Will moviegoers like the Hulk, even when he’s angry, when the follow-up to the much-maligned 2003 film smashes into theaters this Friday?
With a new director, new cast, new studio and some improved computer generated imagery behind this summer’s “The Incredible Hulk,” filmmakers at Marvel Studios hope they will.
“‘The Hulk’ looked too CGI, too cartoony. The story didn’t make much sense” were just some of the common barbs fired at the Universal-produced, Ang Lee-directed movie. Despite opening at No. 1 in the box office five years ago at $62 million, bad word-of-mouth and reviews brought the green monster to his knees. “The Hulk’s” earnings dropped 70 percent in its second week, and it was only able to gross $132 million domestically and $245 million worldwide – a disappointment considering the first “Spider-Man” movie’s $821 million earnings worldwide the previous year.
Five years later, Marvel Studios filmmakers are putting the ghosts of “Hulk” past behind them and hope fans look at “The Incredible Hulk” with a fresh pair of eyes. But why bother resurrecting the Hulk franchise and giving it another chance? Let’s just say, it’s all about the green (and we’re not talking about the environment or the color of our protagonist’s skin).
“The potential rewards were too great to not give it another chance,” said Don Tanner, marketing expert at the Detroit-based Tanner Friedman Strategic Communications. “The Hulk has such a great following out there, and he’s up there with the upper-tier classic superheroes like Spider-Man, Batman and Superman. ... The fact that Marvel has taken over the production of its movies made a great difference in the situation.”
And another crack at the Hulk gave Marvel an opportunity to really get the story of one of its most tragic characters “right” on the big screen. The Hulk was among the new breed of darker, conflicted, more "human" comic book characters that Stan Lee, now chairman emeritus of Marvel, unveiled in the 1960s. He and artist/writer Jack Kirby's new character melded aspects of a modern-day Jekyll and Hyde with Frankenstein's monster.
The Hulk’s origin in comics and TV and movie adaptations has varied, but a few things have remained constant: He is the monstrous manifestation of Bruce Banner’s anger, an experiment gone wrong. Banner is a slave to his powerful, often feared and misunderstood alter ego. People fear the Hulk because of his appearance and destructive tendencies – no matter how innocent his intentions were at times or how many lives he saved. He is seen as a threat and hunted by the U.S. government, particularly by Gen. Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross, father of his love interest, Betty Ross.
Because Banner can’t control the creature that is a part of him, he is forced to live the life of a fugitive – always alone and separated from the ones he loves. The Hulk’s story is as psychological as it is action-packed – and that may have been the 2003 film’s undoing. Director Ang Lee's Lee’s “Hulk” may have taken itself too seriously, as much of the movie focused on Banner’s broken relationship with his father, whose experiments essentially planted the seeds of the Hulk in his son.
“Ang Lee’s ‘Hulk’ may have been too heavy on the psychology. It didn’t resonate with its chief target audience, teenagers and maybe some baby boomers who grew up watching these [superhero] characters,” said Christopher Sharrett, professor of Communications and Film Studies at Seton Hall University.
Lee’s interpretation of the Hulk underscores a challenge filmmakers face when bringing superheroes to the screen: giving stories both enough gravitas and action to satisfy everyone in the audience.
“The director has a delicate balancing act, emphasizing a CGI-smash-em-up spectacle that appeals to kids with the sense of the troubled, alienated character – think Spider-Man – that some adolescents find empowering,” Sharrett said. “You just don’t want to do it too much. You want to do it kind of like ‘Iron Man’. You saw him alone and brooding in some scenes and you got that sense of his torment. But it wasn’t emphasized.”
If the glimpses of “The Incredible Hulk,” are any indication, it picks up where the Ang Lee story left off – Bruce Banner as a government fugitive. But that’s where the similarities end. Edward Norton takes the helm as Banner, who’s trying to find a way to eliminate the beast within while eluding authorities who see him as government property and a potential resource for a new weapon. There’s no Jennifer Connelly or Sam Elliott; Liv Tyler and William Hurt take over the roles of Betty Ross and her obsessive, Hulk-hunting father, Gen. Ross. Tim Roth rounds out the new cast as Emil Blonsky, a power-hungry Hulk hunter who eventually turns himself into the frightening Abomination, a gamma radiation creature who is like the Hulk, but stronger.
Norton appears to bring a somewhat darker edge to the Hulk. He follows other critically-acclaimed actors such as Tobey Maguire, Christian Bale, and Robert Downey Jr. who entered the superhero film genre and became unlikely action stars. Maguire and Downey helped launch movie franchises in “Spider-Man” and “Iron Man” respectively while Bale helped resurrect “Batman” after it lost steam in the late 1990s following the somewhat cartoonish “Batman Forever” and “Batman and Robin.”
“What you need to have [to resurrect a movie franchise] is a great story that stays true to form to the essence of the hero and the history of the hero,” said Don Tanner. “And you need the right actor to make the story work. They’re almost a wildcard. What seems to have worked best are actors that go against the type, non-leading men who can bring to life some of the irony and emotion and some of the elements of the hero. … Eric Bana, who’s a great actor, just didn’t work as Bruce Banner [in the 2003 movie]. Bruce Banner is a wimpy guy; Bana wasn’t convincing, was just too hunky to be Banner. You won’t really have that problem with Ed Norton.”
Although this year’s summer movie season seems crowded with superheroes ("The Dark Knight," Will Smith's "Hancock" and "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" all open in July), “The Incredible Hulk” seems poised to deliver for Marvel.
“From a promotional perspective, [Hulk distributor] Universal really did work portray this movie as a very different Hulk than the Ang Lee film,” said Alden Stoner, executive director of the Film Department at Dave Brown Entertainment who headed promotions for the previous Hulk film. “They really deliver on a lot of the excitement and action that is the Hulk.”
“The Incredible Hulk” also may benefit from not being weighed down this time around by the lofty expectations of a web-slinging colleague.
“Last time, you had ‘Spider-Man,’ which was like gangbusters at the box office and you had so many other very successful comic book movies,” Stoner said. “Now, we have a more reasonable barometer.”
Nonetheless, an incredible showing at the box office would trigger another metamorphosis in the Hulk – into the Jolly Green Giant. Stay tuned, true believers.