In the last eleven years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed how audiences view comic book films and their respective franchises. With now twenty-two films under their belt, Marvel Studios and Disney have cracked the code to creating well-made films using a slew of obscure but interesting characters. That doesn’t mean, however, that there haven’t been some missteps for the saga. Marvel Studios started out with a bang in 2008 with the original Iron Man, but people seem to forget that another film in the same franchise came out a month later.
The Incredible Hulk is the black sheep of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is the only Marvel Studios film distributed by Universal Pictures. It is the lowest grossing film in the franchise domestically and worldwide, and it’s the lowest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes that has the Marvel Studios label. Edward Norton and Marvel infamously didn’t see eye to eye and eventually got replaced by Mark Ruffalo. None of the characters besides Bruce Banner and General Thaddeus Ross have appeared outside this film since. It seems like when The Incredible Hulk gets brought up nowadays, it kind of gets shrugged off, even by the studio who made it. I personally think that’s a shame.
The film’s opening credits tell you everything you need to know about this character’s origins in the span of a couple of minutes. Bruce Banner and Betty Ross in love, the gamma radiation experiment gone wrong, Hulk being the cause of death for many, including almost killing Betty and her father General Ross, which resulted in the General forcing Bruce to live life on the run. All of that gets told within three minutes.
I love how the movie starts in Brazil, where he has gone over 100 days without “an incident”. It’s such a different setting compared to most movies. It’s very gritty and down to Earth, and Bruce is doing his best to live a low-key lifestyle. In Brazil, Bruce does meditation, breathing techniques, and possesses a heart rate monitor watch to keep himself in check.
One of the biggest themes of this movie is if a person’s inner demons can be controlled and embraced. The Hulk is very much inspired by the concept of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Incredible Hulk asks, what if Mr. Hyde can be controlled?
Edward Norton is a much more interesting Banner than Mark Ruffalo. Norton understands the constant struggle of having a literal monster inside him and is always on edge. Every hero in the MCU seems to welcome their amazing abilities, while Banner is always at conflict with it. The days without an incident caption puts the audience in the shoes of Bruce as he’s constantly keeping himself in check. A lot of future Marvel films feel very sanitized and polished, while this feels quite the opposite. Norton looks like he’s partaking in as much of the action as possible with his constant sweaty and tired demeanor. During the last scene of the film when’s he smiling as his eyes turned green, you can tell he has finally embraced the big green guy. That certain intensity is lost with Ruffalo.
An important character in Hulk’s mythos that hasn’t appeared in later films is Betty Ross, played by Liv Tyler. Most would agree that Bruce and Betty are a much more interesting couple than Bruce and Natasha (lame). Norton and Tyler have good chemistry and you can definitely feel the history they have whenever they interact. There is also a sense of tragedy that’s felt whenever they are together. He’ll always feel that she’ll never be safe with him. Even when they attempt an act of intimacy, getting “too excited” could be extremely dangerous.
General Ross, now Secretary, played by William Hurt, is an interesting character that I’m glad the MCU has reintroduced, albeit in a very limited role. He’s a man that wanted to recreate the super soldier serum that resulted in Banner’s accident. This whole time he’s trying to capture Bruce in order to use him as a weapon. He also wants to protect his daughter at all costs from Bruce, which is understandable. I hope the MCU continues to use him in these political roles similar to Civil War, where he introduced the Sokovia Accords.
Emil Blonsky, played by Tim Roth, is a fun villain. He’s an ambitious special-ops commando that wanted to be on the same playing field as the Hulk. He injected himself with the same stuff Bruce got and turned into the powerfully-hideous Abomination. The scene in the college courtyard where he’s using enhanced abilities to try and stop the Hulk was really cool.
Hulk is terrifying in this film through his actions and design. The first Hulk-out scene feels like a horror movie in the dark factory, where the Hulk feels like a monster lurking in the shadows. This film demonstrates the Hulk in his rawest form showing unrestraint in every fight he’s in. The CGI in this film has aged a bit, but the designs of Hulk and Abomination still look good. There are some badass shots of Hulk that show why he’s the strongest Avenger.
The final action scene between Hulk and Abomination is bone-crunchingly intense. These two monstrous beings are not holding back and have no problem damaging everything around them. Marvel’s third act battle can feel stale with their CGI armies, so it’s nice to look back at something simple yet effective.
Even in 2008, Marvel Studios was experimenting with different genres with Iron Man being a technologically focused action film, while The Incredible Hulk feels like a fugitive action thriller revolving around a man trying to fight his inner demons. This movie has a sense of urgency that’s reflected on Bruce constantly moving one place to another.
The Hulk is one of Marvel’s most recognizable heroes, but it seems like he doesn’t get that treatment. From a business perspective, it makes sense why Marvel Studios hasn’t attempted another Hulk solo since 2008. It’s the lowest rated and grossing film in the franchise, and Universal Pictures still has the rights to the character and everything associated with it. Marvel can still use the character as long as he is not the headliner. It seems like Marvel Studios has no interest in pursuing a partnership with Universal similar to the Sony situation since Hulk didn’t exactly set the world on fire with his movie and Universal is one of Disney’s biggest competitors.
Another movie focusing on Bruce’s inner struggle with the Hulk would have definitely been interesting. It could have focused on the complex relationships between Bruce, Betty, and General Ross. They could also find a way to introduce She-Hulk, who is one of the most popular female heroes in Marvel. It would be nice to see The Leader, one of Hulk’s most popular villain, in all of his green big-brained glory, but there’s no sign of that character returning.
While the Hulk’s journey in the MCU has been interesting, it’s unfortunate that he has to constantly share screen time and will never be given room to develop on his own. The inclusion of the Planet Hulk storyline in Thor: Ragnarok was cool, but it pretty much means that Marvel will never properly adapt that iconic storyline.
Overall, The Incredible Hulk is still the best Hulk movie out there. Norton’s interesting portrayal of the character along with a solid supporting cast and a simple yet raw approach to action makes it an underappreciated Marvel Studios film that still holds up.