Ivan Vukovic doesn’t smash The Incredible Hulk to pieces so much as consider its increasingly low-profile place in the behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and makes a good case for Edward Norton’s version of Bruce Banner.
Black sheep. Bastard step-child. The one we like to forget about. Those are some of the more generous monikers assigned to The Incredible Hulk in its relation to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was released a mere six weeks after the first Iron Man in what can only be described as a one-two punch where the first blow dealt almost all of the impact in terms of both box office performance and general excitement among audiences. If you and a group of friends found yourselves geeking out over the MCU and you casually mention that you skipped this one, no one would bat an eyelash. Someone might tell you, “Oh, you really should watch it; it’s kind of interesting,” but they’ll never again ask you if you followed through.
Despite this general indifference toward the film (or perhaps as a result of it), opinions of it among both fans and casual moviegoers are all over the place. You can make a compelling case for it being unique and ambitious just as effectively as you can argue that it’s a bland and formulaic by-the-numbers faux-gritty superhero film that looks and feels more like an early-aughts superhero film than an installment in the MCU.
I have always found myself in the former category, but here’s where it gets tricky: The gift and curse that comes with being an MCU installment is that it’s almost impossible to judge one just as a standalone film. How they reverberate is critical. Their value and quality can fluctuate over time based on the impact they have across future films and how they continue to interconnect throughout the rest of the greater franchise. The Incredible Hulk’s ability to do this effectively was stunted when Edward Norton left the role and was recast with the more lighthearted and affable Mark Ruffalo for The Avengers, a move that didn’t exactly retcon this film, but it did ensure that most of its supporting characters and loose threads wouldn’t see the light of the day again…with some limited and bizarre exception. More on that later.
The case for this being an ambitious and risky film can be supported by the opening credits. Marvel made a bold creative decision to fast-forward through the origin story and condense it into a montage of short clips that trust the audience to either already know or eventually piece together how Bruce Banner became the Hulk: Here, it was a military science experiment involving gamma radiation gone wrong, in which Bruce transformed into the Hulk and immediately went on a rampage, hurting those around him in the laboratory, including his love interest Dr. Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) and a generic angry military general (William Hurt) who we’ll later find out is her father. Bruce then goes on the run and falls off the military’s radar, going into hiding in a hillside Brazilian city while he quietly works to find a cure for his anger-induced transformations into a big green CGI creature sparingly voiced by Lou Ferrigno.
The film then kicks off with what could ostensibly be the start of the third act of the story. Bruce is thrust out of hiding when the military picks up his trail. After a violent Hulk-powered encounter with his pursuers that leads to him waking up in Guatemala, he finally travels back home to Virginia (on foot in only 17 days, amazingly) where he reunites with Betty. They go off the grid and make their way to New York City to make a final futile attempt to cure his genes of the gamma radiation. He has a final brawl with the enhanced military soldier that he’s already been facing off with throughout the film, who has now transformed into a roided-up evil version of the Hulk that is even more dangerous and violent than our protagonist. The Hulk kicks this creature’s ass and then runs off into hiding again, essentially bringing him back to where he was at the start of the film. There’s one key difference, however…
Bruce now has (more) control of the Hulk and has seemingly mastered the ability to induce a transformation on his own terms. This is visualized in a pretty slick final shot that takes places in a cabin in remote British Columbia. We zoom in on a now-bearded Bruce as he meditates, and the camera pauses on his face as he opens up his eyes, the irises of which are charged with an electric green, and he smirks rather sinisterly. Director Louis Leterrier intended for this scene to be a flexible set-up for one of two scenarios: a sequel in which Bruce now has control of the Hulk, or foreshadowing of the Hulk playing an antagonist role in The Avengers. It was a pretty cool final shot.
Except it didn’t actually end up being the final shot.
Instead, the final scene ends up being tonally out-of-place teaser where Tony Stark walks into a bar where General Ross is drowning his sorrows after his failures to apprehend Bruce. The two verbally sprawl a bit, and then finally Tony makes his intentions for seeking Ross out clear: “We’re putting a team together.” Ross asks, “Who’s we?” And that’s all we really get of that. The storyline of Ross’s involvement with the assembly of the Avengers set up by this scene does not end up playing out in the narrative of any of the other MCU films, and years later a one-shot short film included in a DVD of Thor would sloppily explain why. MCU head honcho Kevin Feige has blatantly admitted that they wrote themselves into a corner with this scene, so not only did it undo the style and sleekness of the previous and more naturally final shot, but it did so for no good reason. It would have been more logical to scoot it over toward the end of the credits, but perhaps Marvel didn’t have enough faith that the audience would stick around to see it the way they did with Iron Man.
When I saw the movie in theater for the first time and Robert Downey Jr. showed up on screen, a little boy sitting in the row in front of mine turned to his father and happily exclaimed, “It’s Tony Stark!” That must have been a cool experience for that kid. I like to imagine he and his dad stopped at Target on the way home and maybe he was treated to a new toy. An action figure of Iron Man, most likely. Definitely not the Hulk, though.
