By Matt Connolly

The Incredible Hulk
Dir. Louis Leterrier, United States, Marvel Studios

The casting of Edward Norton as the eponymous green galoot in The Incredible Hulk, the take-two revamp of the comic book franchise following Ang Lee’s 2003 critical and commercial disappointment, is not surprising. Almost all of the recent superhero franchises have been placed on the shoulders of actors known more for flexing acting chops than gym-sculpted physiques, and Norton’s history of playing loners, losers, and boy-next-door sociopaths places him in the off-casting pantheon next to such calculatedly “quirky” choices as Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, Christian Bale in Batman Begins, and Tobey Maguire in the Spider Man films. These leading men are meant to inject pathos and idiosyncrasy into films that might otherwise drown in a sea of cold digitized spectacle, insuring both comic geeks and cineastes that it’s okay to plop down twelve bucks, sink into the climate-controlled darkness of the mall megaplex, and get lost in a couple hours of grandiose escapism without feeling like complete sell-outs. (Is anyone else more than a little intrigued by the prospect of Seth Rogen in 2010’s Green Hornet? I can see the tagline now: He knocked you up . . . now he’ll knock you out!)

Still, Norton’s presence feels particularly crucial to the mission of The Incredible Hulk, a film whose middle-of-the-road mediocrity underwhelms in a more predictable, if less headache-inducing, manner than Lee’s lugubrious, pop-Freudian misfire. As if in response to Lee’s intellectualized (which is not to say intelligent) infusion of convoluted psychological underpinnings into comic book mythology, director Louis Leterrier and screenwriter Zak Penn have streamlined their film’s focus to the body itself, specifically the male specimen: how it flexes, morphs, and bulges in frightening and entrancing ways. It may be hard to completely drain Bruce Banner’s rage-induced transformation from mild-mannered scientist to bellowing behemoth of metaphorical content, but Leterrier and Penn strenuously downplay Hulk-as-traumatized-psyche by relishing in the vein-popping, head-smashing tactility of it all. Sometimes a pissed-off green monster is just a pissed-off green monster, and isn’t that freakin’ awesome?

By hurling its subject off the psychologist’s couch and into the weight room, The Incredible Hulk becomes about how one man learns to embrace his inner muscle-bound hothead. Enter Norton. It’s not a particularly good performance, per se: shuttling routinely between puppy-dog angst and owlish inquisitiveness. What he brings is a convenient visual shorthand, his lithe frame a reminder of the physical inadequacies Banner has the potential to overcome, albeit at potentially incalculable cost. The film opens in Brazil, where Banner has retreated to a life of meditation, free of the everyday agitations that could set off a violent metamorphosis. (The exposure to Gamma radiation that gives Banner his powers is covered in a quick, “you already know this” montage during the opening credits). His indistinct chin covered by a patchy beard so half-hearted it practically apologizes for its presence, Norton seems less the tortured soul than a slumming, disillusioned grad student on a shambling journey of third world “self discovery.” I don’t mean to denigrate Norton; his turn as a buffed-out neo-Nazi in American History X proves how physically imposing of an actor he can be. But the overwhelming sense here is one of bodily insufficiency, no more than when a shirtless Banner learns calming breathing techniques from a muscly instructor: the camera admiringly drifting over the teacher’s sculpted chest before half-heartedly cutting to Norton’s less-defined form.

Banner’s retreat is interrupted by General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt, sharing the screen with a deeply unfortunate moustache), who plans to harness the technology used on Banner to create genetically modified super soldiers. Ross’s professional impetus has a personal dimension as well; Betty (Liv Tyler), his daughter and Banner’s former girlfriend, was temporarily injured in the explosions following Banner’s radiation exposure. Ross calls on the assistance of Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), an aging, highly-skilled soldier who relishes the challenge of facing the mysterious Banner. Blonsky, Ross, and his troops find and corner Banner in the empty bottling plant where he works as a janitor. Unable to contain his aggression any longer, a deranged emerald glint fills Bruce’s eyes, and the metamorphosis begins largely out of the sight of the soldiers and the viewer. Leterrier sets the scene at night, the metallic walkways and abandoned assembly lines bathed in criss-crossing patterns of light and shadow. As the Hulked-up Banner begins picking off soldiers with brutish efficiency, the camera teasingly catches a snatch of his brawny forearm or viridescent foot as he slips out of frame. There’s a playfulness to the sequence’s hide-and-seek strategy, as it toys with audience expectations of when the big reveal will occur, a notable accomplishment given the full-view shots of the Hulk placed prominently in print and television ads.

