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The Incredible Hulk is truly the black sheep of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not the least of why is the distributor. This is the only film thus far to be distributed by Universal Pictures, due to them purchasing the rights of Hulk prior to the start of Marvel’s movie studio. The first 6 films in the MCU were distributed by Paramount, with Disney in an agreement with the studio to distribute Avengers and Iron Man 3, and all the rest of them have been Disney distributes sans the two Tom Holland Spider-Man films which are Sony releases. Probably not a great sign that I’m starting off talking about studio distribution, huh?
Yes, there’s a Durden-adjacent elephant in the room here. Edward Norton was the original MCU Bruce Banner, only to be replaced by Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers and every subsequent appearance of the character. Reasons for that are spotty; a lot of them seem to point to Norton being difficult to work with. It’s kind of funny; Robert Downey Jr was considered such a liability in casting, and yet Norton may have been recast due to being a problem. None of this is official, and all parties seemed to have moved passed this matter either way.
Another factor is, before William Hurt reprised his role in Civil War, this movie had no strong relation with the rest of the MCU thanks to the recasting. They talked about the final fight briefly in The Avengers, but in vague generalities. They seemed to have soft rebooted Banner for Ruffalo’s take.
And thus, this was the third and last MCU movie I did not see in cinemas. All the rest I have. For whatever reason this film (and the distribution rights being a clusterfuck) killed any chance of a new Hulk film, which is a shame. He’s a great character to make a feature out of. but how did they do here? Well, to examine that, we have to go further back than even this film, for you see…
Whatever You Do, Don’t Ang Lee It
A lot of this film is defined by what it isn’t rather than what it is. It’s similar to Man of Steel, which had a lot of its elements nailed down by the disappointment of Superman Returns. Now, don’t get me wrong here-Ang Lee’s Hulk is bad. Worse than this film. But having your motive be “Do what this didn’t do” subjects it to not really finding its own identity and being cautious and calculated rather than ambitious and creatively driven. Now, like, this is a Marvel movie-it’s creative freedom is subject to requirements. But this one feels particularly calculated, even down to its….interesting credits.
This movie is not an origin story, the only debut solo MCU flick to be so until Spider-Man: Homecoming nine years later. This wasn’t done to combat audience fatigue-Hulk’s origin isn’t as ubiquitous as Spidey’s or Batman’s-it was done because 2003’s Hulk was also an origin movie, and they were clearly gun shy to just redo one here because of how badly that went (overlooking the fact that that origin didn’t work because of really bizarre creative decisions). So, what we get is a truncated, haphazardly edited montage in the form of opening credits that roughly shows us the origin and the story goes from there.
It’s a little reminiscent of the opening credits of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man sequels, designed to catch viewers up on the story. Except those are carefully designed and composed; it’s a visually interesting way of conveying this information, and the shots are relatively clear and show a lot of information in a really simplified way. This shows a lot of info in a very rushed and confused way. You can keep up with what’s happening, but having an emotional connection to Banner, Betty and Thunderbolt Ross’ dynamic, which is crucial, is difficult considering how quick and snappy these bits are.
They feel here out of obligation, just to let viewers know that they’re kind of taking the 2003 movie’s origin but tweaking it by a lot. Having it from Banner’s POV after the accident was clever, but they break away from that shortly because they needed to add the army angle for plot reasons. It’s not that well thought out, and fails to connect audiences to his origins and character.
It’s not just the credits, though-Ang Lee’s film is slow, very psychologically focused while also being audacious and silly as hell. This tries to go for a lot more of a grounded atmosphere, taking cues from the iconic 1970s show. That’s not a bad idea, but it also means it’s a lot more plot focused and building up to a giant climax. But losing that character focus becomes kind of an issue, because you see:
Bruce Banner Sucks in This
There’s a (sort of) discourse around whether movies work better if they’re plot or character driven. Really, like everything to do with film, it depends. What kind of story are you telling? How do you want to convey that? What choices are you making to tell this story as best you can? Anyone who writes a definitive guide on how film should operate is lying to themselves. With the Hulk, however, it has a great character-based angle: it’s a juiced up Doctor Jekyll/Mr Hyde scenario where a good man is forced to consider letting loose a raging unstoppable id monster by virtue of his temperament. There’s a lot of avenues you can take here, and it’s a shame that Bruce Banner is just not very interesting in this story.
