While away I went to see the new movie from Marvel, The Incredible Hulk, despite some misgivings (after all, Ang Lee's version was only so-so). I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was gripped by it from the opening credits (which show a flashback of how Bruce Banner became the Hulk and the effect that had on his loved one, Betty Ross, and her dastardly dad, General "Thunderbolt" Ross, who wants to create a kind of "Hulk serum" to make "super soldiers" to serve the U.S. of A.). Banner/Hulk goes rogue and Banner goes into hiding which is where the film begins, swiftly becoming a great chase that ends with Banner transforming into the Hulk and raising characteristic hell.
What got me into the theater was the casting: Ed Norton as Banner, William Hurt as Ross, Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky, who undergoes a series of experiments to become the lethal behemoth called The Abomination. In other words, I was assured by the presence of class-A actors that the film wouldn't just manifest itself as predominantly a CGI slug-fest. But what kept me riveted to the action was the fact that director Louis Leterrier and the script by Zak Penn are fully at the service of The Incredible Hulk as a Marvel comic in action. Which is to say that it doesn't go off into unwarranted changes to the formula of the original comic -- like most other Marvel-inspired films, whether Bryan Singer's The X Men (2000) or Sam Raimi's Spider Man (2002), both of which cut fairly close to the spirit of the comics they're based on.
While my memory of reading The Incredible Hulk comic is that it was never one of my favorites, the film successfully renders those elements which did keep the mag interesting. And part of that area of interest falls to Liv Tyler as the heart of the film: without her deep commitment to Banner, even when he's in Hulk form, the film would be just a bunch of guys fighting for the claim to be (or to control or manufacture) the major badass. Tyler, who I generally find boring and flat, has gotten better now that she's begun to age enough to have a few character lines in her face. Her presence next to the towering Hulk gave me more thrills of the "beauty and the beast" variety than Peter Jackson's King Kong (2005) ever managed to generate (despite Naomi Watts being a far superior actress). And mention must also be made of Tim Blake Nelson as the glibly engaging Prof. all-too-eager to tamper with serums and antidotes -- in future, he'll be showing up as The Hulk's great arch-nemesis The Leader, something to look forward to.
What it all boiled down to for me, as I sat watching, was that I was able to recall my inner grade-schooler who, back in '67-70, loved Marvel comics way more than Hollywood movies. Movies were always so lame when they tried to present superhuman heroes; even their attempt to render monsters and other aberrations were pretty corny and disappointing. Not until The Matrix (1999) did it become clear that the technology and stylistic know-how existed to render something like what went on imaginatively in the mind while contemplating the static but evocative images of the classic Marvel comics (particularly as rendered by Jack "The King" Kirby, the Michelangelo of the form, the man able to render power and feeling simultaneously).
And now, the Marvel production company is finding actors of sufficient caliber to render figures who, for their dedicated readers, are almost archetypal in their long-standing associations. It may say something about our collective zeitgeist that, since the dawn of the depressing 21st century, the best stuff happening on-screen is in the fantasy genre -- from Jackson's Lord of the Rings (2001-03) to these Marvel films --(e.g., escapist action is about all we are capable of), but what it has more to do with than any pop cultural crit symptom-spotting is that the ability to make these things work on screen has finally arrived. And it should be noted just how long after the initial breakthrough of Star Wars (1977) this has occurred. Which is to say that the mind-numbing dullness of Episodes I-III in that series (1999-2005) provided perhaps the main incentive to turn finally to the action heroes worthy of the effects and budgets devoted to films ever in search of blockbuster status. Add Lucas to the list of all those whose mighty concoctions pale beside the likes of Tolkien and Stan "The Man" Lee. You can keep your Darth Vader (a poor man's Doctor Doom at best) and Neo (for existential cosmic drama, let's see someone do justice to The Silver Surfer), Make Mine Marvel!