On the run, Bruce Banner (Norton) is struggling to rid himself of his gamma-infested monster. When General Ross (Hurt) tracks him down, Banner escapes but finds no respite his girl Betty Ross (Tyler) has moved on and super-soldier Emil Blonsky (Roth) is
Marvel's Great Studio Crusade: Chapter II. With Iron Man successfully fizzing off to franchiseville, it’s on to the fledgling outfit's difficult second picture. And, it has to be said, this summer's blockbuster anomaly – a sequel that goes about its business like its predecessor never existed.
Ang Lee's Hulk remains, and probably will remain until we get Terence Malick's Dangermouse, the least super of superhero adaptations, a patience-clobbering analysis of the comic’s themes sopping with Freudian anguish, tempestuous id-issues and Nick Nolte’s R-rated tramp hair. But by the time this title montage has faded, the origin story’s been altered and ruthlessly compacted (experiment turns scientist into smashy fist monster). Then, immediately, Rio: Banner’s (Edward Norton) a fugitive in the favelas, trialling antidotes and pining for lost-love Betty (Liv Tyler). The sequence also devises a shorthand to the rage dial that's almost Speed-like in its simplicity – pulse hits 200, Banner go boom. It’s concise, engaging stuff, and a solid foundation…
…That, eventually, cracks. As William Hurt’s flinty General Ross leads the Hulk-hunt and the pace picks up, there’s the sense of a risk-assessed movie running on rails – including its lead. On paper, Norton seems the perfect fit for the schizo Banner – this is, after all, an actor who made his name channelling Mr Internally Conflicted in Fight Club and Primal Fear. You expect edge. What we get is a vanilla hero on a cure-finding quest, too self-righteously doomed to wrestle any inner-demons. All the rage is fed into his CG alter-ego, and Bruce (a runner, not a fighter) would be entirely passive if not for a subtly striking turn from Liv Tyler, the film’s emotional heart.
Still, Hulk 2.0 is certainly a more convincing proposition than the tank-shotputting hot air balloon of Lee’s movie. With more weight, heft and sinew, no flying nonsense and, mystifyingly, Ronnie O'Sullivan's hair, there’s a convincingly primal boil to the super-ogre that often recalls that other iconic misunderstood-monster, King Kong. In The Abomination he also has a roaring nemesis to grapple with (styled here as a gristly uberhuman rather than the comic’s reptilian beastoid). Their climactic, sidewalk-cracking Harlem smackdown serves up a crunchy spectacle, but it’s the film’s mid-movie action riff, with a feral, superhuman Tim Roth taking on the Hulk on a college campus, that throbs with an invention largely absent elsewhere.
Marvel clearly see gold in Hulk’s future – fanboys will be stoked by numerous winks to series character cameos, from Tim Blake Nelson’s mad scientist Samuel Stern to a tip-off to a forthcoming Avengers flick. For now, you’ll get spectacle, extreme vandalism and the sight of Mr Hulk using a trashed police car as a pair of boxing gloves (a wonderfully OTT flourish that could only have come from director Leterrier, whose Transporter movies were abuzz with bonkers fight skits). What you might not get is a sense of fun. This is a broody, moody action movie that never quite gets the blood boiling. As a search and rescue mission to reclaim one of Marvel’s flagship figures, it has to be judged a success – but you do wish Norton was more dynamic and Leterrier had been let off his leash. The Incredible Hulk could have done with being a little more incredible.
A franchise rebooted with efficiency, energy and sporadic invention, although Hulk 2.0 hardly smashes it out of the park.