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Sweeping Ang Lee's Hulk movie aside, Marvel's misunderstood monster returns in a movie designed to introduce the interconnectedness of the superhero universe to cinema
To understand why The Incredible Hulk feels like it has more going on at its edges than in its centre, a working knowledge of Hollywood trade magazine 'Variety' is as important as an in-depth knowledge of decades of comic book continuity.
Marvel superheroes such as Spider-Man , the X-Men and the Fantastic Four have inspired successful movie franchises for the likes of Fox and Sony. Because Marvel, copyright owners of each hero, did deals with different studios, their characters have existed in a kind of corporate apartheid, in which Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four are unaware of one another's existence.
Yet the lasting appeal of the Marvel comics was that each issue existed in the same universe, so that Wolverine could crop up in Spider-Man stories, and whatever Daredevil was up to had a knock on effect in the world of, say, Iron Man. It is only with Marvel's decision to make their own films instead of farming the rights out to the big studios - a decision that bore its first significant fruit in the successful Iron Man movie - that the promise of superhero crossover has become a certainty.
The master plan is a bumper multi-hero movie based on the successful comic 'The Avengers', coming out early in the next decade. It will feature Captain America, Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man, Edgar Wright's Ant-Man and The Incredible Hulk - and if you don't know who all those characters are yet, don't worry, because each will be introduced in their own blockbuster before ganging up in what is intended to be the Harlem Globetrotters of superhero movies.
Such behind the scenes maneuvering helps us understand why The Incredible Hulk is such an unsatisfying movie, all foreshadowing, cute post-modern references and comic geek in-jokes.
Peculiarly, we open with a reprise of the title sequence of the 1970s TV show, 'The Incredible Hulk', in which Bill Bixby played hero David Banner (not Bruce Banner, as the comics had it - that name was considered "too gay") and bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno was painted green and bewigged to roar as his alter-ego Hulk. This is peculiar for two reasons: firstly, the TV series was a break from that precious Marvel continuity, so the decision to reference it can only be to trade on the familiarity and nostalgia certain portions of the audience still hold for a show that was no damn good; secondly, it means strapping our hero Bruce Banner - played by Edward Norton - into technology that belongs in 1970s dentistry.
The 'Incredible Hulk' TV show was unsatisfying even to a child - the constraints of American television's syndication practices meant that each episode had to be pretty self-contained. Combine that with the habitual artistic laziness of the era - and the lack of decent supervillians for the Hulk to fight - and you ended up with a TV show that was basically David Carradine's 'Kung Fu' in green body paint.
What this retro over-title sequence has in its favour is that it gets the whole origin story out of the way before the film starts: no one could sit through the tale of how Bruce Banner became the Hulk so soon after Ang Lee's over-detailed exploration of the same material five years previously. So, he's the Hulk already and hiding out in the higgledy-piggledy of a Brazilian favela, the teeming multitudes affording Bruce Banner an off-the-grid anonymity as he searches for a cure for his condition.
To pay his way, Banner works in a bottling factory, and when a drop of his blood finds its way into a soft drink exported to America (and drunk by Marvel originator Stan Lee in his obligatory, Hitchcockian cameo) malignant military authorities are alerted to his whereabouts. Leading the hunt is General Ross, played by William Hurt in a no-surprises-here fashion. He engages ace but ageing fighter Emil Blonsky (Roth) to lead the snatch squad to grab Banner and bring him back into the bosom of the American military, where he will be dissected and the secrets of his monstrous alter-ego set to work on the frontline.
The favela and the bottling factory make for an interesting setting; the Hulk is more commonly seen either in the desert (his comic book origin owes a great deal to the Nevada nuclear tests) or causing mayhem in New York. Savour this new texture: visual originality is not this movie's strong point. Banner returns to America to hook up with his sweetheart, Betty Ross, daughter of the villainous general and played by Liv Tyler, around whom ghostly elf ears still hover. Watching Tyler you ponder how thankless the role is of superhero main squeeze - eye-candy to be ogled, true love to be sentimentalised, feckless womanhood to be rescued.
When Bruce and Betty get lovey-dovey, it's like Anakin and Amidala all over again. Okay, it's not that bad: the dialogue is not George Lucas low, and there is a great gag about how Bruce can't have sex with Betty in case he gets too excited and hence terrifyingly green and large inside her. It's only later, when Betty is trapped in a helicopter that is leaking fuel and might just catch fire - the kind of set-up that was tired when featured in every crappy cop show of the 1970s - that you realise how little you care for Betty Ross, Elven princess or not.
Meanwhile Tim Roth is transformed from "a Russian born soldier who was educated in England" (and what a tortuous backstory that is to justify why an Englishman is playing a character originally invented to provide a Soviet counterpart to the Hulk) into a super-soldier, courtesy of some serum that General Ross keeps in cold storage.
Super-soldier serum is the source of the Marvel universe: back in the 1940s, it was this serum that transformed weakling Steve Rogers into the Nazi-battling Captain America. It is the substance that will bind together all of the Marvel movies to come, as their universe of heroes is reimagined as the costumed results of various attempts by the American military to beef up their infantry by injecting this gunk into a series of unsuitable subjects.
With his shirt off, Roth is a dead ringer for Vladimir Putin. The writers have made little effort to render English speech patterns or vocabulary, so Roth's performance drifts across the spectrum of his origins. By the end of the film, he will be transformed into a Hulk-alike Abomination, for no good reason, other than Blonsky likes to kick ass.
The climactic battle between Hulk and Abomination is a brutal slugfest: mere computer-generated WWE. As the novelty of superhero movies has worn off, they have failed to reinvent the fights in the way that originators and artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Dikto did way back. The choreography is all fast-cuts, velocity and hyperbole. A new style is needed to make this exciting again, even if it just a cinematic representation of Jack Kirby's old style. The benchmark remains Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus's fight in Spider-Man 2 , which rocked the vertiginous. More of that invention is needed if the action is not to become tedious.
Ultimately, you are left to count up how many texts and audiences The Incredible Hulk is responsible to: the fans of the TV show, the fans of the innumerable comics, the cinematic and literary inspirations to the character, from Boris Karloff's Frankenstein to King Kong and Fay Wray, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the fantasy of rootlessness that is the Wandering Jew.
The Incredible Hulk accumulates nods and asides to all of these and more as it rolls along. It is a hollow snowball of references with no core, a zoo of texts both inherited and anticipated; if it has any pleasures, it lies in counting up its arbitrary connections to things past and things to come. As Bruce Banner says as he climbs off Betty Ross, "I can't get too excited".
Hulk not smash. Hulk building block. Hulk make franchise.
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On Film4: 31 August 2014