In a spacious screening room on the Universal Studios lot, the French-born action film director Louis Leterrier (Transporter 2
) is brimming with energy; Marvel Studios president of production Kevin Feige, fresh off the spectacular success of the studio's latest effort Iron Man
, seems relaxed and confident; and legendary producer Gale Anne Hurd ("The Terminator" films) plays the congenial hostess as they invite a small contingent of online reporters to get comfortable in the screening room's plush seats.
The filmmakers' collective mood is decidedly upbeat, a good sign considering that earlier in the day they unspooled the finished version of their current collaboration before the Universal brass for the very first time, and now they're about to unveil some tantalizing film clips to a select group of Internet press. The lingering question: after a disappointingly received first film helmed by no less a talent than Ang Lee, and persistent talk of a simmering behind-the-scenes rift between Marvel and the latest top-flight thespian to get superheroic over his creative contributions to the film, will the not-quite-a-sequel The Incredible Hulk
actually SMASH box office expectations?
And based on what ComingSoon.net/Superhero Hype! saw in the roughly 15 minutes of footage previewed, if the filmmakers' promised mash-up of the tortured, on-the-run, Jekyl-and-Hyde hero of the '70s TV series and the balls-out gamma-powered beat-downs of the comic book incarnations – classic Lee-Kirby, contemporary Loeb-Sale, and cutting-edge Millar-Hitch versions chief among them – is as effective as it is intriguing, there's every reason to believe ol' Jade Jaw may be reeling in giant fistfuls of green at the Cineplex.
Sneak Peek #1
: First up was the film's opening credit sequence, which Leterrier explained was crafted with editing by Cal Cooper, who's previously assembled the various Marvel "flip-books" that adorn the studio's title card before each of its productions as well as credit sequences for the "Spider-Man" films and the "History of Stark Industries" documentary film that appears in Iron Man
What unfolds is a visual Cliff Notes version of the origin of the Hulk, with Edward Norton assuming the role of Bruce Banner – though given the credit sequence's penchant for playing tribute to visual cues inspired by the TV series, it feels more like David Banner, especially when Norton is seen sitting in an oversized sci-fi-style chair that looks exactly like the one Bill Bixby used to bombard himself with gamma rays back in 1978. The 2003 film version is never specifically invoked, demonstrating that this Hulk is a not-so-subtle do-over (and for those wondering: no, Norton does not receive any writing credit in the edited sequence we saw, with screenplay honors going solely to Zak Penn). Most intriguing of all, the lightning-quick edits reveal all kinds of intriguing Marvel iconography, including references to Iron Man's Stark Industries.
Louis Leterrier: It's important to make people understand that this is definitely not a sequel. This is the reboot. It's kind of weird to call it a reboot, because people are also expecting to see the same thing that was served to them the first time: the big origin story that takes 40 minutes, and then after 40 minutes you see The Hulk…We decided to take everything, all the storytelling, the backstory-telling and compress it and make the credit sequence explain everything, to make it very graphic. It's literally an homage to the TV show, which I love.
Kevin Feige: When Edward [Norton] came onboard, we were considering early on a sort of don't-ask-don't-tell policy: people who wanted to think that it was a sequel could think of it as a sequel, and people who wanted to come in off the street and had never seen the first one can enjoy it as well. Actually, it was Edward: one of the things that he did in his polish, in his rewrite, was to firmly establish a unique origin which actually dovetailed perfectly with what we were trying to do at Marvel, which is create individual franchises that can live and breathe on their own, but as you've already seen in the first three minutes of this, can interconnect with each other for people who want to see a bigger picture. In going back to a unique origin with Banner allowed us to weave in some of these other elements that might or might not pop up in future Marvel films.
When asked to clarify if the Hulk's origin was more similar to the heroically-motivated comic book version (in which Banner is exposed to gamma rays in his heroic attempt to save the life of a teenager who's unknowingly wandered into the bomb test site) or the pushing-the- boundaries-of-scientific-knowledge television version (which has Banner accidentally dosing himself with unexpectedly high levels of gamma rays in a quest for temporary super-strength), Leterrier said the story actually draws from BOTH sources:
Leterrier: We sort of combined both in one event, the incident that was shown here and later down the line, explained by Ross. It's hard nowadays to do the old gamma bomb and to talk about that stuff. I like the sort of quest for knowledge…The contrast between this very intellectual and very intelligent human and this very brutal, not dumb, but primal creature. So I really wanted to use these different and opposite poles to qualify this hero and anti-hero.
