Higher Wrath: Norton muscles up for a more visceral, less thoughtful Hulk.
Higher Wrath: Norton muscles up for a more visceral, less thoughtful Hulk.

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The angry green giant is back and this time, it’s not quite so personal. When Oscar-winning director Ang Lee brought Marvel’s short-tempered creation to the big screen in 2003’s Hulk, his vision was deep, dark, and, to some at least, unforgivably talky. Both Hulk’s scientist alter-ego Bruce Banner and his ex-girl, Betty Ross, hated their daddies, and their daddies hated each other, and they all liked to jaw about it as if they were the Capulets and Montagues. And when the monster did appear—not for an entire 40 minutes!—he was CGI-slick: Instead of growing more frightening as he got more furious, Hulk seemed only more…Asian, his leaps between hilltops on a military base so graceful, so Crouching Tiger-unfathomable that fans wondered when he obtained the ability to fly.

Louis Leterrier takes an approach in The Incredible Hulk that should quell all the bitching. Namely, Hulk smash.

Considering that Hulk 2008 has an entirely new cast and crew, it isn’t exactly a sequel. But the story, by Zak Penn and “Edward Harrison” (aka star Edward Norton), does pick up where Lee left off. Dr. Bruce Banner (Norton) has exiled himself to Portugal after his experiment with gamma radiation went awry, turning him into a superhuman rageaholic whose growth spurts and pigment change signal impending destruction, guttural toddler-talk, and the inexplicable busting of all his clothes save his pants. Banner is working in a bottling plant and learning how to control his emotions while he searches for a cure, covertly communicating with one Stateside Mr. Blue for guidance.

When a drop of his blood falls into one of the U.S.-exported bottles and an unwitting customer finds himself with an unusually kicky energy drink, though, Banner is suddenly on the military’s radar again. The government, particularly Betty’s father, Gen. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt), wants to harvest Banner’s genetic power to develop a weapon. As he and increasingly feral wingman Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) invade a South American slum to hunt for Banner, the doctor heads back home to finally meet Mr. Blue and work on a cure. First, though, he has to stop at his old lab to pick up some data—as well as his research partner, Dr. Ross (Liv Tyler).

Leterrier, of Transporter fame, may have the experience of directing a more American brand of kickass action on his side, but he also benefits from the narrative sweet spot in superhero sequels; like X2 or Spider-Man 2, The Incredible Hulk can sum up its character’s origin story with a quick flashback and go directly to the good stuff. Penn (who got a story credit for X2 but also helped crank out the awful Elektra and Fantastic Four) and Norton provide a script that’s well-paced, funny, and an homage to the 1977 television series, from its echo of the opening credits to an appearance by original Hulkster Lou Ferrigno. Not that it’s all kneeling at Stan Lee’s altar: At one point, Betty buys her constantly wardrobe-challenged guy some bright purple stretch pants, to which he responds: “I don’t think so.”

Tyler is the only weak spot here, given little to do but act alternately fawning or stricken as she helps Banner evade her father. (A back-and-forth sequence in which the two, the day they reunite, are shown staring at their ceilings in separate beds is particularly laughable.) Norton, an immense talent and notorious perfectionist (he reportedly debated the final cut of this film, just as he did with American History X), may have seemed an oddly highbrow choice to star. But his Bruce Banner is more wily, charming, and, ironically, human than Hulk star Eric Bana’s, though it only reinforces the distraction that he could have done a lot better in the romantic-interest department.

As Lee found out, however, no one’s going to see a comic-book adaptation for the drama. And in this regard, Leterrier gets especially high marks: The nature of the Incredible Hulk—a grunting, smashing man-beast—is, after all, incredibly stoopid, and the impulse had to have been to swing as far away from Lee’s version as possible. But instead of devolving the action into a Transformers-like series of big bangs, there’s style and excitement here. The early chase scenes through South American villages where houses and residents are stacked on top of one another are tense and colorful; later, when Roth’s Youth Without Youth-esque Blonsky morphs into new villain the Abomination and nighttime battles take place on flame-dotted Harlem streets, the film explodes into a full-on monster movie, with the best elements of Cloverfield and Godzilla movies shading the showdown.

Some of the most thrilling moments are small, though; specifically, sharp-eyed fanboys will notice teasers of stories yet to be told. The Incredible Hulk is Marvel’s second production—after Iron Man, of course—since launching its own studio, and like its debut, the movie leaves you with an unmistakable impression: The geeks have finally inherited their universe, and they’re going to have as much fun with it as superhumanly possible.