The Time Henry Thomas Buried Atari, Then Dug It Back Out

One of the more interesting aspects of our current Movie of the Month, the violent children’s action-adventure Cloak & Dagger, is that it was in part designed to rescue Atari from financial ruin. After the video game crash of 1983 that nearly put Atari out of business for good, the ailing company hoped a movie tie-in deal might help boost its popularity (and promote video game culture in general) by joining the ranks of popular films like Tron & WarGames. Hitching its wagon to the in-development Cloak & Dagger project, which was eventually named after a real-life Atari 2600 cartridge that never made it to market, was a strange choice for a couple of reasons. On a big-picture level, Cloak & Dagger functions as alarmist propaganda about the dangers of video games & fantasy roleplay, so its dual role as an advertisement for a specific Atari game seems a little self-defeating. On a smaller, more specific level, the film’s pint-sized lead Henry Thomas seemed like an odd choice for a video game poster boy, seeing as how he was already closely associated with the industry’s 1983 downfall. It was kind of a bold move both for Henry Thomas’s agent and for Atari to risk associating the young actor, best known for his role as Elliott in E.T., with video games again so soon after the E.T. video game disaster. The E.T. tie-in video game was such an embarrassing flop for Atari (due mostly to poor craftsmanship in its rush to market) that it’s cited as one of the major contributing factors for the 1983 industry crash – the very thing that made desperate last-ditch efforts like Cloak & Dagger necessary in the first place. The game was such a flop that it inspired an urban legend about its unsold stock being buried in a New Mexico landfill—hundreds of thousands of deadstock cartridges with Henry Thomas’s face on the cover discarded underground. That’s not necessarily the first face I would think to cast in my movie meant to rescue the industry.

The most fascinating thing about the E.T. video game legend is that’s it’s (at least partially) true. The 2014 documentary Atari: Game Over is especially illuminating on the subject, tracking the search for and excavation of the E.T. landfill meant to prove its existence. In a way, it’s a total success. Excavation crews uncover a landfill packed with thousands of unsold Atari games in Alamogordo NM, near where scientists first tested the nuclear bomb. An entirely different kind of bomb, E.T.: “the worst video game of all time,” was included among those buried titles, but it did not comprise as much of the loot as the urban legend may have suggested. Only 10% of the video game cartridges recovered in that New Mexico landfill featured Henry Thomas’s face; buried along with E.T.: The Video Game were much better-respected titles like Yars’ Revenge, Pac-Man, and Centipede. Blaming the massive cartridge burial and, by extension, the entire video game crash of ’83 on the E.T. game just makes for a better story, whether or not the infamous flop deserved the mockery. Much of Atari: Game Over functions like rehabilitative PR for the E.T. game in that way. It explains how the game was rushed to market in just five weeks’ time to capitalize on the Christmas season, so that its very existence is kind of a computer programming miracle for the game’s designer, Howard Scott Warshaw. Although its frustrating gameplay that it lands its avatar, an unrecognizably pixelated E.T., in holes from which he can’t escape is explained to be far from the worst gameplay to grace the Atari console; it only seemed that way it compares to the quality of the movie. Interviews with Spielberg also confirm that the director himself approved the game before it hit the market, so it seems unfair that was effectively driven out of the video game business after E.T.’s failure, despite having designed more beloved games like Yars’ Revenge and the Raiders of the Lost Ark tie-in. Most damningly (but perhaps least surprisingly), industry experts also explain how the video game crash of ’83 was far from E.T.’s fault; the game’s failure was just the convenient scapegoat for much larger financial issues. The whole film serves as a pretty convincing argument for why Henry Thomas shouldn’t be barred from video game adaptations after the E.T. game’s failure, even if the optics are initially questionable.