Feige: The origin of this is mixed a little with Banner's origin and the Ultimate comics in the Ultimate universe, which ties into the Super Soldier program that we talked a little bit about at [New York] Comic-Con. So as the movie progresses you see a little bit of the angle that Ross had for the experiment and the angle that Bruce had for it - which are, of course, two very different angles…We meet [Banner] in Brazil where he's been living for an indeterminate amount of time, like in the TV series where he's taking odd jobs and going from place to place. In our film, we meet him and he's working in a bottling factory for reasons that become clear relatively soon. He's looking for ingredients that come in from the rainforest for this particular kind of soda that they make in this bottling factory.
Leterrier: Banner was hiding around the world and has been found. His quest for the cure has had to stop and he's raced forward to where he thinks the cure is. That brings him back to his old stomping grounds, the university that he used to work at. At the same time [Emil] Blonsky – who's played by Tim Roth in the movie – is a soldier who's kind of at the end of the road, physically. He was a soldier's soldier. He's older than the young soldier or commando, but he's never accepted going behind a desk and getting a bigger rank or a bigger salary. He just loved the field... Basically he sees Hulk for the first time and Ross explains to him that the thing he just saw was a human, was Banner, and he thinks, "I want that. I want to be able to fight that. This is the perfect enemy. I've never met an enemy that was worthy of me. I want to be capable of fighting this thing." So he's injected with a Super Soldier serum and he's going to be able to fight him.
Feige: It's a derivative and an intent to duplicate. It's not the actual Super Soldier serum, if you want to be technical.
Sneak Peek #2:
The filmmakers next revealed a critical sequence in which ComingSoon.net/Superhero Hype! got its first substantial look at how the Hulk will be depicted on screen this time around. In a tense, briskly paced scene, General "Thunderbolt" Ross (played by William Hurt) and a well equipped military platoon have Banner cornered on what looks to be a college campus, even as Banner's love interest and Ross' daughter Betty (Liv Tyler) frantically pleads with her father to back off.
Trapped in a glass-encased bridge between two buildings, the panicked Banner is gassed by the soliders and has his anger stoked as he sees Betty being roughed up as she struggles to come to his aid. Just as Banner disappears into the smoke of the grenade, his eyes suddenly turn that pale green shade, signaling his imminent TV-style transformation. After a few suspenseful moments an enraged Hulk emerges fearsomely from the gas cloud, smashing through the glass to face down the military.
The CGI Hulk is a pretty spot-on recreation of the classic comic book image and not too far removed from the version seen in the Ang Lee film, although more consistent in size and scale and featuring a great deal more detail and nuance in the rendering. In the extensive action sequence, the Hulk brings the full brunt of his fury down on the Army, demonstrates his noble side when he uses his great mass to protect Betty from a sea of flame and faces down with Ross' minion Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), who fearlessly – and futilely – attempts to go mano-a-mano with the Green Goliath.
Of particular note was the way the camera followed the Hulk during the action. While there was a brief glimpse of dynamic "money shots" that relied on some stylized visual gimmicks, for the most part the camera followed the Hulk as if it were shooting documentary-style, with bumps, shakes and losing details to the frame, capturing the raw power and mayhem that erupts whenever the Hulk is present – though not as stomach-flipping as the camerawork in Cloverfield
, the often shaky, unsteady visual treatment imparts a subtle and effective sense of grounding to the action.