Bruce does not have an arc, he has a goal. He wants to meet his mysterious “Mr. Blue” contact who says he may be able to help him with the Hulk. This does not change until right near the end. While he certainly doesn’t need a solid arc in any way, how his story is depicted is not very interesting. He seems to go through anger management therapies, and while that certainly makes sense, the film treats it with the urgency of him not wanting to let his anger ruin people’s day instead of his potential to absolutely annihilate everything around him. The only sense of urgency we get is the bit where his blood spills in the bottling plant, which is one of the dumbest, most contrived scenes in the entire film. The Hulk, bizarrely enough, seems to have an arc even with how little he is in the film. There is one conversation just after the halfway mark where Betty and Bruce talk about his dynamic with the Hulk, and not much is really made of it. Banner is driven, but he’s not particularly motivated, and his passivity is rather grating considering his activity is needed to get the ball rolling.
It’s a weird tug-of-war where Banner doesn’t progress the plot but they act like he does. He wasn’t actually going to meet Mr. Blue when he suggests to do so until Ross and the US Army find him over the stupid blood scene and force him to flee. He nearly immediately gives up on this once he finds they’ve wiped his work data from the uni until he just happens to run into Betty because of another dumb contrivance (HEY, IT’S OUR BEST FRIEND THIS PIZZA GUY). She stops him from running and convinces him to go to New York. He only Hulks out and takes Betty with him because the Army attack him in Virginia, because it’d be a dick move for him to take her otherwise. His plans are thwarted again after he meets Mr. Blue (it’s Samuel Sterns) and he realises he wants to explore Bruce’s mutation rather than cure it. The only active thing he does is jump out of a helicopter, a move that is permeated on him just kind of half-guessing what will happen.
Honestly, and no word of a lie, Bruce being made passive and disconnected because of how the Hulk has caused him to freak out, only for him to decide to connect again would be a great arc if I thought that was the intent. He is very motivated to get a cure, but Sterns ends up betraying him (which he has no real reaction to either). This is what I mean about him being passive-it’s a story that hinges on emotional reactions focused on a guy who has no real emotional display, both by design but also because his character has very little agency.
The Hulk being a threat is also seriously downplayed here, which again is by design because seeing him actually cause damage and hurt people may stop him from being likeable, and the film needs him to be likeable because we need to root for him in the monster mash climax. He transforms three times, once in an abandoned factory, once in an evacuated university campus, and finally in a cornered off segment of Manhattan we have a “Bad Hulk” to cause human casualties anyway (and even then he mostly attacks soldiers). It seriously undermines the Hulk as something the audience understands why Banner fears. Hell, it’s something Age of Ultron understood, and while that movie isn’t amazing, and they shy away from directly showing civilian casualties, it at least gave a sense of the real damage Hulk causes and further motivates his decisions later. My own suggestion? Have characters Bruce interacted with in Brazil be injured or even killed by Hulk’s transformation after the army tries to detain him. It’d help us understand that Hulk is a danger and may give his later quasi-heel turn a bit more weight.
There are beats that depict Banner’s loneliness and willingness to integrate which are kind of interesting. He tries to learn Portuguese to get by by watching Sesame Street, he ignores the interest with the supermodel working at a bottling plant, etc. This is so rushed and used for basic set up, and is pretty much ignored once Betty enters the picture (the last time we see the supermodel lady is in a lame sight gag when Banner is running from the Army…). Speaking of, guess I should move onto the other characters.
Our Dull Cast, Sans Our Great Villains
Okay, “great” may be overselling it. More interesting? Sure.
Betty Brant is a cipher. She’s there to service the plot and be a love interest. Say what you will about other love interests in the MCU, you at least get a sense of what kind of a person they are outside of their paramour. Betty is defined as being Bruce’s ex-or-maybe-not and Ross’ daughter to a lesser extent. There’s the weirdness of how Bruce doesn’t want to approach her; it’s played like she wouldn’t accept him but instead it’s because he knew she would abandon her life for him I guess? This is what happens when you put important character defining moments in a rushed montage of your intro. She just kind of drags herself into the plot, being way more reasonable about Bruce’s issues and helping him more than any person really would, even if they were in love. There’s nothing about her that’s interesting or stands out in any compelling fashion. She’s a function, not a character.
The exact same, and worse, can be said about Ty Burrell as a not entirely comic accurate Doc Samson. He is the corner of a Bruce-Betty-him triangle, except he’s gloriously ineffective at that because Betty abandons him nearly immediately after seeing Bruce. He serves a plot point because he’s the one who informs Thunderbolt Ross and his men that Banner is in Virginia, and that’s it. He chews out Ross for being a much more interesting character he is, then exit stage right. I can’t say much more about the guy, being honest. Uh….way to waste Ty Burrell?
