Welcome, True Believers, to our new monthly blog series! This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so we’ll be taking it on one film at a time, asking questions like: How do these movies stack up after a decade of the MCU? How was cinema’s first connected universe built? And what even is a superhero film?
THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)
SECOND FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Alex: Having not watched it since the cinema, I was actually surprised at how much I enjoyed The Incredible Hulk. I’ve long held this up as the Official Worst MCU Movie, but looking back I think that’s because it doesn’t feel like an MCU movie. We’ll get to why that is later but first – Tim, how’d you find coming back to it?
Tim: While it definitely has enjoyable moments, Hulk as a whole is definitely a step down from Iron Man. If this had been the film that attempted to launch the MCU, I’m not sure it would have worked
I think where the film succeeds the most is in making Bruce Banner an exciting character to watch in his own right. Some of the best, most tense action sequences don’t involve the Hulk at all, or at least not until the end.
On the flip side, its biggest weakness is that there’s very little sense of the Hulk as an extension or version of Banner. They feel like two entirely separate characters, which is mostly down to the design and the visual effects employed. So when we get to the final CGI slug-fest, my affection for Norton’s version of Banner doesn’t really carry over to this Hulk.
Alex: That’s interesting, because I’d identify Norton’s Banner as probably the film’s biggest weak point. Or at least, as the reason Incredible Hulk wouldn’t have worked as the launchpad of a big franchise.
Ed Norton does a very good line in ‘beaten down everyman’ – and that really makes the first half-hour sing – but I just don’t think he sells Banner as an interesting character you want to continue spending time with. Especially next to Tony Stark, the only other Marvel protagonist we have to compare against at this point. I think everyone left Iron Man wanting to be BFFs with Tony, and that was a large part of what drew people back to the next few films. His personality was the hot-rod red engine of Phase I. Banner is… not that.
Tim: I really like the way the film presents Banner’s intelligence in such a different context to Stark’s, especially in that first half-hour, which I agree is the strongest part of the film. Supergluing his injuries, a homemade centrifuge made of a record player and a bike, his nerdy spectacles – it all makes for a fun contrast.
Alex: It’s amazing how closely the sequence of Bruce’s DIY biochemistry parallels Tony in the cave. And what comes after, too. In both Iron Man and Incredible Hulk, the first appearance of the lead’s superhero identity is presented like a monster movie.
Tim: Yeah, I wonder if there’s something to be said about these first few moments of the ‘fantastic’ entering this world being portrayed as moments of horror for the average bystander.
A lot of the film’s great visual moments happen in this sequence too: the great lighting on Norton’s face when we first see him start to transform, the Hulk walking through smoke, lit up by a flashbang. And it’s great that our first action scene barely involves the Hulk. We get a whole chase and the beginnings of a fight with Banner, which means we’re not just sat around waiting for the Hulk to appear and make things exciting. It also builds more and more tension, because we know that any moment he could transform.
Tim: You mentioned you don’t like Ed Norton’s performance as Bruce Banner. Can you put a big green finger on why?
Alex: I mean, part of it is that I have now tasted of the sweet fruit that is Mark Ruffalo’s Banner. That’s also the most obvious reason why this film feels a little disconnected from the MCU – thus far, it’s the only example of a lead being recast.
Tim: Norton is well known for being very particular about his roles, rewriting his scenes and so forth (which he did on this film). I can’t imagine that gelling too well with Marvel’s notoriously strict studio rules.
Alex: But I think my main issue actually ties into what you were saying about the early action scenes. They are great – the rooftop chase especially, in all its mid-‘00s-action-movie parkour glory – but I’ve never been sold on Banner having that kind of physique. Even with a couple of months of training, it seems strange that a scientist can outrun a SWAT team, and has pretty solid martial arts skills.
Most importantly, for me, it undermines the contrast between man and monster. Banner is already pretty close to a superhero – or, at the very least, an action hero – before he ever goes green.