As useful as I found Atari: Game Over in illustrating exactly what happened with the E.T. video game landfill, I can’t exactly recommend it as a well-made documentary. The only feature film produced for X-Box’s video content wing X-Box Originals, this very slight 66min doc feels like it has a target audience of 14-year-old boys and not that much wider. Director Zak Penn brings a decent pedigree to the project, as a writer for many major Hollywood comic book adaptations & one-time collaboration with Werner Herzog on The Incident at Loch Ness, but he mostly crafts this documentary like the video game equivalent of Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Since the actual excavation of the Atari landfill can’t comprise an entire feature’s runtime on its own, the film busies itself crosscutting between the dig & an oral history of the early days of Atari that led to the E.T. debacle. There’s a lot of useful insight to be pulled from these interviews, but they just as often feel like a boys’ club glory days nostalgia trip – boosting the programmers’ own nerdy legacy instead of maintaining properly distanced, documentarian honesty. Ready Player One novelist Ernest Cline is a perfect mascot for how this unexamined, nerdy pop-culture worship comes across in its worst moments. He injects himself into the narrative of the landscape excavation it the cringiest of ways, staging a road trip to witness the dig by driving in a replica Back to the Future DeLorean he picks up form Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, accompanied by a life-size E.T. replica in the passenger seat. The self-described “screenwriter, novelist, and gentlemen adventurer” provides some useful context about how E.T.’s gameplay helped inspired the video game “Easter Egg” trope that guided the plot of Ready Player One, but mostly he just serves as the Guy Fieri of the piece—representing both its TV special qualities & its unwillingness to engage with pop culture nerdery as anything but The Greatest Thing Ever.

Regardless of Game Over’s quality as documentary filmmaking, the movie is extremely useful in illustrating both how the unsold E.T. cartridges featuring Henry Thomas’s face aren’t entirely responsible for the 1983 video game crash and how the urban legend surrounding them was so strong that casting him in Cloak & Dagger was risky anyway. As supplementary material, the film is more an act of reputation rehabilitation for the E.T. game & its creator than it is a revelation of anything directly related to Cloak & Dagger. Still, it’s an illustrative history of the cultural climate Cloak & Dagger was released in, a time when the future of video games as a lucrative industry did not seem as set in stone as it does now. It has no trouble finding nerds who were on the ground floor for those troublesome early days to reminisce about the era as if they were Guy Fieri singing the praises of Donkey Sauce.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the hyperviolent children’s action-adventure Cloak & Dagger (1984), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at another alarmist 80s roleplay gaming thriller, Mazes & Monsters.

-Brandon Ledet

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: The Avengers (2012)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: The Avengers was always one of Kevin Feige’s goals. Audacious and ambitious, when Feige started conceptualizing the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe his intention was to create a crossover film that united characters originally featured in individual films, mirroring the character/team dichotomy that permeates superhero comics. As such, a great deal of the history of the Avengers film project is really the history of the MCU up to this point, which has been discussed in our previous posts.

Casting for the film began in 2010, with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye being cast far enough in advance that Kenneth Branagh was able to insert an early cameo from him into Thor in 2011. Marvel’s official story is that they “declined” to have Ed Norton return as Bruce Banner, whereas Norton has claimed that he never intended to return to the role after the 2008 The Hulk flick, as he “wanted more diversity” in his career. His role was recast with Mark Ruffalo. The only other major addition to the ensemble was Cobie Smulders, who was cast in the role of Maria Hill. Hill is well-known to comic book fans as the sometime director of S.H.I.E.L.D., and she was a key player in Marvel’s then-recent Secret Invasion storyline. As a result, her casing fueled fan theory that her casting was an indication that the metamorphic Skrulls would be the primary antagonists in the film, especially when the Chitauri (who essentially stand in for the Skrulls under Marvel’s Ultimate imprint) were announced as well; ultimately, these theories were proven incorrect. Other than the six Avengers themselves, the film also featured the return of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and Paul Bettany’s Jarvis from the Iron Man flicks and Stellan Skarsgård’s Erik Selvig and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from Thor. Clark Gregg also reprised his role as Agent Coulson, and Samuel L. Jackson is featured as Director Nick Fury.

Early story work was completed by Zak Penn, who also contributed to the story for the excellent X2 and co-wrote the screenplay for the abysmal X3; the script was rewritten by Joss Whedon when he was brought on board to direct. There’s no need to explain who Whedon is, right? There are probably sea mollusks out there that are sick of hearing about the Cancellation of Firefly like it was an actual battle that was lost. Still, Whedon’s experience as a director as well as a purveyor of superhero yarns (his run on Astonishing X-Men was particularly good, although I didn’t care for his work on Runaways) made him the perfect fit for bringing the Avengers to celluloid life. Composer Alan Silvestri so impressed Marvel Studios with his composition for Captain America that he was brought back to score this film as well.

But enough about the seeds of the franchise. Brandon, what did you think?

