Saturday, 14 June 2008

Everyone Should Drink The Gamma-Irradiated Kool-Aid

While being a comic nerd can be way more fun than the cool kids will admit (those assholes!), it also has its share of frustrations. Loving lists as much as I do, I was recently inspired by a Comic Book Resources feature to compile a tally of my favourite Marvel and DC comic characters, and the first list featured a bunch of cool villains (Magneto, Thanos, Kang), some obvious ones (The Thing, Spider-Man, though only in his Ultimate incarnation, and not the much-compromised 616 version), and the less popular ones (She-Hulk, Adam Warlock).

Most of those characters are still turning up in current continuity, so I still get to enjoy their adventures, but when it comes to movies, I suffer grievously. We get Elektra, three Punishers, and two Hulk movies, but no Adam Warlock? Gah! The movie world would be improved immensely by 70s-era Jim Starlin-esque madness, with Pip, Gamorra, and the faux-Elric Warlock flitting around the cosmos and getting into brain-bending fights with The In-Betweener. Why can no one else see this? I should adapt the damn thing myself and get some of that sweet Marvel/Merrill Lynch bank for myself.

So yeah, instead of getting the long-discussed Captain America or Thor, we get another Hulk movie. I'll be honest, I'm not a fan of the green lump, preferring the post-modern silliness of his endearing and inspiring cousin, She-Hulk, to his ponderous adventures. There's a place for mega-strong characters, and for anti-heroes, and characters with a light and dark side battling within them, and yet even though he has all three characteristics I still don't find Hulk compelling, except in rare circumstances. Greg Pak's recent Planet Hulk series was terrific (and World War Hulk was okay too, though perhaps not as impressive overall), but that was as much because of the interesting supporting cast and peculiar scope of it than because it gave the main character something more interesting to do than merely evade capture and then get into repetitive scrapes.

I look forward to reading Peter David's run on it, expecting a lot after hearing so much praise for it, but I doubt I will be converted by the end of it, especially knowing it was truncated against his wishes. As for the TV show, sorry, but if you're going to have to restrict the adventures of an enormous, superstrong green giant to defending the rights of factory workers who have been exploited by greedy managers on a weekly basis, even as a kid with even lower standards than I do now, I'm going to be unimpressed. Late appearances by Thor and Daredevil didn't help either, especially when Daredevil is played by the guy from StreetHawk. StreetHawk, people! Bearing that in mind, will you now please give The Man Affleck a break? Please?

So I don't like Hulk, but then I was never crazy about Iron Man, and I went nuts with anticipation about that movie, mostly because I love the four main cast members (and again, I won't apologise for thinking Gwynnie Paltrow is a very talented woman), and the director, and director of photography Matthew Libatique, whose work on The Fountain featured some of my favourite lighting of the decade so far. The Incredible Hulk couldn't hope to match up to that. As I've said before, I'm not a big fan of Edward Norton, though he is obviously a very talented actor. As are William Hurt and Tim Roth, but I've never warmed to them either. Their involvement did not excite me, even though it was nice to see character actors getting cast instead of giving the roles to whatever hott young actor is seen as bankable nowadays. I'll give Hurt a break for starring in Altered States, one of my all-time favourite films. Plus, even Roth gave one of the worst performances in film history (his "comedy" turn in Four Rooms, which almost put me off him for life), I did think he was so good in Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes that I've actually recommended the silly lumpen thing to people just on the strength of his work alone. He really was amazing in it, way better than the movie deserved.

To make things worse, Betty Ross was to be played by Liv Tyler, an actress whose appeal utterly eludes me. She is referred to as a great beauty, but that's in the eye of the beholder, and this beholder don't see it. Sorry, Liv. (Canyon pointed out to me during the film that she looks like she should be a Simpsons character, and I can't argue with that.) Beyond that, I've never been convinced by her performances, except for maybe Lord of the Rings, though even then she seemed to give the least interesting performance in the trilogy. It gives me no pleasure to diss her, but this is how down I was on the new Hulk project. And who was writing it? Zak Penn, who has writing credits on X-Men 3, Elektra, Behind Enemy Lines, and Inspector Gadget. That he appears to be Marvel Studios' go-to guy with scripts annoys me almost as much as the news that exec David Maisel won't pay Jon Favreau a proper wage for Iron Man 2. Dude, Favreau is a brother to all nerds, who you rely on. Better play nice, or it won't just be Ed Norton avoiding your movies. And I'm not counting this jokey Jimmy Kimmel movie as Norton doing proper publicity for the movie, the primadonna dope.

