[This is a re-post of my retrospective series in which I take a look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These articles do not contain spoilers for unreleased Marvel movies. If you know any spoilers about the unreleased Marvel movies, please do not post them in the comments section.]
The Incredible Hulk is a mediocre film, and it’s also one of the most significant in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It’s a movie you can’t discuss without the phrase “Technically part of.” Incredible Hulk is so vastly different than any other MCU movie that it inadvertently highlights the distinct personality that would come from all future Marvel films. As an individual picture, Incredible Hulk is fairly unremarkable, but as part of the MCU, it’s constantly fascinating.
Before the movie even begins, it speeds through an origin story, so it functions as a sequel and a reboot. No one wants to be reminded of 2003’s Hulk and technically we don’t really need to go through the whole process again, although we’re shortchanged when it comes to letting us know who Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is before his transformation and it diminishes his relationship with Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), who functions as LOVE INTEREST instead of being a full character in her own right (to be fair, Marvel didn’t completely figure out female characters until Captain America: The First Avenger, so it’s not like Incredible Hulk is an anomaly in that regard).
Instead, Incredible Hulk immediately launches us into a story of a man on the run, and it’s a mostly joyless experience. Banner is a tortured character, and an alternate opening had him trying to commit suicide on a desolate mountaintop before the Hulk breaks out and crushes the gun. What separates Hulk from his Marvel compatriots is that Banner has no agency in his superpower. He didn’t want to become the Hulk; the best he can do is bury the beast, and when it breaks out, he loses almost all control. That’s not heroism; that’s desperation, and it’s tough to squeeze a fun summer action movie in there.
That puts director Louis Leterrier in a difficult position, especially since he and Norton were at odds with Marvel over the direction of the picture. The studio wanted to rely more heavily on set pieces, and you can see that’s a bit of a problem if your main character runs away from action. It’s a film that relishes the Hulk but has a main character who hates that side of himself. The movie wants to sympathize with Banner, but it can’t deny his alter-ego. The audience, and Marvel, craves smashing, especially after Ang Lee’s psychosomatic Hulk.
The movie’s best scene is when the emotional side and the action side reconcile themselves and Hulk calms down a bit to spend some time in a cave with Betty at his side. He’s no longer a monster but a child acting out against any perceived aggression. He screams at thunder, and can only be calmed by love.
In these moments, Betty isn’t a girlfriend but a more maternal figure, and because she’s so poorly characterized, she has the flexibility to be that person. This is a woman who supposedly has a boyfriend (Ty Burrell) and then discards him the minute she sees Bruce. That’s cold, but the film never acknowledges it because she’s meant to serve Bruce’s needs, direct the Hulk’s emotions, and chastise her father, General Ross (William Hurt). There’s not enough characterization to make Betty perform outside of these actions.
These elements—a difficult relationship with action scenes, a depressing tale of a hero who wants to rid himself of his power, a love story that can never be consummated because it would push Bruce’s heart rate to Hulk-point—are all elements of a depressing story that wants to be exciting. Leterrier throws in plenty of energetic music so that even Bruce looking into a microscope is intense, but there’s almost no color to the film. The brightest part of the picture—Hulk rampaging on a college campus—isn’t because the scene is uplifting; it’s so that audiences can get a clear look at the Hulk kicking ass.
Incredible Hulk came out only two months after Iron Man, and the two couldn’t be further apart. Iron Man relishes everything it does; Incredible Hulk loves its action scenes and hangs its head at nearly every other moment (I think there are less than five jokes in the entire movie). Iron Man has perfect casting; no one feels right for Incredible Hulk except for Tim Blake Nelson. Iron Man relishes its origin story; Incredible Hulk buries it in the opening credits. Not a single actor who debuts in Incredible Hulk is in any other Marvel movie until Hurt shows up in Captain America: Civil War. (the studio considered bringing Norton along for The Avengers, but felt there would be too much friction and ended up with a far superior choice in Mark Ruffalo). It’s not even from the same studio (Hulk is the only Marvel movie distributed by Universal). But above all: Incredible Hulk is rarely a fun movie.
It’s not a bad movie either. No one in the cast is particularly bad, the action scenes are fairly well done, and it’s an important evolution in the Hulk as a character. There’s a lot more personality to this Hulk than in Ang Lee’s version. Part of that is due to advancements in CGI, but you can see that Leterrier worked hard to make Hulk more relatable this time and even give him moments of creativity like when he turns a police car into boxing gloves. The development of Hulk is just as important as Bruce Banner. Banner has a solid arc where he learns that he can’t cure himself of being the Hulk and that he can actually do some good if he can “aim” the beast. He learns that he can only control it, and that notion of control kind of pops up in The Avengers with “I’m always angry,” but even Joss Whedon’s movie ignores the character development in Incredible Hulk by having Banner admit that he attempted suicide. That admission doesn’t make a lot of sense if you look at the grinning Banner at the end of Incredible Hulk, a look that shows he’s come to peace with Hulk.
And yet there are some signposts, both narrative and tropic that tie it to future Marvel movies. It’s very clear that references to S.H.I.E.L.D. and Stark Industries were done in reshoots and post (they’re in computer screens and close-ups of items), and the tag with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) was obviously added after Iron Man and its tease of the “Avengers Initiative” were a hit with audiences. Marvel also continues its trend of weak, mirrored villains with Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) functioning as a warped version of Banner, a man who craves more physical power and is willing to mutate for it until he becomes The Abomination (another trend: indirectly naming a villain).
These negligible additions and similarities will never be enough to make The Incredible Hulk feel like a full member of the Marvel family. It’s a lost child of the MCU and was even a lost child of summer 2008 crushed between Iron Man and The Dark Knight. The most memorable thing about The Incredible Hulk is how it stands in relation to other movies and vanishes on its own. It’s the only movie in the MCU that could be described as “minor”.
That being said, Marvel’s attempt to begin its cinematic universe in earnest showed a studio still struggling to reach the necessary balance to achieve its ambitious goal. But the growing pains wouldn’t truly begin until the studio’s first sequel and earnest effort to build a cinematic universe.’The