Twenty minutes into The Incredible Hulk I thought to myself, ‘Holy shit, is this actually a forgotten masterpiece in Marvel’s Phase One?’ Thirty minutes later I realized that no, this was in fact not the case. But by the time this rewatch was over, I had come to a heretical position – I think I like Ed Norton as Bruce Banner more than Mark Ruffalo.
Look, I’m not running down Ruffalo. I love him, and I love him in the Marvel movies. I love him as Science Bros with Tony Stark and I love him as Charles Grodin in Thor: Ragnarok’s take on Midnight Run. But Ruffalo and Norton approach the role in such different ways that the two Banners feel like different characters, and I do have a preference for one version over the other.
The truth is that Norton’s Banner wouldn’t work in The Avengers. I mean, from what I know Norton the actor/collaborator wouldn’t work either, but his take on Banner is fundamentally different from the direction Marvel took The Hulk in later films. There’s a cuddly quality to Mark Ruffalo, the kindly uncle in a cardigan with a dark past. He actually reminds me of a lot of old-timers I’ve met in recovery – men and women who look like square and boring grandpas or soccer moms who tell stories about sucking dick for crack or giving their best pal a hot shot behind the dumpsters on Vine and Santa Monica. You know that there’s a darkness there, but that darkness isn’t present day to day. Which, of course, makes it scary when it comes back out. That’s Ruffalo’s Banner – a guy who gets flustered, yeah, but who seems harmless when you see him on the street.
That’s a reasonable take on the character. But Ed Norton plays him with a cold, seething ire that feels more immediate and dangerous. He’s no old-timer – he’s got sixty days put together and he’s barely fucking holding on (it’s interesting that Banner is counting days in this movie, just like a junkie fresh out of rehab). Norton’s Banner is a twitchy, edgy mess in the beginning of the film, the kind of guy who might end up getting into a fight with a dude twice his size over a subway seat. He’s a guy with a skeleton’s worth of bones to pick, and tons of chips on his shoulders. He’s the guy at work you joke (but secretly believe) will one day show up with a weapon.
That guy doesn’t work in The Avengers. It’s a clubhouse, a bunch of pals hanging out. Even when they don’t agree there’s conviviality (unless Loki is weaving his spell on them), and it’s impossible to imagine Norton’s Banner being convivial. Ruffalo is wounded, coping with his past. Norton is a wound, still living in his past.
All of that plays beautifully in the first twenty minutes of Louis Letterier’s The Incredible Hulk, as we see Bruce Banner hiding in Brazil, living in a favela, working maintenance in a soda factory, studying martial arts and meditation to maintain his cool. Even though there’s nothing really happening in these scenes – Bruce is just hiding out – the opening of the film has a propulsive nervous energy that is thrilling. We see that Bruce Banner’s biggest day-to-day problems aren’t the government or supervillains, it’s trying to keep his head on straight when a co-worker gets in his face.
This stuff works so well because it gets at the metaphor that is central to the Hulk – he’s the simmering rage and anger that hides under the surface for so many of us. He can be read in terms of recovery or other types of mental illness, but he’s not contained solely in those metaphors. The Hulk is any one of us who can fly off the handle in the right situation, and Bruce Banner is the part of us trying very hard to not flip out on our boss/husband/kids/that guy taking forever paying to get out of the parking structure. The Hulk is fun when he’s smashing and jumping through buildings, but he’s most relatable when Bruce Banner is trying to rein him in while dealing with life’s small inconveniences.
The opening culminates in a really thrilling parkour chase through the favela, the sort of foot chase that you wouldn’t expect to find in a Hulk movie. It’s limber and fast, not enormous and bulky like a standard Hulk action scene. It sort of serves as a palette cleanser from Ang Lee’s Hulk, and it creates some space before we get to the more standard CGI-filled Hulk smash sequences.
When Banner does finally Hulk out Letterier shoots it like a monster movie, with the Hulk’s eyes glinting in the dark as he yanks a US soldier into the shadows. Those moments where the Hulk is unseen are great; less great are the moments when he steps into the light. It isn’t that the Hulk looks bad here, it’s that it’s 2008 and this isn’t a hugely budgeted film. Marvel was still stingy back in the day, and the technology was where it was back in the day, and so we have a Hulk who looks – to modern eyes, anyway – very computer generated. Old CGI doesn’t become charming to me the way old practical effects do; that might be a generational thing (I know a lot of younger people are very in love with aesthetics that harken back to cruder computer graphics), but for me it’s about the point of the process in the first place. Old practical effects were intended to fool you – they’re like magic tricks. They’re deployed quickly and in ways that confuse the eyes. CGI, on the other hand, was always intended to replace reality; the stated goal was always to get photorealistic. When it doesn’t meet those goals, it doesn’t charm. It just falls flat.