Tim: I can understand your problems with it, but I also like the approach. It’s not like Banner is a buff fighter – he’s very focused on running away, kind of how like Rincewind in Discworld is a great sprinter because he’s such a coward. There’s a wiriness and leanness to him that makes sense to me, for someone who’s constantly on the run.
I also think it ties into a motif of physicality that this film has. They very explicitly link the Hulk transformation to his heart rate, we have Blonsky discussing how he wants to put the experience he has now in his younger body, and then the subsequent body horror as Blonsky becomes the Abomination.
Alex: This seems like a good time to turn our attention to this movie’s big bad – what do you think of this Abomination?
Tim: I wish he had a tail.
Alex: I wish we all had a tail, Tim.
Tim: Fair. Blonksy’s not the most compelling villain, but I think there’s a few interesting things about the way he’s shown in this film. He has the same problem as Obadiah Stane, in that by the time he’s become Abomination at the film’s climax, all his lines and motivation basically boil down to “I have power now, so I’m gonna have me a rampage”. But it actually makes a lot more sense with Blonksy, given that we know Hulking out tends to make you a bit irrational and amplify your worst instincts.
The most interesting thing, though, are the parallels the film draws between Emil Blonsky and Captain America. There are obviously the explicit links to the Super Soldier formula, which will become especially intriguing to think about when we get to lines in The First Avenger about the formula magnifying what’s inside, so “bad becomes worse”. Tim Roth even gets to take a beta version of Chris Evans’ CGI body for a test drive in one scene – although in this case, it’s to beef him up, not make him scrawny.
And for all the inspiration that the MCU draws from the Ultimate line of comics, Blonsky’s fight with Hulk on the university campus is probably the closest we’ll ever get to the Captain America versus Hulk fight in The Ultimates #5.
Alex: I think that fight is Blonsky at his most interesting as a villain. The visual contrast between the tiny man with superhuman strength and the hulking monster is something the later films – especially The Avengers – will do a lot with. So I kind of wish they’d steered into the Captain America comparison, and kept his physique like that, rather than going the full monster.
It might have made for an interesting bit of mirroring with Banner. The monster within versus the monster without.
Tim: But you need that high level of threat to justify deploying the Hulk. Hard to do that with a tiny Tim Roth.
Alex: Ahh, Tiny Tim Roth – my favourite Dickens character. You have a good point, I guess I just wanted to see a character closer to Nuke from Marvel comics. He feels like the other half of the inspiration for Blonsky here. Of course, never one to waste an opportunity, the MCU would find a place for Nuke later on…
GET CAPE. WEAR CAPE. FLY?
Tim: When it comes to discussing how much this feels like a superhero movie, Hulk is an interesting character, because he’s barely a superhero in the comics.
I think the film actually gets his balance pretty spot on, at least for this version of the Hulk. Although he does explicitly save Betty, General Ross and the other people in the helicopter at the end, he’s more of a force of nature that you can occasionally point in the right direction
Alex: Growing into a superhero is kind of Banner’s character arc in this movie. Which is helpful, because Hulk otherwise seems determined to depict its lead as completely flawless.
Every time the Hulk is triggered, up till the end, isn’t Banner’s fault. He’s being provoked, pretty much always because of General Ross. Even becoming Hulk in the first place, which is sometimes played as a Prometheus-Icarus-overreaching-hubris-of-man thing, isn’t on him because he was being misled. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for development.
Tim: I think his arc is meant to be accepting the Hulk as part of him, rather than fighting it as this separate thing. That’s the main thrust of Betty’s argument when Banner mansplains at her during their car journey, and it seems to be corroborated when she’s able to calm him down during the Sterns experiment, and by the final shot of the film.
It’s also why, when we come to The Avengers, we have that “I’m always angry” moment. But it’s certainly not something the film spends a lot of time covering, or does particularly well.
Alex: You are, as ever, correct. Banner spends most of the movie running away, which isn’t a case of doing the wrong thing, but of not doing the right thing. And in that climactic fight he finally turns around, and tries to “aim” Hulk to achieve something good. He changes from a victim of circumstance to a hero.
