Hulk Smash Hulk

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Ben Silverio - Contributing Writer

The Smackdown

Back in 2008, the jade giant known as the Incredible Hulk wreaked havoc in the Movie Smackdown arena in a battle that pitted that year’s The Incredible Hulk, featuring Edward Norton, against 2003’s The Hulk, starring Eric Bana. Since then, a new Hulk has emerged on the scene, thanks to Joss Whedon’s The Avengers and Mark Ruffalo, so we’re revisiting the battle and kicking it up a notch by throwing Bill Bixby, the first man ever to embody David Bruce Banner on screen, into the mix as well. You might think Bixby has the advantage, since he has Lou Ferrigno in his corner, but don’t count out Bana, Norton and Ruffalo from this fatal four-way just yet.

Beau DeMayoThis fight is so big that we need two Smack refs to officiate over the action. After all, one Hulk destroyed Las Vegas, overthrew an alien planet’s government and became their king, and beat the crap out of his fair share of Earth’s mightiest heroes, so imagine the destruction these four Hulks might cause!

I hope we have a good insurance policy.

The Incredible Hulk (TV Series) (1978-82)

In the ’70s, CBS adapted The Hulk’s story for the small screen in the form of a weekly drama that completely ignored the character’s comic book history. Regardless, the show’s many fans loved Bill Bixby’s portrayal of David Banner and Lou Ferrigno’s portrayal of Banner’s not-so-jolly green alter-ego. Over the course of five seasons and three TV movies from 1978-1990, the audience followed Banner going from town to town trying to find ways to control his condition while taking up odd jobs and helping others with their own problems, all while trying to avoid a pesky reporter trying to unveil the truth about the Hulk.

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As a fan of The Hulk comics, I was disappointed to discover that this show practically had nothing to do with the version I grew up loving. On top of that, I didn’t find the show held up over time. Despite being called The Incredible Hulk, it was almost entirely about David Banner solving the problem of the week and the Hulk popping in every once in a while. CBS clearly needed the show to appeal to a wider audience than just comic fans, but this was just another campy network soap, with a superhero showing up occasionally. I don’t think it would last a whole season in this day and age.

When it aired, however, the show wasn’t too bad. It explored some compelling stories, often crafted around the theme of controlling your problems rather than letting them control you. (The one where Hulk was on acid was not one of those stories, though.)

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Hulk (2003)

Ang Lee’s Hulk hit theaters riding the wave of Spider-Man and X-Men. Lee (Ang, not Stan) brought his trademark abstract thinking and art house sensibilities to the green juggernaut, who likes to pound things. In theory, it doesn’t sound like that great a match. But Ang Lee’s Hulk embraces elegance, fostering a certain self-contained pacing that earns admiration. In the film, Eric Bana’s Banner has not yet become the Hulk. Instead, he is a semi-brilliant scientist, unaware of his own mutated genetic structure, which was modeled by his abusive father on the regenerative abilities of starfish and reptiles.

When gamma nanodes (your guess is as good as mine) blast Banner, the convenient combination of his genetic structure and the nanodes creates a very logically thought-out Hulk — a depressingly angry expression of Banner’s repressed childhood memories.

Honestly, as complicated as it sounds, it’s a cerebral joy to watch. It’s quite engaging to see a man struggle with his inner rage and his weakness to accept his childhood. The sympathy Stan Lee strove to infuse in his comic book heroes is in evidence here too. Yet for all its complexities and deep psychological workings, Hulk just didn’t know when to stop thinking and start smashing. Also, Ang Lee didn’t seem to know when to end the movie, when he did, audiences were not satisfied with his decisions.

incrhulk2008_0The Incredible Hulk (2008)

The Hulk returns, rebooted under the guidance of Transporter director Louis Leterrier from a script penned by Zak Penn, with an uncredited polish by its ever-captious star, Edward Norton. In The Incredible Hulk, Norton plays Stan Lee’s classic Bruce Banner, a simple scientist whose brilliance leads to a tragic lab accident.

