun in the middle of the city it didn’t even slow him down but they no doubt made up for it by taking out dozens of innocent bystanders.

    The way it ended made no sense to me. This monster made of pure malevolence won’t continue his rampage once he gets a second wind? Like he’s just going to say “Ya licked me fair & square..” And what are they gonna do with him – cuff him, read him his rights and stick him in the back of a squad car or a troop transport? “Watch your head”.

    I see they made the Hulk look like a slightly acromegalic GQ model – I swear I saw a tube of hair gel in his back pocket. The earlier Hulk was closer to what I recall from the comic – a face only a Hulk mother could love.

    In the middle of writing this I just read in a NY Times article that “Mr. Norton — who was hired to rewrite the script along with playing the lead…

    Interesting. I wonder which parts were his? It also says his participating in publicity was contingent on his being happy with the film.

    I assume Dr. Sterns will be part of the next one having been infected with Hulk blood.

    namely he is an out of control monster and thus not human.

    Can he be trained to paint a picture of himself?


    C’mon, that’s funny. -tapping mic- Is this thing on?

    Hell might as well be hung for lamb as for sheep.


  • paul

    I think I liked the last fight scene more than most of you because I saw it as completing the character arc of Banner trying to control the Hulk. The Hulk doesn’t kill out of rage and slowly speaks more over the course of the film, too. Then at the very end Banner apparently learns how to control when the Hulk will arise, and they have that tantalizing teaser for the next movie.

  • Tim Alguire


    I got a chance to see this while on business when I had nothing to do and a movie theater next to my hotel. Your review was so perfectly spot on. I had already read it, so I knew what was coming but oh dear LORD were not kidding. When he says “Hulk SMASH” I think I laughed so hard a Skittle flew out of nose.

  • Julie

    I just stumbled across a pretty funny review that mentions the Flick Filosopher!


    “For population of womens, is representative Flick Filosopher who enjoy movie very (just like Magazine, Wired she not so good spelling). She say “well-crafted fantasy action and pretty intense superhero drama performed by powerful actors…”. She say more, but is phrase of great intricacy I no understand…”

  • pedro

    one word: mehhhhhh……

    this is no Iron Man, that’s for sure! and Hulk is still oh-for-two in movie adaptations…

  • pedro


    and climax of iron man > climax of the hulk. no doubts about it.

  • pedro


    and CG Yoda bouncing off the walls IS the coolest thing ever. no scratch that. Yoda twirling in midair while slashing at Dooku is the coolest thing ever. hell, star wars II is god knows how many years old and my geeky friends and I are STILL talking about that bit. genius.

  • blake

    This film is making me angry…
    You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

    Blake Smash!!!

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