The Incredible Hulk: A Somber Superhero

Don't tell the Army or his girlfriend, but Bruce Banner has a secret identity. When he's angry, he turns into Jason Bourne.

The second attempt this decade to launch a film franchise around The Incredible Hulk (Whose idea was it to hire Ang Lee to direct Hulk? Did Ingmar Bergman turn them down?) is a much more satisfying experience than the first one. Director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter), not previously known for plausibility or restraint, gets this one going in Brazil, with some nifty, stones-in-your-shoes grit reminiscent of (though not as skillfully realized as) the chase scenes in the Bourne movies.

Scientist Bruce Banner has been hiding out in South America -- maybe for as long as five years -- after he stumbled into an experiment that left him with strange memories of a chlorophyll-colored rampage that left several dead and his own girlfriend (Liv Tyler) hospitalized. It turns out he was an unwitting victim of a fell military experiment intended to turn a human into the kind of weapon that makes tanks and helicopters want to call in sick.

The project's daddy (William Hurt, looking extremely ready for the part with his Joe Stalin mustache) wants his manimal back, unharmed. So he sends his finest officer (Tim Roth) after the Hulk. But it's dangerous to go to war with Hulk. As Bruce Banner puts it to locals in his broken Portuguese. "Don't make me hungry. You won't like me when I'm hungry."

That is a loving tribute to the catchphrase from the 1970s TV show that starred Lou Ferrigno (who also supplies the voice of the Hulk -- why mess with a classic? -- and pops up in a cameo). The movie also manages to work in the CBS show's theme music -- that'll reach down and mess with you somewhere deep, if you're in my age group -- and even a shot of the late Bill Bixby, who played Banner.

Like the show, the movie has an unusually somber mood. Hulk is one of the few comic-book superheroes -- or is he more of a supermonster? -- whose other half never wanted him around in the first place. Banner wants an antidote so he can put himself out of his misery, and as Bixby once did Norton spends a lot of time wandering lonely roads in the hard, cold rain.

Hulk is also, for all his aggression issues, a strangely passive figure. He is defined by his enemies. If people were nice to Banner, the Hulk would never be seen again (although, as an unnerving scene played for laughs here shows, anything that gets Banner's pulse racing threatens to turn him into Shrek's dark half). That leads to a storyline that is more about running away to live another day than accomplishing anything, although to its credit the movie realizes this and devises a way to change gears in the last act.

Still, unlike Spidey or Supe, the Hulk is not a man putting on a costume. He is a mutant, a ridiculous-looking creature (why does Hulk always have a hank of Matt Damon bangs hanging over his forehead when Banner's hair is neatly brushed back both before and after his transformation), and it's hard to get emotionally attached to him. This is especially true during the film's climax, which may be highly commercial but is, like the endings of Transformers and Iron Man, nothing more interesting than two giant beings clobbering each other as in a WWE smackdown (and with the outcome equally easy to predict).

Iron Man is otherwise easily superior to The Incredible Hulk, though. (Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark makes an appearance here that the movie plays as a surprise ending, but the TV commercial has already given it away.) Stark's wit, his flair, the way everything comes easily to him and he makes the ladies purr, are all the opposite of what Bruce Banner brings to the party, and there is nothing in this movie remotely as much fun as Tony’s devilish wisecracks or his flirty bantering with Pepper Potts.

Norton is, like Downey, a much better actor than we deserve in a superhero movie, but unlike Downey he puts intensity above having fun. His Hulk is the superhero equivalent of the guy who couldn't get a prom date. Hulk roar. Hulk rampage. But Hulk lonely and Hulk sad.

The Incredible Hulk

Directed by Louis Leterrier

Starring: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt

2.4 stars/ 4

114 minutes/Rated PG-13