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threehalfstar
Brandon: Finally, an MCU film I’ve actually seen before! When I went to the theater to see The Avengers in 2012 I was aware of its individual characters’ basic attributes, but a little lost as to what exactly was happening in the film plot-wise until about halfway into its massive runtime. The funny thing is that now that I’ve watched all five standalone films that have lead up to this crossover effort, I still found myself somewhat lost. The Avengers is the beginning of the MCU’s descent into full-blown Infinity Stone, MacGuffin-chasing nonsense. The film’s opening sequence feels like the ending of a nondescript action film that just happens to include a magic scepter and a “tesseract”. It’s a pretty clever idea to throw the film’s in-the-know audience into just as much of a confused state as those who just happened to wander into the universe for the first time, but the film’s central Infinity Stone caper is not nearly as much of a draw as the thrill of seeing six wildly varied superheroes share top billing in a single feature, so it feels a bit like wasted time. And once the film sets up its stolen tesseract conflict, it then takes way too much time to re-introduce each of the film’s disparate heroes & bring them together as a single unit. I had a lot of fun with going into an IMAX 3D screening of The Avengers completely blind of context in 2012, but returning to the film fully-informed (movie-wise, anyway) dampened my enthusiasm a good deal. It’s still a fun, crowd-pleasing action film, to be sure, but I think the effort required to get to its gang’s-all-here charm rolling reveals itself to be a little more labored on repeat viewings.

That being said, there are at least two scenes in The Avengers that rank among the best moments in superhero cinema of all time. I’m thinking, firstly, of the scene where the pissant god Loki’s evil scepter causes all six Avengers & (released from his post-credits stinger prison) Nick Fury to bicker in a slowly ratcheted moment of bitter discontent. It’s a well-played moment that sets up how a group of inflated superegos would have a near-impossible time working together as a unit. That scene functions as a set-up for the much more obvious centerpiece: the climactic battle with the alien robot army that destroys an entire metropolis. I don’t really have much to say about the film’s concluding action sequence other than it’s a grand spectacle of fist-pumping action that might be one of the single most fun to watch half hour stretches in the history of superheroes on film. I have no doubt that the reason I left the theater so satisfied in 2012 is that the spectacle of that Battle for the Fate of the Universe completely obliterated any concerns about the labor it took to get there. I was probably also less bored with the film’s individual introductions to the characters & the concept of Infinity Stones on that first go-round, since I feel now like I already put in that effort in the 10 hours of media leading up to that point. Still, I’m entirely grateful for the isolated moments of excellence that The Avengers delivers on its own time, not to mention some wonderful character beats for my favorite duo within the franchise so far (Black Widow & Captain America) and a fantastic revision of a character who simply did not work the first time around (The Hulk). I’ll just be more likely to return to those moments as isolated scenes in the future instead of watching the film as a whole, unless it’s as background noise. The Avengers is one of those movies I can see working best as something you can drift in and out of, maybe while channel surfing or housecleaning or something along those lines.

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fivestar

Boomer: It’s been three-and-a-half years (and roughly 7,283 thinkpieces of varying insight and coherence about whether or not Joss Whedon’s body of work is sufficiently feminist or hopelessly static and outdated) since a group of friends and I went to see The Avengers after a long and trying semester. There was some concern that the film would be bloated or an overall mess. While there’s certainly a case to be made that Age of Ultron would realize those concerns three summers later, I find myself drawn in by Whedon’s first MCU outing every time I watch it, despite the number of times that I have seen it. Between the whip-smart dialogue, the extended but imaginative action set-pieces, and the undeniable cool of seeing super-powered characters come together and coalesce into a united, if volatile, front, there’s so much to enjoy about the film that even the most cantankerous of critics found it hard to commit to panning the movie.

The Avengers is a fun ride, and although the Battle of New York—as the final action sequence would come to be called in later MCU media—admittedly experienced a series of diminishing returns, most of the myriad of other high-octane set-pieces were genuinely thrilling and engaging. It was a smart move to start the film with an action sequence that was largely Avenger-free and which instead focused on Fury, Coulson, and Maria Hill before following that up with a series of smaller scenes that reintroduce each of the key players with varying degrees of bombasity. Other checkmarks in the “good idea” column include the decision to have characters express reluctance and hesitance to commit to the idea of a full-on superhero team, and to introduce the seeds of discord early on. As a result, when the temporary falling out occurs at the end of Act Two, it feels properly earned and not as forced as it so easily could have.

