In 2003, Ang Lee's Hulk was released to commercial success – breaking box office records for a June opening and smashing its way to the top of the box office, it outperformed many analysts' expectations and was well on its way to becoming one of the biggest comic book films ever produced.
Then, of course, the negative word of mouth caught up with it – and by the following weekend it had dropped a colossal 60%. It was quickly left floundering in theaters and only turned a profit thanks to worldwide intake.
Marvel wasn't quite sure what to do – the film's huge opening indicated an inherent interest in the material, but fans obviously didn't enjoy what they were seeing.
Ang Lee's film was, to be fair, admirable in its scope and ambitions – it wasn't your typical comic book action film. But, at the end of the day, most audiences don't want two-and-a-half hour psychological explorations when they go to see a Hulk movie – they want big battle scenes and lots of bruising action, both of which the 2003 Hulk – for the most part – failed to deliver.
I count myself among the masses that disliked the 2003 film – not because I was a fan of the comics and not because I was disappointed in its treatment of the material; not even because I thought it was boring, necessarily. I simply thought in spite of its aim to be an intelligent movie, it was quite silly and pretentious – the end fight sequence was appalling, for example. It was a film containing moments of genius cornered by lots of unnecessary scenes and scenery chewing by Nick Nolte.
So, with this in mind, the ultimate question is: does the 2008 Hulk deliver on its promise to be bigger, bolder and better? Well, in short, yes – it's still not a great film by any means, and it has its fair share of flaws (most notably the last twenty minutes which, despite a cool battle sequence, go overboard in their destruction), but at the end of the day, it's an entertaining summer blockbuster with a cast that's probably a little better than it deserves.
Edward Norton would have been my last choice as Bruce Banner – not because I think he's bad for the role, but rather because he is such an unexpected choice. Renowned for his anti-mainstream approach to film-making and his artistic credibility, his placement in a comic book franchise sequel/reboot is puzzling to say the least – it would be like Christian Bale taking on a role in a Batman or Terminator movie (oh, wait).
The thing is: Norton delivers a solid performance. I'm not sure if it's better than what Eric Bana tried to achieve (I'd say Bana's performance is a bit more complex overall), but I think that's partly due to the film's length and also because it's so action-packed. For what it's worth, Norton tries his best to inject some humanity into the character; the whole Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde aspect is more prevalent here than in the 2003 film. In that movie, Bana's Banner admitted to enjoying the transformation into the Hulk; in 2008, Norton is struggling to conceal and control it.
William Hurt replaces Sam Elliot as General Ross, the man responsible for Bruce's predicament. The movie is essentially a cat-and-mouse game, with Banner hiding away in Brazil for over a year, until Ross finally discovers his location – prompting Bruce to flee back to North America in a last-ditch effort to find a cure for his "disease." He reunites with Ross' daughter, Betty (Liv Tyler), and finds himself at odds with an overzealous combatant named Blonsky (played by Tim Roth), who eventually transforms into Abomination.
My problems with the film are most present in the latter half. The first 45 minutes is a lot of fun and is rather cleverly made – the fight scenes are engaging and Roth establishes his anti-hero villain. But suddenly halfway through the movie, Blonsky turns into an unmotivated cliché of a bad guy, and by the end of the film you lose all care and understanding for the character. Once he transforms into the Abomination and goes on a citywide rampage in search of an equal foe (in this case, the Hulk), his reasons are puzzling.
This is where the film truly falls apart, because suddenly General Ross is responsible for millions of dollars' worth of damage and civilian casualties (without spoiling any surprises, he is responsible for Blonsky's transformation), and he's flying around in an Army helicopter following the city's destruction, but nobody really seems to care. He never loses his job, even after he tears up a college campus in search of the Hulk earlier in the film. It may be pointless to criticize a comic book film for lapses in logic, but since the film strives for a sense of realism in its early scenes, the switch to excess halfway through is a bit disheartening. The 2003 Hulk had the same problems, incidentally – I'm wondering if it's a flaw of the comic book or just the character itself; perhaps it's too hard to retain realism when you've got a 12-foot giant green dude destroying everything in sight.
If I'm being too critical, it's only because I enjoyed the film and regretted these aspects. At the end of the day, it's a fun, entertaining summer blockbuster -- and that's really all it needed to be.