The aesthetic dexterity and psychological depth of Ang Lee’s Hulk is corrupted by Marvel’s “reboot” of the superhero franchise, Louis Leterrier’s intermittently kinetic but depressingly shallow The Incredible Hulk. In response to complaints that Lee’s unjustly excoriated 2003 effort was too talky and slow, Leterrier swings the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum, delivering a slam-bang spectacle so lacking in weight that, until the impressive finale, the film seems downright terrified of character and relationship development, as if too much conversation or—gasp!—subtextual heft will immediately alienate coveted young male fanboys.
In place of actual plot substance, what’s offered up this time around is an arrhythmic chase wrapped up in allusions to the 1978 - 1982 TV program (via a cameo, use of its theme song, and the sight of green eyes shining amid darkness, among other things), which will certainly appeal to viewers whose nostalgia for the Lou Ferrigno-headlined show is strong enough to cloud memories of how insanely boring most episodes actually were. No fondness for crummy old television, however, can obscure the general faintheartedness of this saga, a quality at glaring odds with the rampaging might and fury of its gargantuan protagonist.
Ignoring the events of Lee’s film but also refusing to serve up an origin story, Incredible Hulk recounts Bruce Banner’s (Edward Norton) gamma experimentation-gone-awry and its fallout effects on his relationship with girlfriend Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) and her father General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) through cursory opening credit snapshots that fail to lay proper groundwork for these characters’ ensuing dramatic dynamics. Hiding out in a Brazilian favela, Banner is tracked down by Ross (who spearheaded gamma research for a biochemical “super solider” project, and wants to exploit the Hulk’s powers for military applications), thus initiating a prolonged pursuit of the doctor by Ross henchman Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), physically enhanced by his own gamma radiation spinal injections.
Still, despite this built-in, breakneck forward momentum, screenwriter Zak Penn’s tale (reportedly rewritten by Norton) proceeds in fits and starts, and is undercut by a combination of intertwined factors. Rather than an extension/amplification/distortion of Banner’s psyche, this Hulk is merely the semi-deliberate byproduct of genetic fiddling, which means Banner’s struggle to rid himself of the Hulk is devoid of pressing, tumultuous inner conflict. Consequently, his quest lacks complexity, which in turn results in a skin-deep (if serviceable) performance by Norton, which further exacerbates the chemistry void existing between him and Tyler.
A shot of Betty gazing up at the Hulk in a rain-battered cave vainly attempts to replicate the tender poignancy generated by Lee’s Frankenstein-indebted image of the jade creature pondering his reflection in a pond. But worse than these token stabs at sentimentality, Leterrier can barely sustain a compelling rhythm within a given scene, much less modulate the larger highs and lows of a feature narrative, and Peter Menzies Jr.‘s cinematography exhibits a drab, flat, often ugly texture.
Deficient in grace and density, and saddled with uneven CG and Hurt’s broad, un-menacing turn as General Ross, Incredible Hulk only gets its pulse racing during a climactic throwdown between the Hulk—whom Banner seeks to control for the purposes of good, thereby making him a hero rather than an unbridled id—and Blonsky, now transformed into the hideous beast Abomination. This colossal clash, in which the monstrous titans demolish large swaths of Harlem’s iconic 125th Street drag while throttling each other, boasts a primal, exhilarating “Hulk Smash!” vigorousness. Moreover, unlike the conclusion of recent Marvel blockbuster Iron Man, Leterrier’s potent showcase sequence comes equipped with such choreographic imagination and visual lucidity, it’s no wonder that Tony Stark himself (Robert Downey Jr.) subsequently shows up trying to get a piece of the action.