To be fair, the Hulk in The Incredible Hulk isn’t terrible or anything. He’s just notably CGI. He’s also really well performed; this version of the Hulk has a brutal intellect, and he’s a little bit strategic and willing to use tools in vicious ways. He’s not smarter than later Hulks, but he seems more… wiley to me.
That wiliness has an animal quality to it, because this Hulk has an animal quality to him. He does speak in this film, but he also howls and rages at thunder like a dog. That, by the way, is oe of the best scenes in the movie, and it speaks to how this version of the Hulk is portrayed – it’s a riff on a scene in King Kong where Kong has Ann Darrow on a ledge and protects her from an attacking pteranodon. Watching the Hulk hurl a boulder at the thundering sky is absolutely adorable, and goes a long way towards making you care about the character. He’s not angry at the sky, he’s protecting girlfriend Betty Ross (Liv Tyler, who is fine in the role but is simply not given enough to do. Out of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe girlfriends, she is the most wasted).
That relationship injects some sex into the whole thing. The Hulk in The Avengers is largely sexless; even when Banner and Black Widow kinda sorta get together there’s a chasteness there. Banner and Betty in this movie have some heat, even if it’s played a bit for a joke (Banner can’t get it on because he would get too excited and could Hulk out mid-coitus. It plays like a juvenile joke in the vein of Man of Steel, Woman of Tissue). As a result The Incredible Hulk keeps the Hulk in Beauty and the Beast territory, but with a mental illness twist. It isn’t just the Beauty finds something special beneath the difficult exterior of the Beast, it’s that she believes that the Beast isn’t the real projection of the prince.
What IS the Hulk? This question gets pondered briefly in The Incredible Hulk, as Bruce and Betty drive away from a clash with the military at Culver University. In this film Banner says that he can remember flashes of his Hulk experiences, but that there’s so much input that he can’t quite make anything out. It’s very different from later versions of the Hulk – in both Age of Ultron and Thor: Ragnarok it seems like Banner has no clue what is happening when he’s the Hulk. It’s a full black out; in Ragnarok he doesn’t even know he’s in space.
This feels like vital difference between Norton and Ruffalo’s Hulks. Banner’s not quite in charge in The Incredible Hulk (although the end of the movie suggests that he eventually is), but he’s still present. The Hulk isn’t a different being, he’s a part of Banner, perhaps set free. It seems to harken back to some of the great John Byrne and Peter David Hulk comics, wherein the Hulk is revealed to be at least partially influenced by abuse at the hands of Bruce Banner’s dad (stuff that made its way into Ang Lee’s Hulk).
That’s the cuddliness of Ruffalo versus the edge of Norton – there’s still Banner inside Norton’s Hulk. Ruffalo’s Hulk is ‘the other guy.’ Norton is closer to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (one of the original influences for the Hulk) while Ruffalo’s reminds me of the weird relationship between Rick Jones and the original Captain Marvel – they would switch places in the universe, with Rick disappearing when Captain Marvel showed up.
One of the peculiar things about The Incredible Hulk is the way it deflates as it goes along. The opening twenty minutes are truly terrific, but once Banner gets back to the United States things begin to get bogged down and the edge gets dulled. The film is so close to being great – there’s a masterpiece just two script drafts away – but the movie as is gets clunkier and clunkier with each minute of running time.
Tim Roth’s Emil Blonsky is an intriguing villain who gets terribly misused. It’s not that Blonsky is a bad guy, it’s just that Blonsky is a fighter. He’s spent his whole life as a warfighter, and then he meets the Hulk, the ultimate weapon, and he covets that power. General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt, somehow balancing his cigar-chomping over-the-top moments with deep moments of paternal caring) gives Blonsky some, dipping into some old Super Soldier Serum they have lying around.
Roth gets the character – he’s a guy who has spent his whole life using physical violence, and now as he approaches his 40s his ability to dole out physical violence is diminishing. What does a special forces guy like Blonsky do when he can do the things that define him? He doesn’t have a backup plan – he likely never intended to live this long – and Roth gives him a desperation that lends itself to foolishness (he gets absolutely ruined by the Hulk in their first encounter).
The problem is that the script doesn’t give Blonsky any motivation for his final battle with the Hulk. It sort of leans into a different drug addict metaphor – once given a taste of power Blonsky needs more, and this leads him to pressing Dr. Samuel Sterns (a wonderful Tim Blake Nelson, whose absence from the next nine years of the MCU is a crime) into giving him some gamma irradiated Banner blood. Which is fine, but here’s the thing – it happens after the military has taken Banner into custody, which means that Blonsky, once the mission is over, is like “I guess now’s a good time to turn into a monster.”
