I was engaged in my favorite TV activity the other day, furious zapping, and I stumbled upon some interesting choices. I settled for Aliens and The Incredible Hulk, respectively, one of my favorite all-time classic and one that I like a lot. The common thread between the two is the length in which they require the audience to suspend their disbelief.
I thought they made great examples of successful believability. A nearly invincible species with "acid for blood" and a regular guy who turns into the 10-feet tall, green and bulky "most powerful superhero in the world" when he gets angry.
This page is about believability in The Incredible Hulk. Read the one on Aliens here. The big question is: what in this movie makes us believe that a giant, green, excessively bulky "man" with unlimited strength can really exist?
The human factor
This adaptation of The Incredible Hulk, directed by Louis Leterrier, gained much better critical and financial success than the 2003 Ang Lee version; Marvel had decided to take a more active role in producing of their properties and the result shows: a more faithful storyline to the comic. The original material is too compelling to ignore anyway. Creator Stan Lee really deserves is title of "The Man". Read the first issue, the origin story, now and it still holds its flavor.
This installment explores the human factor in a different way that is meant as an homage to the old TV show, including the accident that started the whole thing (if you miss the opening credits, part of the story will not make sense.) Dr Banner's quest: get rid of the "monster", regain a normal life.
They made Elizabeth Ross into a more sympathetic character, considering she had lived with the loss of love for years; when she meets Bruce again we get a nice tender moment. The Hulk shows his humanity whenever they share a scene. One of the most dramatic is half-way through the movie after he protects her from the soldiers' fire, when they sit side by side sheltered from a storm in a small cave and she says, "We're OK. just the rain. " A powerful midpoint that defines a monster as human. He responds to her and we can understand him.
The creature's instinct to protect Elizabeth makes him an even more sympathetic character. A side note: she is never completely a "damsel in distress", which we can relate to very much; one can never stress enough the appeal of strong characters in any kind of story. Really, who wants to follow weaklings for 2 hours? Without her help, Banner would never have completed this quest, adding to the human side of Bruce banner and the Hulk. It is nice to see the influence she can have on the Hulk, even in harsh situations like the final fight when she stops him from seriously hurting the Abomination.
This is finally the story of a man afflicted with a dramatic condition that turns him into a monster he does not like to be, and a potential weapon as seen in the eyes of the military. The only person who sees him as a person is his old girlfriend; whether she's facing Bruce or the Hulk, she sees the same person. She's invaluable for the human and emotional angle she gives the story. The one who wants to use the Hulk …
Now General Thunderbolt Ross, on the other hand, turns out a little less convincing as a "real person" in some aspects. They used the tired trick of the obsessed villain who disregards all notions of self-preservation (career-wise) in favor of a crazy, elusive goal. Please, writers, directors, good characters think logically, they cut their losses, they regroup and try different things, but most importantly, they have more powerful motivations. More compelling reasons to pursue a goal to the bitter end. In effect, Ross decides to hunt his daughter like he would an enemy of the state. From the second act:
I don't know where she is.
I know she'll help him, if she can.
Then she's aiding a fugitive.
And I can't help anyone of them.
He sounds like a psycho. He says the wrong thing without the slightest hesitation. The writers missed the opportunity to amp the conflict level on Ross's storyline. Too bad. He could have been a father torn between trying to advance his (possibly damaged) career and giving his daughter a chance at happiness. Wouldn't that make a better story? He did get some good conflict with his daughter later by the end of act 2, when the army captured Banner from the lab. Ross is not a unconvincing character, but he could have been a better, a fresh villain. Like the Joker.
The other one, The Abomination, stretches the believability in a similar direction. His alter ego, Emil Blonsky, is a gratuitously violent sob who hurts dogs, women and mild-mannered scientists willynilly.
Just like General Ross, the best villains are driven by a powerful external motive. We are tired of the crazy psycho killer, so common in American movies. They might exist in real life but we need fresh blood in stories these days. Crazy villains make things too easy: whatever the writer decides for this character's logic works because he is nuts.
They also committed another sin: they try to impress the audience, but only succeeded in making him sound corny. After his second defeat, Blonsky describes himself to Ross, "pissed off and ready for round three", or he answers the question "How you feeling, man?" with "Like a monster." Eyes rolled. A simple and genuine "Ready for round three" would have done the trick perfectly.
The shortened love scene involving Bruce and Elizabeth brings another small criticism. They painted their relationship as impossible love. It could have been written differently. Banner's problem is rage, not excitement. Making love to a woman he cares so much for would elevate his heart rate, but should not turn him green and angry; probably the opposite. Actually, love could help him regulate his sanity. Like the antidote sequence in the lab. She is such a center piece in his life that her influence can only be positive. I believe they missed another great opportunity there.
Speaking of the antidote sequence, can you believe that the experiment table is an exact fit? Smile. Moving on.
The third act is essentially just an extended fight scene, eye candy for the benefit of fans of the comic book. With very limited occasions for dialog, beside the drop scene from the chopper and the end of the fight. As expected, Banner volunteers to stop the Abomination and the two creatures wreak havoc in the streets of New York. He is the hero after all.
A global note here, when everybody has got limitless power, the amazing becomes ordinary, and escalation turns into a problem. I think, because of the format, readers of a serial comic book are less affected by this problem than a movie audience (otherwise most comic would not make it past their 5th issue.) And I think it is the danger to writing most superhero movie franchises. See Spider-Man 3 for an example of what not to do, and X-Men 3 for an average good example. The Matrix Revolutions also turned out a tired average flick. The Bourne Ultimatum avoids the problem, simply because there was no escalation at all, just continuation.
All in all, having amazing giants roaming the streets of New York results in an entertaining movie. What makes this story believable is Bruce Banner's character. His quest to return to his humanity is a notion we can understand and relate to. Having Elizabeth's devoted love to help him completes the emotional charge. The rest is pure gravy.
In the next believability post, we tackle an exceptional classic: James Cameron's Aliens. And later, maybe a couple of oldies. Until then, you are encouraged to talk back and jump start a discussion.
The Incredible Hulk
Screenplay by Zak Penn and Edward Harrison
Directed by Louis Leterrier