The Pretty Good Hulk and The New Paradigm for Superhero Movies

I'm usually more an Anthony Lane man than a David Denby man but Denby's been getting off some good lines lately. Earlier this month he wrote about how Sean Connery "had relaxed beautifully into middle age," when, at 59, he played Indiana Jones' father in 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Then he compares him with the star of the current Indiana Jones:

[Harrison] Ford, now sixty-five, is still playing Indy, but he can't be described as a man relaxing into middle age. He's in great shape physically, but he doesn't seem happy. He's tense and glaring, and he speaks his lines with more emphasis than is necessary, like a drunk who wants to appear sober.

I also liked his recent review of The Incredible Hulk. Three criticisms stood out: 1) that King Kong and Frankenstein's monster are Byron and Keats in comparison with the Hulk, who's a dull, soulless beast, 2) That "Thunderbolt" Ross's attempt to make soldiers out of the Hulk serum is idiotic, since the goal is always to control soldiers and you can't control the Hulk, and 3) that the film misses the make-my-day thrill of turning into the most powerful creature in the world.

Now that I've seen the film I feel that 1) this Hulk is very King Kong-like in both his anger, his sadness and his protection of his girl, 2) Ross wants to contain Banner the way he would an advanced-weapons system that got loose, while the super-soldier formula alluded to is something else entirely (i.e., Captain America fans, awake), and 3) the make-my-day thrill is still there, for the audience anyway, since Banner only turns into the Hulk when he's being bullied. That Banner gets no thrill from this also makes sense. Who knows what he'll do as the Hulk? Who knows whom he'll kill?

So after all the hand-wringing and all the unnecessary articles, The Incredible Hulk turned out to be a pretty good popcorn movie. Its rating on Rotten Tomatoes (64%) is only slightly higher than the rating Ang Lee's version got five years ago (61%); but if you look at only top critics, the numbers shift from 53% to 67%. Even here, I feel, RT's critics are probably lowballing Hulk, influenced, no doubt, by all the hand-wringing and unnecessary articles. No wonder Hulk mad. No wonder Hulk smash.

The movie picks up where The Hulk left off. It gives us the origin during the credit sequence, in case we need it, then takes us to Brazil for sweeping shots of the teeming slums of Rochina Favela in Rio. Bruce Banner is now working at a soda-bottle factory there, studying Portugese via "Sesame Street" and corresponding via IM with a scientist named "Mr. Blue" on a possible cure for his monster problem. He's also studying martial arts, less for the self-defense (which he's got in spades) than for the discipline. "The best way to control your anger," his teacher tells him, "is to control your body." Then he slaps him hard across the face. Twice.

The script by Zak Penn is frequently smart and fun. Homages are prevalent. Flipping channels in Brazil, Banner comes across an episode of "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" starring Bill Bixby (the '70s Banner), and a security guard in Virginia is played by Lou Ferrigno (the '70s Hulk), and taking on some Brazillian bullies, Banner says that show's most famous line but messes up the Portugese translation: "Don't make me ... hungry. You wouldn't like me when I'm ... hungry."

In the end, even Rio isn't far enough away. The U.S. Army finds him and there's a good chase -- complicated by the bullies and the fact that Banner can't let his pulse race. But of course it does. Boom. And there go the bullies and the fully loaded army men, including Tim Roth as a former Russian, raised in Britain, who's entranced by all that power and will eventually become the Abomination. Many critics have been as unimpressed by this CGI-Hulk as they were five years ago, but I think the technology has come a long way -- not least in giving Hulk weight. This time he feels part of the action rather than some video-game blip that bounces around a lot. When Banner wakes he's laying by a picturesque waterfall. Holding up his pants and flagging down a driver, his newly-learned Portugese gets him nowhere since he's now in Guatemala. The problem of going on a Hulk bender. At least Hulk was nice enough to choose the waterfall.

Everyone's got their agenda here. Banner wants to return to normal while Ross wants Banner for study while "Mr. Blue" (Tim Blake Nelson) is after ... what exactly? Our final shots of him indicate he might be back as ... The Leader? Modok? The Rhino? The movie leaves it open-ended. The movie leaves a lot open-ended -- including to what extent Banner can now control his body and his problem.

The Incredible Hulk is only the second movie, after Iron Man, produced by Marvel Studios, and they seem to be forging a new paradigm for superhero movies that recalls their Silver Age of comics in the '60s and '70s. Most modern superhero movies are self-contained -- all plot points are resolved, and Batman doesn't appear (or even exist) in Superman movies -- but Iron Man included a cameo by Nick Fury and Hulk includes a cameo by Tony Stark, who tells Ross, "What if I told you we were putting a team together?" So we know it's building toward that Avengers movie and beyond. As Jack Kirby's characters couldn't be contained by the arbitrary limits of the comic panel, so Marvel's superheroes, under their direction, can't be contained by the arbitary limits of a single movie. They're spilling out.

If you're going to keep making superhero movies, this is a good way to do it.