The Incredible Hulk
Lesson: Improve. Fix what went wrong the first time around.
Most reboots are created because something went wrong the first time around, whether it be an old franchise running out of steam or a new property that arrived on creative life-support. This is the story of Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, an attempt to successfully re-launch the Hulk franchise after Ang Lee’s critically and commercially disastrous 2003 film.
Lee’s Hulk was a disappointment on all fronts. I greatly respect the film’s dramatic ambition, and do not bemoan Lee for trying to explore the psychology of the character, but nearly every tonal and narrative choice felt like a major miscalculation. The film is oppressively dark, bleak and brutal and anguished without a hint of enjoyment, basing its story around topics of domestic abuse, repression, and mental illness. The pacing is languid, waiting a full hour to actually arrive at the Hulk’s origin, and somehow only slowing down and becoming even drearier from there. It is a tough film to sit through, one that fails to function as entertainment, drama, or an effective combination of the two.
Leterrier’s Incredible Hulk is not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a good one, and what impresses me most about it is the practically systematic way Leterrier goes about improving upon every misstep of the original. Bruce Banner’s tragic origin is related visually through the opening credits; he has a Hulk transformation in one of the very first scenes; there is a steady flow of impressive action sequences throughout the film without sacrificing character development; psychology is still a part of the film, but Bruce’s trauma no longer overwhelms things; and most importantly, the tone and pace consistently feel in line with how the Hulk should best be depicted.
The Incredible Hulk is not a major dramatic triumph – Leterrier’s vision for the character is not nearly as insightful as Nolan’s was for Batman, for instance – but it is at least confident and consistent in its understanding of the Hulk, a sharp contrast to Lee’s muddled philosophy in the first feature. There are no major issues Leterrier does not address in his reboot, taking every criticism leveled at Lee’s film to heart when crafting the new film. He even redesigns the CGI Hulk from the ground up, making him look much more menacing and convincing.
The result is a satisfying and fulfilling film, especially to fans of the character. The Incredible Hulk has grown a bit of an adverse reputation in the years since its release, after Norton was recast for Avengers and it became clear the Hulk was not a standalone priority for Marvel, but that does not change the fact that this is a good and solid foundation for the character. It delivers on the same fronts all the Marvel Studios films do, offering excellent action, thoughtful character work, and strong performances from an expertly assembled cast.
The film’s greatest contribution in the evolution of the reboot, meanwhile, is its ability to assess the failings of its predecessor and strike out in new and improved directions. Whether or not one loves the finished product, it is clear Leterrier took what fans and critics had to say about Lee’s film to heart, a lesson all attempting to reboot a stagnant property should learn from.