Tim Blake Nelson plays Samuel Sterns, his first of two set ups for support-turned-antagonist that never saw the pay-off because the comic book movies he was in never got sequels. He’s a Hulk villain called The Leader, and he’s pretty much a dangling carrot until that scene in his lab where they go back and forth on how to depict him. This twist may have worked had they been a little more consistent on Sterns “Mad Villain”-‘tude. In one moment he’s a quirky but calm and understanding figure, in another he’s a cackling nutter. For such an important factor to the plot, he’s actually onscreen very little and gets that rather sad lead-in to his villainy that still has yet to happen 11 years later. We live in hope, though.
Hey, let’s move onto the villains! The best developed characters here. My theory as to why has to do with not being Ang Lee-we need a massive monster brawl in the end like we didn’t really get last time, gotta build up that conflict through our antagonist. Tim Roth plays Emil Blonsky, also known as The Abomination. He’s easily the best character in the film. I love how intense and overwhelmingly the Hulk takes over his brain and his desire for power drives him to such intense lengths. He gives a great performance-way better than this film deserves frankly, and while his descent is a little rushed (like everything else here…), his continued abuse of the NOT-Super Serum and later Banner’s DNA makes complete sense; his drive to beat a monster literally turns him into one. Great character, shame we never see him again as he’s one of the few MCU villains who actually survives.
Finally for the principle cast we have William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross. He suffers from the same “You know him because of our rushed montage” stuff that Betty gets, the difference being he’s in a lot more of the movie. And it’s honestly a shame Ross isn’t much better known in the general diaspora-he’s essentially J. Jonah Jameson as an army general with seething rage issues instead of intermittent bursts and is a lot more actively cruel and sadistic in his pursuits. He’s a great character. I wish his dynamic with Bruce was a bit better defined-it doesn’t help that they’re not onscreen all that much-but his desire to unshit the bed really pushes him to do unconscionable things and you really do see his regret in how he leads Blonsky’s obsession to the point where he’s actually willing to work with Bruce. He’s a complex character and it was good to see him again in much later MCU movies, albeit in a bit more simplified a role.
Production and Action
Another issue I had with this film was its weirdly fast pacing and editing. Sometimes this lead to the rather uncomfortable taxi joke where the punchline was just deflated by how it was cut together, and it’s one of the few times the movie attempts to be overtly humourous. A rather hilarious example of its scene-to-scene cutting is when Bruce is leaving South America by walking a dirt road in Guatemala, it cuts to a conversation with Ross and Blonsky, and when we cut back Banner is in Virginia. There’s a graphic to say there’s been a time cut, but the film implies this fugitive walked across the US border! Guess security was that lax 11 years ago.
The editing is sloppy, but cut for function. They are racing for a big finish, and will cut corners to get there. With all that said I don’t think the script is entirely well written, so it shoulders as lot of the blame here. However, this doesn’t help it with odd shit like the aftermath of the siege on Sterns’ lab where a time cut is implied and it makes it seem like they just left Blonsky lying there for no fucking reason. It’s not awful, it’s just rough around the edges as it feels like they were sacrificing a well told story for a fast paced one. This moves us onto the action, something I would hope would be stellar as it’s what Louis Leterrier is known for. And it is! In parts.
What’s funny is that a lot of the stuff not using the Hulk ‘til the end is pretty decent. I’m assuming this is more complications with using a CG creature (and, just so you die of shock-the CG has not aged well). The initial chase scene when Banner is found in Brazil is a lot of fun, Letterier really knows how to shoot exciting running apparently. Even with the dumb joke, I liked Banner hopping from rooftop to rooftop, it’s legit exhilarating and really gets you into the flow. There’s even a great helicopter shot that glides across when he’s roof hopping, really good stuff. It gets really, really dumb when he runs into a guy harassing the supermodel at the bottling plant, however, and it’s a Benny Hill-esque chase into the plant when he transforms.
The use of the Hulk here is well thought out; he’s concealed for most of the sequence and, as storyboarded (presuming it was storyboarded!), I imagine this was effective. However, onscreen the editing is too choppy and the lighting is really off, so the effect just does not work. It’s not intense and disorienting, it’s janky and confused. That money shot of Blonsky looking at the Hulk’s face is ruined by it not being entirely in frame, which is a shame as this is such an important character beat. This may have been a great money saver/hides the CG for the most part, but it really doesn’t work in sequence.
The next big action scene is on the campus grounds in Virginia, and it is a really mixed bag. It’s not a great idea to have the Green Guy in full daylight; the CG is noticeably off. Maybe it was better in 2008, but really not so much now. I do love how they managed to evacuate these grounds pretty painlessly before Bruce and Betty arrive, it’s a good excuse not to have extras. And again, it starts off with another interesting chase scene that uses its locale in a fun way, ending with a great transformation in fog. After that, though, it’s rubbery and terribly staged because the location outside of the building is so, so flat and uninteresting, and the guards outside of Blonsky don’t really do much in terms of making the attack more dynamic.
