Hulk — reboots, cross-overs, and geography.

Warning: There be spoilers here.

When it was announced last year that Marvel Studios was going to produce a new version of The Incredible Hulk, only a few years after Ang Lee’s film came out to mixed reviews and middling box-office in 2003, many people wondered why they would bother. But now that the film is out there, I think we can safely say that the answer boils down to two words: The Avengers.

For many years, the typical comic-book movie revolved around a single hero and the various sidekicks and villains that are typically associated with that hero — and the producers of those films typically created distinct worlds for their heroes that wouldn’t necessarily have meshed with any of the other heroes’ worlds. Just look at the original Superman (1978-1987) and Batman (1989-1997) franchises: one takes place in a Metropolis that is basically just a regular street-level depiction of New York City, the other takes place in a Gotham City that couldn’t look more fake, more stylized, more confined to a soundstage if it tried. A cross-over between these franchises was basically unthinkable. In what possible universe could these two cities, let alone the characters who inhabit them, have co-existed?

The cinematic segregation of superheroes was even more entrenched for the Marvel characters, because each of them was brought to the screen by a different studio. DC Comics is part of the Time Warner empire, so all of the Batman and Superman films have been produced by Warner Brothers — but until recently, Marvel had licensed its heroes to various different studios, so that Spider-Man (2002-2007) was produced by Sony, Hulk was produced by Universal, The Punisher (2004-2008; my review) was produced by Lions Gate, and so on. So sharp are the lines between these various franchises that, according to the MTV Movies Blog, the new Hulk could not even give a university the name that it has in the Spider-Man movies.

Things sort of changed with the X-Men (2000-2006) and Fantastic Four (2005-2007) movies, both of which revolved around teams of superheroes. But even then, while there was a variety of superheroes within each team, the teams themselves were pretty much hermetically sealed off from all the other Marvel franchises — and even, so far, from each other, even though both of them were produced by Fox.

But now Marvel is trying something new. Instead of merely letting other studios buy the film rights to their heroes, they are producing the films themselves — and this gives them the freedom to cross-pollinate their franchises even when they are distributed by different companies. Hence, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark can have a cameo in The Incredible Hulk, which is distributed by Universal, even though his own movie, Iron Man, is distributed by Paramount.

And instead of creating another “team” franchise like the X-Men or Fantastic Four movies, where all the characters exist only within those teams, Marvel now hopes to create a bunch of separate superhero franchises that can stand well enough on their own two feet, before bringing them together in one monstrous cross-over extravaganza, namely The Avengers — which they announced immediately after the smash success of Iron Man‘s opening weekend last month.

And since the Hulk is one of the original Avengers, the studio needed to re-do the Hulk in a way that would lend itself to this new concept.

Ang Lee’s film was a standalone feature like all the other superhero movies of the past few decades, but this new movie has been written with bigger things in mind. The opening credits include brief glimpses of documents that reference Stark Industries and Nick Fury. And in one scene, General Ross refers to a “super soldier” program that existed during World War II — almost certainly a reference to Captain America. And indeed, it seems that Captain America himself almost had a cameo in The Incredible Hulk, though it ended up on the cutting-room floor — or, more accurately, in the put-it-on-the-DVD file.

And then there is the Tony Stark cameo, which serves the same purpose here that Samuel L. Jackson’s cameo as Nick Fury served in Iron Man — to let the audience know that a much bigger movie is in the works.

So, why re-boot the Hulk franchise so soon? Because we stand on the brink of a major change in how comic-book movies are done. Five years ago, each superhero — or superhero team — stood alone. But now, each hero can have his own franchise and be part of an even larger team. (Though I should note that Incredible Hulk director Louis Leterrier recently told the MTV Movies Blog that he left the ending of his film ambiguous so that the Hulk could be either one of the heroes or the villain when The Avengers is made.)

It will be interesting to see if DC and Time Warner pick up on this. Their recent ill-fated attempt to make a Justice League movie suffered partly because there was some confusion over whether it would be connected to any existing or future standalone superhero movies. But if they left the current Batman and Superman storylines alone, it is not too hard to believe that they could do some interesting things with the Justice League’s other characters.

And now for something completely different: The Globe and Mail has a story on the fact that the film sees Bruce Banner hiding out in Bella Coola, British Columbia — and it notes that, if the residents of this town want to see the film in the theatre, they will have to drive six hours to Williams Lake. As it happens, my wife’s aunt owns some property in Nimpo Lake, which is between Bella Coola and Williams Lake, and we visited her there last year. The map below shows the route from Vancouver (A) to Williams Lake (B) to Nimpo Lake (C) to Bella Coola (D). Enjoy!

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  • any attempt to make a Justice League movie w/o Supes or the Bat (or, for that matter, WW or the Martian Manhunter) would be as disastrous as the last JL movie without those signature characters.

    for now, i’ll just be content with the animated series (the Justice League – later Justice League Unlimited) as the definite piece on superhero crossovers in motion.

  • Granted, if I’m not mistaken, the Justice League began as a team-up of all of DC’s biggest stars, which would obviously have to include Superman and Batman, whereas the Avengers did not begin with, say, Spider-Man, and the roster of Avengers has been pretty fluid from the beginning. (Indeed, Wikipedia says the Hulk left the team after only a few issues.) So the Justice League has arguably depended on “big names” to a degree that the Avengers have not.

    Still, that said, the Justice League has done without Batman or Superman from time to time, and indeed, when I followed the Justice League comics in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I don’t think Superman was ever on the team itself, though he made a guest appearance or two.

    So in theory, at least, a Justice League movie could do without either of DC’s two biggest heroes — especially since including them would mean either forcing the existing franchises to co-exist, which I don’t think they can do, or competing with the existing franchises, which presents problems of its own.

  • gotham and metropolis have always been worlds apart. they’ve always looked and felt different, yet every time i’ve picked up a graphic novel with either superman or batman (certainly recently, which i have been doing), they’re always talking about each other or working with each other. and always in the context of the justice league, which they both seem to be essential to.

    as far as the movie series go, superman got rebooted recently. and so did batman. so i don’t see a reason why they couldn’t be involved in some cross-pollination. not right away, but sometime soon.

  • It’s not just that Gotham and Metropolis look different, as cities tend to do. It’s that the universes created by the respective film franchises — certainly between the ’70s and ’90s — have been so very different that I can’t imagine those cities co-existing. The Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman movies wore their campy artificiality on their sleeves, whereas the Richard Donner and Richard Lester Superman films at least took place in recognizably realistic rural and urban settings — even if the characters behaved somewhat campily at times.

    To put this another way: Could the Batman of the Burton/Schumacher films have spent years travelling the world and learning from martial-arts masters? Is it even conceivable that a world exists outside of those Gotham City soundstages?

    At any rate, the Chris Nolan films have thankfully moved Batman back into a more realistic realm, so a cross-over between the two franchises would not be as jarring now as it would have been in the past. But at the same time, there is still such a difference in the aesthetics and sensibilities between the two franchises that I am having a hard time imagining how they could ever meet or merge. (I wouldn’t say Superman has been rebooted, per se, given that Superman Returns was essentially a sequel to Superman II.)

    Say what you will about Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, but they at least share a rather similar sensibility — right down to the fact that both films essentially end with the hero battling a bigger, badder clone of himself.