Director: Louis Leterrier
Cast: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt
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As the Avengers tool up for their climactic crossover, Infinity War, it’s easy to forget that Hulk wasn’t always played by Mark Ruffalo. As Marvel’s MCU has scaled up, it has quietly moved away from its original portrayal of Bruce Banner, troubled scientist, government outcast and occasional green rage monster. In fact, there have been two previous modern incarnations: Eric Bana in Ang Lee’s Hulk and, when that failed to connect with multiplex audiences, Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk.
The 2008 film, Hulk’s second reboot in five years, marked a major shift in tone from Lee’s stylish, poignant drama. Gone was the thoughtful mood and nifty editing; in its place, the other side of Hulk – the one with lots of loud smashing.
Edward Norton, it must be said, makes for an excellent Bruce, playing Banner as a recluse who wants anything but to turn into his powerful alter-ego. Consulting a meditation expert and hiding away in Brazil’s slums, he works quietly as a mechanic in a bottling factory, staying off the grid and, most of all, calm. Norton’s always been an actor with a knack for inner turmoil and his casting is as smart as that of Ruffalo in the role.
The rest of the film, though, never quite does his performance justice. The script – written by Zak “Ready Player One” and “Elektra” Penn – veers repeatedly between smart and dumb, right from the off. The opening credits are an inspired way to skirt the usual origins story, giving us a glimpse of Banner’s gamma radiation experiments going wrong and the creation of his monster – as well as his romantic involvement with Betty (Tyler), the daughter of General Ross (Hurt). By the time they’re over, we’re in Rio and Ross is tracking Banner down, a move that brings tough soldier Emily Blonsky (Roth) into contact with Hulk.
The resulting collision sparks an obsession in the trooper, who instigates his own round of extreme medical testing, in an attempt to get a taste of that same, raw power. In the film’s middle act, as Roth slowly becomes unhinged and goes toe to toe with Hulk in a number of showdowns, there’s impressive spectacle to be found – and Tyler’s presence as an anguished onlooker, and heartfelt partner, brings some emotional weight.
But the final act throws any heft away, as Roth’s abomination of a human turns into a gigantic CGI beast, and we’re left watching the kind of digitised punch-up that smacks of generic superhero tedium. Leterrier does his best to drum up some novelty in the set pieces, but there’s no wit in the screenplay to keep things grounded, and not enough time given to Norton to make something more complex from the half of material he does get to deliver. The result is an intriguing look at the MCU rapidly assembling the parts it needs, following Iron Man’s success, but an underwhelming mess of a blockbuster. Hulk smashes, but doesn’t leave much of a mark.