The fight does have its moments, however-that one shot with the Hulk and Blomsky sizing each other up was excellent-I wish it lingered a little longer before the Jade Giant smacked him into oblivion. The sound cannons are a really effective way of fighting this beast, and I wish they were used more because it’s a believable way for the military to be a threat to him. Also, that helicopter crash was great. Some cool ideas like using the truck doors as boxing gloves-stuff like that shows some real intrigue and thought. It’s a shame it’s let down by ropey effects and a boring locale they don’t do a lot with.
This is all building up (and by “this”, I mean the movie) to the final showdown, and the one thing they were desperate to right in the Ang Lee Wrongs. Because we gots ourselves a monster ball!
Brooklyn Fight: All Pay-Off, Boring Build-Up
Our theme for Phase 1 is Discovery, and you could argue it’s Bruce discovering his evolving relationship with the Hulk. But, being real here, it’s the discovery of monsters for the broader MCU, and this is most demonstrated in the final fight. It really does feel like most of the budget went into it too-the scenery looks better implemented into the fight and more textile than the other two Hulk battles. Also, obviously, two giant monsters instead of one. There seems to be a lot more extras, we get more grunt soldiers reacting to the general chaos, the run-in punch is such a great action beat, and we even have a cool helicopter moment where it does more than crash. And also it crashes! The climax of the ’03 isn’t as impactful, dynamic or entertaining as this one is. The Hulk Smash is such a cool moment, and has great build up to it, as well.
And yet…is it worth it to have most of the rest of the movie be kind of dull? Hyper focusing on the villain to build him up because we don’t need to build up our hero monster as much? Having Bruce really passively going through the motions, led by contrivances because why else would he reenter society in order to monster brawl in a public, well known area to give maximum impact? To have what appears to be most of the budget going to it? Like, this is the crux of the movie, at least in my eyes, and if you’re willing to accept the climax that this builds up to, or even if you just enjoy this movie, that’s great, but I just don’t.
It’s flat, and soulless, and even the impact of cool action that’s well shot and thought out is going to have the cracks show as the CGI on the monsters is already horribly dated. You’d be willing to ignore all this if you have any investment in our heroes, and I just don’t. I don’t care about the story, or the characters, and the action falters because of this as I can’t get into what it’s contributing towards. And I still think we can get a great solo Hulk film, and I absolutely believe Ruffalo would kill it. But with two such over thought out films being ultimate failures in almost reactionary ways makes that potential all the less likely to be realised.
So I hope you enjoyed this action scene. It’s probably the only one we’ll get where the focus is solely on Hulk and he’s not part of a larger team/duo.
Post-Credit Scene & Miscellaneous
First mid-credits scene, and it’s technically not even that! Yeah, because this movie has its closing credits technically happen at the opening, this is the only “after movie” stinger in the MCU line-up to happen when no credits play, we just jump into it straight after the movie does its final cut to black. And it’s an important one, though more for meta significance than arc. Tony Stark meets Ross to discuss something big. It takes place post-Iron Man and it’s Robert Downey Jr officially cementing these two movies as being joint, a venture that will continue with all the movies on this brand moving forward.
As for the content in the stinger, it never really comes up again in-universe. We see Ross again in Civil War, and he has the most active onscreen relationship with Tony, yet they never bring this moment in the bar up. Probably a dropped plot point after this movie failed to get any follow-up. But hey, always fun to see RDJ in this part. I’ve heard he just happened to be on set, too.
Some more random musings, cause why not:
-Just gonna get this out of the way, but in a series with pretty terrible scores, this goes up there with one of the worst. Just awful music choices all around, even that incredibly (heh) brief touch with the theme from the 70s show.
-Speaking of the 70s Incredible Hulk show, on top of Lou Ferrigno’s cameo (who came back to voice the Jade Giant), he uses the alias of “D.Banner” at one point which is cute.
-The Incredible Hulk shares the distinction only 4 movies have in the MCU out of 22 so far, and that is having a sole writing credit! Zak Penn joins the likes of Justin Theroux (Iron Man 2), Joss Whedon (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2). Gunn and Whedon also share the esteem of being the only people to share sole writing and directing credits for their respective films.