Leterrier: I really love the [first] movie. When they called me I thought it was to do the sequel, and I didn't know if I could do it. So I've tried to make it very different. You still have to make it 'Hulk versus the Army' because that's one of the iconic things in the comic book. So we had to think about different ways to do that. The Blonsky approach, the human-size battle, was interesting… One of the things that I think wasn't really working in 'Hulk I' was the size ratio, the fact that he was growing and shrinking and the decision to put him in the desert made him scale-less. So here I really wanted to put him in a real human-scaled kind of element using these big Humvees as weapons and these shields that they create out of sculpture and stuff like that. If you look at it, most of the time when he's in the frame there's a human next to him or behind him or right in front of him so that you can see the ratio and the size difference… Our movie is a bit more brutal or more primal in the way that we approach the fights. He doesn't think. He just reacts. He's reactive at first and then you'll see down the line when he fights [The Abomination] he's actually become a hero and is actually thinking about things.
Feige: I think the movie's style, too, is different. It's a kinetic camera. A lot of it is handheld and a lot of is the camera floating and trying to grab Hulk which I think helped integrate Hulk into his environment as opposed to shots that are very static or very flowing.
Leterrier: I made sure that we'd shoot Hulk the way that I'd shoot Jet Li for example, like trying to find as a camera operator the guy. Jet Li is fast. Imagine though how fast the Hulk is and how big he is. So we wanted the camera operator to pretend to be not to be too perfect in the way that they operated it… Whenever I approach an action scene I imagine it at first and I storyboard it and I say, "Okay, do it." You've got the human limits of that when you come to the set and you have to adjust to that and so when Jet or Jason [Statham] do their stuff, I have to go, "I thought Jet, you could do a double jump in the air. Okay – You're 45; You can just do a little jump. I'll frame the camera here." So here I just did the same approach with the storyboard and pre-viz and off you go. But you have no limit. You have to tell your cameraman that they have their limits. They have to be surprised by it. Sometimes, literally in the one where he jumps up and does the double move he comes out of frame on purpose, like the guys just couldn't keep up with him
Sneak Peek #3:
While not as stylish and central to the film as either of the clips that preceded it, the third snippet of film prompted the biggest smiles from the journalists: the scene featured a cameo appearance by Lou Ferrigno, the powerhouse physique behind the TV Hulk, sharing the screen with Norton in a lighthearted scene we're not quite ready to spoil (also making confirmed cameos in the film: Marvel founding father and Hulk co-creator Stan Lee in what's promised to be the most plot-relevant of his many walk-ons in Marvel films; and, as has been widely reported, Robert Downey. Jr. as Tony Stark).
Leterrier said that he took Ferrigno up on his impromptu audition at the New York convention to voice a handful of lines of dialogue for his emerald alter ego and had recently had the bodybuilder-turned-actor into the studio to record the lines. It's all in service to the director's tribute to the show he loved as a youth.
Leterrier: My emotional entry point to "The Incredible Hulk" was the TV show. That's why this is so heavily based in the beginning at least on the TV show. Growing up in France the comic book, the "Hulk" comic book wasn't as widely distributed as it was here. So my first exposure to Hulk was on TV when I watched the show. I was born in '73 and so it came on like two or three years later here, and by the time I was seven it was the biggest show in France. I love how emotional both Bixby and Lou Ferrigno were, their performances were, on the TV show. So that was my emotional entry point.
Indeed, the director said he hadn't actually taken a look at the comic book adventures of the character since his childhood in Paris, and was ready to dig into the character's publishing history for further inspiration. He quickly found it.
Leterrier: I went to Silverlake to this little tiny comic book store and the only one that they had was the Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb book ["Hulk: Gray"], which is super-stylistic but very simplistic in its approach. It's a basic approach to the Hulk and super-emotional. That thing is beautiful. It's poetry – It's like comic book poetry. I read it and devoured it. I said "These guys were amazing!" I said, "Kevin, this is what I want to do." There are actually literal scenes in our movie that are homages, panel after panel homages to this comic book. So I love it just because it is so emotional. It's like "Beauty and the Beast." It's "Frankenstein." "King Kong." All of these. We love these monsters because they're scary, but deep inside they have a heart of gold and are so pure and simple. That's what I wanted to do and that was the emotional journey that I wanted the audience to experience because it's been mine forever.
Feige: This really is the merging of the pathos of Banner from the television series, the spectacle and smash of the Hulk from the best of the comics - "Hulk: Gray" by Loeb/Sale is the link between them. Even in the scenes you're talking about panel-for-panel is the centerpiece for the film and it sort of links the two stories.