It’s a weird structural problem, because it makes the Abomination’s rampage through Harlem (which is loaded with white people in this universe) feel absolutely gratuitous. Blonsky doesn’t WANT anything. He doesn’t have a bad guy to fight or a grudge match to settle – he just turns into a monster and starts ripping shit up. It’s unfocused, and so it makes the movie’s climax arbitrary. What are the Hulk and the Abomination fighting over? Well, they’re just fighting. To fight.
That’s fine in act two or something, but by the end we need stakes for these characters – a reason for them to go toe-to-toe. I understand how this came about, by the way – credited writers Zak Penn and Edward Norton wanted to give Banner a moment where he had to CHOOSE to become the Hulk, and they wanted to use his falling out of an airplane bit from The Ultimates, which is a very cool bit. But to get to Banner choosing to Hulk out they had to a) cure him of Hulk and b) lock him up, robbing the Abomination of any motivation. They opted to go for the character beat and the cool scene rather than set up the battle to be meaningful.
It’s a pretty good battle (although I don’t understand where it ends up – in a ruins on top of a building? Am I missing something here? Is this a famous rooftop I didn’t know about?), but because there are no real personal stakes the movie has to bend over backwards to make stakes. It brings Betty back into the fight by having Ross foolishly bring his helicopter into the battle, for instance. I don’t believe for a moment that Ross would bring his daughter into that situation – there’s no way he wouldn’t briefly touch down and force her out.
On top of that there’s the deep CGI-ness of both creatures. The Abomination looks pretty cool if you ignore his weird tiny head (I feel like if this character appeared today they would give him the wacky ears he has in the comics), but both he and Hulk are lacking significant weight. The final battle is a mishmash of pre-vizzed stuff, some of it quite cool (the Hulk stabs the Abomination with his own bone spur!), but without any real oomph or power. We always know the hero is going to win (duh), so the question is always “How?” But in The Incredible Hulk we also know the answer to that – by pummeling the villain into submission. There’s no sense of Hulk being outmatched by the Abomination, no sense that Hulk will have to try something new or take a risk to beat the bad guy. He just has to prove that he is, as he says in the comics, ‘strongest one there is.’ Which, again, is fine for an act two battle, but lacking for the climax. I think a lot of the film’s finale problems could have been solved by having Blonsky become the Abomination earlier and have a round with the Hulk where he outsmarts him, leaving us in act three to feel like there’s no way the Hulk can outthink this guy who has all of the Hulk’s strength but also all of Blonsky’s strategic knowledge.
But this is the movie we have, and it’s a movie that starts at a peak and slowly unravels until the climax feels like a scene you could comfortably walk in and out on. The Incredible Hulk is, in the end, a letdown… and its very end truly is a letdown because it was almost instantly retconned. The film seems to end on Banner, meditating, taking control of the Hulk within – his eyes open, emerald green, and we see Banner smile… but then it keeps going. Rather than do a post-credits sequence, The Incredible Hulk (only the second MCU film) does a pre-credits sequence. Ross is drinking in a bar (knocking back some nasty Ecto-cooler looking shots) when Tony Stark comes in and invites him to be a part of a team he’s putting together.
I can tell you what I heard at the time – the plot of The Avengers, back when Zak Penn was writing it, would have the team getting together for the same reason they did in the comics. They were originally brought together to take down the Hulk, who had been bewitched by Loki. With that plot in mind Tony reaching out to Ross, the world’s foremost Hulk hunter, makes sense. But that isn’t the way The Avengers went, and Tony himself got sort of bounced from the Avengers Initiative in Iron Man 2, so this ending – which is part of the actual movie, not a skippable post-credits moment – feels weird and off.
Nothing would have made me happier than to revisit The Incredible Hulk and finding it had aged like wine. It hasn’t. It’s fine, and maybe its biggest problem is that it squanders a good opening and a good take on Banner with an hour and change of mediocrity. Some of this was script stuff, some of it budget, but in the end The Incredible Hulk feels barely important to the overall MCU. Betty is gone, we have a new Banner, and Ross showed up just to make a cameo in Civil War to remind us that we have this movie in our collections for a reason.
The Incredible Hulk feels like a vestigial tail for the MCU, a part that nobody needs and that speaks to an evolutionary path not taken. There’s more sexuality in this (and Iron Man) than in any of the rest of the films to come, and there’s a lot of darkness (Hulk’s litany of victims is dark, and includes hunters). This is the one MCU movie that feels indebted to a non-comics/cartoons source, with a lot of bowing and scraping in the direction of the Hulk TV show (including making the Hulk’s origin in this film fit the TV show’s weird dentist chair origin). In 2008 the Hulk was the best known of the Marvel Studios characters, and I imagine they thought the film would do better. But it was Iron Man that took off, and the Hulk who dejectedly ended up only a guest star, never again a lead.