Playing Comic Book Movie Catch-Up

Hollywood's served up an ample platter of comic-book movies this summer, and as such I've logged in more multiplex time in the last three weeks than I did in the previous three months. All told, it's been time engagingly spent.

I've yet to see Hellboy II, but in the last two weekends I did catch most of the other comic book adaptations currently kicking around in theaters. The Incredible Hulk, Wanted, Iron Man, and The Dark Knight all got the job done--the latter two well enough to convince me that all that hype about comic-book movies being in the midst of some sort of renaissance is more than just smoke, mirrors, and word balloons.

If you questioned the wisdom of re-jiggering a Marvel Comics hero who just got the lavish big-screen treatment five years ago, well, so did I...Until a recent viewing of Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk on DVD, that is. Screw "Hulk SMASH!": The Chinese director's version of Marvel's rage-stoked green giant might as well be bellowing "Hulk CONTEMPLATE!" "Hulk BROOD!" "Hulk face DADDY ISSUES!!" and "Hulk CRY!"

The great thing about this summer's Incredible Hulk is that it's made by guys who know full well they're making popcorn entertainment about a wimp who OD's on radiation, gets pissed, turns green, and smashes the crap out of things. As engineered by Transporter 2 director Louis Leterrier, The Incredible Hulk moves at the unself-conscious brisk pace of a really good B-movie.

It's sort of a sequel to Ang Lee's film, but (thank God) functions just fine without a perfunctory view of the latter. Leterrier consigns the entire experimentation/gamma ray inundation/military pursuit backstory to a dialogue-free introductory montage, then dives squarely into the pulp-Fugitive motif popularized by the 1970's TV adaptation. Scientist Bruce Banner (well-played here by Edward Norton rather than sulky Eric Bana) is in hiding in South America, working quietly in a guarana soda factory while he searches during his off-time for a cure to his, um, problem. His gamma-rage-infected blood gives him away, the military again gives chase, and the fugitive flees back to America to locate a fellow scientist who may hold the key to reversing Banner's condition. Oh, and Banner gets pissed, turns green, and smashes the crap out of things. A LOT of things.

Ironically, the new Hulk clocks in a good half-hour shorter than Ang Lee's bowl of gamma-gruel, yet still feels a lot more satisfying--and not just because Hulk Smash more things. We actually see Norton's Banner using his brain with some frequency, and Leterrier and screenwriter Zak Penn manage that fine pulp-movie hat trick of keeping the exposition lean without making Banner's character feel cardboard. There's a terrific pursuit scene at the beginning that doesn't sport a lick of CGI, and when the special-effects clobbering time kicks in it's clear that this crew knows how to stage action scenes with verve and energy to spare.

Make no mistake, this new Hulk could never be mistaken for a masterpiece. William Hurt (an actor I happen to like a lot) utterly phones in his performance as General Ross; Liv Tyler makes a charming romantic partner for Banner, but a laughably unconvincing scientist; the climactic action scene goes on a bit long; and a computer-generated Hulk is, to these jaded eyes, no more convincing than Lou Ferrigno in green body paint and a silly wig. But there's no denying that the new film's makers have their hearts in the right place: In addition to cameos by Ferrigno and Hulk co-creator Stan Lee, the late Bill Bixby (TV's David Bruce Banner) makes a posthumous appearance via a clip from his old sitcom, The Courtship of Eddie's Father.

Another European young-buck --Russian director Timur Bekmambetov--guides Wanted, an action flick based on the comic series of the same name by Mark Millar. And with its Office Space meets The Matrix on Leon The Professional's action dime framework it's as high-concept as high-concept gets.

Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) is a directionless plebe in a thankless office job until he gets reluctantly inducted into The Fraternity, a secret society of skilled assassins who utilize their uniquely lethal talents to maintain order in an increasingly order-less world. Angelina Jolie plays Fox, Wesley's tutor in the art of professional killing, and Morgan Freeman adds a malevolent twist to his traditional paternal stability as The Fraternity's quietly effective leader Sloan.

Expect nothing but wildly-exaggerated and hyperkinetic action scenes arrestingly peopled by beautiful and charismatic people, and you'll have as good a time with Wanted as I did. There's a right way and a wrong way to do over-the-top ballets of violence, and Bekmambetov sports chops that place him squarely in the winner's circle. The plot's hooey, of course, but Wanted gives the kind of adrenaline-amplified thrills that the Wachowski Brothers can't be troubled to serve up anymore. Plus Wanted reunites Angelina Jolie and guns, a combination as essential to summer movie enjoyment as butter and movie-theater popcorn.

Speaking of well-wrought combinations, director Jon Favreau earned some major respect in this corner for casting Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in his cinematic adaptation of Marvel Comics' Iron Man. In case you've been living under a rock for the last two months, the critical huzzahs and big box office have ably proved Favreau's gut correct.

Iron Man follows the saga of Stark, a charming but shallow billionaire techno-whiz/playboy whose jet-set lifestyle gets literally shot out from under him. Trapped in terrorist-infected Afghanistan, he rediscovers his soul and uses his technical skills to escape his captors and become an unlikely superhero.

Believe the hype regarding Downey's performance. He's perfect here, creating a totally believeable flesh-and-blood character that's probably not far-removed from the wayward and at-times-troubled actor himself. Refreshingly, he's well-served by the rest of the ensemble (how often do you hear that word bandied about in the context of a superhero opus?). Gwyneth Paltrow makes a plucky, resourceful, and enchanting gal Friday, Jeff Bridges amusingly plays a heavy just a few steps removed from your average real-world boardroom, and Terence Howard imbues his second-banana role with no-bull resolve.

The screenplay sets up Stark's Iron Man origin story so well that it's almost a letdown when the final act throws down with the more routine superheroics (ironically enough, the final battle between Iron Man and a much larger and scarier rival plays very similarly to The Incredible Hulk's last action setpiece). But the journey up to that point stays brisk, funny, smart, and pretty grown-up-- or at least as grown-up as a PG-13-rated movie about a dude in an iron super-suit can get. This one's a keeper, folks, and I can hardly wait for a sequel.

Finally, what more can I add about The Dark Knight now that I've joined the masses that have seen it? That it exceeds every inflated expectation that critics and audiences have built up? That it richly deserves the obscenely gargantuan piles of box office cash hurled at it? That if you cut every action scene out, a riveting and solidly-plotted crime drama would still emerge? That its rich darkness compliments and improves Batman Begins in the same way that The Empire Strikes Back did Star Wars? That it actually takes the hoary modern-action-flick cliche of Two Big Finales in a Row and makes it work? That the actors from top to bottom gel brilliantly (thank you, dear Gods of Casting, for extracting Katie Holmes from the franchise)? No, if you've seen it or read a sentence about it, you know all of this already.

Though it's likewise just crowing along with the masses, there's no such thing as too much praise for the performance that forms The Dark Knight's dense core. Heath Ledger disappears into the Joker so seamlessly, with such animal abandon, that you forget you're watching an actor: His interpretation merits inclusion right alongside Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter, Cape Fear's Max Cady, and White Heat's Cody Jarrett in the great Rogues' Gallery of Classic Screen Villains. Really. All of my recent trips to Comic Book Multiplex Land rewarded on some level, but Ledger's work drags The Dark Knight squarely into the realm of masterpiece.


Vince said…
Nice to see someone else sticking up for Leterrier's Hulk. It's worth catching up with Hellboy II. And I'll throw in a word for Hancock, which pushes the superhero genre in some interesting directions.

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