Two films, both watched prior to going to see the Avengers so that I’ll have seen all the teasers in each of the Marvel films leading up to that extravaganza, and it’s an exercise in “compare and contrast”. Ang Lee’s Hulk is a fairly cerebral affair, taking the idea of Hulk as a resentful child and locating it with real “daddy issues”. Here, Eric Bana’s Bruce Banner has inherited his genetic oddness from father David (Nick Nolte), an amoral scientist who was experimenting on himself. In this version, a departure from the comic, Bruce has been adopted and doesn’t remember his early life but is now working with Betty (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of his father’s boss, General Ross (Sam Elliott), until an accident in the lab with gamma radiation activates his mutated genes, bringing out the Hulk for the first time.
The drama is all in the various relationships and Bruce’s urgent need to cure, or at least control, the beast inside.
Leterrier’s Incredible Hulk is a much more conventional affair. Ditching the first film entirely and going instead for a reboot, the “origins” story is dealt with in the credits and we are pitched into the action as Bruce (this time Ed Norton) is in hiding in South America until Ross (William Hurt) sends in a team of commandos to try to recover him. The official line is that Banner is a murderer but it transpires that Ross has been using Banner to try to reinvent the Supersoldier programme from world war II (as seen in Captain America), whereas Banner thought he was working on medical research. In the accident that brought out the Hulk, Ross’s daughter Betty (Liv Tyler) was injured and is now estranged from him.
After Ross’s commandos led by Blonsky (Tim Roth), a UK commando on special assignment, fail to take Banner, Bruce makes his way back to the US to attempt to contact a mysterious helper “Mr Blue” in an attempt to find a cure. Ross, though, is aware of Bruce’s return and brings Blonsky, now being treated with the unreliable supersoldier programme himself, and an army to capture Hulk.
That the second film completely ignores the first seemed initially to be incomprehensible. Though they rejigged the “origins” to make it more obviously military (presumably with the Avengers tie in, and specifically the character of Captain America, in mind) and also to distance it from the critical and commercial failure of the first film, the recasting of all the lead roles would have been sufficient to achieve this. Regarding the casting, both Bana and Norton are fine as Bruce, Connelly is far superior to the nice-to-look-at-but-technically-limited Tyler, and neither Elliott nor Hurt do themselves justice as Ross. Roth is terrific as Blonsky, but is only sporadically given anything to do.
Both films have a little fun with adding nods to the TV series (which disappoints me a little, since that was so different to the comics), giving cameos to Lou Ferrigno and using the name “David” as Bruce’s father, and the “don’t make me angry” line. They are more successful incorporating more of the TV series’ genetic experimentation as part of the origin, rather than the comic’s simplistic “exposed to gamma rays”, which always was rather poor, even for Marvel.
As far as the look of Hulk himself, Lee’s version is very cartoonish but what can you expect from a giant green man who can leap miles at a time? Leterrier’s is better but you still have to make an effort to suspend disbelief. Lee’s main problem is his brave attempt to bring the aesthetic of the comic book to the screen by use of the multiply split-screen effects that have the unfortunate effect of looking fussy and distracting. Otherwise, it’s a perfectly acceptable if unremarkable superhero film, not as good as X-Men 1 & 2, Spiderman 1 & 2 or Iron Man, but probably on a par with Thor, and better than Captain America and Iron Man 2, and far superior to X-Men 3, Wolverine or Spiderman 3. Leterrier’s is reputed to be an improvement on Lee’s but I’m not sure it really is. To me, its lack of ambition counts against it.
So, neither film is great, neither (despite the reputation for Lee’s attempt) is terrible. Hulk is ambitious but deeply flawed, Incredible Hulk more mainstream but pedestrian. Now let’s see what Whedon’s version will look like…