This newest screen incarnation of the popular green superhero marks an unusual time for comic adaptations. Up until this point, if a superhero comic was turned into a film there were usually two possible outcomes: a successful franchise which eventually grows further and further away from the original material (such as the Burton Batman films or the Reeve Superman films) or a tremendous flop, quickly forgotten (Dolph Lundgren as The Punisher comes to mind). Ang Lee’s 2003 superhero film Hulk is generally considered the latter: an expensive failure (even though the film made over $100 million). Following the patterns set previously, one would expect a significant gap between Ang Lee’s version and any future Hulk films. For better or worse, this was not the case, as The Incredible Hulk comes just five years after 2003’s Hulk, not sequel but remake, with a whole new cast, new story and new Hulk.
Because of this, Louis Letterier’s attempt at the Hulk franchise faces inevitable comparison to the earlier film. The major differences are obvious at the outset: The Incredible Hulk is action-based as opposed to the more character-driven Hulk. That said, the action sequences in the later film seem clumsier, not as refined as those seen in Lee’s version (perhaps not so surprising considering Ang Lee’s previous film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and its beautifully choreographed fight sequences). Further than that, The Incredible Hulk also seems fairly rushed overall, from the occasionally ropey special effects to the weak plot. Perhaps not surprisingly, the plot points seem to only serve as transitions between action set-pieces.
Unlike most superhero films that came before it, the world of The Incredible Hulk seems to exist in a greater Marvel universe, something lacking in Ang Lee’s version. There are hints and references to other Marvel superheroes (and villains) dotted all over the screen, some subtle and some blatant. This simple consideration is a great treat for comic fans and seems an obvious step (especially considering Marvel is producing all their films from now on and cross-promotion is almost never a bad thing for comics). Marvel definitely has their act together with their films and a massive superhero film collaboration is not far off (something which comics fans have been waiting for for decades).
I personally enjoyed Ang Lee’s ‘softer’ version of the Hulk. Even though the film was far from perfect, he tried to bring a level of seriousness and respectability to a sometimes silly film genre. I can respect Letterier’s attempt to bring his film back to what the fans expected (or perhaps what the studio thinks the fans expect), but I still prefer Lee’s version. Granted, the action sequences are better in The Incredible Hulk, but I enjoyed the performances more in Hulk and I thought the 2003 version had a poetry to it which is lacking in 2008.
Is this the start of a new way of looking at superhero films? If a version isn’t massively successful, just go back and start from scratch? I hope not, but looking at the forthcoming Punisher War Zone, it appears as if franchise continuity isn’t as important as box office success.