Ang Lee’s movie entitled simply “Hulk” was quite a different animal from Louis Letterier’s The Incredible Hulk. The former is an origin story and the Hulk battles only the U.S. Military and his own demons. The latter features a worthy antagonist to the Hulk—the Abomination. Just as Iron Man squared off against a more bestial version of his own sophisticated body-armour, the Hulk fought another victim of gamma-ray exposure, but more grotesque and monstrous. The 2008 film was directed by Louis Letterier based on a screenplay by Zak Penn, who wrote the scripts for X2, X-Men the Last Stand, Elektra, and the Avengers. He wanted Bruce Banner to be played by Mark Ruffalo, who did so in several movies later, but Edward Norton was chosen largely because he reminded everyone of Bill Bixby from the TV series. Lou Ferrigno’s voice was used for the CGI Hulk, and Edward Norton had a hand in the script. About an hour of back-story was filmed but abandoned. The transformation scenes were inspired by those in An American Werewolf in London.
Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is working with General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) at Culver University in Virginia. The General’s daughter Betty (Liv Tyler) is Banner’s girlfriend. The General hopes to recreate the World War II super-soldier experiment that produced Captain America. Naturally, it all goes sideways, and Banner is bombarded with gamma radiation. As a result, whenever is heart rate rises to 200 beats per minute, he transforms into a nine-foot-tall green behemoth with incredible strength. He destroys the lab, killing several people, and injuring both the General and Betty, and disappears. Ross and the U.S. military search for him, hoping to—you guessed it—turn him into a super-weapon.
Five years later, Banner is working at a bottling plant in Rio de Janeiro, while trying to cure his condition. He is using yoga to keep his emotions under control, while he corresponds by the email-tag of “Mister Green” with the mysterious “Mister Blue”. One day at work he cuts his finger and a drop of his tainted blood drips into a soft-drink bottle, causing an elderly man in Milwaukee (Stan Lee) to come down with gamma sickness. General Ross sends a Special Forces team led by Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to the plant in Rio to find Banner, who transforms into the Hulk and destroys most of the team and much of the plant. Blonsky is impressed and, learning the story from General Ross, agrees to be injected with the serum made from Banner’s blood, gaining enhanced speed, strength, agility, and healing powers as a result, but his skeleton is deformed and his mind twisted.
Banner returns to Culver University (which looks very much like University of Toronto) to see Betty and Mr. Blue, but he is assaulted by the General’s and Blonsky’s forces. The troops are defeated, all their equipment smashed, and Blonsky badly injured. Betty, trying to intervene, is nearly killed herself in the crossfire, but the Hulk saves her and escapes with her in his arms. When he turns back into Banner the next morning, the two of them become fugitives. Banner contacts Mister Blue, who is cellular biologist Doctor Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), who thinks he has an antidote. He has synthesized Banner’s blood samples, hoping to create a powerful cure for many diseases, but Banner tells him to destroy it.
Blonsky and Ross seize Banner and Betty and Ross takes them away in a helicopter. Blonsky forces Sterns to inject him, is transformed into the Abomination and rampages through Harlem. Banner convinces the General to release him. Leaping from the helicopter, he transforms into the Hulk and battles Abomination, but spares his life at Betty’s request and leaves him nearly dead for the General to deal with. Once again, the Hulk disappears. In British Columbia, he learns to control his transformations. Later, Tony Stark speaks to General Ross about putting together a superhero team.
The film was produced by Gale Anne Hurd, who produced pretty much every movie I like. Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno both have cameos in the film. Many of the big-name actors agreed to play their roles because they admired the TV series, and because they knew their children would be impressed. It was the first blockbuster film to receive the Environmental Media Association’s seal of approval—so I guess the Incredible Hulk was green.
The scriptwriters and director made excellent choices, in my opinion, regarding the previous Hulk movie. They neither pretended it never happened, nor made a sequel. They used the basic plot of the first movie, which was in fact the plot of the original comic book, as a back-story told in a brief and fast-paced montage. Anyone in the audience already familiar with the story would not be bored and anyone unfamiliar with the story would get the gist of it quite quickly. Then, suddenly, we find ourselves in media res, dropped into Rio de Janeiro with Bruce Banner in hiding. The pace and exotic locale reminded me of a James Bond movie.
In fact, the whole film was well-paced and spectacular. The story, like that of the Iron Man film, seems rather simple now, compared with the later Avengers movies, with their multiple heroes and multiple conflicts, stretching out toward three hours in length in order to give the object of each fan’s devotion a good solid scene in which to shine. Throughout, there were moments when I was reminded of Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man, and King Kong—the great triumvirate of Monsters we shed a tear for. Liv Tyler made a pretty good conduit for this sentiment. The Abomination was a bit over the top, reminding me of a similar grotesquerie in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and making it impossible to forget that it was computer-generated, but the storytelling was good enough that I was able to ignore the fact that Hulk was just as artificial.