Countless comic-book bad guys have made the fatal mistake of underestimating the Hulk. Have Hollywood and the media made the same costly error?
For weeks, industry gossip and news reports have focused not only on the shaky stance of Friday's "Speed Racer" -- which seems certain to be spanked by "Iron Man" over the weekend -- but also the outlook and production problems for June 13's "The Incredible Hulk." Some people inside "Hulk" distributor Universal Pictures say picking on the not-so-jolly green giant has become as much an industry blood sport as talent agencies' raiding their rival firms.
Universal and Marvel Studios, which bankrolled "Hulk," believe two recent events have dramatically upgraded the film's prospects. First was last weekend's stunning $99-million opening of "Iron Man," the first movie independently developed, produced and financed by Marvel. Second was "Hulk's" late-April presentation at New York's Comic-Con convention, which immediately sparked a flood of rave Internet postings.
Because "Hulk" doesn't open for more than a month from now, audience tracking surveys have yet to show how interested -- or uninterested -- ticket buyers might be in the adaptation. But Universal and Marvel are both confident that once people see the new film, they will quickly forget the sour aftertaste from the earlier "Hulk," which Universal both made and released.
"The biggest challenge on 'The Incredible Hulk' was Ang Lee's 'Hulk' in 2003," says Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios.
In absolute and relative terms, director Lee's superhero movie opened fantastically, grossing $62.1 million in its first weekend. That placed it among the strongest introductions of any comic-book movie, trailing 2002's "Spider-Man" (which opened with $114.8 million) but ahead of 2000's "X-Men" ($54.5 million), 2003's "Daredevil" ($40.3 million) and 2005's "Fantastic Four" ($56.1 million).
But "Hulk's" real (and crushing) story unfolded over its second weekend, where middling reviews and corrosive word-of-mouth pushed its grosses down a staggering 70%.
More action this time
In deciding to return to the property after such a brief hiatus, Marvel and Universal tried to figure out what went wrong on the first film and how they could better capture the enduring appeal of one of Marvel's most popular creations. They also realized they would have to cut through a wall of disbelievers.
"We knew people would be out there saying, 'Why are you doing it again?' " says Adam Fogelson, Universal's marketing chief.
Universal and Marvel focused on three areas for improvement: Hulk had to be more heroic and romantic and less brooding, the new film needed to be a straight-ahead action film and not a psychological origin story, and "Hulk" had to be cast and made in a manner to convince moviegoers it was not a cynical shot at an easy payday.
"The first 'Hulk' was not as much of an action film," says Gale Anne Hurd, a producer on the 2003 original and this summer's retry. "And this time the Hulk really has a foe -- the Abomination. The movie does not examine how he became the Hulk."
Feige says Lee's first "Hulk" film delved into a tiny fraction of the character's mythology. "I just knew that 99% of the Hulk story hadn't been explored yet," he says.
As it did with "Iron Man," which stars Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow, Marvel chose to cast "Hulk" with accomplished actors who theoretically wouldn't get involved in a project that wasn't classy.
The Hulk (known in friendlier moments as Bruce Banner) is played by "Fight Club's" Edward Norton, while Emil Blonsky (who is transformed into the Abomination) is played by fellow Oscar nominee Tim Roth ("Rob Roy"). The film is directed by Louis Leterrier, a young French filmmaker best known for the stylish, low-budget "Transporter" crime dramas.
Late start for trailer
The five-year proximity to the first "Hulk" wasn't Marvel and Universal's only challenge. Because the new edition involved elaborate special effects, Universal wasn't able to release a teaser trailer until March (many high-profile films launch their first trailers half a year before they hit theaters). "We wanted to make sure that from the very beginning of the creative campaign that we showed that this movie was different from the first," Fogelson says.
But since it took so long for the trailer to arrive, the pessimists controlled the debate. "I never quite felt it was a whipping boy, but I could feel the angst: Why aren't we seeing anything?" Feige says.
Fogelson says that while the press and a few bloggers were asking countless skeptical questions about the film (including a behind-the-scenes drama involving Norton's script ideas), promotional partners were sending a different message: They wanted in. "Hulk" will have more such deals than any other Universal movie this year, with the affiliates including Burger King, 7-Eleven, Best Buy, the GNC vitamin stores and Kmart.
But it was at April's Comic-Con gathering that Universal was able to make its biggest impression. The San Diego version of the geek fest attracts a much greater Hollywood and fan presence, but it happens after "Hulk's" premiere. So Universal and Marvel went to Manhattan, showing a new trailer, screening an extended scene and introducing the fact that "Iron Man's" Tony Stark makes a "Hulk" cameo appearance. (It's a cross-pollination strategy that Marvel has used in its comics and recently applied to "Iron Man" when the film's final frames teased to Samuel L. Jackson's upcoming appearance as the character Nick Fury.)
The reaction was overwhelming.
In a conference call with stock analysts Monday, Marvel Studios Chairman David Maisel said the new "Hulk" trailer "is the most viewed trailer on the Internet that [Universal has] ever released."
Several fan sites gushed over the Comic-Con panel and were especially impressed with the much improved and imposing look of the title character: "I left dying to see the movie" (i09.com); "Surely, anyone . . . who saw this presentation has little doubt that Leterrier, Marvel Studios and Universal got it right this time" (comingsoon.net); and "They won us over and we totally missed the panel" (nymag.com).
Unlike "Iron Man," which opened against little competition, "Hulk" faces a far more challenging schedule. It opens opposite M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening," is preceded a week by Adam Sandler's "You Don't Mess With the Zohan" and is followed a week later by Mike Myers' "The Love Guru" and Steve Carell's "Get Smart."
And as well as "Iron Man" did (with the "Hulk" trailer playing before most of the film's showings), its premiere may set unreasonably high expectations for Marvel's second effort. "The good news is it means people want to go to the movies," Hurd says. "And it's a little like 'American Idol.' Does it mean the person who gets the second most votes isn't a good singer?"