As a writer, Whedon has always had a talent for drafting dialogue and characterization that is at once clever, observational, and occasionally devastating. Jeremy Renner isn’t given much to do in this first flick as he spends most of the film under the brainwashed control of Loki’s staff, but the other Avengers work well here. In particular, Tony Stark improves a great deal as a character under the direction of Whedon, as his dialogue, while still pompous, is less obnoxious in all its crackling Buffy-esque witticism than when other writers have put words in his mouth. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor gets in some good lines as well (the reference to the bilgesnipe is a favorite of mine despite its brevity, as it’s totally wacky while remaining oddly conversational), and Evans gets to show more dimensions to Cap, now a man out of time. Evans’s performance is particularly strong, but, for my money, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha is the MVP here, not that it should be any surprise that Whedon would expand her role significantly from her previous appearance in Iron Man 2.

Throughout the film, Romanoff is surrounded by men who project assumptions onto her: the Russians she is “interrogating” in her first scene see her only as an object of sexual scorn, using derogatory and charged language; Banner initially underestimates her strength and resolve; Loki spits insults at her, concluding that her investment in saving her friend is purely the result of pathetic romantic attachment. In every instance, these assumptions are false, and Black Widow uses these misogynistic and presumptive attitudes against the antagonists at every turn. Despite some well-choreographed ass-kicking in her last appearance, Natasha was still mostly played for the male gaze (potentially an inevitable consequence of appearing in an Iron Man film); here, she’s an extremely competent agent who is so skilled that she doesn’t seem out of place as a team-member alongside supersoldiers and literal gods. And, like Buffy before her, Nat is not an “strong female character” in the sense that she is an emotionless and implacable badass–she gets hurt, experiences doubt, mourns her comrades, and is forced to fight her closest friend. She doesn’t have to be coded as a male character, and it’s just grand.

Overall, The Avengers is an ambitious but well-suited capstone to the first phase of the MCU. It expands a lot from here, as Phase Two would include not only six films but two network television series (it’s not clear where Daredevil and Jessica Jones fit into the “phase” structure, if they fit in at all) over the following three years. It’s big fun that’s mostly (but not wholly) a surface-deep spectacle.

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Boomer: Not only did my friends and I go see this film in costume, but we caught it in 3D as well, as we had with Thor. For those so inclined, I daresay that Chris Evan’s punching bag scene towards the beginning of the film may well justify the extra dollars spent on the post-conversion.

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(image courtesy of user thecaptainrogers of rebloggy)

With regards to the larger MCU, the events of the Battle of New York will come up again and again, especially in regards to how the public and governments will respond to the team. The death of Phil Coulson is cheapened by the knowledge that his character returned a mere three months later when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. debuted; the reason for his sudden and unexpected resurrection was one of the ongoing mysteries of that show’s lukewarm first season (arguably the weakest). My original theory at the time was that his mind would be used to create the personality imprint for Vision when that character eventually appeared in the MCU, standing in for Wonder Man, although the MCU obviously went in a different direction.

Brandon: The feeling I got while watching The Avengers‘ 2015 followup, Age of Ultron, was that the MCU was stretching itself a little thin trying to include both barely-interested newcomers & deeply invested comic book supernerds in the same audience. Now that the novelty of meeting the MCU’s characters for the first time in the first Avengers film has worn off a bit for me, I feel that strained divide might’ve begun as soon as 2012. As a compromise between pleasing both the well-informed and the completely contextless, The Avengers is a massively impressive balancing act. However, I think that these crossover films might be better served as standalone works of art if they left newcomers behind completely & just focused on serving the audience who’ve already put in the effort to get there. And I’m saying that as a recent convert who’s just barely keeping up as is.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for The Avengers (2012)

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fourstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & has thus far seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: In our previous installment, we talked about how Marvel managed to keep itself afloat in dark financial times by licensing its properties to other companies across different media platforms, which led to many Marvel characters being distributed to different film studios. This was a move that saved the company while causing other issues down the line, but even when playing from a disadvantage, Marvel’s lawyers knew how to build in failsafes. After the mixed box office reception to Ang Lee’s meditative but pretentious and reviled 2003 film Hulk, Universal Pictures failed to produce a sequel within the appropriate timeframe required to retain the rights to the character (which, as you may recall from Brandon’s Fantastic Four review, was the reason Roger Corman’s notorious FF film exists). The rights to the character reverted to Marvel, with Universal merely distributing. Writer Zak Penn, who had written a previous Hulk treatment script ten years before, was brought on to write the first draft of the script for The Incredible Hulk, which was initially planned as a sequel to Ang Lee’s film. The 2006 and 2007 trade papers referred to the film as such and stated that the character of Bruce Banner had been recast with Ed Norton, while heavily implying that everyone else would reprise their roles. The script Penn turned in was designed to begin welding together the larger interfilm universe, which means it was very nearly the case that the Lee Hulk was technically the first MCU film.

