Bringing Marvel Comic's irradiated Jekyll and Hyde, The Incredible Hulk, to the big screen seems like a project that should come together naturally. After all, the TV series adaptation was a huge success in its day (1978-1982) and that was back when the best they could do to realize ol' Gamma Genes on screen was to put a body builder (Lou Ferrigno) in green make-up. So when the first attempt to make a movie version of The Hulk in 2003 under the direction of Ang Lee didn't score the kind of hit that such a popular character seemed primed for, Marvel didn't waste any time trying to get it right a second time.
But while the general consensus is that the new film (directed by Louis Leterrier this time around) is closer to what fans wanted to see in a Hulk movie (lots more smashing, including a climatic thrown-down between the Hulk and his comic book adversary The Abomination), it doesn't look like it'll end up making much more change at the box office than Lee's much-derided, artsy version. So what's the issue here? Is it a case of people feeling burned by the first film and deciding to wait till cable or DVD on this new version? Are audiences just confused as to what this new film is - is it a sequel, a remake, or something else? Did the stories about star Ed Norton's dissatisfaction with the final cut of the film keep some potential viewers away? Or is there just a very finite number of people who are willing to go see a Hulk movie and no matter what approach is taken, any Hulk movie will hit the same ceiling every time?
But after watching Marvel's latest try at creating a Jade Dynasty on film, I think the truth is simply this - they need to make a man out of the Hulk. Marvel Studios needs to realize that the Hulk should be played by a person. And the scene that really drove that home for me in the new version was Lou Ferrigno's endearing cameo appearance.
Ferrigno did a brief cameo in Lee's Hulk but here there's more of an overt effort to honor him, giving him a nice scene with Ed Norton. He looks every bit as fit today as he did in his prime and he makes the most out of his brief screen time. And after the scene was over, it was so plain to me what was wrong about this otherwise entertaining movie - any CG Hulk only comes across as a placeholder for the real thing. Think about it - if they made a Hulk movie in twenty years or so, would anyone be clamoring for the CG Hulk of '08 to make a cameo?
I'm not saying that Ferrigno himself needs to play the role again (although physically, I'm betting he could) but that casting a real person in the role would make all the difference. There are examples of CG characters that are perfectly rendered and that blend seamlessly into the environment of their films - maybe the best example being Gollum from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Ring series.
But for whatever reason, it doesn't work with the Hulk. Maybe the CGI itself is substandard but I don't think that's it. The CG in both Hulk films to date looked top of the line to these eyes. I just think a CG Hulk puts the character on an exaggerated plane that works fine in the comics but is a disadvantage to the live-action version.
The most frequent question or complaint I've heard from non-comics readers about both film versions of the Hulk is essentially "why is he so big?". I think for those who don't read the comic or only know the character through the TV show, the enormity of the movie Hulk is an automatic turn-off. I do think it harms the Jekyll/Hyde aspect of the character in that it's too hard to relate the CG Hulk to the live-action Banner - there's an instant credibility gap there. Most people can make the jump to believe that someone Bill Bixby's size could transform into a being Ferrigno's size but the change from Eric Bana and Ed Norton to their CG counterparts is just too much of a leap. And watching an animated character flex its CGI muscles just isn't that thrilling. I suspect a whole generation of kids were inspired by Ferrigno to go into body building - for a child to look at his Hulk was to imagine that they could be that strong if they tried. And that kind of emulation will never happen with a CG Hulk.
When I think of some of the best moments of the original series, they involve Ferrigno's performance. He was able to convey real pathos, as in the climatic moments of the two-part second season opener "Married" when he holds Mariette Hartley's dying character of Dr. Carolyn Fields (aka Mrs. David Banner), that's a scene that never fails to break me apart.
That's a scene between two actors that will live in my memory far longer than that of an enormous cartoon Hulk choking another oversized cartoon character with a giant length of animated chain. I mean, I'm all for action but there's plenty of action that can be accomplished with a real actor that will probably be more thrilling for being more human scaled. I never tired of seeing Ferrigno's Hulk trash assorted biker bars, discos, and bake sales on the original show, for instance, but the feats of strength of a CG character just aren't as exciting.
I guarantee you that if it had been Ferrigno that burst out of the ground to fight the Abomination at the end of this new Hulk, every audience that saw it would've gotten on their feet to applaud.
So please, Marvel - for the sake of one of your best characters, swallow your pride, go against what the leading FX gurus will tell you, and make the third time the charm. Keep Norton as Banner if you can but get a real person to stretch out puny Banner's purple pants.
Call this version The Rampaging Hulk and make some real green this time out.