In fact, the only thing that made me interested in seeing The Incredible Hulk was the presence of Louis Leterrier behind the camera. A lot of fanboys were upset about that, mostly because The Transporter movies are kinda cheap Euro-actioners that didn't set the world on fire, but hell, I like them enough (I love that the hero has such high-functioning OCD that it becomes a benefit to him), and besides, Unleashed (aka Danny The Dog) is fantastic, so I was interested to see him do something outside his normal boundaries.

We caught it yesterday, and though it unfortunately stands in the shadows of the far superior Iron Man, it is certainly deserving of more attention from the nerd massive, and hopefully from a wider audience than that, and yes, I'm saying this because I want Marvel to do well enough to get me that damn Avengers movie I'm looking forward to so much (the Thursday/Friday gross is estimated at about $21m, which is not that bad, seeing as how even Iron Man's Thursday gross was only $5m). It's got nerd cachet (even Rick Jones gets a mention if you watch the opening credits closely enough), it's got romance and action and even a couple of jokes, and Leterrier pulls off some memorable setpieces, especially an early scene in a darkened factory, with Hulk striking from the shadows. It's beautifully lit and choreographed, and comes after a crisply edited chase scene through a breathtakingly shot favela of seemingly infinite size.

Though the second half of the film drags compared to the opening hour, there are still memorable moments. Though I don't like Tim Blake Nelson's form of quirk, his final fate in the movie made me very very happy in a nerdy way, and actually eager for further appearances of Dr. Samuel Sterns in future Marvel movies. Even better, the final battle between the mutated Emil Blonsky and Hulk is totally thrilling, sending the audience we saw it with into paroxysms of joy. We were both very enhappied by the big finale, not to mention the much-vaunted appearance by Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark (obviously dragged out of its logical place after the credits to sit right after what would be the natural final shot of the movie). Though she seemed to enjoy the big action ending, Canyon pointed out something after we came out, that much of the cool Hulk moments during the finale bore a similarity to my favourite Hulk-related item, the hugely underrated Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, which remains possibly the best superhero-related game yet devised.

Though superhero games often find it hard to balance the challenge of the gaming experience and the potentially overpowerful superhero, with most games artificially hobbling the main character in silly ways (such as the Nintendo 64 Superman game that took place in a virtual reality universe, with Superman's powers relying on collecting power-ups), IH:UD did a great job of matching the threat with your immense powers. The sandbox element of the game wasn't perfect, but the thrill of leaping around the city and dealing out vast amounts of damage was just right. The finale of the movie features some moments that come straight out of the game, with Hulk leaping up the sides of buildings, Abomination jumping onto a helicopter, and Hulk doing one of his signature attacks (also featured in the comics) in order to save Betty. I won't spoil it, but it involves fire, and got a "WOW!" from both of us.

Unfortunately, while there are many pleasures to the movie, the pacing is awful, with many non-action scenes running on for way too long. Though Zak Penn does a better job here than on any movie he has been involved with before, the plot is anything but propulsive unless Hulk is onscreen, with Ed Norton's Banner not being interesting enough to care about, which is a problem that resides in the character, and not in Norton's professional but cold performance. It defeated Eric Bana too, remember. As Banner is all about avoiding passion, the time spent with William Hurt's furious General Ross resonates far more, as his guilt and anger is much more cinematic than Norton's panic. At first Hurt is a bit one note, but eventually he manifests the ethical battle at the heart of the character better than Sam Elliott, who is simply too likeable to play someone with the ambiguous motivation of Thunderbolt Ross. You can hiss at Hurt, but also appreciate why he is the man he is. With Elliott, you just wanted to stroke his amazing mustache.

Even better, Roth is on excellent form as the weaselly Blonsky, driven by what seems to be self-hatred and ambition to endure an agonising series of Super-Soldier Serum injections (and yes, the stage is set for the Captain America movie with great skill). He is as much an unstoppable force as Hulk himself, even before he goes too far and becomes The Abomination. He also has the most shocking moment of the movie to himself, as Hulk dispatches him during the university battle scene with brutal efficiency. It's quick, shocking, and blackly funny.

