The Hulk is one of the most one-note characters in the Marvel canon*, a monster movie superhero whose stories always seemed defined by his adversaries, since his reaction to them is always the same, every single time. I’ve never liked the character in comics, I found the TV show to be irritatingly samey even as a kid, and while I appreciated Ang Lee’s take on the character, his movie ended up being a bloated, silly mess. I was baffled when it was announced that the Hulk was going to be coming back to the big screen so soon, and while I thought Edward Norton’s inclusion stepped everything up a notch, I figured this new movie would overcorrect for all the things people complained about with the Lee version – it would be loud, dumb and bloated (but in an action way as opposed to a psychodrama way).

The Incredible Hulk is often loud, and it can be quite dumb, but it’s certainly not bloated. The movie is as lean as any summer blockbuster I’ve ever seen, constantly propulsive, endlessly moving forward. There’s barely a second wasted as the story hurtles from Brazil to Virginia to New York City, taking only the occasional breath to set up the minimal amount of exposition needed. The truth is that there’s almost no story here (and the only character with an arc that feels even close to real is Emil Blonsky, the villain), but director Louis Letterier and editors Rick Shane and John Wright keep things jumping so fast that you probably won’t realize that there’s almost no plot hanging on this thing until you walk out of the theater.

What’s especially weird is that this movie is a sequel to a film that doesn’t exits. Bruce Banner has been the Hulk for years (possibly five, if I gathered correctly), yet it doesn’t pick up from the Ang Lee continuity. It references elements of the TV show (distractingly so – the Lonely Man theme, Bill Bixby on a TV, a Lou Ferrigno appearance AND a wink at ‘Don’t make me angry’ pile up, along with the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, to be almost too much) but definitely doesn’t follow from there. I like the approach, which gets us right into the meat of the ‘story’ (well, chase) without all the long build-up. But it’s an approach that can only work with some properties; by now the Hulk’s origin is as familiar as Superman’s, and you have to have actors with chemistry to create the feeling of past relationships. Edward Norton and Liv Tyler have exactly that chemistry, and you do feel like they’re picking up from another movie we just haven’t seen.

A few weeks back I visited the editing bay (really sound mixing bay) for The Incredible Hulk and saw about twenty minutes of footage. I liked what I saw at the time, but it was all money shots – big Hulk action scenes. I was more interested in seeing how Norton handled his turn as Banner. He’s very good – often surprisingly playful – but what I noticed was that it seems like the guy is barely in the film. Between the importance placed on villainous Emil Blonsky and mad General Thunderbolt Ross and the large number of Hulk scenes, I almost feel as though Norton appears in less than sixty percent of a movie in which he is ostensibly the star. Actually, I’d like someone to tally up his screentime and find out if this is just an illusion based on the way his story has no actual arc or if he is not in the film that much.

Now that I think about it, it must be the lack of an arc mixed with the way the film requires Norton to disappear for the climactic battle, turning of course into a big green mess of pixels. Banner is being pursued by General Ross, who wants his gamma-irradiated body as a blueprint for supersoldiers; fleeing from his hidey hole in the favelas of Brazil, Banner heads to the US to get his hands on the data from the experiment that Hulked him out in the first place. He needs to get that data to the mysterious Mr. Blue, a fellow who has been helping him search for a cure via a highly encrypted form of AOL Instant Messenger. Banner’s whole purpose in the film is to get cured – not just for himself, but also to keep Ross from creating an army of Hulks.  At least that’s his goal until what is effectively Norton’s last scene, when he chooses to turn into the Hulk in order to fight the rampaging Abomination, created in part by Ross’ mucking about with supersoldiers. It’s a sudden change of heart from Banner that feels like it comes out of nowhere – he has no second act of his own. The sudden selflessness he shows at the end, risking his life to force a change into the Hulk, is especially jarring since, with the exception of a quick scene at the beginning, Bruce hasn’t been shown to be particularly heroic. He volunteers to Hulk out and fight the Abomination because he feels some culpability – ‘We made this thing!’ – but as the story is told he couldn’t possibly know that Blonsky turned into the monster thanks to his work on gamma radiation. The turn to heroism is just something he has to do so that we can get to the big fight at the end.

