Louis Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk has been described by many as a "correction" of the "mistake" that was director Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk. I'm one of the handful of people on the planet who didn't find the first Hulk to be completely awful, so if you hated it be sure to keep that in mind as you're reading this review. While the first big-screen adaptation missed the mark in a number of ways, this new film manages to avoid those missteps only to make an entirely different set of it's own. The balance comes out positive, but still doesn't quite satisfy.
* SOME VERY MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD *.
First, what did this Hulk get right? It gives us the Hulk right up front. We don't have to wait half an hour for the transformation like we did last time. Sometimes comic adaptations can get away with this, but only when their heroes are interesting people in their own right before they acquire their powers. That's why Spiderman holds your attention before Spiderman ever swings from a building, Peter Parker has an interesting backstory involving characters you care about. Bruce Banner, on the other hand, is a very interesting character only after he becomes tormented by his transformation into the Hulk. Before that, he's just a cardboard lab-rat. Nobody wants to see that. While The Incredible Hulk isn't a direct sequel to the first Hulk, it certainly isn't a rehash of the Origin Story: Norton's Banner starts out on the run. This saves times and allows us to be treated to an decent action sequence up front, as Banner escapes through an otherworldly sprawling Brazilian city.
This movie also doesn't take itself so damn seriously. The melodrama in Lee's Hulk was enough to drown in. This Hulk doesn't toss out the strong relationships between characters, but manages a couple of moments of genuine humor, including one in the bedroom. The action scenes are bigger and better. Hulk finally gets a evenly matched physical opponent to fight, instead of whatever the villain was supposed to be in the first one (by far the first movie's biggest failing, in my opinion).
The movie does other things right too. Giving Banner a heart-rate meter to wear, so we can follow the emotional ascent which heralds the change into Hulk is clever. Giving us a star to follow in Norton, even if he is somewhat under-utilized, is much needed. Liv Tyler's Betty is a downgrade after Jennifer Connelly, but gets the job done. The action scenes are definitely an improvement, though I question the decision to move the finale to the streets of New York. Doesn't Gotham already have enough heroes defending her? I always thought the vast desert landscapes of the Southwest fit the Hulk's persona perfectly. Whatever. Finally hearing the words "Hulk Smash!" prompted whoops and cheers, as did the cameos. I like this CGI Hulk better than the first one too. It manages to appear both more monstrous and more human.
The movie's first half is unfortunately much stronger than the second half, which hurts it. If you could measure the amount of required suspension of disbelief and plot it against time, I'm pretty sure you would notice the graph take off right about midway. It's as if normal logic stops applying and comic book logic takes over: in particular, the villain's transformation elicits an audible "Whaaaaa?" Let's put it this way, if you just saw a 10 foot tall monster smash his way through an armored division, all the while being slammed by just about every kind of weapon in a near-future army's arsenal, would you be inclined to run up to him by yourself and attack him with only your pistol, and then call him a pansy to his face? Hello, comic book logic. Also, what was going on in Mr. Blue's head?
One gigantic difference between Hulk and Iron Man: in Iron Man people die. Not just the villains at the end, but good guys and innocents throughout. In Hulk we sometimes immerse ourselves completely in the world of comic book logic, where people get severely injured or thrown fifty yards through the air via punches or explosions, but never wind up dead. Not that I'm advocating violence for violence's own sake, but every time something like that happens it's sucks the gravitas right out of the scene and the movie degrades into a live-action cartoon---which it already has something of a tendency to do, considering there's a bright green muscle-bound CGI giant front and center for much of it.
Another thing this movie doesn't get quite right is what I like to call The Escalation of Violence. There's a tested formula in monster movies (and Hulk has a lot in common with monster movies) that works like this: each time you fight the monster, you bring a bigger gun. Lee's Hulk did this to perfection: first he fought dogs, then soldiers, then tanks, then helicopters, then fighter jets. Each time, the audience is left to wonder, will this gun be big enough? (That's what she said!) In The Incredible Hulk for some odd reason the army keeps bringing back into play weapons it knows the Hulk can beat. Bizarre.
I already mentioned the finale's odd choice of location, but there's something else that's just doesn't completely work about it. Maybe it's how both the bad monster and the good monster are still both drawn too monstrous to really get you totally into the Hulk's corner. Maybe it's how they're drawn too cartoonishly---I get that the Hulk is a big green guy who will never look real, I'm talking more about how their bodies react when they get thrown into buildings or run over, or growl and throw a punch, etc---which serves as another barrier to building tension. Also, I question the decision to keep the Hulk speechless for so long; it really could have helped repair these issues.
I've spent more time on it's defect than it's successes, but don't get me wrong, The Incredible Hulk is not awful by any means. By swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction, director Louis Leterrier ultimately still misses the mark, but undeniably lands closer to it than Lee did. One gets the feeling that if you could somehow splice the best aspects of this Hulk's DNA with the previous incarnation's you could produce a truly great A-list comic book movie, something worthy of being right up there with Spiderman 2, Iron Man and Batman Begins, that would truly do the Hulk mythos justice. Maybe in the sequel?
Final verdict: an entertaining summer popcorn movie, which suffers from both going up against much more able box office competition, and from too many little corrections which were left unmade. If you're torn between this or Iron Man, see Iron Man. If you've already seen Iron Man, lower your expectations a notch and you certainly won't resent tossing $10 Hulk's way.