Ultimately, this bullet was dodged when Marvel eschewed the sequel nature of the project and instead chose to treat this as the MCU’s introduction to the Hulk. There are still some parts of the final draft that are obviously left over from earlier versions (General Ross at one point states, for instance, that Banner has been on the run for five years—the same length of time between the Lee film and this one). Gone are the melodramatic contemplations of Lee’s film; gone too are most of the elements of the Hulk’s origins, replaced with a montage sequence played over the opening credits that encapsulates how Banner and the Hulk came to exist and borrowing extensively from the imagery of the 1970s Incredible Hulk TV series.

Norton himself performed an overhaul on the script, and the reportage and history of what happened next are contentious. Some articles printed at the time seemed to state that Norton had edited the script with the studio’s blessing, and he claimed to have edited it so extensively as to deserve a writing credit. To this day it’s not entirely clear why he went this far (although the potential to collect royalties as both an actor and a writer certainly makes it worth an attempt), but there was hostility behind the scenes, with Penn upset that Norton was claiming he “wrote” the script and the WGA having to get involved, ultimately siding with Penn. Although Norton isn’t named for this contribution in the film’s actual credit reel, the publicity surrounding the issue made it a moot point, and the fact that Marvel had recast the Hulk yet again by his next appearance in 2011 does strongly imply that Norton might have been considered a problem, even forgetting that he already has a reputation for being difficult to work with. Still, the new and improved Incredible Hulk was well-received in its day, with most criticism comparing it to the previous film and praising its improvements. But, would and can it be appreciated now, as a film so distanced from the failures of its predecessor that it can’t simply be judged as being better than it? Can it be enjoyed as a solo film, divorced from its context for fans of the MCU and Marvel Comics in general?

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Brandon: Okay, I have so many questions about just what in the living fuck is going on in Not-Ang-Lee’s Hulk movie, but I guess the most pressing one is about the film’s quality. Is it a hot mess, a hopelessly mediocre bore, or a mixed bag floating somewhere between either extreme? Is it possible that it could be all three?

Even having just watched The Incredible Hulk for the first time, I have no idea where to land on a solid assessment, which isn’t a good sign in terms of the film’s overall quality. It’s at least pretty easy to point out what doesn’t work here. The casting is all wrong, first off.  Any “Hey that’s not Ed Norton!” awkwardness that must’ve cropped up when Hulk reappeared in the first Avengers film was well worth the transition into Mark Ruffalo’s reign as the Angry Green Giant. Norton is far from the only miscast role (any movie where Liv Tyler is more than a supporting player raises an instant red flag for me), but because he plays the titular beast, his presence is a huge drag on the film. I genuinely enjoy Norton as an actor & he’s engaging enough in Bruce Banner form, but his CGI Hulk incarnation feels entirely removed, like it couldn’t possibly be the same person as Banner. That’s not an effect you want in a Dr. Jekyll/Mr Hyde situation. Another easily recognizable flaw is the film’s CGI itself, which is so excessive, empty, and flat that I can’t believe the Marvel folks (successfully) gambled to bring the character back in The Avengers. And that’s not even to mention some leftover late 90s/early 00s visual cheese (including a Matrix-like view into the Internet) that could’ve been lifted from such shitfests as Swordfish or XXX or, hell, the also seemingly-outdated Iron Man from the very same year. At some point the MCU became the cutting edge in superhero cinema (especially considering how the still on-going, seemingly endless parade of grim Dark Knight knockoffs choose to dwell in the past) but in 2008 it felt at least five years behind the times.

