New 'Hulk' boasts better effects, smashing foe

Hulk want do-over.

Just five years after the brute with anger management issues and forgiving pants hit — and splattered against — the big screen, "The Incredible Hulk" returns to theaters June 13 in one of Hollywood's boldest mulligans.

The movie, this time starring Edward Norton as the scientist belted by gamma rays, breaks Hollywood's golden rule of remakes (studio executives prefer they be call "re-imaginings"): Give audiences time to forget the first one.

Instead, it's the filmmakers who are disregarding the original. And they're wagering $150 million that audiences will follow suit.

If they're wrong, it could sink franchise hopes for the big green guy, who made for a popular 1970s television series with Bill Bixby and is behind only Spider-Man and X-Men in Marvel comic-book popularity.

But translating Hulk onto a 30-foot movie screen has been tricky, even though his 9-foot, 1,500-pound body would seem a perfect fit.

"It's different than, say, 'Batman' or 'Iron Man,'" says Rob Worley of "Those movies have human beings in costumes, which gives you a personal connection with the hero. With the Hulk, you have to turn him into a computer-generated character. That can be a fine line to walk."

Many felt Ang Lee tripped over it in 2003 with his brooding and violent take on the comic-book icon. The film took in $134 million domestically — not bad, but hardly the moneymaker Universal had expected.

Worse, tough reviews and savage fan reaction appeared to mark the big-screen end of the emerald beast.

But in the comic-book world, heroes die and return all the time. And Marvel, which has become one of the most bankable studios in the industry, decided to try what they do with their comic books that are stuck in a rut: slap an adjective like "ultimate" or "incredible" in the title, put a No. 1 on the issue, and give it another shot.

"It's unprecedented for a comic-book movie," Worley says. "And if you don't follow the industry or comic books, you run the risk of confusing people who think they just saw that film."

Internal battles

Consider Lee among the confounded. When he heard that a new "Hulk" was coming out — without a number 2 behind it — he says he was "bewildered."

"I was very proud of the movie I made," he says. "It seemed strange that it was being treated as if it didn't exist."

Actually, the opposite was happening. Directors who revere the man behind "Brokeback Mountain" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" were nervous about redoing one of his movies — including the man who ultimately did.

New "Hulk" director Louis Leterrier, who helmed the "Transporter" films, initially turned down the project out of respect for Lee. "I was divided," he says. "I couldn't believe they wanted to reboot the franchise after just five years. And I loved (the 2003 movie) as a filmmaker. There was great art in it. But as a nerd, I absolutely didn't like it. It was slow."

Leterrier went to his home in France to reconsider the offer and decided to send an outline of the story he wanted to tell, complete with paintings and sketches of the action sequences he felt the film needed. "It was kind of a prenuptial agreement," he says. "This was my big chance, my first big American movie. I didn't want it to be the end of my career. I wanted to start with a healthy relationship."

That relationship hit a few bumps near the end of shooting. Norton and Leterrier, who worked on the script together, wanted a longer film with more dialogue. Marvel wanted to keep it leaner and more action-heavy. The differences came to a head when Norton, Leterrier and Marvel executives sat together for a rough-cut screening.

"It was a suicide run," the director says with a laugh. "We should have gone home, collected our thoughts. Instead we had a long meeting that day. There were things I wanted that Marvel didn't, things Marvel wanted that Edward didn't. It was bad management on everyone's part."

Marvel won the argument but lost another battle. Norton opted out of doing much promotion, including an interview for this story.

Marvel chief Kevin Feige says the exchange was "no different than you have making any other movie. This one just got publicity because Ed Norton is a star."

Still, Leterrier says, it was publicity the film didn't need. "Edward handed me his notes and walked from the project," he says. "We had all these issues about it being a reboot while still being true to Ang Lee's vision. Now we had the Edward thing. And I'm thinking, 'Come on, it's just a movie — about a green guy running around.' "

That might come as a relief to die-hard fans, who for years have wanted a movie where the big guy, above all, runs amok.

To that end, this version delivers. It dispatches with the origins of Doc Bruce Banner (Norton) within the 2½-minute title sequence and becomes a two-hour chase picture. Playing off Norton is Liv Tyler as Banner's love interest, Betty Ross, and William Hurt as her father, Gen. Thaddeus Ross, who wants to use the Hulk as the ultimate military weapon.

The movie is as much of a nod to the TV show, which ran from 1978 to 1982, as it is to the comic book. Bixby is featured in a scene from "The Courtship of Eddie's Father." Lou Ferrigno, who played the TV Hulk, has a cameo, as does another Marvel superhero in a nifty crossover.

Enter the villain

Equally important as action and paying homage, says Blair Butler of G4TV, which caters to comic book and video game fans, is the Hulk's need for a formidable villain.

In the first film, she says, "jumping on cars and gamma-radiated dogs and fighting Nick Nolte wasn't satisfying for fans who wanted to see demolition. It's not only important for them to see Hulk smash. They want someone who smashes back."

And that someone is Abomination. Think of him as a Hulk on steroids who got cut off in L.A. traffic.

Marvel has a reputation for unlikely choices for its heroes: Norton, Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man. But the choice of 5-foot-7 Brit Tim Roth as the monstrous villain surprised even Roth.

"I mean, movie stars want to be in comic-book movies, and I'm a character actor," he says. "And a short one. But it's amazing what they can do with Lycra and (computer-generated) effects."

Indeed, that could be what determines the fate of the "Hulk." Where the 2003 film was hammered for clunky visual effects, "Hulk" redux employs a motion-capture special effect in which actors' faces are coated with an infrared paint so that stars' faces, down to their wrinkles, show up when they turn into computer creatures.

"There's no comparison" between the effects of the two films, says Gale Anne Hurd, producer of both Hulk movies. "We had access to the cutting edge, and you want that if your sequel is going to raise the action. You can put more pop in the popcorn when you believe the actors are really 'hulking out.' "

But it will take more than improved effects to resurrect the not-so-jolly green giant.

"It looks like this is closer to what fans want, which really is to connect to our memories of Hulk," Butler says. "Among the Marvel comic heroes, there's Spider-Man, ("X-Men's") Wolverine and the Hulk. We want to love him. We just need a reason to."