Before this moment, the film is more or less split between horror and thriller. Hulk is the horror character – bursting from the shadows, the serum aggressively rebuilding muscles and skin, waking up from a werewolf-style transformation unsure who you hurt. Banner is the thriller character – running away from the government, furtive glances from beneath the peak of his baseball cap as the undercover agents close in.
But when Banner makes that pivotal decision, he essentially bumps the genre into superhero blockbuster.
The kind of movie where the protagonist can tear a police car in two, pick up both halves and use them as boxing gloves. Hell. Yes. That’s exactly the kind of creative use of powers that I’ve always come to superhero comics for.
BUILDING A UNIVERSE
Alex: I mentioned at the outset that The Incredible Hulk doesn’t feel like an MCU movie – but what do you reckon? Does it feel like a movie that takes place in the same world as Iron Man?
Tim: I think so. The world building here is relatively subtle – presumably because for most of production, they had no idea if Iron Man would be a success. I think that’s also a reason why so many people view Iron Man 2 as entirely given over to setting up the Avengers, but that’s for next time.
Alex: That said, I was amazed going back how much connective tissue is included here. Not only Abomination’s but Hulk’s origins are explicitly linked to Captain America’s. There are references to Howard Stark’s involvement in the project and even ‘Vita-Rays’, plus namedrops for Nick Fury and SHIELD.
The thing that feels weird is seeing the references and connections that were never followed up on. Mr Blue becoming The Leader; the dad from Modern Family as Doc Samson; honestly, even the idea of Betty Ross as the love of Banner’s life.
Tim: On that note, a bit of fun trivia. The kid that Banner gives the pizza to when he sneaks into the university is played by Martin Starr of Silicon Valley, who would later reappear in the MCU in Spider-Man: Homecoming. In the novelisation, he gets called Amadeus Cho – the son of Helen Cho, the nano-molecular geneticist who helps create The Vision in Age of Ultron, and later a superhero and a Hulk in his own right.
Starr is great, but I’m glad they didn’t stick with the casting. It would have been a horrendous bit of whitewashing.
Alex: They don’t call you The Trivia Lad for nothing.
Tim: As you said, the groundwork is laid for both Doc Samson and The Leader here, in the form of Ty Burrell and Tim Blake Nelson respectively. I like both of their performances, but I really couldn’t see them as working in their more ‘comic book’ forms, which I think is actually one of the film’s biggest flaws.
There’s this big disconnect between Banner/Hulk and Blonsky/Abomination. I think it’s partially due to the CGI used to create them (we were still in the early days of performance capture) but also in terms of their design.
With Ruffalo, the Hulk actually felt like a bigger version of the actor, but this Hulk doesn’t resemble Norton’s Banner in any way. They feel like two entirely different entities, visually.
Alex: That’s interesting, because I feel like the film’s plot actually minimises the differences between Banner and Hulk. As much as Bruce protests otherwise – see the aforementioned mansplaining – he seems very much in control of Hulk from the outset. He stops Betty from getting hurt, he runs away from the first encounter with Blonsky and pals…
We’ve compared the Hulk’s first appearance in the factory and Iron Man coming out of the cave, and it’s notable that Hulk is actually less aggressive than Stark here. He has to be provoked repeatedly before he goes on the attack, and that’s still to help him escape. He’s much more flight than fight, which feels like it comes straight from Banner.
If this is a monster movie, Hulk feels more like a King Kong or Frankenstein – misunderstood, pushed into violence by the outside world – rather than Wolfman or Mr Hyde, who seem more obviously baked into the premise. He’s just a big dumb animal, and a fairly obedient one at that.
Tim: You could almost re-edit this film to be an Iron Giant-style story, where Hulk is a figure that accompanies Banner around at all times, and usually listens to him but sometimes doesn’t.
Alex: Anyway, back to the Marvel Universe as a whole. The one thing which makes The Incredible Hulk feel most like its immediate predecessor is the military connection. Both Stark and Banner are closely tied to the military, in very different ways.
Tim: I think it’s interesting to note that these films are coming out around the same time as the Transformers series has started, which have very overt links to the US military, both on and behind the screen. Iron Man, I believe, had a similar level of cooperation, but it’s something Marvel seems to have shied away from since.
