It’s kind of strange to see the sudden surge of critics tripping over themselves to say how much they love (and have always loved) Ang Lee’s Hulk. I mean, maybe they were there in 2003; I wasn’t tuned into critical movements at the time. But I kinda doubt it, because for the past five years, the film’s received nothing but hate, and I never thought it really got its fair shake until now.

At the most basic level, Hulk is exactly what comic book fanboys and film critics wanted – a summer blockbuster that was thoughtful, character-centric, and executed with some level of artistry. But of course, nobody really wants that. Better to have Hulk Smash.

Or is it? The Incredible Hulk’s opening weekend take was $55 million; Hulk saw $62 million, and received a much-publicized 70% drop on its second week. Incredible Hulk is looking at a drop of 61%, which I sort of expected. I have a general theory that audiences just don’t like The Hulk as a character. There’s fine reason for that. The CGI removes you somewhat from the human element, done in even moreso by the fact that the CGI character’s personality trait is that he smashes things. Much as critics like to think that audiences go to summer movies for explosions, character (or more exactly, personality) still matters most, certainly above story or thrills. That’s why Iron Man was a success; that’s why Batman Begins was a success; that’s why Spider-Man was a success; that’s why Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl was a success. Each of those films had compelling, entertaining characters for the audience to ride with (okay, so Bruce Wayne isn’t the most fun guy, but his trauma made up for it). You know why Wanted will open with only a decent box office return this weekend? Aside from the fact that Wall-E is the next Pixar film to take over the world, it also features a CHARACTER who’s been the forefront of the marketing campaign; Wanted has bullets (that said, I’m really looking forward to Wanted).

Anyway, to get this back on track, I really liked The Incredible Hulk, but found it lacking in the same areas I found Hulk to be lacking. That is, each of them started out with the intention of telling a specific story a specific way, but eventually (and in terms of a consistent narrative, unconvincingly) succumbed to the demands of a commercial superhero film. In Hulk, Lee was interested in aesthetic, the sort of psychological underpinnings of having this monster inside of you, and lots and lots of daddy issues, all of which he did well at. For The Incredible Hulk, Louis Letterier wants to focus on this guy who’s hiding out (and eventually on the run), searching for a way to get rid of this thing inside of him, but in the meantime finding ways to live with it and control it. He also likes action (I think that may be the simplest sentence I’ve ever written in an attempt at film criticism). And all of this, HE did well at.

Eventually, Lee’s forced to let The Hulk fight the army and his crazy dad who out of nowhere has superpowers; the entire third act (and the fourth, or the epilogue, depending on how you think of Bruce’s confrontation with his father, the set up of which is actually pretty ludicrous) represents Lee giving into the expectations of the genre, insofar as he’s able. Lee finds a way to make this his own, with the split screen/comic book panel aesthetic in the army battle, and the impressionistic battle with his father.

Similarly, Letterier is eventually forced to make The Hulk, and more specifically Bruce, a heroic figure, which only scarcely figures into everything we know about Bruce up to this point. Sure, he has that moment early in the film of trying to help out a woman who’s being harassed, but we haven’t seen anything to make us believe Bruce would be willing to sacrifice himself to maybe save a city. We just expect superheroes to do that, and we know The Hulk is based off a Marvel comic book, which must make him a superhero, right?

Both Lee and Letterier understand that he’s not, they just express it differently. They do both understand that comic book characters should move like comic book characters, and in each film there are many truly iconic images.

Which film is better? Depends on how you mean. Letterier’s is fun, exciting, and engaging. The two hour running time flies by; there’s not an ounce of fat on this thing, and the story is genuinely compelling. Lee’s is sort of a drag to watch; aside from his visual experiments and some momentum up front, there’s not a lot happening. There is a lot of interesting character stuff, and he handles the romance much, much better, but character is never REALLY explored. It’s hinted at. So as a result I think about it a lot when I’m not watching it, which I certainly can’t say for Letterier’s. Lee’s is more daring, sure, more experimental, which in a lot of ways makes it the better of the two, but again…Letterier’s is a blast to watch. And he has the advantage of having the more interesting Bruce Banner.

Eric Bana’s a fantastic actor, and unlike many, I really dig his performance in Hulk. But he doesn’t hold a candle to Ed Norton, one of the best, most natural actors of his generation. And the character is just more interesting this time around. In Hulk, Bana did a lot of reacting, a lot of impulse moves as he tried to grapple with this thing – but he kinda likes it. That small part of him that enjoys it seems really interesting, until you realize that removes the central struggle. In The Incredible Hulk, Norton understands The Hulk in a very precise way, and he’s striving to control it. In this way, the film borrows heavily from Bruce Jones’ run on the comic a few years back, which is the only iteration of the character I’ve ever taken to, so I’m a bit slanted towards it for that reason.

My conclusion? Sort of how I view Batman Returns and Batman Begins (or Batman: Mask of the Phantasm moreover). The latter is a better representation of the comic book character, and is a brilliantly executed film. But the former is a very good film in its own right, as long as one accepts that it’s an artistic interpretation of the character, not one meant as canon. This is something comic book fans should be used to, especially for Batman, who’s had entire series of comics allowing writers and artists to reinterpret the character however they like. But that’s sort of my take on Hulk and The Incredible Hulk. Neither is really “better,” as such. They’re both flawed in ways similar and different; they both succeed in very different ways (Hulk in artistry and psychological underpinnings, Incredible Hulk in pure rush, cinematic experience, and performance; both handle the action differently, but each is immensely satisfying). The best news is that neither eliminates the need for the other – since they both satisfy very different feelings, they’ll be able to exist side by side.

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