The film’s obsession with the corporeal ends up providing a rough narrative structure, as ever more detailed explorations of the Hulk’s pulsating figure provide greater enticement than anything served up story-wise. It’s a canny move, given both the impressiveness of the film’s visual effects and the lazy inconsequence of the plot: Banner finds passage back to the United States, reunites with Betty, and they hit the road together to try and find the mysterious Mr. Blue (Tim Blake Nelson), who may be able to reverse the side effects of the radiation. Along the way, their long dormant romance reignites. Some dutiful moments of tension-filled longing and passages of scientific jargon float by, enough to fill out the film’s 114 minute running time between sequences of Hulk-centric romping and stomping. The differences between the Hulk from the 2003 film and the current one are undoubtedly striking. While the earlier version possessed a somewhat bulky frame, square-ish head and forest green, largely textureless skin (comparisons to sculpting putty are not too far off the mark), Norton transmutes into a more compact creature with vibrant, verdant flesh pulled tautly across rippling biceps. Facial movements feel more natural as well, marked crags and scars stretching convincingly when he readies a particularly vicious snarl. This Hulk simply appears more immediate and palpable, whether stalking about in battle or sitting placidly beside Betty in a rather poignant two-shot of beast and beauty silently watching the rain fall. Equally lavish detail is seen in the film’s other featured creature, the Abomination: a spiny ogre with sickly reddish tissue barely concealing a web of skeletal protrusions. The monstrous result of Gamma radiation treatment used to boost Blonsky’s soldierly prowess, Abomination faces off against the Hulk in a climatic rumble through the streets and rooftops of Manhattan.

But let’s not kid ourselves: all this talk of the film’s relentless attention to the cosmetic is a constructive way of saying it barely has a blessed idea in its head. The film’s body fixation is blatantly presented yet completely unexplored, too busy ogling both actual and computer-generated figures to consider the implications of its slavish gaze. More specifically, Leterrier and Penn remain largely uninterested in a significant female presence. Though unable to pass up at least one egregious wet t-shirt shot of Tyler (whose delicateness quickly devolves into one-note breathiness), women remain passive on-lookers within the film, their slender frames incompatible with the overarching desire for testosterone-fueled expansion of the male physique. At one point, Ross and a female officer walk toward Blonsky’s hospital bed post-radiation treatment and find his formerly sagging form to be tight and muscular. Ross quickly closes the curtain between himself and the officer, allowing a private space for him to chomp his cigar and admiringly eye Blonsky’s buff body. A better film would find the relatively obvious notes of envy-laced homoeroticism, but The Incredible Hulk seems as jazzed as Ross to gawk. Worse still, attempts to lighten the largely sodden mood range from the merely lame (“You wouldn’t like me when I’m…hungry?” a confused Banner warns potential attackers in shaky Spanish) to the mildly disturbing, when Banner interrupts a moment of would-be intimacy with Betty, as he doesn’t want to “get excited.” It’s a cheap laugh with some weirdly unconsidered consequences: namely, the direct correlation between male sexual energy and uncontrollable, violent rage.

It’s difficult to feel too indignant about the shortcomings of a film so baldly unambitious in its aims, whose mild achievements can be savored on their own superficial terms. So why, oh why, insert a cameo by Iron Man’s Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) right at the end, underlining the echoing absence of that film’s loosey-goosey wit and sly characterizations? Well, okay, we know the reason as soon as Stark reveals that he and a mysterious band are “putting a team together” (hello The Avengers!). Franchise-building aside, Downey Jr.’s martini-dry line delivery and self-aware gravitas make one long for a superhero movie that has at least as much interest in brains as it does brawn.