“It’s okay, it’s gonna be okay.” Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) straddles her erstwhile lover, at the moment a pulsing, multiply contorting, muscle-bound monster, and — against some steep odds — calms him. It’s not the only time Betty has such effect on the beast that erupts periodically from within Bruce Banner (Edward Norton). But right now, as he’s not quite strapped down to a lab table, his eyes flashing and his temper a-flare, appears an especially opportune moment for him to be able to hear her. Now he won’t be ripping up the lab, tossing the nearby doctor out the window, or even slamming Betty through a wall. Instead, he will settle down, returning to his unbulky, ungreen self.
Betty’s part in The Incredible Hulk is typically that of The Superhero’s Girl, loyal object of affection, sane amid nuttiness, desiring and nurturing. That she handles this job in unusual and frankly charming ways makes Betty her own girl too: she’s easily the film’s most impressive effect. Her decision to straddle him during a frightening Hulk episode is almost daring, and she looks to be holding him down by force of sheer will (he could crush her in an instant, etc.). When they seek shelter in a cave from a couple of storms (rain and a U.S. military assault), she resembles King Kong’s Ann Darrow, determined to see the vulnerable needy being inside the gigantic (not so effectively CGI-ed) entity looming before her, reaching up her slender hand into green-screen nothingness, her face tilted and expectant: he will hear her, she will help him.
When Betty does face the actual human form of Bruce, she’s helpful and tender yet again. Indeed, their exchanges are among the film’s most effective (those featuring the rampaging Hulk or worse, the rampaging Hulk set against a second rampaging Hulk, are mostly ridiculous, recalling the impersonality of Michael Bay Transformers but less convincingly rendered). Their engagements range from stereotypical (a tearful reunion on a rainy night) or to sweet (she untucks his shirt from his pants — yet another pair, as Bruce’s transformations tend to destroy them — and says, “It’s better like this,” as if un-nerding his fashion sense might make his human self more at ease). In all cases, their relationship complicates the overbearing action sequences, none of which develops Bruce beyond the flatness of the comic book page from which he sprang.
That said, Louis Leterrier’s version of the character does upgrade Ang Lee’s, much as Marvel Enterprises promised it would. The origin story is presented briefly under the opening credits, assuming everyone knows the story and moving on to the fallout. And the literalization of the superhero split-self trope is rejiggered here so it’s not father versus son (alas, no ravaged Nick Nolte!), but instead noble scientist versus military contractor. Predictably, the second Hulk looks very different from Bruce’s so you can tell them apart easily during the Clash of the Titans Finale. For one thing, he lives inside an especially gnarly Russian mercenary, Emil Blonksy (Tim Roth), with grimly existentialist and passionately vengeful.
Blonsky is initially hired by General “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) to locate Bruce in Brazil, where the fugitive is working in a soda factory (ostensibly on the assembly line, but regularly called on to fix electronics, gratis) and emailing a Mr. Blue (a Dr. Sterns, played by Tim Blake Nelson) back in the States in an effort to decode the gamma ray toxin that makes him wary of even the slightest rise in his own pulse rate. He’s also taking martial arts classes, learning Portuguese by watching TV (including reruns of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, inciting appreciate cheers from movie viewers), chatting with his adorably intelligent dog, and looking out for Martina (Débora Nascimento), a female coworker at the factory, thus earning the ire of other coworkers — bald-headed and leering — who call him “gringo.” In other words, his life outside the U.S. is disciplined and detailed, reflecting Norton’s screenwriting efforts to nuance and motivate the character).
Though Bruce has, existed “without incident” for months, the General — equipped with fancy surveillance tech as well as brutal weaponry — is determined to retrieve the man he deems “property of the United States military.” Blonsky and team chase Bruce through favella streets and eventually end up in the soda factory, where it’s the bald-headed bullies (who happen along, conveniently) who initiate the transformation, the flashing green eyes signaling the loss of Bruce and the explosive emergence of Hulk (his monosyllabic exclamations voiced by Lou Ferrigno, who also has a small part as a big-armed security guard). Emil is stunned to see the monster he mistakes for a whole other being, separate from his prey. When the General reveals that it’s Bruce changed, or Bruce’s inner anger externalized, Emil wants in. And indeed, he seems the perfect Hulk-to-be, perpetually pissed off, essentially running amok for a living.
This premise — that rage might be manipulated for corporate and military purposes — suggests The Incredible Hulk has a topical sociopolitical underpinning. But the film stops short of working through the problem. Instead, it does what you expect. Much like his Marvel comrade, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Bruce embraces his violence to save the world — and Betty — from Emil’s version of this same embrace. It’s not that he can “control it,” exactly, which is an option he initially rejects out of hand (he only want it “out of me”). It’s more like he delivers to viewers’ desire for a big fat fight (in Harlem, no less), then goes off on his own lonely way, wandering through the Third World as Bill Bixby used to wander through American small towns in the TV series.
Within all this split-self business, Betty serves her own purpose. Rejecting her father’s capitalist and arch-conservative agenda, she chooses instead Bruce’s vision of the world, even when seen through the Hulk’s furious green eyes, that abject anger is not in itself the answer, though it is certainly understandable. It’s oddly easy to see how Betty becomes the occasion for both Bruce’s rage and reconciliation. As embodied by Tyler, she’s both sultry and chaste, brilliant (a university researcher) and naïve. And, no small thing in this whirligig of madness and retribution, she bears her own burden of anger. She just handles it more effectively than any of the men around her.