Now a fugitive from a military general who wishes to make him a weapon, Banner longs to tame or eliminate his monstrous alter-ego and the forced isolation it demands. Like Stan Lee’s original Hulk, The Incredible Hulk focuses on Banner’s struggle to contain the Neanderthal lurking inside him. In fact, it’s the film’s petrol, blasting through Bourne-style chase scenes and WWF-style mutant throwdowns. But like the green beast himself, Leterrier’s film loses some of its humanity when it goes “Hulk.” It’s also paced awkwardly enough to leave audience members feeling like Bruce Banner after a hulk-out: scratching their heads and asking where the hell they are and what the hell just happened.

There are a plethora of scenes — mostly character-oriented — missing from the shooting script in the finished film. Banner’s therapy session with his lover’s new boyfriend and Banner’s attempted suicide are among them. The addition of these might have better balanced the story. Then again, some of the dialogue — no matter how good the actor, or how green — just doesn’t work.

avengers-hulkThe Avengers (2012)

Marvel Studios had a unified cinematic universe in the works for a long time. It began with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, moved ahead with The Incredible Hulk, and followed those with Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. After these films laid the groundwork for Marvel’s Phase One, it was time for the crowning glory: The Avengers. However, after bringing together the all-star casts from all of Marvel’s movies, director (and Comic-Con royalty) Joss Whedon hit a snag with Edward Norton. Things fell through somewhere along the line, and Mark Ruffalo took over the purple pants of The Hulk.

Fans were skeptical at first, but almost all agreed the film worked exceptionally well. Sure, it had some minor problems, but it also had a brilliant script, a visually stunning look, phenomenal cast and more.

On top of it all, one thing stood out: Ruffalo’s Hulk was heroic, funny and badass, making the movie accessible to all demographics. He had his dark moments, but the character was really balanced as he struggled to escape the dark cloud perpetually hanging over his head. This troubled individual’s interactions with other, equally puzzling and extraordinary people are what made The Avengers what it was — the third-highest grossing film of all time.

The Scorecard

Executive producer Kenneth Johnson’s TV Hulk was characterless, whereas his Banner was full of character. Though the two are the same person, they have differences, and that’s part of what makes the premise so interesting. But the show greatly reduced the Hulk element, possibly because the makeup and special effects were expensive and hard to produce. And then this Hulk has the disadvantage of being light-years different from the other three, and not really in a good way. It’s the furthest from a faithful adaptation, so that’s big points off right away in this fight.

Ang Lee’s The Hulk is a thinking man’s film. It’s beautifully designed and crafted. There is a genius quality to the comic book paneling that is admirable, and Lee is able to translate that to a cinematic level. He uses those multiple comic book panels brilliantly,  directing four or five simultaneous scenes from various angles and compositions — not an easy task. Typically, those are scenes of long, drawn-out speeches or ruminations, which without Lee’s masterful technique, would be flat-out boring.

The Hulk is very light on action, and when it comes, the action is a bit… silly. Mutated gamma poodles attacking the Hulk cannot seem cool. It just can’t; I have a moral obligation to prevent it. And for a film that takes itself so seriously and is so introspective, eight-foot monster poodles betray the concept and belittle the audience.

It’s hard to top Lee’s characterizations, though. He spends a lot of time molding and shaping this complicated Bruce Banner, the product of an abusive childhood. Eric Bana plays him as naive, struggling with repressed memories. He’s pulled through the plot; he doesn’t drive it. His character is weak and passive. This works for a Hulk movie, where the character eventually gets to show a completely different side. Nevertheless, the genius that is so important to Banner seems lacking with Ang Lee.  Eric Bana doesn’t seem to own Banner. The complex psychological atmosphere absorbs Bana’s nuanced yet minimalistic performance and makes it just another abstract quality in an intelligent film.

Now, The Incredible Hulk really embraces its action, and does so on a variety of levels. There is a certain genius to Leterrier’s escalation of action scenes. The first feels like it’s straight out of Bourne Supremacy, a shaky chase through Brazil. This is followed by a fun and dramatic fight between Hulk and the military (a fight Ang Lee’s film takes an entire two hours to get to). The last fight is an all-out brawl between two super-giants — it’s brutal, it’s violent, it’s so friggin’ fun to watch. Leterrier’s action background is well suited to the kinetic, nerve-wracking pace of Bruce Banner’s escape from the militaristic father of his love.

