Pow! Bam! Bif! That's the sound of Ang Lee's 2003 movie Hulk being whupped at the hands of Edward Norton and Louis Leterrier. The critically panned earlier version, starring Eric Bana, was enough of a disaster for Marvel to entirely "reboot" it with a different plot (closer to the original comic books), a different style and a different star, Norton. And it worked, largely because they kept it simple. It's a great, old-fashioned adventure, beautifully shot, well acted, well executed and, most importantly, exciting.
One can try too hard with a superhero movie, and that's where so many of these films fail. Does the audience really want to watch an exposition of the character's psychological complexity over the course of more than two hours, or does it want explosions, impossible feats and a thwarted love interest? The blueprint, of course, is the revived Batman franchise. After the first series of films fizzled into facile mediocrity, Christopher Nolan's dark directing and Christian Bale's thoughtful, accomplished performance in Batman Begins got the rest of Tinseltown salivating at the thought of that rare, magical combination: glowing reviews and huge box office returns. Ang Lee fell for it and attempted (but failed) to give Hulk depth of character.
The problem is, what we love comic book characters for - especially in celluloid form - is the pace, the action and the internal and external fights between good and evil. Hulk, Iron Man, Batman: all struggle internally with their own dark tendencies but are redeemed when they defeat the bad guys. It's a simple scenario, and The Incredible Hulk gets it absolutely spot on in this outing. Norton (who, as ever, has been vocal about the fact that he rewrote Zak Penn's screenplay daily during the shoot) turns in a subtle performance, using his slight physique and mild features as an effective foil to his more violent, angry motion-capture performance of the monster. As Major Emile Blonsky, the British actor Tim Roth is a convincingly sinewy presence, transforming himself from an ageing, ruthless, special forces thug into a relentlessly nasty super-soldier and finally into the truly horrible super-villain Abomination. William Hurt's menacing Major Ross and Liv Tyler's sweet-natured Elizabeth Ross are both pleasingly straightforward, too, with no hamfisted attempts to add "motivation". Laudably, a montage tells the backstory during the opening credits, presumably in the belief that everyone knows it anyway, which allows the movie to plunge straight into a spectacular sequence in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Luckily, the studio resisted Norton's pressure to show a longer, more thoughtful version of the movie, at over two hours, and went for the short, sharp cut. Artistic integrity is one thing, but this is not art and it's not literature. It's just really, really fun.
In the words of the big green man himself: "Hulk smash!"