All of that is for naught when Liv Tyler appears, her line readings unintentionally hilarious, ruining any emotional power in her scenes with breathy, melodramatic misinterpratations of the film's tone. One awful scene, with her in conversation with Bruce Banner on the night he shows up in her life again, made both of us cringe. Even in a small scene like that, featuring some really flat dialogue, Norton manages to bring to it a variety of emotions; intensity, pain, shyness, love. Tyler just intones her lines with little feel for how to bring them to life, and our hearts went out to Norton. It was embarrassing seeing him effortlessly bring depth to the emptiest of moments, while she could barely even be convincing holding a pile of pyjamas.

The big emotional scene in the film, with Hulk and Betty hiding from the Army in a cave, is obviously meant to have an epic King-Kong-esque sweep to it, but it is ruined by both the performances of Tyler, hooting her dialogue at a tennis ball on the end of a stick held by an AD with all of the emotional intensity of a woman pouring her heart out to a tennis ball on the end of a stick held by an AD, and the CGI Hulk, which never really convinces.

That's not to say it's a bad effect; it's about as good as it gets on a rushed big-budget movie like this (notably the Transformatrons in Michael Bay's Transformatronicers are far more interesting to look at than Hulk, and better integrated into the real world imagery). People will carp at the FX (and some already have), but it never really bothered me on a technical level. What did annoy me is that even though I preferred most of the casting on Leterrier's Hulk over Lee's (with the exception of Tyler as Betty, though I didn't like Jennifer Connelly that much either), I really loved Lee's Hulk performance, and thought this was a huge step down.

While fanboys and critics agonise over the use of CGI in superhero movies, and bitch about how both Hulks are not photo-realistic (what. EVER!), Lee's decision to don a motion capture suit and act out Hulk's movements was inspired. Instead of the repetitive and generic throw-arms-back-and-roar performance in the new Hulk movie, with Lee in the skintight black mo-cap costume we got real character, real quirkiness, almost realistic movements. Hulk falls over, fails to grab things, reacts with frustration at his surroundings; it's a fascinating and entertaining choice.

The facial work is fantastic too. Possibly my favourite scene in the whole film comes when Hulk lands in a desert oasis and stops to look at his surroundings, finally finding a kind of peace. His eyes flicker from object to object, and his face relaxes. It's such a perfect, and weird, moment, in the middle of all that hectic editing and action. In the second Hulk movie, all the green shoutyman does is roar, though at the end he manages to express tetchiness tinged with regret whenever his facetime with Betty gets interrupted by hi-tech weaponry trying to kill him. Though I'm glad the FX guys and Leterrier managed to get around to adding that reaction, it's nowhere near as interesting a CGI performance than that of the Lee original.

That said, I did enjoy this version of the Hulk more than the Lee original, which was hard to take seriously, but even though I anticipate watching this conventional version of the character more often, and think the Lee version was way too sure of its own profundity and importance when in fact that portentousness kept tripping the movie up, at least that version had some beauty and weirdness, existing as an original exploration of a familiar character, while this new version feels like everything we have seen before and expected from a Hulk movie with little to surprise us. While we gain coherence and enjoyable spectacle, we lose oddness, eccentricity, originality. I got a huge kick out of seeing Hulk use a police car as boxing gloves, but I also liked seeing bombs silently exploding in the air above Hulk, and watching him earning some peace while leaping across the desert, and blasting through a cloud in freezeframes, carried by the electrified essence of his insane father, prior to overloading that man with the infinite rage that powers him. Yes, that ending was inherently silly, but it was bold and breathtaking. Even though the big fight with The Abomination was awesome, it was never going to be as peculiar as that madness, with Nick Nolte eating the scenery (literally).

Perhaps that's the best thing I've gained from watching the Leterrier Hulk. It gave me the movie I (naively) thought I would be seeing when I watched the Lee Hulk, and though I still enjoyed it a lot, it also made me look back at that original version with new eyes. It was a film I wavered on for a long time, before realising I didn't think it was all that, and now I can go back to it with a calmer outlook. Now we have had another chance to see a smash-filled Hulk movie just like the ones we saw in our heads when reading comics during our childhoods, maybe now we can be grateful to Ang Lee, James Schamus, and the rest of the original Hulk team for giving us a cinematic experience unlike anything else that ever existed before and ever will again, instead of thinking that we've forever missed our shot to see a big green monster fending off StarkTech sonic beams using big sheets of metal. Now we have both versions, and finally I see why Marvel Studios decided to film this instead of Adam Warlock: Elric in Space. And, despite my initial reservations, I am grateful.

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