But, you know what? Complaining about comic book movies on the Internet is such a cliché at this point that I fell the urge at this point to mention that 2008’s The Incredible Hulk is far from a total wash. At the very least I appreciated that it sidestepped a by-the-numbers origin story narrative (perhaps in an attempt to learn from Ang Lee’s mistakes) & relegated Bruce Banner’s “gamma poisoning” past to a quick Hulk Cam montage during the opening credits. The movie also seemed to be well aware of how flat & false its CGI looked, making conscious efforts to hide its Hulking Out transformations in the shadows, the way an old school monster movie would. There are also some spare weird ideas here or there that make the journey almost-worthwhile (the blood gallery, a blood-contaminated bottle of not-Surge, and Tim Roth’s rival Hulk monstrosity Abomination come to mind), as well as some decent, humorous irreverence, like when Banner poorly translates his infamous catchphrase to “You wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry.” I’d be a total liar, though, if I didn’t admit that my favorite moment of the whole film was Lou Ferrigno’s featured cameo as a nameless security guard. It’s a sublimely silly moment in a movie that could’ve used more of them. My picture of the writer’s room for The Incredible Hulk is Michael Bluth urging his son George Michael to “keep your head down & power through.” For all of its occasional virtues, the film often feels hopelessly dutiful, necessary to further the MCU narrative, but never establishing its own individual purpose.

In the end, I get the sense that The Incredible Hulk is a mostly forgettable entry on the MCU landscape. Mark Ruffalo’s re-casting of the role was honestly a godsend for the franchise. Norton is a gifted actor, but he was entirely wrong for the role, a feeling that’s only reaffirmed by my giddiness over seeing Lou Ferrigno’s appearance, since Ferrigno is The Hulk. Still, the film’s not quite bad enough to be outright hate-worthy like the dad rock soundtracked, wealthy D-bag fantasy fulfilment of Iron Man. If nothing else,  The Incredible Hulk is a difficult film to pin down. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t fully dismiss it.

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three star

Boomer: I hadn’t seen The Incredible Hulk since it first came to DVD over half a decade ago. During the intermittent times that I happened to have cable, FX never had quite the hard-on for re-running this film that it did for the first two Iron Man flicks and, about a year ago, Captain America and Thor, although I do remember a time when it felt like the Lee Hulk aired at least twice a week. As a result, I have more memories of watching that picture than this one. The 2003 film is in many ways a very flawed enterprise, although within the past year the internet at large has noted that it might be worth reappraisal; I’m not sure that I agree, as the film is almost inarguably a failure, but I also appreciate that the things that it attempted and failed at were weighty and introspective. It stands out because it tried to be an exploration of too many ideas: mad science experimentation, the lingering traumas of child abuse, military dominance, the interconnectedness and fragility of the ecosystem, and the duality of how two lovers exist within their relationships to and with their respective fathers, to name a few. Then, Lee paired those concepts with bizarre cinematic experiments like transitions and multi-angle shots inspired by the paneled nature of the comics page. It’s an attempt to fuse a superhero narrative with art film composition, but the demands of those two disparate approaches to film as a medium ended up making a muddled mess of ideas.

So, of course Incredible Hulk was more well-liked, although its concepts are smaller in their successes than Hulk was in its failures. Even at the time, it was noteworthy for its starpower, the one-two punch of Norton and Robert Downey Jr. both appearing in superhero movies in the same year going a long way to legitimize the growing MCU and the exponential growth of comic adaptations as a genre, paving the way for a decade that has seen both The Walking Dead and Jonah Hex brought to life. Of course, getting the star of such award-attracting fare as American History X and The 25th Hour was a good idea—that backfired on both sides of the camera. Norton intentionally plays up Banner’s social awkwardness and makes him seem like much more of a weirdo, imbuing the character with a lot of traits that make the performance seem overthought and out of place rather than organic. On the one hand, I want to praise the film for not attempting to play up Norton’s Banner as a hunky scientist and instead treat him as the kind of average-looking, highly-intelligent guy who spent most of his adolescence and adulthood in a lab. On the other hand, the film still expects us to buy that this kinda nerdy biologist had an intensely loving and powerful relationship with Betty Ross. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that I have difficulty accepting that Betty and Bruce would fall in love with each other, or that there’s anything unbelievable about them having had a relationship. I’m merely saying that I have a hard time buying that the relationship between them could be so sweeping, with him having a passion for her that fuels his desire to find a cure, even after five years with no contact.

