Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) seeks a cure for his affliction while trying to avoid enemy capture in Marvel's cinematic take on its own popular comic.Showtimes Video by Marvel and Universal
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 13, 2008

Sometimes even a superhero needs saving.

Consider the poor Incredible Hulk, one of Marvel Comics' most cherished icons, who was so lamentably served by Ang Lee's "Hulk" in 2003, a turgid, pretentious and overlong misfire that featured Eric Bana in the utterly forgettable title role. Five years later, with "The Incredible Hulk," an unlikely rescuer has come to the Big Green Guy's aid: a tall, slender, super-serious actor with a receding chin and diffident, restrained temperament.

The difference between the two titles says it all. Edward Norton, known for his hyper-intellectual style and a penchant for rewriting every movie he does (including this one), has returned the story and character to their basics, delivering a straightforward, relatively uncluttered adaptation of the Stan Lee strip that, while perhaps still a tad stiff and sober, achieves the all-important task of restoring the Hulk's pride of place in Marvel's pantheon of heroic mutants. "The Incredible Hulk" may not qualify as a whiz-bang yippee thrill ride, but it gets the job done, with deep sincerity and respect for its source material: It's fun but it's serious fun.

"The Incredible Hulk" opens five years after the last film, with the erstwhile scientist Bruce Banner (Norton) on the run in Brazil, eluding the nefarious General Ross (William Hurt), pining for his lost love -- Ross's daughter Betty (Liv Tyler) -- and working out in an anger-management dojo, the better to control the adrenaline that triggers his transformation into a giant green monster.

Laboring in a soda pop bottling plant and living in a cramped hovel in a crowded favela, Banner spends his free time working on a cure for his, um, condition, compulsively e-mailing a faceless collaborator in the States. Thus do Norton and director Louis Leterrier set up the essential questions that drive "The Incredible Hulk": Will Banner escape his U.S. government pursuers? And will he accept or disown his terrifying power?

That's really about it in a film that, after a half-hour of establishing Banner's mournful, solitary existence, turns into a chase flick that sends him from Brazil to Guatemala to Mexico to Virginia to New York and beyond. (As for the "Incredible Hulk" back story, all that pesky exposition is handled during the opening credits: Thank heaven for montages!)

One of the filmmakers' wisest choices was to take that time upfront to allow viewers to fall back in love with Banner, who (like so many great comic book heroes) is a loner and tortured soul. By the time he hulks out into his barely verbal, absurdly gigantic alter ego (those tattered pants, that "Hulk smash" vernacular), we know the guy inside and care about him.

Continuing a fascinating trend of Really Good Actors playing potentially Really Goofy Characters (Christian Bale as Batman, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man), Norton plays Banner completely straight, infusing him with his usual blend of quiet vulnerability and laserlike intensity. He's enormously appealing, and superbly skilled at exploiting the audience's most protective instincts, even if his character isn't always worthy of them. Few actors play wounded so well.

So with viewers safely on his side, Banner proceeds to take them on a classic comic-book hero quest. To go into further detail would constitute the unforgivable revealing of spoilers, but it's safe to relay that "The Incredible Hulk," while covering familiar ground, does so with dignity and occasional artfulness.

All the actors hit their marks with professionalism and class, including Tim Roth as a Russian-born sharpshooter enlisted by the General to dispatch Banner, and Hurt, who once told me that he adopts a spirit animal for every role he plays. With his ballistic blue eyes, silvery widow's peak and a mustache capable of picking a fight at 20 paces, he seems to have chosen Mike Ditka.

Tyler gives Betty an appropriately angelic nimbus of ethereal gentleness as the one Beauty who can tame the Beast, although it's possible to wish that the filmmakers had given her something better than a wispy "It's okay" to say during their most pivotal encounters.

And how are the special effects? It's always difficult to judge whether the computer-generated images in these movies are supposed to look seamless or fake when seamlessness itself looks fake. For example, a scene where the Hulk hides in a cave during a rainstorm looks patently false but it also looks, appropriately enough, like a page that's been ripped out of a comic book.

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