Emil Blonsky is another story. Tim Roth is terrific as the aging soldier who becomes hooked on the power of the supersoldier serum (and yes, there are very much nods to Captain America with the serum, including a container that says ‘Vitaray’). Blonsky, who eventually mutates into the Abomination, does have a strong arc, one that begins with him as a guy trying to keep up, moves into him becoming more and more unhinged by the serum in his veins and finally ends up with him on a complete rampage. Roth is having fun, playing Blonsky bigger and broader as the film goes on. You get a real sense for why he wants to take on the Hulk, and I sort of like that the Hulk doesn’t share the same exact enmity – he just seems endlessly irritated by the guy.

Roth’s performance is great, and he sustains throughout, but the scene stealer here is Tim Blake Nelson as Mr. Blue, aka Samuel Sterns. He’s hilarious and a serious shot of comic book energy into the film at the exact moment it needs it. His character is being set up for bigger things in the sequel; while I don’t care much for the Hulk as a character, you can guarantee my ass in a movie seat if Nelson gets plenty of screen time in part II.

Letterier makes the decision to get the Hulk into the story very early, and it’s a good one. That first Hulk appearance comes as the capper to a chase scene which owes such a debt to Paul Greengrass’ work on the Bourne films that I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Letterier has them on his iPod, but what’s really clever is that he shoots it like a horror movie. The Hulk’s next appearance, in full daytime, starts off a bit more sketchy in terms of CGI, but finds its footing pretty quickly. Let’s be honest here: the Hulk looks like he’s fake. He never looks real. He does look better than Ang Lee’s, thanks to a half decade of technological development, but this is not photorealism. That said, I did often feel like he was physical. One of my biggest complaints about fake looking CGI versus fake looking stop motion animation is that at least the stop motion stuff looks like it exists, while the bad CGI looks like a video game. The Hulk looked like he was made out of clay sometimes, and I think that sense of physicality helped me suspend my disbelief. Nothing in the original King Kong looks photoreal, but it does have the weight of being created with physical objects, and The Incredible Hulk comes close to that.

The Hulk as a character is pretty much the Hulk – not a lot of new ground is broken here, there’s no reinvention. Again, I find the Hulk as a character sort of tedious, and while he does get off a ‘Hulk smash!’ at the end of the movie, he’s mostly a brute. It is nice to see him use some weapons in fights, and I very much liked a scene where he throws a boulder at the thundering sky, but I did miss the way in the comics Hulk hated Banner as much as Banner hated Hulk.

The movie strangely runs out of steam in the final battle; the opening, with Hulk and Abomination duking it out in Harlem, is great, but it quickly degenerates into a situation where Betty is in danger and Hulk has to save her. It’s bad enough that the movie has to make incredibly logical twists to get her into danger – General Ross is certainly no strategist, or thinker of any sort, it seems. He puts his daughter into harm’s way at the end and stages a full scale military assault on a college campus earlier – but then the film decides to stage the final ten minutes of the fight on a rooftop. Letterier is playing with two huge brutes that can leap great distances, and he keeps them confined to a twenty foot area. In Fantastic Four, The Thing hits Dr. Doom with a bus – there’s a little bit of that here, but I wanted more of that, big comic book splash page action, not close quarters brawling in a small area. An earlier battle with Hulk facing off with the military has the kind of space that I wanted to see utilized here, and actually the moments when a supersoldiered up Blonsky takes on the Hulk had more kinetic energy and excitement than the finale of the Hulk/Abomination fight. This isn’t to say that the ending battle isn’t good, just that it could have been so much more than it was, especially with New York City as their battleground.

Marvel is two for two with their new slate of movies. The Incredible Hulk isn’t anywhere near as good as Iron Man, but it’s a lot of fun. Fans of Ang Lee’s version will certainly despise this subtext-free iteration of the character, but it manages to pack lots of blockbuster action in without turning into a three hour long, grim behemoth of a Pirates of the Dark Knight or whatever. The biggest problem Marvel will have is that after the one-two punch of Iron Man and Hulk, fans will be left waiting for at least two years. And the final scene of this film will send people out of the theater anxiously awaiting the next chapter in the building of the Avengers.

7.5 out of 10

*when it comes to movies. It’s hard to imagine anybody putting 100+ million dollars into a movie where the intelligent grey Hulk becomes a Las Vegas mob enforcer. Then again, Marvel has surprised me at every turn so far…