It's been only five years since Ang Lee was commissioned to make a film about the Hulk, and delivered a psychedelic art movie about a Shrek-lookalike who wrestled a mutant poodle. That should have put paid to the franchise for a decade or two, but Marvel – a comics company that's recently turned movie studio – calculated that the Hulk was too valuable a property to be left on the shelf, so the incredible one has been rebooted, with a new cast and a new director, Louis Leterrier.
Mercifully, Leterrier doesn't include le poodle. Even more mercifully, the Hulk himself has been redesigned to look less like a cuddly ogre, and more like the steroidal Schwarzenegger of the comics.
The explosions, the kinetic action and the daft espionage plot are all closer to the spirit of the comics, too. Dr Bruce Banner, now played by Edward Norton, is living incognito in a Brazilian favela, trying to synthesise a cure for his extreme case of split personality. He realises that his only hope is to return to the US, and to his former lab partner and girlfriend, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). But Betty is the daughter of General Ross (William Hurt) – the Captain Ahab to the Hulk's Moby Dick – and Ross has a new sidekick, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), who will do whatever it takes to beat the Hulk in a fight, even if that means being transformed into a less than jolly green giant himself.
The film is packed as tightly as the Hulk's jeans with references to the comics and the television series, but, like Ang Lee's version, it's keener on nodding and winking to people who are already Marvel superhero fans than bringing new ones into the fold. It ambles from place to place, picking up supporting characters along the way, but it never builds any momentum, and it never seems to have any purpose except to set up a sequel.
We know that Banner won't ever find the cure that he's researching, and we know that General Ross won't succeed in killing him, so The Incredible Hulk is one of those rare, perplexing films in which the audience can be certain that none of the characters will get what they want. Maybe it's just not feasible to make an exciting adventure about a creature who's utterly invulnerable. Or maybe the problem is that you can never forget that he's an unreal, computer-generated presence rather than a physical one.
At the film's climax the Hulk has a punch-up with another CGI monster, so we're left watching two special effects thumping each other. It feels as if we've switched channels from a live-action film to a cartoon. What's wrong with hiring a bodybuilder and painting him green?
This week's other would-be blockbuster is The Happening, the latest portentous chiller from M Night Shyamalan. In the opening minutes – by far the best part of the film – people are seen chatting and reading and walking their dogs in Central Park. Then, all at once, they stop what they're doing, stand stock still for a moment, and kill themselves. It's an authentically creepy scenario, and it deserves the thoughtful, crafty treatment which the maker of The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable might have given it. But that writer-director, along with his trademark twist endings, has left the building.
The Happening goes through the disaster movie motions, but any shivers it might have induced are turned into convulsions of laughter by the acting and scripting. Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel have two facial expressions – wide-eyed and wider-eyed – and the unwieldy dialogue is beyond parody. Deschanel has the worst of it. Humanity is being wiped out in a catastrophe, and she has to babble, "I love you, Elliot, but I don't like to put my feelings out there for everyone to see!"
Jonathan Romney is away