Leterrier’s got Edward Norton, an amazing consolation for whatever skills he may lack as a director of character drama. Norton is very believable as Banner, and very streamlined. The slightest facial gesture, the meekest intonation — it’s all there for a reason with Norton. And in a film that moves so fast and is so violent, it’s an appreciated texture that stands out on its own. The audience loves sitting with Norton’s Banner just as much as it loves sitting with Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker (although this new generation of fans might prefer Andrew Garfield).

Norton is so good at playing the brilliant, tortured scientist that his transformations into Hulk are sometimes awkward. Despite some beautiful CGI rendering of Norton’s face into the Hulk’s, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the two characters. I can’t say that Ang Lee nailed this either. This may be a cinematic challenge too great for any Hulk director.

In The Avengers, Whedon has the luxury of not having to retell the Hulk’s origin. He just gets down to business with his version, introducing the character into the fray, and then running with it. He has a way of subtly showcasing various qualities of Bruce Banner and the Hulk without calling attention to his storytelling. And then he has the added task of juggling six other heroes who need equal amounts of screen time. Whedon couldn’t focus solely on the Hulk which, for the purposes of this Smackdown, could have been a disadvantage. Yet he accomplished more with the character than any of his rivals. If Hulk ever appears solo in the near future, things can only get better, because Whedon and Leterrier have laid all the groundwork. All we need is Mark Ruffalo to star and Whedon to add his own brand of magic, and The Hulk will be in good hands.

The Decision

It’s pretty obvious which Hulk comes out on top here. While each has its plusses, The Incredible Hulk (TV), The Hulk and The Incredible Hulk all have serious flaws. In fact, the first two have more flaws than accomplishments. Though Norton departure in favor of Mark Ruffalo was initially devastating, Ruffalo’s performance and the writing and direction behind it were so masterful  that he’s our Bruce Banner from here on out — which is why the Hulk from The Avengers walks out of this brawl with his humungous gamma-radiated arm raised in victory.

 

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19 Responses to Hulk Smash Hulk


  1. Nice article, tnx for the read here
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  2. Michael DeMaio says:

    Look the bottom line is The First Incredible Hulk is the best. And anyone who disagrees is an idiot

  3. Michael DeMaio says:

    I liked the Hulk in 1978 best. Am i really the only one. The avengers was great. I didnt see the other 2. But I know I like 1978 hulk the best. The fact that he wasnt a “superhero” made it better.

  4. Hulk says:

    I’m reading some of those things up and I don’t like them.I am the hulk!HULK SMASH!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. wolfghost561 says:

    I think the 2008 is better. What alot of people say is true. the cameoes in 08 are cool, plus there is alot of famous ppl there.i also think the animation was better. the 03 hulk looked like one big green muscle blob. the 08 hulk they put alot more detail in him. the 12 hulk just looked like a green ape!the story lines are better in 08 too.it the 03 he just whent around smashing stuff because of his father.in 08 he is ttying to find a cure for it and smashes things to protect Betty. in 12 he is there to find a cube and smashes aliens to save the planet. The actors are also better in 08. thats my opinion.

  6. Kevin Wohler says:

    While I get what Ang Lee was trying to do with his Hulk, the father-son metaphor didn’t work with this character. Marvel’s green giant isn’t an allegory for dysfunctional family relationships. It’s about humanity’s intellect at war with our primal instincts. In the end, it’s Hulk’s humanity, his need to protect rather than destroy that makes him a hero.

  7. Dino says:

    I look at it like this, which “hulk” could put up a fight aganist superman, spiderman, captain america and so on, 2003 Hulk would put up the better fight. 2008 Hulk was weak. also if they fought eachother 03 Hulk would smash on 08 Incredible Hulk!!! bottom line 03 Hulk wins!

    • wolfghost561 says:

      The only reason the 2008 hulk was week was because the cure. At the end of the movie mr blue( i forgot his name lol) tries to cure him. Its not a lasting one but when he turns into the hulk it was still in him and made him week. The animation was also better, you can see the different muscles alot better. So i have to say the 2008 hulk was better.

