The Hulk isn’t a superhero. He exists in a world of superheroes, and he was created second (just after the Fantastic Four) during the most legendary superhero-creation-spree of all time, Stan Lee’s run at re-envisioning costumed crusaders for the 1960s. But he’s not a superhero, any more than Godzilla, Frankenstein’s creature, or the Wolfman are superheroes. (Though they, too, were all adapted into comics form by Marvel.) He’s a monster. He comes out of the tradition of monster comics that Lee was writing just before he invented the FF, and although the Green Goliath constantly encountering Spider-Man, the X-Men, Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, and so forth, as a character he has very little in common with any of them. He was one of the original Avengers, but there’s a reason why his membership only lasted two issues.
Superheroes are people (or entities who might as well be people) with extraordinary abilities, trying to do good. The Hulk, at least in his most famous incarnation, lacks the mental capacity to form such an intention. Although superpowered (what with being the strongest individual in the world), he is no hero. He’s a pure destructive force, extremely dangerous to anyone and anything he encounters. Sure, he’s misunderstood, and he’s constantly trying, unsuccessfully, to be left alone, but the Army is right to try to neutralize him. He’s like an unstoppable, indestructible, infintely strong, emotionally abused toddler who lacks any sort of parental figure. The only control on him is his alter ego, who (understandably) is constantly trying to eliminate his greenish tendencies, but of course, if that happened, there would be no story. So it’s never going to happen in any permanent way.
All this presents quite a problem when you’re making a Hulk movie. You’re stuck with a monster movie that you have to somehow sell as a superhero movie, because in the mistaken public mind, the Hulk is a superhero. So what do you do? You make him sympathetic (not hard given his misunderstood quality.) You make Banner really likeable and tie the two together so that it’s clear that the Hulk, dangerous as he is, is a cage that’s wrongfully imprisoning a good person. You taint the intentions of the Army, who really ought to be the heroes of this story, so that they turn from protectors of humanity to destroyers of it. Finally, you provide a villain who’s as powerful as the Hulk but is genuinely evil rather than just rampant, so that we must root for the Hulk to emerge, becuase he’s the only thing that has a chance of stopping this other force.
Louis Leterrier does all these things successfully in The Incredible Hulk, but he does one more thing too: he stuffs the movie with so many sly references to comic and TV lore that it firmly establishes itself, especially in the wake of Iron Man, as a clear attempt at putting the Marvel Universe on screen. For me, at least, that was where the fun really came alive.
The references begin almost immediately. The film, wisely, devotes very little time to retelling the Hulk’s origin story, compressing the entire thing to a montage behind the opening credits. However, that montage offers many familiar images to people like me, who watched The Incredible Hulk on TV every week for five years. The red flashing “DANGER” light, Banner in the fancy tilting Science Chair, the green light creeping across Banner’s forehead — it’s a long series of nods to the TV show, and the love doesn’t end there. I’ve only seen the movie once, so some of my memories are imprecise, but here goes:
- At the beginning of Banner’s first transformation, there’s a shot that quotes the TV show: a tight close-up on Edward Norton’s face, at an odd angle, unlit except for a bright light across his closed eyes, which suddenly open to reveal green irises.
- At some point there’s a throwaway character named Jack McGee.
- Lou Ferrigno guests as a security guard
- “Don’t make me… hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m… hungry.” (I thought this was hilarious.)
- At an appropriate point in the movie, we hear the sad, end-of-episode music from the show, which the end credits tell me is called “The Lonely Man” by Joe Harnell.
- Banner receives an envelope addressed to “David Banner.”
Then there were all the wonderful Marvel goodies scattered throughout:
- Ross reveals to Blonsky that the experiment that created the Hulk was part of an attempt to revive a moribund Super-Soldier program, which was scrapped soon after WWII. Then, as the Hulk fights the army, he spends a portion of the battle using a makeshift triangular shield, just like the original Captain America.
- Speaking of Cap and his origin, the stuff that Ross uses on Blonsky is labeled “Dr. Reinstein” — the alias of the scientist who died administering the Super-Soldier serum to Steve Rogers.
- Then there’s Blonsky himself, who becomes a classic Hulk villain: The Abomination.
- Even better, there’s Samuel Sterns. Not only is Tim Blake Nelson terrifically entertaining in the part, but when the gamma-enhanced blood starts dripping on his forehead, it begins to bulge, and he smiles… for me, that was a brilliant moment, because it was only at that instant that I remembered whose alter-ego in the comics is Samuel Sterns: The Leader! I loved this, because I totally did not see it coming, but it works perfectly in the story and sets up a great storyline for the sequel.
- On top of this, we get Doc Samson in his pre-gamma form. I loved Ross’s line: “Where does she find these guys?”
- Ross himself, and the conflict with his daughter, is transported quite intact to the screen. I love William Hurt in the part, and Liv Tyler acquits herself well too. This version of Ross is more evil than the one in the comics, but as I said above, the Army needs to be villainized so that the Hulk can appear a hero.
- This version retains Banner’s initial arrogance, which I quite liked, though it removed his initial heroism — there’s no Rick Jones in this story.
- The standard Stan Lee cameo is particularly fun in this movie. Not only that, it’s hardly coincidence that the paternalistic figure who takes care of Bruce and Betty is named “Stanley.”
- “HULK… SMASH!!!!!”
- There are numerous references to SHIELD, just as there were in Iron Man.
- And of course, there’s that final cameo by Robert Downey, Jr. reprising his role as Tony Stark. This was the most exciting of all, since not only was it fin and cleverly written, it firmly established the two films as existing in the same universe, beautifully laying the groundwork for future cinematic ventures into Marveldom all living within the same continuity. What a fantasy come true!
Another thing that made the movie fun for me was that the (I’m guessing) 8-year-old next to me was having a BLAST. When the giant green hand shoots up from under the pavement after Banner’s freefall, he couldn’t stop himself from saying, “Yeah!” Also, as the end credits rolled, I heard him breathlessly explaining to his dad (who literally snored through the beginning of the movie), “That guy was Iron Man I mean it’s Tony Stark who’s really Iron Man and that’s why he was talking about the suits and the team is gonna be the Avengers cos the Hulk and Iron Man were both on the Avengers and I bet there’s gonna be Captain America and Thor too and…” etc. Seeing that just made my heart sing with remembered joy.
A few other comments. I really liked the moment where Betty jumps on top of Bruce in mid-Hulkout, helping him calm down. It establishes her as fearless and heroic in her own right, which is another contributor to making this movie more superheroic than monsterly. I thought the CGI Hulk was quite good — I was impressed with how much emotion his face conveyed. Something I didn’t care for was the final shot — Norton looks happy to be transforming, but that really makes no sense. Also, while I’m complaining, the idea that Banner would jump out of a helicopter in hopes of changing, right after a treatment that may very well have cured him, is stupid. He could just as easily have raised his heart rate enough inside the helicopter, then jumped out when he felt the transformation beginning. Oh, and one more complaint: Banner gets from Guatemala to Mexico in just a few days, never even changing out of his shredded pants? Man, Latin America must be full of friendly drivers. Ahh, but I was willing to set all these problems aside when I heard that happy kid.
Overall, The Incredible Hulk was a whole lot of fun, especially considering the lukewarm buzz behind it, and it got me very excited indeed to see what’s next from Marvel Studios.