Before starting this film, I joked that I was going to watch “The Inedible Hulk” and this story is definitely one that I find pretty hard to swallow. I’ve never been a big fan of the fantastical transformation plot line that often appears in super hero comic stories and ones that are accompanied by massive physical transformations like The Hulk and The Thing are even less appealing to me. I’ve already written that I find the physical transformation of Captain America hard to accept but somehow his is just slightly more believable for being a one way trip. To have Bruce Banner change to the Hulk and back again repeatedly seems to be pushing believability too far even for a comic book character.
So you’ll get the impression that I was expecting to be disappointed by this film. On the contrary though I actually really enjoyed it. A lot of people advise that when embarking on a catchup like the one I’m doing this film can be safely left out but I think that would be a sad thing. The film does everything that I feel a comic book movie needs to do. It sets up the characters and some shady organisations early on and then gets right down to the action. The plot and the characters don’t really matter as long as they facilitate Hulk getting to Smash!
Here The Hulk isn’t quite as stupidly over-muscled or as green as he is usually depicted. I don’t have any particular preference on the colour but the more “realistic” stature is a welcome change from the modern “bigger is always better” Hollywood philosophy and a nice nod back to the 1970s TV series (although he is obviously far too large to be a very muscular man like Lou Ferrigno who played The Hulk on TV and has a cameo in this film as well as playing the voice of The Hulk).
The transformation effects aren’t very good but the film sensibly keeps it hidden in the background most of the time and only brings it to the viewer’s attention occasionally. In this version they have dropped the idea that Hulk would grow stronger and physically larger the more angry he gets which also helps the character to be just a little more believable.
Of course Hulk Smashing would not be enough to keep your interest if the smashing was no good and, fortunately, the action in this film is handled pretty well. The Hulk is pretty lifelike and the action is fast paced and dramatic. It isn’t long before you get to see him throwing people through buildings and throwing (bits of) buildings, cars and anything else he can lay his gigantic hands on at people. Some of the effects are obvious and distracting but mostly are handled well. During the obligatory climactic monster versus monster battle even I was able to suspend my disbelief long enough to just sit back and enjoy the spectacle of monsters fighting each other.
This isn’t to say that the characters are all flimsy and uninteresting. Banner is played well by Edward Norton as a troubled soul with a disturbing past and even the Hulk itself gets some emotional depth. Liv Tyler is OK as Betty but doesn’t get to do a whole lot other than alternate between being the reason that Banner gets “excited” and the only thing that calms him down. It all gets a bit King Kong in places with Hulk actually carrying Betty off to a cave the mountains at one point. Of course she needs to be rescued a couple of times and this helps the Hulk to start acknowledging his human emotions.
The rest of the characters are inconsequential though, even the two main antagonists are nothing more than cardboard cut outs. William Hurt as General Ross who wants to capture Banner/Hulk to use as a weapon is only 2 dimensional in the respect that he keeps flipping from wanting to capture Banner alive to wanting to destroy The Hulk outright. Tim Roth has a little more Depth as Emil Blonsky, supposedly a British Royal Marines officer on loan to the US. Initially enlisted to help track and capture Banner, after an encounter with The Hulk Bolonsky becomes involved in the mission to destroy The Hulk.
Bolonsky is offered the opportunity to gain the power of The Hulk in order to destroy it. Bolonsky is getting on a bit and misses being able to fight as well as he used to so he jumps at the opportunity to regain and surpass his abilities as a young man and to carry on fighting. Of course the transformation has unpredictable effects and what started out as a genuine attempt to keep The Hulk from doing more harm transforms into the main adversary of the film leading Hulk to get more in touch with his humanity and actually defend people from the Abomination which Bolonsky has become.
Some of the acting is pretty shoddy, especially in the origin story montage at the beginning. It looks a lot like they are trying to act to things that aren’t on set with them and the same actors do a lot better in later scenes so it could be to do with the way these scenes are filmed or a deliberate hamming up. I do like the fact that the origin is handled in the opening credits though, there are too many origin films in this series as it is!
They have managed to inject a lot of humanity and human like mannerisms and expressions into the Hulk so that he is not just the mindless green rage that he is often portrayed as. When he is Bruce, you really get the impression of someone who suffers post traumatic stress from the things that he has experienced as the Hulk, only partially glimpsed by Banner in flashbacks and dreams and always leaving him right on the edge of another “episode”.
About two thirds of the way through the film takes an abrupt and distracting comedy turn, introducing a couple of new characters and scenarios that are obviously played for comedy value. The film is pretty serious up to that point, as far as a comic book inspired film about a man who can turn into a muscle-bound green giant can be anyway, and the sudden injection of funny feels, well a bit funny really. It’s not like people start telling jokes and making pratfalls but it is a distinctly different tone to the rest. Fortunately it is back on track with the Smashing after about 15 minutes. The film is silly enough as it is, it doesn’t need artificial sillyness added to it!
Early on there are a few mentions of Stark Industries and some references to SHIELD further in but if you didn’t know it was part of a larger franchise and essentially an origin movie for Avengers then you would miss it which I guess is why many people seem to feel it is OK to miss it out of a Marvel marathon but I think this is an enjoyable film in its own right and it would be a shame to miss the opportunity to watch it.