Leterrier: Exactly. It sort of bridges one with the other, the TV show to the comic.
Sneak Peek #4:
Finally it was onto to an entirely different screening room just a few buildings away for our last look at the film – a far more high-tech arena with a mind-blowing sound system and a crew diligently putting final tweaks onto the sequence amid a smattering of Hulk toys on their consoles. And once the scene began to play out, it was clear why the filmmakers wanted to show the sequence in the best possible light: it was the beginning of a major action set piece in which the Hulk and the Abomination – a gamma-transformed Blonksy – throw down right in the busy center of a major metropolitan city.
The sequence begins with Betty desperately trying to persuade Banner not to make a potentially fatal leap from the military plane that's ferrying them over the skyline in hopes that the peril will awaken the creature within him. Norton delivers the goods when, as Banner, he explains that it's a risk he has to take – only the Hulk has the power to confront the Abomination. Putting his fate in the Hulk's hands, he nobly launches himself from the plane and plummets toward the cityscape below – but, to his horror, no transformation seems imminent. We get a glimpse of Banner's panic when suddenly he rockets to the ground and smashes though the street. As the Abomination continues his savage rampage, all seems lost, until a familiar green fist crashes through the pavement.
And then the battle begins...
I asked Leterrier just how much of a balance he was striking between Banner's character-driven story and the all-out action of the Hulk, recalling that on the TV series viewers were lucky if they saw the monster twice an episode for more than five minutes at a time due to the budget restraints of '70s television, with the bulk of the show following Bill Bixby's "Fugitive" style arrivals and exits into a new town. The director looked at me straight-faced and said that for this film, "the balance is the same." Then he laughed.
Leterrier: No, no – Like you said, there were budget limitations. I was frustrated when I saw Ang's movie that I didn't get to see the Hulk for 40 minutes. So the first thing that Kevin told me was that we needed the Hulk soon in the movie – not right away, because that would be weird, but soon enough so that the audience doesn't get that restless feeling 40 minutes into the movie. When you see Hulk you really see him. You don't want to make the first action sequence where you see him perfectly and then afterwards it's just the same old fight. Once again, in a Jet Li movie you don't want him to fight the same guy over and over and over again until the big fight at the end. We just made it very different so that at first you sort of don't see him and then you see him much more here, and then at the end you see him in that whole big battle. Also, Hulk is very, very important, but his enemy is as important as Hulk, because that's the threat that he has. He's got a threat within himself that Bruce Banner is trying to get rid of, but the enemy at the end is what's here. So we saved as much money as we could to give the biggest bang for your buck at the end, the biggest bar brawl in history through the streets of Manhattan between these two monsters. We were very conscious of this and we were being very cautious to not spend too much up front so that we could save for the ending. The ending is big.
The filmmakers also indicated that, much like the approach to Iron Man
, The Incredible Hulk
has definitely been planned as the first in a continuing series of adventures for the Jade Giant – even if he isn't the sole headliner of future films. They've also sprinkled the seeds for some of those future outings – think the Hulk's massively forehead nemesis The Leader – and are looking forward to bringing the massive sandbox that is the Marvel Universe to the cinema.
Feige: I don't know about a trilogy, but certainly an ongoing saga and as the crossovers continue, I think the Hulk could pop up perhaps in other Marvel movies as well… We're setting up a lot of things. Sam Sterns played by Tim Blake Nelson – Tim has done an amazing job. Some of the TV spots that have just started in rotation have some fun bits with him in them as well. He's great. He's excellent in the movie. I'd love to see him come back, and those who know what happens to Sam Sterns, it stands to reason that that might occur. He's not a villain in this film, at least not as far as we can tell. He's quite an affable guy that's legitimately, you think, lending a hand to Bruce Banner.
Leterrier: Obviously it's my first Marvel movie and so I was really excited to have access to this vault and references and for the movie and comic book fanatics I wanted to have as many possible winks and Easter eggs here and there. So keep your eye open throughout the movie, because there's tons of stuff.
The Incredible Hulk
opens in theaters on June 13.