The Incredible Hulk is technically the second theatrical release based on the Marvel Comics super-hero. However, this film, directed by Louis Leterrier (The Transporter 2, Unleashed) apparently ignores the events of 2003’s adjective-free Hulk which was directed by Ang Lee. Lead actor Edward Norton plays haunted scientist Bruce Banner in addition to contributing a script draft which was conditional upon his hiring as an actor (the WGA gives Zak Penn final official credit for the screenplay).
The story continues—or begins again—the saga of former research scientist Dr. Banner, whose body was drastically mutated in the aftermath of a botched experiment involving improving human resistance to radiation. Now, in times of extreme anger or stress, Banner’s gamma-irradiated cells expand exponentially, turning him into the outsized, super-muscled Hulk—driven by rage and prone to lash out at his tormentors with little restraint.
General Thaddeus Ross (played by William Hurt) was present at the experiment that birthed the Hulk, as was his daughter Betty (Liv Tyler). Obsessed with bringing the fugitive Banner into custody, the general recruits a special commando unit, including one Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), on loan from the British military. When the general’s team finally tracks down Banner to a Brazilian shantytown, things begin to go downhill for both Banner and the general—the Hulk is unleashed and makes short work of everyone involved. But while most of the team is at least humbled by this turn of events, it only intrigues Blonsky, who then volunteers to be injected with a top-secret performance-enhancement cocktail.
Unfortunately, the grim Blonsky doesn’t remotely have the conscience of Banner, and he becomes increasingly aggressive in his attempts to bring down his quarry. Meanwhile, the trouble-prone scientist hitchhikes from Latin America all the way to the Virginia college where he and Betty worked. Stumbling into an awkward reunion with his former love, a second Hulk flare-up prompts the two to head to New York City, where a heretofore mysterious colleague of Banner has the equipment necessary to attempt a cure—but the dogged Blonsky’s lust for combat derails everything; his own mutation spins out of control, turning him into the monster Abomination. With military personnel literally being crushed by this new creature, a reluctant Banner realizes that the only thing that can stop the rampaging Blonsky may be the Hulk.
If one is apt to believe circulating entertainment reports, Norton was allegedly miffed with Marvel studio executives who wanted a leaner, more action-driven final cut of the film compared to Ang Lee’s slower, ponderous interpretation. As viewed, the film is a taut action vehicle, essentially becoming a chase thriller after the first Hulk-eruption. Quieter moments such as when Bruce and Betty first reunite or trailer-glimpsed scenes of an Arctic sojourn and Bruce’s chat with a psychologist (Ty Burrell) are either truncated or not seen at all. Marvel Studios is self-financing their comic-strip based features now, so there is legitimate commercial concern here.
Still, accommodating viewers who don’t have stunted attention spans isn’t really that bad. The Lord of the Rings movies found a way to keep the story literate and the action exciting. While prose-fiction hardliners may blanch at comparing Stan Lee’s comic-book series to Tolkien, it helps to bear in mind that cool art-visuals alone aren’t enough to keep a comic-book going for 45 years like the Hulk. The story, whether simple or complex, still needs to be in place. Hopefully it won’t be another five years (or longer) before the Hulk shows up at cinema again, and maybe his handlers will believe in him enough to make the narrative as strong as the spectacle.