The Incredible Hulk


The Incredible Hulk (2008) is the second installment of the MCU and acts as both a reboot of the Hulk cinematic presence as well as a loose sequel to Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003). It stars Edward Norton as Dr. Bruce Banner, a role that was recast with Mark Ruffalo for all consequent MCU films.

As I make my way through the entire MCU, I braced myself for The Incredible Hulk, aware of the stigma attached to it. I got the feeling that after Ruffalo’s successful portrayal of Banner/the Hulk in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Norton’s version of the Hulk was swept under the rug. I expected this to be the worst of the MCU, but I was pleasantly surprised. I was impressed with the first half of the film. The opening credits multi-task by summarizing Banner’s origins with the Hulk and his need to flee the United States. Once the film begins, no time is wasted on yet another origin story. The film starts with Banner in Brazil, trying to keep a low profile while also learning techniques to repress his anger. During the first act, Banner does not speak very much; the narrative is told mostly through visuals, which I found refreshing. I like to be engaged by the film without relying on dialogue to make up for creative deficiencies. As Banner makes his way back to the United States, he desperately wants to reunite with Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), but he finds her with another man, Leonard Samson (Ty Burrell). I find Banner’s and Ross’ relationship very organic in this film. He looks at her with such longing, and the second she sees him again after who knows how long, her face radiates the same longing. It’s during scenes between Banner and Ross where Craig Armstrong’s score truly shines. His music adds a depth to their relationship that I feel may shine brighter than pairings in the other MCU films. The first half of the film felt like a character study on Banner, whose portrayal by Norton was nuanced and sensitive. I enjoyed that the narrative was exploring his character through his time on the run, his relationship with Betty, and his incredible sense of self-control.

That being said, what follows cheapens the solid foundation set up in the beginning. Tim Roth plays a strange character, Emil Blonsky, who is hired to help contain Banner. After seeing the Hulk in action, he starts to lust for his power and ends up convincing General Ross (William Hurt) to expose him to some of the same radiation that was exposed to Banner. This doesn’t make much sense. General Ross is hellbent on containing Banner, to take his blood and make him a weapon and to keep him from unleashing terrible destruction — but he somehow thinks Blonsky may be able to control himself? Well, Blonsky ends up getting the full gamma treatment and becomes Abomination, making the last act basically a monster showdown. It’s a superhero film cliché becoming more prevalent, notably in Man of Steel. It’s so disappointing watching a sensitive and thoughtful set up unravel into a pit of convention and mediocrity.

Along those lines, it’s also disappointing to explore Norton’s Banner only to leave him forever. I didn’t see The Incredible Hulk before the Avengers films, so I feel connected to Ruffalo’s Banner — but I enjoyed seeing what Norton did. Despite all his professionalism problems, his work is marvelous and he brought a subtlety to a Marvel character that perhaps hasn’t been seen since. The next time I see The Avengers, I’ll wonder if Banner thinks about Betty.

Birdman


Watching Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014) is like watching a dream. The camera takes us on an uninterrupted journey through the St. James Theatre during opening week of Riggan Thomson’s (Michael Keaton) Broadway play. While there are some disguised cuts throughout the film, it looks and feels as though the entire film is one, long take. It’s incredible. It’s very engaging to watch, as if we’re a part of the action of the screen, or at least a fly on the wall in the theatre. It gives the illusion of a dream, because most films do not have that kind of pacing. It’s kind of like watching a play on the screen, but you get to mingle with the characters on stage. It’s a stunning idea, and it’s executed brilliantly.

Maybe another reason it feels like a dream is its use of magical realism. Throughout the film, usually when in conversation with his alter ego Birdman, he exhibits what appear to be magical powers. The entire film begins with a show of tighty-whitey clad Riggan floating in the air. He uses his powers to trash his dressing room and to fly back to the theatre. Are his powers real? No. These powers are manifestations of his depression and  other psychological problems. Riggan’s main problem is that he so desperately wants to take control of his life. He put on this Broadway play explicitly to take control of his career and regain relevance…except it doesn’t seem to be working. His daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) viciously lashes out at him to illustrate just how irrelevant he is. That combined with the brazen conversation he had with New York Times theatre critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), Riggan was more than ready to stand on the ledge.

Which brings us to the film’s ending: what the heck happened? Did Riggan actually fly away? What was Sam looking at outside the window? What gives? Well, Sam had her fair share of issues, so it’s safe to say: daughter like father. There seems to be a peculiar aviary trend when it comes to films about artistic perfection (yes, I’m referencing Black Swan). Riggan has had a lucrative yet unsatisfying early career by portraying super hero Birdman. After rejecting a fourth installment in the franchise, he’s dissolved into obscurity and he cannot stand it. Putting on the play would be a way to step back into the spotlight and receive critical acclaim for his artistry. Turns out, his actions are more transparent than he thought. So now, how is he going to achieve fame again? Relevance begins to morph into buzz, and facing a review that will close his play, he isn’t thinking long-term anymore. I believe he meant to end his life on the stage on opening night by using the loaded gun — especially after that chilling conversation with his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan). He recounts a previous suicide attempt: he tried to drown himself in the ocean but was unexpectedly stopped by jellyfish that stung him and forced him to swim back to land. Opening night — which Black Swan confirms for us — is the perfect time to go big or go home. Except he missed and just blew off his nose. Then, once he heard the review of his play connecting his name to a new wave of American theatre, he feels content to finally let himself go knowing that his name will not fall into obscurity. After he jumps out the window, Sam looks up and begins a similar delusion that her father endured often. In order to block out the sight of him dead on the street below, she imagines him flying away, and that comforts her.

Birdman is a thrilling film that absolutely takes you on a journey. What that journey is, only you can decide for yourself. The cinematography is exquisite, which not only shows off the prowess of the filmmakers but also the virtuosity of the actors to shoot much longer scenes than are normally shot. Keaton delivers an incredible performance, though some may argue that he’s not really acting. After all, he, too, is an actor who played a big super hero (Batman) in his early career and is returning to the big screen after a long time to deliver a big punch. Same thing could be said about his co-actor Edward Norton, who plays the disagreeable Mike. Norton is notoriously difficult to work with, and his character is the same way. How much of this film is fiction and how much is inspired by some reality? Regardless, Keaton and Norton give beautifully nuanced performances, particularly highlighted in the scene where Mike reads lines with Riggan for the first time. They go from messing around with lines, to really getting into the moment, and quickly coming out of it to a laugh from the audience. Stone gives a strong performance, as well, causing fireworks when she disparages her father. Naomi Watts also gives a beautiful performance of a hard-working actress who has finally made it to her first Broadway play. Too bad it won’t last long. Birdman is one of the favorites to win Best Picture. If it wins, it will undeniably be much deserved.