Bruce’s further exploits in later MCU films don’t necessarily create any major contradictions with the events of this film, but they certainly raise some questions. When Bruce Banner shows up a few years later in The Avengers played by Ruffalo, he’s still in hiding, but he’s somehow much more amenable to being brought in to government/military control, showing little resistance to being recruited by a team whose ties to the aforementioned are pretty blatant.
But the real big question mark is around the subsequent absence of Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross character. By Age of Ultron, we are introduced to a romantic subplot between Bruce and Black Widow, with Betty seemingly no longer on his mind. Now, you can argue that four years have passed between Hulk and Avengers and then another three between that and Ultron, so maybe the two of them have let each other move on. But that does seem a bit out of character, given that their primary relationship obstacle was his fugitive status, which was no longer a concern after he joined the Avengers. Moreover, there’s an arguably problematic level of devotion Betty displays toward Bruce, going so far as to literally walk away from her new boyfriend (oh hey, it’s Ty Burell!) at the mere brief sight of Bruce. So did Bruce just not even end up calling her after the Avengers defeated Loki? It’s a pretty big waste of a character, as Liv Tyler actually puts in a pretty decent performance here. If you rank her against other MCU female love interests, she doesn’t quite reach the heights of Pepper Potts (which admittedly has more to do with Iron Man’s superior script and treatment of that character) but she certain commits to the role much more than Natalie Portman does as Jane Foster (which admittedly has more to do with Thor’s inferior script and treatment of that character).
There is then a case to be made for the MCU and us as its audience to just quietly ignore The Incredible Hulk and not worry about any of its themes or unresolved threads, but that eventually became harder to do when they decided to bring back William Hurt’s character in both Civil War and Infinity War. He appears in small role in the former and a cameo in the latter, having made his way up in the world as a senator and then a secretary (of defense?), respectively. If Marvel wanted us to move on from this movie like Bruce moved on from Betty, then forcing us to hang out with her dad was a bit of a counterproductive move.
And then there’s the big reason I have a tough time letting go of this movie: I much prefer Edward Norton’s portrayal of Bruce Banner to that of Mark Ruffalo, which puts me in a barely recognized minority. Ruffalo’s Banner has followed the current of recent Marvel movies in becoming increasingly goofy and comedic in a cinematic universe that is littered with a lot of goofy and comedic characters. There’s a rarely wavering direness and intensity to Norton’s Banner that sets him apart from not only his successor but also the majority of the roster of today’s MCU characters, which would make this kind of character an almost welcome contrast to the rest of Infinity War’s massive cast. When Norton does get to deliver a joke or more lighthearted line, it feels earned and not shoehorned in like most of Ruffalo’s quips. I can’t help imagining what it would be like if Norton had stayed with the franchise and continued to take this character so damn seriously while no one else around him was doing the same.
Norton’s departure was one of those situations where we’ll probably never truly know the full story, but the general consensus was that he exercised a lot of free reign to rewrite the script throughout both the pre-production and production of the movie in a way that Marvel was not going to allow him to do for any of his future appearances. You know. “Creative differences.” This does raise some uncomfortable questions around just which parts of the final product here were influenced if not entirely crafted by him. For example, was it his choice to make Bruce such a heartthrob? Not only is Betty prepared to leave her new boyfriend for him with no hesitation, but there’s a pretty icky small subplot at the start of the movie: Bruce has a coworker at a Brazilian soda-bottling factory who is a very attractive woman (that supermodel kind you usually don’t see at soda bottling factories). She has no lines and her scenes are limited to her staring longingly at Bruce in a much more than Jim-and-Pam sort of way. When he later flees from the military, he hastily hides in her apartment for a minute, where she’s just gotten out of the shower and is wearing only a towel. He thanks her, kisses her on the cheek, and runs off forever. Yeah. That happened.
Ultimately, whether or not this movie needs to be recognized in the greater MCU canon is up to your own interpretation. Norton and Ruffalo play two very different characters within what for all intents and purposes is still the same continuity. This recasting gave us three different live-action Bruce Banners in under a decade (there was no time to talk about Eric Bana here), a record previously held by Batman and later also matched by our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Continued doubts about the character’s capacity to carry his own movie coupled with the financial disincentive of Universal Studios still owning the distribution rights for the character likely mean that we may not see another solo Hulk film for quite some time, despite the popularity of Ruffalo’s take.
So enjoy it. Breathe it in. Maybe this wasn’t the Hulk movie anyone wanted, but it was the Hulk movie that got made, and it’s the Hulk movie that William Hurt’s cameos continue to remind us of ten years later. Marvel took some serious risks, and the final product contained plenty to like and plenty to dislike. The problem is that no one knows how to feel about it because most people have forgotten what this product contained at all. Perhaps Marvel wants to keep it that way.