Alex: If Iron Man flirted with being a critique of the military industrial complex… well, Hulk doesn’t necessarily have any real commentary, but does make the military an out-and-out baddie.
Banner is explicitly not a weapons developer. General Ross admits he lied to him about the Hulk project, and Banner’s running away is actually revealed to be an attempt to stop Ross from weaponising what’s inside him, rather than to just save his own purple-pants-wearing ass.
Interestingly, even SHIELD get folded into that, happily surveilling away. Doubly interesting, given this film came out the same year as The Dark Knight, a superhero movie which attempted to tackle the ethics of state surveillance head-on.
Tim: It’s worth remembering that the military has historically been the Hulk’s ‘baddie’ in many of the comics. Whereas Iron Man has a much closer relationship – he was even Secretary of Defence at one point.
Alex: It really feels like the military is the most powerful force in the MCU at this point – as it is in our own world, I suppose. The only real superhero who existed before Iron Man and Hulk emerged was a military man (and, with the forthcoming Captain Marvel set in the ‘90s, maybe the second too).
It’ll be interesting to see when that begins to change, as superhumans take over as the primary force in this world.
Tim: That ties this film into the arc that we can draw from Iron Man through to Civil War, about where superheroes lie in terms of the law and the establishment. It’s a thread I’m looking forward to following.
Alex: There’s one way that The Incredible Hulk does undeniably stick to the ‘Marvel formula’: it totally falls apart during the final action setpiece. Otherwise, though, I’m not sure it has much in common with the rest of the films – likely one of the reasons that its cast were absent from the recent ’10 years of Marvel Studios’ class photo.
Tim: One thing that is thematically consistent with most other Marvel films is how closely Blonsky’s origins are tied to Banner. ‘Heroes make their own villains’ will come back again and again in the MCU. And while I don’t think it’s always necessary, some of the notably weaker films are also the ones that ignore this idea.
But overall, as we’ve mentioned, it’s much more of a thriller than most Marvel films – more than any other until Winter Soldier. And, having been mostly made before Iron Man hit the cinemas and definitely before Marvel had anything approaching a formula, Hulk looks very different to most of the other Marvel films.
The whole thing has a grimy, sweaty sheen to the cinematography that I think helps emphasise the desperation of the characters, and the physicality of Banner and Blonsky.
Alex: Adding to that feel, I reckon, is that by MCU standards, Hulk is not a very talky movie at all. As we noted last time, a lot of Iron Man’s charm was built around all that lovely back-and-forth banter. Incredible Hulk is much quieter. For the first half hour, most of the dialogue is subtitled, or background noise, or delivered through an IM channel.
Tim: I wonder how much of that is deliberate, to emphasise Banner’s isolation?
Alex: Well, I guess they didn’t know at this point that it would be such a point of contrast, but it does work really nicely in this regard. But it makes it harder for Norton’s Banner to shine. He doesn’t get to be charismatic in the same way as Downey, or any of the Chrises we’re about to be introduced to.
Most of the characters that the MCU launched with – Iron Man, Thor, Cap – were more or less blank slates as far as most viewers were concerned. I think the miracle of the MCU is that they actually turned that into a virtue, filling these empty vessels with big personalities.
Hulk is the one exception to this rule. Thanks to the ‘70s TV series, and the Ang Lee movie which had been released only five years earlier, the big green guy was already more or less a household name. This film takes that level of assumed audience knowledge and runs with it – for good and bad.
It means it can skip past doing an origin story, but it also does a lot of winking back to former incarnations. “You wouldn’t like it when I’m hungry”, Lou Ferrigno’s cameo as a security guard, the stretchy purple shorts… These feel much more in line with the superhero films of the early ‘00s, which often feel slightly embarrassed by their source material, than the tone which Marvel would establish for its movies going forward.
Tim: As ever, let’s end with a couple of moments each which sum up our feelings about the film, for good or bad. My picks are both very small sequences, but that feels appropriate, as my overall verdict on this film is a lot of well-done small moments that add up to an unsatisfying whole.
