Wednesday, August 08, 2012

How To Finally Make a Hulk Movie Work

If there's anyone out there who doesn't think that 'The Incredible Hulk' was the weakest of the "Marvel Universe" cycle of movies, I haven't heard from them. The consensus seems to be that while it wasn't a failure like the previous, disastrous Ang Lee 'Hulk', it's certainly nothing like the show-stopping success enjoyed by two Iron Man movies, Thor, and Captain America...and that 'The Avengers' showed a possible blueprint for how to make a Hulk film work. But in an ensemble film where just about everything worked, what is it specifically that made the Hulk click in a way that he hadn't in two previous films? What did Joss Whedon do right that Ang Lee and Louis Leterrier did wrong?

The answer is simple. The Hulk spoke.

Technically, he sorta spoke in all three of his film appearances. In Ang Lee's 'Hulk', during one of the film's weird, incoherent dream sequence-y things, he said, "Puny humans," while in 'The Incredible Hulk', he shouted "Hulk smash!" at the film's climax. That's roughly the same amount of dialogue he had in 'Avengers'. But in 'Avengers', he had one of the film's most memorable, laugh-out-loud, stand-up-and-cheer lines: "Puny god," spoken after treating Loki like a particularly maladjusted toddler treats a Betsy-Wetsy doll, showed the Hulk's actual personality in a way we never saw in the previous films. It showed that the Hulk isn't just a mindless force of nature, he's a person. He has his own way of looking at the world. And while he's frequently terrifying, as a being that powerful can be, he's actually just a big dumb goofy kid inside sometimes.

The comics have been embarrassed about the Hulk's goofiness for ages. I'm not sure exactly when it happened, although Peter David's decade-long run is certainly a place to start. He famously only used the Hulk's stylized "Hulk smash puny humans!" style of dialogue that Roy Thomas invented in a very limited capacity, and usually for comic effect to contrast it with the erudite and sarcastic Hulk he was more interested in writing. And while that worked for Peter David, it's worth noting that many of his "dumb Hulk" lines were also drop-dead funny, including the awesome comment made by the green Hulk in Banner's body: "Hulk's butt hurts!" Let's face it--Hulkspeak is freaking hilarious, and it's not by accident. It's meant to sound silly. It's meant to make the Hulk a little bit sympathetic, which is needed given that he's a brute and a monster.

The films we've gotten have refused to do that. They've been obviously trying to avoid embracing the silliness inherent in the Hulk's character, and it's hard to make a film work when your director refuses to stand behind its own central idea. (Notably, Ang Lee never lets the character be called "Hulk" onscreen. That takes being ashamed of your comic-book roots to new heights.) What's needed is a film that lets the Hulk be silly and sympathetic, while never letting us forget that he's dangerous and powerful. A film where the Hulk punches the giant flying dragon-worm...and then shoulder-punches Thor clean off-camera because he's in a bad mood. It needs to be funny as well as serious, something that the previous two attempts didn't even go for.

In short, the Hulk needs to talk. And he needs to talk goofy. If you can't get behind that, scrap your draft script and go back to the computer, Mister Screenwriter.


Entertained Organizer said...

I agree that what the Avengers got right that the previous Hulk films got wrong was actually making the Hulk a character rather than a force of nature. But I think I have to be the one person out there that thinks Iron Man 2 narrowly beats out The Incredible Hulk for the worst Marvel movie to date.

Maybe it's an unfair expectation based on the fact the first Iron Man opened the same summer as The Dark Knight, but I want my sequels to be bigger and grander in scope. Iron Man 2 didn't achieve that in my opinion.

Again I may be alone in this, but in the first one I felt the battle with the Iron Monger was actually the weakest action sequence because ultimately with robots fighting robots all you can really do is tell the audience that one is so much more powerful than the other. The second one has the same problem with Iron Man having to trade his circle powered armor for triangle armor and suddenly being unbeatable. It's technobabble magic.

At least in Incredible Hulk banner goes on an emotional journey into accepting that he and the Hulk are one and the same, and that the Hulk can be a force for good. It's not much, but it at least sets up a conflict for the film other than "who is stronger" because in a superhero movie the Hulk will always beat the Abomination and Iron Man (and War Machine) will always beat Whiplash.

Finally to add something constructive, I think what the next Hulk movie needs is Rick Jones. If you're going to make the Hulk into an actual character with dialogue, he needs someone to talk to. So let him make a friend.

comixkid2099 said...

I agree that Iron Man 2 is significantly worse than Incredible Hulk. And I'm going to take it one step further and say that Thor had numerous problems with the pacing and etc that were not present in the Incredible Hulk movie.
Having said that, I do agree with your points.

John Seavey said...

Perhaps I liked 'Iron Man 2' more because I'd heard from so many sources how bad it was, but I enjoyed it. Mickey Rourke is excellent as Whiplash, and Scarlett Johannson does a great job as the Black Widow. Tony is played very believably as a man who's dying and wants to stay in control, and Rhodes is also played excellently as a man torn between his loyalties and his friendships.

(And to top it off, the fact that they reused the "Stark Expo" in Captain America, showing the original version that Tony modeled his off of after you saw the modern one, is just so damn slick I can't stop applauding it.)

But of course, YMMV.

Unknown said...

I point out that the Hulk actually speaks MUCH earlier in the Norton version: the first time we see him, when he comes out of the shadows in the factory, if you're paying attention his growl is actually him saying 'leave Hulk alone.'

And honestly, I don't think cranking up the goofiness is the way to go here. I thought that the beatdown he delivered to Loki was too cartoonish, especially in the middle of what was supposed to be the climactic battle of the film. The real success of Whedon's take on the Hulk was Banner's humanity: I for one thought Norton gave a brilliant performance as Banner, but it's an early Banner, still traumatized by everything that's happened to him. I mean, seriously, watch that movie again: the man's a wreck. But in the Avengers we're seeing a nobler Banner, one who's managed to come to some kind of peace with himself, and I really feel like that's what makes the character shine.

Entertained Organizer said...

I don't think it's necessarily about making the next movie goofier so much as it is treating Hulk as a character. In Incredible Hulk as far as I remember the Hulk only actually appears in the three action set pieces, and kind of by necessity only when it's time for Hulk to smash.

I don't think anyone would accept as little screen time from the title character in any other superhero franchise, and the only reason it happens with the Hulk is because if he doesn't say anything besides "Hulk Smash" and "Puny Human" scenes with the Hulk can only be action sequences.

Dougie said...

Lee and Kirby couldn't figure out how to make the Hulk work for a year.It took a globe-trotting serial by Ditko, featuring a gamma-powered spymaster and his horde of plastic humanoids to establish the Jolly Green Giant.

-evan. said...

I agree entirely with what Entertained Organizer said that the next Hulk movie needs to "let him make a friend."

An approach similar to The Iron Giant, or E.T., where a kid befriends another being is a very standard trope, but one that would really benefit the franchise. That's probably the most straight-forward solution to the issue I've ever read.