  8. marko says:

    you people are so stupid. only real adults understood that the 1st hulk is better. i mean hulk IS suppose to get a little bigger when he gets angrier. another thing i disliked alot that everyone can agree on is in the incredible hulk, that hulk is very very weak. the fight scene in the park, he strained just to lift up the hummer. im like wtf is dat? spiderman could strain with the hummer but not hulk. smh

    • Doug says:

      Wow… And we’re the stupid ones?

    • Michael DeMaio says:

      yes!!! the first hulk is soo much better. thank you!


  9. Yup. If you’re going to trash a film, at least have a decent argument, rather than superficial insults to flog around. I thought Incredible Hulk was awesome, while Hulk was quite boring.

    • Wesley says:

      You sir, are an idiot

      • wolfghost561 says:

        Dont be so mean i agree with him!

  10. Bryce Zabel says:

    As a film “ride,” the second one — from its terrific opening sequence through the final battle — is better than the first. Yet impressive as CGI has become, it still shows its limitations with the Hulk. It’s wonderful to look at, but never quite real either which creates a certain distance from the entire film (both versions). Norton seems like the better Banner, Tyler seems like the better Betty, and Hurt seems like the better General. So, Beau, for my money, you called it right. Still, in the end, I found myself thinking about how often these movies resort to having the hero character fight the bad version of himself. Spider-Man 3: Spider-Man versus Venom. Iron Man: Iron Man versus War Machine. Hulk: Hulk versus Whatever Tim Roth turned into. So, in that regard, one can appreciate that Ang Lee’s version at least tried for greatness, or just to be different, even if it fell way short for most people. Oh, well, bring on The Avengers!

    • Matthew Field says:

      I can’t believe Mr Zabel thinks The Incredible Hulk is better than Hulk. The Incredible Hulk is one of the worst films out this year! It’s a flat, CGI laden mish mash. There’s no character development, the love story is especially hollow, and above all, it’s a simple cash cow from Marvel Studio’s. Ang Lee’s vision in 2003 was released at the wrong time. It should never have been marketed as a summer action blockbuster. It was much more of a psycho drama, with stunning visuals and epic scope. The answer as to how the film’s differ from each other is found in the visualisation of the monster’s themselves. Hulk was rendered in a much more realistic way (albeit a bit cuddly round the edges) while The Incredible Hulk was a saturday morning muscle ripped action figure with no realism at all (ok, i know we are dealing with an 8ft tall green skinned giant). If you want some hollow action, disjointed action at that, then watch The Incredible Hulk. If you want a drama spiced up with breathtaking visuals and characters you can actually feel then watch Hulk, even if yes, the dogs are a little silly! Marvel need to make sure they don’t become one of those overblown, overpayed, money grabbing, remake-sequel spitting hollywood studios. Let’s hope they don’t end up doing what Schumacer did to the Batman series!

  11. Sotiris says:

    Hulk sequel looks like an ordinary film for me.Nothing that anyone can remember from it after some days pass.I ll remember ang li’s creation and his symbolic pictures as one of the best super hero movies i ve ever seen.Not that i didnt enjoy the seqeuel but its a dry flat story based movie which leaves us with nothing more than empty action and that just aint enough for a movie to be good.

  12. Johnny Boy says:

    Great Review!
    One thing I would add is that all the cameos in The Incredible Hulk were much better than Hulk… and not just because of the special cameo at the end, but mainly in terms of Stan Lee’s cameo being purpose to the plot, and in terms of Lou Ferrigno’s cameo as the security guard being funny when he’s bribed by Banner with pizza, and purposeful in the sense that he provides the voice of the Hulk when he says those classic lines which pay respect to the comics.
    But the Ang Lee Hulk is still great in my opinion… I still enjoy the psychological complexity of Banner and his relationship to his father, all the poetic awesome imagery and music in Ang Lee’s version, and comic book panels. But this new Incredible Hulk film is just very different… definitely more fun to watch.
    I also like the previous poster’s comment’s about soundtrack smackdowns… what a great idea!

  13. jay Amicarella says:

    Wow, great review. After suffering through Eric Bana’s version, I had absolutely no intention of seeing Norton’s Hulk. Now I’m re-thinking the whole thing, particularly because of your lauding of the music score, many times my favorite element of a movie. Sometime we should just Smack! soundtracks, like James Horner vs. Bernard Hermann. Excellent work!

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