Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Frugal Cineaste Returns!

When I was a young’un - somewhere between the innocuous appearances of Superman and Batman promoting the “letter of the day” on Sesame Street, and the astounding, mass-geek awakening that was the explosion of the first Death Star - I was introduced to the Marvel-brand superheroes. Right away, I recognized the subversive nature of these characters; from The Falcon - an African-American hero without the word “Black” in his moniker (a la “Black Panther”, “Black Lightening”, “Black Vulcan”, etc.) to Thor - with his hippy-fied golden locks and no shirt-sleeves. As a kid, I wasn’t a strict Marvel Universe fundamentalist: I collected both Marvel and DC titles in the cardboard longbox in my bedroom (filed separately, of course), but as an adult, I find myself much more interested in the former.

That, however, doesn’t mean I’m a fan of their entire roster of heroes. How could it? Sure, it’s a shared universe, with exciting, even iconic characters, but for every Spider Man and Professor Xavier, there’s a title that ties into some barely-remembered pop cultural phenomenon. Micronauts, or Rom, anyone?

And then there’s The Hulk. I never could get into The Hulk. After a few weeks of waiting 45 minutes for Bill Bixby to get angry enought to turn into Lou Ferrigno, I pretty much never tuned into the show again. Even in the comics, where he interacts with some of my favorite characters, he’s always sort of gotten on my nerves. Like, how can you make a guy who goes raging berserker when he stubs his toe part of an elite team like The Avengers? Isn’t that the kind of thing that shows up pretty clearly in the pre-employment screening? Plus, a handy little rule of thumb: Superheroes wear boots and snazzy costumes. Raging, Unstable Monsters – barefoot and stretchy purple fat-pants, like the lady down the street who works in her garden with an ever-present beer in hand.

That said, The Avengers = The Awesome, so when I heard that Tony Stark turned up at the end of The Incredible Hulk to extend the offer made to him by Nick Windu in "Iron Man" - I was there, baby!

Eventually, anyway. Mere weeks after it’s first run release, "The Incredible Hulk" is showing for a buck 'n' a quarter at the Tiffany Plaza Six - the Original Hamburger Stand of movie houses. The convoluted movie review system I laid out a few entries ago would be put to the test; the discount price I paid would be weighed against not just mediocre reviews, but my ambivalence toward the jolly green behemoth himself.

Now, I knew the film was a re-boot from the last cinematic incarnation. And I get that: make with the “Hulk Smash!” and you'll appeal to a wider audience. But I didn’t realize they were abandoning the first film’s continuity altogether. For me, that was a mistake: of all the recent superhero films, I don’t think "The Hulk" was one that merited a full-reboot, like they did with "Batman Begins", or they SHOULD have done with "Superman, the Roofie-Kissing Stalker, Returns" If all they were going to do was feature a FLASHBACK of his origin, they could have simply alluded to Ang Lee’s interesting failure / seriously flawed masterpiece. By appropriating the TV series origin instead (which had something to do with getting super powers from a dentist’s chair) the audience is left out of the loop on a major part of the story.

Anyway, once the film gets to the actual here-and-now plot, it fares a little better. Bruce Banner is chillin’ out in Rio de Janeiro, searching for something with a little more “oomph” than valium, to cure his hulkyness. He works a sweet job bottling Mexican soft-drinks, and in his spare time he meditates, just trying to get his head together. I once read that fairy tales - all the way up through Star Wars and Harry Potter - tap into a shadowy adolescent fantasy, in focusing on orphan protaganists, whose guardians have suffered some terrible fate. BB’s work-live situation is an aging male Gen-X variation on that theme: every 30-something guy in America wants a couple months “off the grid” in another part of the world, so they could read some Nietzsche and work on their abs.

Of course, the government (William Hurt as General Ross; Tim Roth as his "you-know-he’s-gonna-get-monstrified" lackey) comes after him, chasing him down in a not-too-bad action sequence (how they could have looked at the labyrinth of rooftops in Rio, and NOT choreographed a grade-A, boot-to-the-ass, parkour laden chase scene is way beyond my ability to comprehend) Bruce has been chatting online to some doctor who thinks he can "cure" him. The mysterious internet-stalker requires some of Bruce’s research, or his health insurance card or something, which means he’s comin’ back to ‘merica.

In a scene that’s only slightly more convincing than Christopher Reeve marching, sans powers, from Metropolis to Antarctica, Bruce hitch-hikes his way to the States. And of course, hitchhiking and the Hulk means only one thing – the schmaltzy, plinkity-plunkity love theme from the 70’s series! Is anybody really getting a geek-gasm from this stuff? It’s not like it’s the Indiana Jones theme or anything. You’d think Dr. Banner was a veterinarian on his way to put down Benji or something.

Of course, returning from an extended leave and visiting old haunts always means you’ll run into an old ex. Where Supercreepy Returns had Lois Lane married to a stable, gainfully-employed nice guy who always puts the toilet seat down, Betty Ross (the general’s daughter, played by Liv Tyler, who, as an actress, is pretty hot for a skinny woman) dates a boring milktoast who vanished from the movie while I was in the john.

SO – Bruce gets his mcguffin, the girl, and – at long last - turns into a raging monster a couple times, beating off the military. Y’know, it’s funny, because the best Marvel movies are on their A game when the characters are in their civilian identities (The X-Men musing over prejudice in the world, Iron Man dealing with the consequences of his actions, Spider Man facing the trials of adolescence) – which is ironic, in that we finally have the special effects to fully realize these characters, whereas, in the 70’s, you’d have to wait nearly a whole hour for a fleeting glimpse of Spider Man, with those silly little spaghetti colanders on his mask. The not so good Marvel movies (Daredevil, Fantastic Four) are the ones where you’re waiting for the overblown action sequences. At one point, Bruce hid a microchip (or something) in his mouth, and my son leaned over and asked me “is that going to make him turn into the Hulk?”

That right there was the ultimate fault of the movie – they didn’t really deliver on the “Hulk Smash!” that was the whole reason they did a remake (as opposed to a sequel) in the first place. If I’m out with my son on a Saturday afternoon, sitting in a theater w/ the same molded beige plastic design aesthetic as the AMC theaters of my youth, paying sub-matinee prices, I want professional-wrestling worthy monstro-e-monstro action. I want to see drop-down, drag out fight, with all the ridiculous trappings of Jet Jaguar beating on Megalon – but with a multimillion dollar budget. The showdown between Hulk and “The Abomination” was okay, I guess; but at the very least, they could have had it take up the last half of the movie. Maybe have ‘em knock over the Great Wall of China, and then Hulk could rebuild it with his brick and mortar vision.

So, Robert Downey Jr.’s walk-on at the end, looking all dapper, in a manner befitting Tony Stark? Yeah, that was cool (“You always wear the nicest suits.” Heh heh) But then, he tells the General “We’re forming a team”. I know it wouldn’t match comic-book continuity and all, but, couldn’t he have just gotten Spider Man’s email address instead?

Using my $1 movie algorithm (percentage of savings vs. first run price (68%) divided by two (34%) plus the average percent rating among top critics on (58%, in this case) means the movie gets a… 92%. Gotta knock it down a letter grade for running over an hour and a half, but still... wow.
I guess I liked it more than I thought I did...

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