Monday, June 16, 2008
The early May release of Iron Man, the first of the comic book giant’s self-financed, self-produced adaptations, shouldn’t have worked. Famously troubled Robert Downey Jr. starring as a B-list superhero? And directed by the guy from Swingers? No, not him. The other guy from Swingers. C’maaaahn.
And yet here we are six weeks out, with Iron Man now the highest grossing movie of the year, and in one fell swoop director Jon Favreau has joined the big leagues of action helmers, while Downey has gone from “huge question mark” to “unlikely superstar.”
To put this in perspective, Iron Man is of such caliber that it makes the other films from the Marvel canon seem lesser by comparison. The decade-long spell since 1998’s Blade, the first of Marvel’s big screen successes, has seen, among others, Sony’s Spider-Man franchise, and Fox’s X-men, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil movies. All achieved varying degrees of success (financial, if not critical), but what shocks and amazes with Iron Man is how much it got right and, by extension, how much those others got wrong.
In hindsight it all seems so obvious: match up the right talent with the right characters, make sure they stay true to the source, cast according to “who’s right” instead of “who’s available,” and stand back while the magic works.
Of course, when all eyes turned to Marvel’s follow-up to Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, one could argue that it had an even tougher task ahead of it. While the Downey-starrer had to usher in a whole new franchise and a whole new production shingle, the green guy’s movie comeback not only had to cement Marvel’s status as a legitimate player, it also had to make fans and non-fans alike toss director Ang Lee’s Hulk from 2003 down the memory hole.
While Eric Bana starred as the tormented Bruce Krenzler (Krenzler?) in the previous version, his monstrous alter ego was brought to computer-generated life by Lee himself, with the director donning a motion capture suit to convey his vision of the creature's actions and reactions. As it turns out, viewers didn't like him when he was Ang Lee.
Now, just for the record, I didn’t hate Lee's dark and moody take, full of Freudian angst and long (loooong) spells of introspection, but it certainly wasn’t for everyone. The record-setting opening weekend followed one week later by a record-breaking drop proved two things: a) there was a huge audience ready and eager to see a great Hulk movie, and b) this wasn’t it.
With all of that baggage in tow, you have to give props to Marvel for waiting a mere five years before going back to the well with a ground-up restart. What they’ve emerged with is a movie that truly deserves to have “Incredible” restored to its title. Like Batman Begins, another sequel-cum-reboot, completely obliterated any memory of Joel Schumacher’s disastrous Batman & Robin, director Louis Leterrier (he of the Transporter movies) and star Edward Norton manage the similar feat of wiping the slate clean and giving us not only a worthy follow-up to Iron Man, but also a worthy film in its own right.
The first smart thing the The Incredible Hulk does is to take its cue from the Hulk live action show from the 1970s, famous for the constantly-beleaguered Bill Bixby, the sad piano music, and Lou Ferrigno in green body paint. We join Bruce Banner – physician, scientist -- living life on the run several years after a genetic experiment gone awry saddled him with a big green problem.
Banner is pursued doggedly by General “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt), father of his ladylove Betty (Liv Tyler), and lives his life by a constant measure of “days without incident.” Of course, it isn’t long before circumstances force Banner back home to confront the threat of radiation-powered baddie Abomination (Tim Roth). If you’ve ever read the comic books or seen the TV show, you probably know where things head from there.
This is the movie we didn’t get five years ago, one that doesn’t fear to take its subject seriously, while also rejoicing in the ability to be just as out there as its source material. Unlike the Lee film, which tried unsuccessfully with various split-screen effects and "panels" to adapt the format of the comics, this one unabashedly embraces the content of the comics. By the time the title character, in all his green, muscled, CGI glory, (voiced by Lou Ferrigno, natch) intones “Hulk smash!” you know exactly the kind of movie this is. And oh, it feels good.
Like Downey before him, Norton (who also gave an uncredited polish to Zak Penn's screenplay to bring it closer to its comic book roots) completely embodies his character, updating the tormented persona so effectively conveyed by the late Bill Bixby (keep it peeled, by the way, for a brief, surprising appearance). Norton’s performance, along with those of Tyler, Roth, and Hurt, helps to ground the film, and lends credibility to the more fantastic, computer-generated, elements.
And let’s face it, deep philosophical discussions about mothers and fathers might have their place in movies, but there’s something to be said for the prurient thrill of sitting back and watching two giant monsters just pounding on each other while tearing up large swaths of Harlem real estate in the process.
Once the credits roll, immediately following a most welcome and most unexpected cameo (well, unexpected to anyone who doesn’t live on the Internet), not only has any lingering memory of Ang Lee’s film been entirely exorcised, but the full scope of what Marvel is attempting to do here becomes clear.
More than trying merely to start up several parallel film series (itself no easy feat), they’re doing something that’s never before been attempted on-screen: a full-scale universe of interconnected movies that freely share characters and concepts between different franchises and even different studios. If they can follow up on the promise of their initial offerings, the next few summer seasons should be quite smashing indeed.
IRON MAN: A
THE INCREDIBLE HULK: B+