This isn’t helped by the fact that Norton and Liv Tyler have no real chemistry either. The under-baked Betty as she existed on paper would seem incompletely conceptualized even if she weren’t acting as a foil for Norton’s overwrought Banner character, seeing as so much of her role is to be observed through a gauzy lens while in the path of destruction and let her hair blow in the wind. There’s a dissonance in the way that she and Norton approach the material and that gives neither anything to play off of in their intimate scenes; if they don’t seem to be passionate about one another, it’s difficult to accept that Betty would just leave the new relationship that she’s in and take back up with Banner as soon as he reappears after such a long period of time with no interaction. It would have been a more interesting narrative choice if she and Bruce had reunited and she had moved on in the meantime, but she still loved him enough to help him seek a cure. As a plot element, this would also leave Bruce emotionally compromised in a way that paved the way for the Hulk to emerge. Instead, she completely leaves behind all of her responsibilities, including a boyfriend she seems to be living with, to go on the run with Bruce.

It’s not that Tyler’s a bad actress (necessarily), but Betty is barely a character in this movie, existing solely to motivate the two men in her life: Banner, and her father, General “Thunderbolt” Ross. William Hurt turns in a slightly hammy performance as Ross, cartoonish in the way that a lot of notable actors were when appearing in genre pictures of the Aughts before they became the new normal. His obsession with revisiting the (arguable) success of creating the Hulk demonstrates such an intense lack of foresight that he’s impossible to empathize with, when he would be better served by a more nuanced approach. Tim Roth’s character takes this even further, and his generic compulsion to become More! Powerful! makes him one of the more unmemorable villains of the genre (although he’s not as bad as what’s coming next time).

Overall, even though this is a more objectively successful film than the much-maligned Lee Hulk, it’s also a more mainstream and flat one. It does not follow as a matter of course that a film becomes more emotionally compelling or better art simply because its narrative holds together better than another. Virtually every actor in the film feels miscast, and the film as a whole doesn’t demand or reward investment, which I felt that even Iron Man managed to accomplish. Despite the fact that it leaves the door open for several ideas to recur in the MCU, like Abomination, Tim Blake Nelson’s character (i.e., the future Leader), and Betty, none of these threads has been followed up on, so I give this one a solid “skip,” unless your appetite for metropolitan destruction is still going strong after destruction porn like 2012 and Man of Steel. It’s a fine movie, it’s just not necessarily worth your time.

Lagniappe

Boomer: I understand why Banner isn’t a developer of a gamma-based weapon in most of the adaptations; not only would that make it more difficult to empathize with him, we’ve already got a weapons designer who’s hard to like in the form of Tony Stark. Still, it is weird that no adaptation of the Hulk to date has used his actual origin story, at least to my knowledge. It’s like if every non-comic incarnation of Superman had his ship landing in a farm in Nebraska instead of Kansas; it’s not different enough to elicit fanboy anger, but it is unusual. Additionally, were it not for the fact that Hurt is set to reprise his role as General Ross in Captain America: Civil War (he can be seen in the trailer), this film could be almost complete dismissed from the MCU. Abomination and the Leader actually could be interesting foes to appear down the line, but it seems unlikely that Kevin Feige and company will drag them out of the mothballs after over seven years. The weirdest thing is that Betty has been virtually excised from the MCU as a whole, what with her never reappearing, Banner being recast, and Age of Ultron establishing a romantic relationship between Banner and Black Widow. I’m not really all that sad to see her go (sorry Liv, but I’m Team Jennifer Connelly for life), but it is worth remarking upon. As Civil War does look like it’s set to address the way in which costumed heroes/vigilantes are responsible for mass destruction, it’ll be interesting to see if Abomination’s path of destruction in New York will be referenced (it hasn’t been at all in either Daredevil or Jessica Jones), especially given that the responsibility for that damage falls on General Ross more than anyone else.

Brandon: Ugh, America’s favorite D-bag billionaire Tony Stark drops by in The Incredible Hulk‘s final scene to promise a crossover that ain’t coming for four more features. I’m hoping at some point I’ll warm up to MCU’s interplay between its individual properties, but so far it doesn’t amount to much more than Downey’s Stark or Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury ominously hinting at future payoffs in films where they don’t belong. Surely, there’s a way to incorporate these characters in each other’s universes besides arbitrary cameos with no in-the-moment narrative consequence, but I’m just not seeing it yet.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for The Incredible Hulk (2008)

EPSON MFP image

twohalfstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.