The Marvel Movies Debrief: The Incredible Hulk Recap, Legacy, and MCU Connections
A look at The Incredible Hulk, his only solo movie, and its creative tussle between Marvel and their leading man, among other things.
This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
This article contains spoilers for The Incredible Hulk and the wider MCU.
The Hulk is easily one of the greatest superhero creations that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby ever conceived. The mixture of elements – Godzilla meets Frankenstein meets Jekyll and Hyde – resulted in a versatile, engaging and visually exciting character that fans (and the Hulk himself) love to describe as “the strongest one there is.”
Louis Leterrier’s 2008 movie, The Incredible Hulk, was the last time the Hulk’s world was brought to the big screen as a solo consideration, and to this day it remains an oddity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Indeed, until the return of William Hurt’s General Ross in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, no actor introduced in it had reprised their role for future movies – almost baffling for a series built on its internal continuity.
The reasons for this are varied, but primarily we can point to the film’s tepid reception. Co-produced by Marvel Studios and Universal, the movie was also the subject of a public dispute between its bosses and lead actor Ed Norton, who rewrote the script and had severe disagreements on the nature of the final cut. He remained open to returning for a while, but eventually, he and Marvel decided that the relationship was over and he was replaced with Mark Ruffalo in the role for The Avengers and beyond.
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This wasn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Although a fan-favorite at the time of his casting, the movie itself painted a different picture. Norton’s restrained, almost detached performance lacks the manic twitch of Ruffalo’s. It’s notionally the same Bruce Banner, but it might as well not be.
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Oddly, the MCU Hulk never received much of an origin. Coming just five years after Ang Lee’s ambitious-but-confusing Hulk, Leterrier and company positioned their movie as a sort-of-sequel that sat tenuously alongside the former. If you squinted a little anyway. Aside from flashes of an accident during the intro, the MCU Hulk arrived fully-formed, unburdened by an origin story.
And really, why not? It can be hard to remember the days before everyone was a walking Marvel handbook who could list every Infinity Stone and all of the Nine Realms, but by virtue of a fantastically popular TV show in the ’70s, the Hulk was one of the few Marvel characters to penetrate pop-culture to any significant extent. Certainly an order of magnitude above the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor.
The movie did its best to capitalize on that, drawing its morose tone from the TV show. Although packed with Easter eggs, it’s a far different experience from watching a modern MCU movie. The humor, in particular, is missing – Modern Family’s Ty Burrell turns up as Doc Samson and flexes precisely none of the comedic chops he’s now known for.
It’s hard to say what the film’s primary failing is. The action is good, but the CGI isn’t. The characters are strong, but the performances maybe aren’t. The love story between Bruce and Betty (Liv Tyler) might well be one of the MCU’s better attempts at romance, but only because the competition elsewhere is weak. The key relationship – the love/hate triangle between General Ross, Betty Ross, and Bruce never quite becomes the thematic centre it should have been. Meanwhile, Tim Roth’s Blonsky and Tim Brooke-Taylor’s Sterns prove inadequate narrative drivers as villains, and when Doc Samson turns up as Betty’s nice-guy partner who immediately sides with her and Bruce against her father, it’s tough to feel invested in a love story that’ll break him and her up.
Ultimately, though, it’s the climax where the film falls apart. The Harlem fight isn’t a total flop, but as soon as Bruce makes the decision to turn back into the Hulk, it’s basically a computer game cutscene with a foregone conclusion. Hulk is, after all, the strongest one there is. Just not in a narrative sense.
Standout scene: At Culver University, the army corners Banner to force his transformation, leading directly into a fight with the powered-up (but not yet abominable) Blonsky. Hulk, naturally, smashes his way through assailants in a particularly crowd-pleasing manner, though the moment that really lands is when he saves Betty from Ross’ hubris, demonstrating who the real monster is. This one scene shows off all that’s great about the Hulk: the anxiety of Banner’s change, the invincible, unstoppable rage of a Hulk fighting for his life, and the tragic pathos of his love for Betty.
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Best quip: Bruce Banner (in broken Portuguese): “Don’t make me… hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m… hungry.” One of the few genuine jokes in a film that is extremely light on comedy – especially by the standards of a modern MCU movie.
First appearances: Bruce Banner and General Ross are the only two characters who appear in the franchise again, though obviously Bruce Banner is recast by the time he comes back for Avengers. Hurt recurs as (now-Secretary) Ross in both Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. It seems fitting – after all, the General is a big fan of wars.
So long, farewell: No-one actually dies in this movie, but you can bid a fond (or possibly not-so-fond) farewell to Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross, Tim Roth’s Abomination, and Tim Brooke-Taylor’s Samuel Sterns, none of whom have returned to the franchise despite being integral characters within the Hulk’s personal mythos. A particularly sad state of affairs for fans of The Leader, with Sterns’ transformation into the big-brained super-genius hinted at here but never subsequently followed up on-screen.
It’s all connected: The Incredible Hulk is arguably the MCU’s least connected movie, to the point where some people question its canonicity outright. But it’s not completely off the grid:
• The serum that transformed Banner into the Hulk is described as an attempt to recreate a past super-soldier program. That program is, of course, Project Rebirth, which we see succeeding (just the once) on Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger. The cannister of serum used even contains the name “Erskine” as in Abraham Erskine, who won’t be seen on screen until 2011, three years after this movie’s release.
• The Hulk’s fight with the Abomination in Harlem is mentioned multiple times in subsequent films and the MCU’s TV shows, where it remains (understandably) a major part of the public’s perception of super-powered individuals.
• The finale of the film shows a version of Banner whose transformations are now, at least on some level, under control. In Avengers, Bruce famously reveals his secret. He’s always angry, and his transformation into the Hulk can indeed be triggered painlessly and at will – if he’s happy to do it.
Credit check: “You should talk.” “You should listen.” There’s a case to be made that this meeting of Tony Stark and General Ross – two characters from different movies – is actually the birth of the MCU proper. Surprising, given that it was a hastily added and completely improvised scene designed to capitalize on the excitement that Iron Man’s tag scene had created earlier in the year. Indeed, this lack of planning actually created a continuity problem (why would Stark be inviting General Ross to get involved with the Avengers Initiative?) that was later cleared up in one of the sadly-departed Marvel One-Shot movies. It revealed that Stark was sent to invite Ross to the Avengers specifically because SHIELD felt that he’d annoy the military man into turning them down. Which is apparently what happened. Smashing.
The complete schedule of upcoming MCU movies can be found here.
Are you a fan of The Incredible Hulk? Are there any other aspects of it that you like, don’t like, or anything that we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments below.