Monday Movie buzz: Hulk silly, but still connects

LOS ANGELES (AP) - June 15, 2008 That's how much money "The Incredible Hulk" hauled in over opening weekend, the big green guy's latest adventure coming just five years after his previous Hollywood adaptation was quickly laughed out of theaters.

Despite the sour taste of 2003's "Hulk," Ang Lee's Shakespearean overload of superhero angst and cartoonish visuals, the new movie's debut proves there's an audience for a dorky scientist who turns into a bellowing green ogre when people tick him off.

"I think it resoundingly does put that question to rest," says Marvel Studios boss David Maisel. "Hulk has smashed that question."

The real question is not why another Hulk, but why the idea of the Hulk even works to begin with.

It's one thing for Robert Louis Stevenson to create "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," which presented a truly terrifying beast within as an allegory for the evil we all keep in check.

But an over-muscled green lummox like the Hulk? Could anyone but a fanboy really dig this guy?

Clearly, the box-office figures for "Incredible Hulk" go beyond hardcore comic-book fans, for whom Hulk stands second only to Spider-Man in the vast Marvel Comics universe (Superman and Batman are vassals of rival DC Comics).

Yet while the Hulk pulled his weight at theaters, no one expected him to approach the numbers put up by Spidey, whose three flicks had openings ranging from $88.2 million to last year's record $151.1 million for "Spider-Man 3."

No one even expected the Hulk to come close to last month's $98.6 million debut of "Iron Man," based on another Marvel character well-known to comic-book fans but hardly a household name among general audiences.

So why is the Hulk - who beyond his comic fame also was widely known for the TV show starring Bill Bixby - pulling in only half or a third of the movie revenues that Iron Man and Spider-Man manage?

One possible answer: A snarling green behemoth, a crime-fighter in red-and-blue Spandex and a rich egomaniac with a metal suit all are silly at their core, but the snarling green behemoth is somehow even sillier to most of us.

Sure, nearly every big Hollywood flick is outlandish if you give it any serious thought. Adam Sandler as an Israeli commando who wants to style women's hair? Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones 16 years after he qualified for membership in the American Association of Retired Persons?

Plenty of people find Jedi knights ridiculous. The idea of wizards, elves and hobbits unionizing to rid the world of an evil piece of jewelry is equally inane to others. And don't get us going about William Shatner's pomposity on the bridge of the starship Enterprise.

But think how cool it would be to have a light-saber to slice your annoying neighbor in half, or to possess Gandalf the wizard's longevity so you can outlive everyone you know, or to sit in the captain's chair and order Mr. Sulu to fire photon torpedoes on your boss' house.

It's harder to relate to the silliness of a scrawny science nerd such as Bruce Banner turning into an unreasoning, uncontrollable gorilla whose moldy hue makes you figure he's probably a bit ripe around the armpits.

Not necessarily a creature any of us aspire to, except in those road-rage moments when we'd all like to punch out the next guy's Buick.

"There's a sense of wish-fulfillment," says Gale Anne Hurd, a producer on Lee's "Hulk" and the new movie. "If you are just a puny human and someone treats you unfairly, you can hulk out and then go back to being a puny human, and you have plausible deniability that it wasn't you."

But while most other superheroes just change out of their costumes after work, Banner is left with the social embarrassment of tattered clothes after his body shrinks back to normal.

In the new movie, Edward Norton's Banner solves that problem by wearing pants with elastic waistlines. He still ends up shirtless, with ragged pants, looking so much like a homeless guy that a little kid drops spare change in his hand.

Who in the real world really wants to be that guy as compared to say, Peter Parker, who mutates from bullied teen to strong and agile hunk from the bite of a spider, or Tony Stark, who already has money, power and women as a billionaire industrialist before he builds a metal suit that allows him to fly?

The caretakers at Marvel Studios, Maisel and head of production Kevin Feige, both grew up as comic-book geeks and have deep affection for Hulk, Spidey and the thousands of other characters in their charge.

But Maisel says he's always gravitated toward Tony Stark and Thor, the Norse thunder god who will star in a Marvel movie scheduled for 2010.

Feige doesn't like to play favorites but concedes, "if you have a gun to my head, it probably is a tie between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers," the alter-ego of super-soldier Captain America, whose own big-screen adaptation is coming in 2011.

Along with Stark's Iron Man, Thor and Captain America have to wear preposterous duds. But if you held a gun to our heads and told us to become superheroes, most of us probably would prefer to command thunder like Thor or have the Captain's upgraded physique than to turn green with rage like the Hulk.

Marvel's not whining that "Incredible Hulk" was unable to match the riches Tony Stark produced at the box office, though.

"`Hulk' is a home run and `Iron Man' is a grand slam," Maisel said. "You're extremely happy with both."

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