Marvel Movie Club: The Incredible Hulk remains a disappointing Iron Man follow-up
"This is a whole new level of weird, and I don’t feel inclined to step away from it."
As we count down to the long-awaited uber-team-up Avengers: Infinity War (out May 4), EW’s Marvel Movie Club is preparing by revisiting the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe in the weeks leading up to the mega-sized movie. EW’s Chancellor Agard (that’s me!) will revisit one Marvel movie a week, every week, to reassess its powers and hopefully answer important questions along the way like “What was The Incredible Hulk?” “Does Nick Fury wash his eye-patch?” and “Is there a point to Hawkeye?” This week, we’re digging into The Incredible Hulk, the “I don’t know her” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Read last week’s debut column on Iron Man here.)
Do you remember the plot of The Incredible Hulk? I definitely didn’t when I re-watched the film this week. As I mentioned in last week’s column, I saw it two times in theaters when it came out in June 2008 — a month after Marvel Cinematic Universe showrunner Kevin Feige said let there be light with Iron Man — but I have no reason why. I certainly haven’t watched the movie since then, either. Going into this week’s viewing, I was on pins and needles to see how I would feel watching the most inconsequential MCU movie that we never talk about. Would I find something to love about it and end up writing a passionate and overly-verbose defense of it, or would I realize 15-year-old me wasted his (read: his mother’s) money? The latter turned out to be the case. However, it didn’t take me too long to figure out why I enjoyed The Incredible Hulk so much when it came out: It was everything Iron Man wasn’t, which, in hindsight, is not a good thing.
Directed by Louis Leterrier, The Incredible Hulk isn’t an origin story, which is fairly surprising given that most of the Phase One movies were. It crams all of that information into a self-serious opening credits sequence that feels like a complete rejection of Ang Lee’s The Hulk from 2003 (which began with a nightmarish Danny Elfman-scored sequence that unfolded with the maniacal energy of a mad scientist). Here, in the place of unsettling animal experimentation, we only get flashes of the failed experiment that turned Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) into the Hulk; a bruised Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) in a hospital bed recovering from Banner’s first monstrous transformation; Bruce fleeing for his life because her father, mean military man Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), is obsessed with turning Bruce’s body into a weapon; and documents that feature Easter Egg words like “Stark Industries” and “Nick Fury” and “S.H.I.E.L.D,” all of which are meant to remind us that this was indeed connected to that other superhero movie that came out a month ago.
Eventually, we catch up to Bruce, who is taking capoeira lessons to keep his heart-rate under control, learning Portuguese, and working off the books at a soda bottling company as he hides out in Brazil. At this point, he’s been 158 days without incident. Alas, that all changes when the government is able to track him after some of his blood accidentally contaminates a soda bottle and gives poor old Stan Lee gamma radiation poisoning back in the states (Bruce’s blood is toxic? Who knew, because I surely didn’t? Is that canon?). Ross enlists an aging soldier yearning for his youth, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth, who is my favorite part of the movie, even though his accent is as inconsistent as Benedict Cumberbatch’s in Doctor Strange, because he’s the only who looks like he’s having fun) to travel down south and capture him.
Thus, we get our first Hulk-out of the movie. Whereas Iron Man waited an hour for Tony Stark to take flight in the Iron Man suit for the first time, The Incredible Hulk goes there in the first 20 minutes. (Granted, Banner’s first transformation takes place in a dark factory and the Hulk mainly keeps to the shadows… like if Batman was injected with Hugo Strange’s monster serum but was still stealthy). Needless to say, The Incredible Hulk brought the comic book goodies pretty early on, and given what I used to dislike about Iron Man, that’s probably one of the reasons I gravitated more to this film at first. The action and destruction mayhem only increased from there; a Virginia college and the streets of Harlem weren’t safe from “HULK, SMASH.” 15-year-old Chancellor’s brain demanded visual stimulation, and this movie wasn’t afraid to give it.
Now, watching The Incredible Hulk for the first time in 10 years, it’s easy to understand why audiences and the MCU pretty much ignore it: it lacks a lot of the universe’s trademark quirks. It feels almost defiantly humorless and spiritless. There are some laughs to be had here and there — like Bruce accidentally saying “Don’t make me hungry” in Portuguese instead of “Don’t make me angry” during an encounter with some hooligans in Brazil, or when he tells Betty that taking the subway in the most aggressive city in the world might not be the best idea — but these comic moments are few and far between. In trying to tell a story about a man trying to keep his cool, the movie never lets go and comes to life in any meaningful or memorable way.
This is especially true when it comes to the characters. First off, Norton’s Banner remains a cipher throughout the entire movie. I don’t need every Marvel protagonist to be a quip-machine, but I do need the movies to make some kind of statement about their protagonist. Alas, this flick doesn’t do that. A pre-Modern Family Ty Burrell appears as Betty’s oatmeal-y post-Bruce boyfriend, but he doesn’t come off as bland as I think he’s supposed to, namely because Banner isn’t that compelling either. By the end of the movie, I couldn’t describe Banner to you if you asked me, whereas Iron Man gave us plenty of scenes that captured the personality of Tony Stark. (On the bright side: Banner’s lack of definition here gave Joss Whedon and Mark Ruffalo a clean slate when it came time to do Avengers). Furthermore, the chemistry between Norton and Tyler remains non-existent. Watching Pepper remove Tony’s first reactor from his chest cavity was hotter than Betty and Banner’s almost-sex scene, which was interrupted because Bruce can’t get too excited. (I’ll admit, I laughed then, too).
It’s hard to fault The Incredible Hulk too much because it’s clear the Marvel machine was still working out the kinks. Like the U.S. government, it was still trying to figure out its own super soldier serum. This is no more evident than in the end scene in which Tony Stark visits a drunk Ross after the Hulk and Abomination’s big battle to talk to him about a team he’s putting together. That scene actually doesn’t make any sense; when the movie ends, the Hulk is on the lam and there’s no reason to believe his relationship with Ross has improved at all. Why would Stark come to Ross of all people to find him? As Marvel moved onto Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America, they realized this problem and released a one-shot short film called “The Consultant,” which is meant to explain why Stark met with Ross since the meeting is never ever referenced again — just like this movie.
- The first five minutes of the movie include two shirtless Edward Norton scenes. It made me feel like I was watching Arrow, which then made me wonder if this movie would’ve been better if that opening montage included a shot of Norton using a salmon ladder.
- I love how this movie comes close to giving us the MCU’s first sex scene and then quickly backs away from it, because we can’t be that PG-13 or else parents might not want to bring their kids.
- Part of me really wanted to read this movie as a commentary on the War on Terror and the military industrial complex, but there’s very little context given in regards to the filmic world’s political and international situation. I do think the movie hints at the idea that the U.S.’s endless pursuit of security — building bigger, better weapons, violating sovereignty to protect our interests, etc. — ends up creating the monsters we’re afraid of, but I wonder if I’m being too generous.
Next Week: 2 Iron, 2 Man
Avengers: Infinity War