Second time around, Hulk returns to his roots

The Baltimore Sun

The Incredible Hulk is not a remake or a sequel - it's a "reboot," according to Marvel Studios.

In 2003, Ang Lee's The Hulk failed to create a big-screen franchise from Marvel's feared - and beloved - green giant, the crazy misunderstood monster of comic-book superheroes.

So Marvel installed a whole new team, replacing star Eric Bana with Maryland native Edward Norton and substituting The Transporter 2's Louis Leterrier for Lee. (Norton, without screen credit, also rewrote the script and served as a producer.)

In the super-expensive world of new-millennial fantasy filmmaking, this kind of delayed second launch is a risky business.

"I think Marvel felt the company had an extremely valuable property in the Hulk and that some of the sheen had come off it in the first movie," says San Francisco-based screenwriter Sam Hamm, revered among comic-book movie fans for masterminding the narrative for Tim Burton's Batman (1989). "Now Marvel wants to stick the sheen back on it."

Reports that Norton and Leterrier fought with Marvel over "the final rewrite" - that is, the final cut - have tarnished that effort. The star and director pushed for a 2 hour and 15 minute version that would be more contemplative and detailed, while Marvel fought for a higher action ratio and a two-hour running time.

In a statement to Entertainment Weekly, Norton (unavailable for interviews with EW or The Sun) downplayed the disagreement as part of the collaborative process. He concluded, "All of us believe The Incredible Hulk will excite old fans and create new ones ... our focus has always been to deliver the Hulk that people have been waiting for and keep the worldwide love affair with the big green guy going strong."

Hamm licked the Batman script when it was considered a problem project, too. He's not surprised that filmmakers have taken divergent approaches to the Hulk.

Marvel guru Stan Lee's early Hulk tales are elating and confusing. They mash up all manner of horror and fantasy paradigms from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein and Dracula to King Kong. Their one constant plot point is that gamma radiation turns mild-mannered, bespectacled scientist Bruce Banner into a split - or maybe alternating - personality.

He becomes a glowering green behemoth called the Hulk, a creature of pure id who, like the Fantastic Four's Thing, can escalate any fight into a demolition derby and leap entire deserts with a single bound.

"Sometimes he was quite articulate, but sometimes 'Hulk SMASH!' was the extent of his eloquence," Hamm muses, nostalgically. "And the comic books kept altering the rules as to how and why and where he changed."

Up till now, the most popular screen translation of the Hulk was the 1978-1982 TV show, which starred Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. Even the weak third and fourth seasons received DVD compendiums this year, and a "best-of" series collection has stayed in print for years.

Unlike Lee's movie, the series had a dark-crystal-clear notion of what to do with the Hulk.

"That Banner became the Hulk when angered - that's the great idea," Hamm says. "The TV show exploited the sadomasochism behind it, brilliantly. Banner, in the TV show, was a passive-aggressive character. He would get himself into a nasty situation with the bad guys - and audiences would see him trying not to react, when what audiences wanted more than anything was for him to become the Hulk so he could deliver payback. He was always trying to be a nice guy until the bad guys roughed him up; then he turned into a vengeance machine and gave them what they deserved."

The makers of the second Hulk movie are smart enough to retain what the series capitalized on beautifully - including the notion that Banner is, in Hamm's words, "the equivalent of a blackout drunk." Norton repeatedly wakes up dazed, wondering for that first split-second of consciousness why he's wandering around shirtless, in ripped pants. His search for an elastic waistband stretchy enough to suit him and the Hulk becomes a corny yet effective running joke. And his attempt to squelch the Hulk - and then harness the Hulk's power for good - sustains the series' air of edgy poignancy.

Hamm thinks the paternal drama of the first Hulk movie was "bizarre," the result of filmmakers "trying to graft significance onto a project" instead of exploring the fascination or joy in the original premise.

By contrast, the TV series had the wit to treat Banner "as a Fugitive or Run For Your Life kind of character, going from place to place - and when he did, he would drop into different genres. It was cool to see - what if you did a '30s boxing drama and dropped the Hulk into it? Or some Deep South plantation film and dropped the Hulk in it? It was fun watching this Big Green Wild Card energize these familiar scenarios."

In effect, the new movie follows the show's lead, turning Banner into a fugitive and asking - what if you did a Jason Bourne movie and dropped the Hulk into it?

The final cut may not go as deep under his green skin as the Norton script or cut (perhaps we'll find out on a special-edition DVD). But Hamm's Batman script suffered, too, when he refused to rework it during a writer's strike and other hands mussed it up. At its best, The Incredible Hulk, like Batman, recaptures for adults what they felt when reading the comic books as kids.

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