-The depiction of Brazil is kind of sketch, and while not overly offensive or anything, I just can’t see a movie made nowadays depicting even the slums in this kind of caricature-ish kind of way. Also the bottling plant is one of the worst locations they’ve ever done. It literally looks like they scouted rundown empty warehouses on Craigslist.
-The blood drop scene is probably the biggest eyeroll out of me, but they also write Stan Lee’s cameo in as a plot point as he gets killed drinking the blood (which brings up further questions, but I’ll move passed that). Obviously this was nothing back then, but kind of uncomfortable to see now. Rest well, Stan the Man.
-I feel bad for Banner’s Brazilian doggo. Hope the fictional dog found a good fictional home.
-Bruce using a random heavy woman to test the pants size was also eye rolling. The humour in this film is so bad
-I really liked the Cap connection to Banner’s origins and how Blonsky gets ‘roided up. In the deleted ending, Banner attempts to blow his brains out before the Hulk transforms to stop him (it’s not exactly how it was described in The Avengers), and his rage roar pushes Cap out of the ice. Needless to say, I’m glad they changed the ending.
-Oh, the guy Banner gives pizza to in order to bribe into letting him access his old records is Martin Starr, who will return 9 years later in Spider-Man: Far From Home as Peter’s teacher, and yes they’re the same character. This will make him the longest appearance of a character from one film to their next (if you don’t count the “Peter Parker” cameo in IM2), beating Ross himself by a year, and his record will be beaten by a certain fellow in Spider-Man: Far From Home.
-It definitely doesn’t help that Betty has all the personality of a wet cloth, but Edward Norton and Liv Tyler have zero chemistry. It’s not exactly confusing to me they never brought her back, even after Banner’s recasting.
-That cave scene is really strange. I wish they didn’t try to soften the Hulk up so much so fast, even if it was plot necessary. It feels like Banner does little to actualise this relationship either, and it centres most of it on Betty, and it really hopes you care about these two as a couple.
-This was back when they awkwardly tried to add more of a scientific basis to the Marvel superheroes, so Hulk wasn’t just released by rage but an adrenaline rush. Banner fits himself with a heart-rate monitor watch, and a weird addition is that he cannot have sex, which is shown in an awkward moment where him and Betty try to get it on. I get the feeling that there was a miscommunication between the writer and director because they can’t decide whether this is humourous or not. They pretty much drop this angle in future appearances (I mean it hasn’t come up yet in the least-the closest it would have was Age of Ultron but Bruce and Natasha never get that far).
-Nice body horror stuff with Blonsky’s transformation, and when Sterns is experimenting on Banner Dr. Frankenstein style. More of this in superhero movies, please.
-Bruce failing to transform mid-jump was way fucking better in Ragnarok. Also his body crashing through the road was so stupid, even if it lead to that cool shot of the Hulk appearing fist first through the hole.
-They were clearly proud of their wet effects on the CG monsters-they have the cave scene in the rain for a similar effect-and man does it not hold up…
-You know, for how great a manic, intensely energised performer Edward Norton is, it’s weird to have him be so subdued and calculated. It doesn’t even seem like Banner is repressing his agitation too much, he’s more frazzled. The perpetual exhaustion and ready-to-burst depiction of Ruffalo is way more interesting, and frankly closer to the books. No offense to Norton, I really like him as an actor, just never felt he was right for this role.
I stand by the idea that the Hulk can have a great solo outing, but The Incredible Hulk is not it. And it’s a shame; I think they have some solid ideas and decent intent here. These are not talentless people, going back to a more 70s paranoia on-the-run thriller with kooky science fiction elements could have been a lot of fun. But it’s let down by worries of repeating the mistakes of its predecessor, and because of that the lead is underdeveloped, the action gets way too much focus and the pacing zips from scene to scene with only the most basic of interactions to get you acclimated to the characters and situation before moving onto the next part.
Banner is such a passive and bland presence here, not helped by the fact that the villains are just way more interesting. The action is probably where the movie comes to life the most, but it’s not seen enough to save it. It is not without its merits, and I wish this didn’t put a black mark on making future Hulk films, but as it stands it’s one of the most tiring watches in all of the MCU. A black sheep in the stable indeed, one that is rightfully ignored by the herd.
Now let’s see it on the ranking:
- The Avengers
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Iron Man 3
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Ant Man
- Iron Man 2
- Thor: The Dark World
- The Incredible Hulk
Well, we have a new worst! Yep, it’s below Thor: The Dark World. While that’s probably more visibly flawed movie, I’ll take an entertaining mess over a more competent but tiring slog any day.
Coming up next, we come to the granddaddy of all MCU, the first movie of the lot that launched its star (and character) into superstardom and kicked off this never-ending train 11 and a half years ago.