'Hulk' a bit too Marvel-ous for its own good

"The Incredible Hulk"

Grade: B-

Starring Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, William Hurt. Rated PG-13 (sequences of intense action violence, some frightening sci-fi images, and brief suggestive content). At metro theaters. 1 hour, 54 minutes.

Bottom line: The superhero assembly line kicks in.

The Hulk may be "incredible," but he's no Iron Man. Still, he's close, or at least close enough for fans.

That money-minting movie machine, Marvel Studios, trots out its superhero formula for the second time in two months with "The Incredible Hulk," and the close proximity to "Iron Man" robs it of whatever novelty it might have had.

They're spending money on real actors, and that pays off again as Edward Norton plays the more interesting era in Hulk history —- his years on the run, on the road, an oddball Odyssey for a man haunted by what happens when he loses his temper, hunted by the military that helped create him.

But this trip is all "Didn't we just pass this exit?" The guilt, the doomed love affair, the cute comic-creator Stan Lee cameo (and one by TV "Hulk" Lou Ferrigno), the moments of humor, the epic showdown/throwdown with the villain of equal strength and nearly equal charisma —- there really is nothing new in the Marvel universe.

"The Incredible Hulk" recasts and re-invents the history of the 2003 Ang Lee "Hulk," putting the lanky, complicated Norton into the Eric Bana role, and giving Liv Tyler the chance to show she's every bit as empathetic as Jennifer Connelly, who played the scientist-girlfriend Elizabeth Ross back then. And Oscar winner William Hurt plays her menacing military dad, Gen. Ross (replacing the scary Sam Elliott).

It's been five years since that "gamma ray poisoning" that turned Bruce Banner into a guy who needs anger management. He's been on the run, living off the grid, e-mailing fellow scientists, trying out cures and staying out of the reach of the Army, which wants to clone him as a "super soldier." He does yoga and "control your emotions" martial arts and keeps track of how many "days without incident." We catch up with him in a favela (poor neighborhood) in Brazil, where he works in a bottling plant and watches his heart-rate monitor. He knows "temper" and "angry" in Portuguese.

Banner needs his "data," the info about his transformation, to help find a cure. His search for that tips Gen. Ross and his new diminutive mercenary-commando (Tim Roth) about where Banner is.

We see a spectacular chase, a long walk to Virginia (where Elizabeth teaches), a pained reunion, a little hope, a King Kong-Fay Wray bit, a midpoint confrontation leading up to a final showdown in Harlem. Norton has been "fighting" for his vision of this picture evidenced in the bits from the film's earliest trailers not seen here. He wanted a grimly romantic character study. What we get is a standard-issue two-hour ride through 'roid rage and the latest special effects.

Wisely, Norton and director Louis Leterrier ("The Transporter 2") give this thing a breathless "Bourne" feeling for its first half. The digital Hulk is shown in glimpses, in the dark. The Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation, when it comes, is a doozy.

Tyler, who just turned the formulaic horror film "The Strangers" into a surprise hit, gives us that open-faced honesty that has become her trademark. Unlike her predecessor in the role, she can deliver a punchline. She's happy to see Bruce. Very happy. So happy his heart-rate monitor beeps hysterically. But he cannot get excited.

"Not even a little excited?"

Roth and Hurt make a decent pair of villains, something essential to all of these movies.

But "The Incredible Hulk," from its open-ended ending to the obligatory (and much publicized) cameo of another Marvel super hero, feels like just the latest "product" off an assembly line. Norton is no more interesting than Tobey Maguire's "Spider-Man" and considerably less fun than Robert Downey Jr.'s "Iron Man."

And the movie they built around him, after a terrific first hour, feels like a long commercial for all those other Marvel marvels on the way —- "Avengers," "Ant-Man" and "Doctor Strange." Marvel is so busy setting up the next sale that they can't see the mediocrity built into their own formula.

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