In the race for comic book movie superiority, there's really no debate over who's in first place. Marvel Comics has had the upper hand on DC Comics for a while.
Granted, DC was first to strike with Superman and Batman, but since Marvel released Spider-Man in 1999, this has been no contest. Six of the top seven grossing comic book superhero movies of all time are Marvel properties, and only Tim Burton's Batman keeps the top six from being a clean sweep. And Marvel has more successful titles, while DC can't break anything but Batman and Superman.
So it's important to Marvel to not accept the defeat of 2003's Hulk, because the Hulk is among a handful of the most well-known Marvel characters. It's easy to question whether or not forgetting the whole thing happened and starting over five years later was a good move. Turns out it was a great move.
Picking up after the events of the Ang Lee misfire instead of being a true remake, The Incredible Hulk begins with Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) as far away from the mess and carnage his alter ego created. The scientist is now essentially a janitor at a Brazilian bottling plant. He has left behind his life and the woman he loves, Dr. Elizabeth Ross (Liv Tyler), until he can gain control over the gamma-powered thing inside him. The first 30 minutes of the film is exactly what you want an origin story (or in this case, a re-origin story) to be. We see Banner conflicted, challenged, lovelorn, and set into action.
When the U.S. government catches up with Banner in Brazil, Elizabeth's father, Gen. Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt), enlists the help of a British soldier named Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), who's really a mercenary in military clothing. Blonsky will stop at nothing to get Banner — and once he eyes the Hulk, Blonsky becomes obsessed with transforming into an unstoppable killing machine himself.
One of the few problems with Iron Man was that the villain – played by Jeff Bridges – wasn't really up to par. Clearly, the same could be said of the 2003 Hulk, where Bruce Banner wrestled with daddy issues. Emil Blonsky, on the other hand, is a superb superhero villain, and Gen. Ross isn't bad, either. Their presence would go a long way even if The Incredible Hulk weren't very good.
The thing is, The Incredible Hulk is really good. Norton, as you'd expect, is fantastic, and even though he's not credited with writing the script, he was involved with it on some level and the film plays out in a character-driven way more in line with the first Spider-Man or Batman Begins than some of the lesser comic book entries. It also resembles the undervalued TV series in some ways, in particular the perception that Banner is alone in the world and is alone with this uncontrollable beast ready to rage at any moment.
We do get action, and two of the three major battle scenes are thrilling, especially the second of the three. The CGI is both better and worse than the previous Hulk. It's better because the monster appears to be the same size throughout the film and during battle scenes, it looks effective, although not lifelike. But it's worse when we get a close-up of the Hulk. In those moments, the whole thing is very hard to buy. But director Louis Leterrier manages to keep the action going in these moments so as soon as you realize it's bad CGI, you're distracted by the other, better effects.
All in all, this is a great comeback for the Hulk if nothing else. Norton doesn't exude Robert Downey's charm, but Banner has challenges Tony Stark does not. As the series progresses, Norton embodies the troubled loner very well, and if they can make a few tweaks to the computer animated creature along the way, so much the better.