I really like the moment just before the hulk-out on campus. Again, we get some tense action ahead of Banner becoming the Hulk, with a brief chase through the stacks to elevate the sense of danger. And Banner resorting to eating the USB stick as a way of keeping it intact is another example of the sort of frantic intelligence that Norton imbues the character with
Alex: I want to pick out two things from the very beginning and very end of the movie. Let’s start at the beginning, with the film’s opening credits.
I’ve alluded to this a couple of times already, but they do a great job of letting the film just skip right past all the origin-story exposition business. All the information you need is there, mixed in with bits of found footage which reference the likes of Fury, SHIELD and even longtime Hulk sidekick Rick Jones. I understand it’s an homage to the credits sequence of the TV show, but for me it almost has the feel of a David Fincher movie.
It’s really stylish, in a way that stands apart from any Marvel ‘house style’. The cinematography in the rest of movie reaches for that same sheen of cool, but for me never quite matches it.
Tim: Right towards the end of the film, after Blonsky has been defeated, we get to watch the Hulk flee the Army across the Manhattan rooftops. It’s a very brief sequence of Hulk parkour (…hulkour?) but the harsh lighting provided by the helicopter makes the Hulk look, in my opinion, better than he does anywhere else in the film.
It might just be the deep shadows and bright lights that evoke something very comic-booky – helped by the fact Marvel films were still shooting on film here, so look significantly better – but it’s a beautiful little sequence.
THE OFFICIAL T+AKTMCU RANKINGS
- And so begins the MCU’s love affair with dropping Bruce Banner out of helicopters and from assorted great heights. I look forward to tracking this key motif across the movies that follow.
- Fashion Statement of the Movie: Although we never actually see them in action, this clearly goes to the stretchy purple trousers Betty buys for Banner – with a special mention for Banner’s delivery boy outfit.
- Banner starts the movie with a dog, sadly later tranquilised by Blonsky, which leads to two questions: is the Hulk the only Avenger with a pet? And who looked after that poor dog after Banner jumped across Central America?
- Ah, seeing Bruce swallow that memory stick takes me back. USB sticks – truly the Tide pods of their day.
- Stan Lee Watch: What the hell happens after he drinks the tainted Hulk juice? Is there a hulked-out Stan running around the MCU we don’t know about?
- The dying siren as Hulk turns a police car into a pair of boxing gloves and beats the snot out of Abomination is a lovely bit of audio design. There’s another in the audible pop during Blonsky’s spinal injections. During my viewing, that occurred just as I was putting some mac and cheese in my mouth, which I do not advise.
- Bruce and Betty don’t have sex because of fears that he might Hulk out, but that seems to primarily be a concern if he’s getting excited, so, as my notes so eloquently put it, I hope Bruce Banner at least eats pussy.
- MCU Hero Fuckability Scale: Despite all the diaphragm exercises Banner does here, no one seems to remember Ed Norton as a Sexy Avenger. He certainly wasn’t making audiences swoon the way Downey’s Tony Stark did. Maybe if he just had a little more stamina…
- While I was disappointed to discover that the college student who films Hulk on his phone wasn’t called ‘Jock McGee’, as I’d originally heard, it might be worth pointing out that Jack McGee is a character the ‘70s Incredible Hulk TV show – a reporter, like his MCU counterpart.
- McGee attends Culver University, the fictional alma mater of Victor & Janet Stein, time-travelling parents of Chase ‘Runaways’ Stein. It’s also where Andrew Garner, ex-husband of SHIELD Agent Melinda May, taught psychology.
- Hulk doesn’t kill Abomination in the end, making him a significant outlier to a lot of Marvel villains, who tend to be offed at the end of the film. Perhaps this is to prove that the Hulk isn’t entirely a monster, but what does that say about Tony Stark, who just blew up one of his oldest friends?
- Hulk’s post-credits sting doesn’t even come after the credits! I guess audiences hadn’t yet been trained to hold in their wees and wait through all those names.