It’s really weird to go back and watch 2008s The Incredible Hulk. Although all movies are a product of their times, and the movie making legacy of what came before, The Incredible Hulk makes the viewer acutely aware of this. It’s a superhero movie, yes, but it feels totally different from anything in the MCU. Rewatching it feels like a peek into the formative years of the MCU and of what could have been a totally different, more substantial MCU.
A hero with a legacy
Unlike Iron Man, this movie has had two previous live-action adaptations, and both legacies clearly suffuse the production of the film. The first and most influential of these two is the TV series of the same name which ran from 1978 to 1982, with three TV movies running into 1990. The series is actually a strange departure from the source material. Bruce Banner is actually called David Banner because Bruce was apparently “too-gayish” and/or because the developing producer Kenneth Johnson wanted to distance the show from the comic books. In addition to that weird departure, the show follows, erm, David around the country as he searches for a cure to his condition and solves the problem of the week. Inevitably, someone does something and the magnificent Bill Bixby delivers the only line anyone ever cares about, “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” Regardless of its flaws, the show made an indelible mark on the characters it first adapted, and every successive adaptation has to deal with that. For me, The Incredible Hulk TV series holds a special place in my personal nerd-dom, as it was my first introduction to superheroes. Well, that and the toys that came from Tim Burton’s Batman movies.
The second of which is the much maligned Ang Lee directed Hulk (2003). This also holds a special place for me because it was the first midnight movie premiere I was able to attend. Anyways, the movie has problems, and most of those criticisms informed the newer film. They replaced the placid performance of Eric Bana with the very Ed Nortonish Edward Norton. Jennifer Connelly’s Betty Ross gets updated to Liv Tyler, and Sam Elliot (unfortunately) gets changed to William Hurt. The new movie actually assumes you’ve watched it and just skips the Hulk’s origin altogether. In a lot of ways, The Incredible Hulk plays like a sequel to both Hulk and The Incredible Hulk TV show (assuming you just erase that time he got into a fight with with Thor cosplayer). Personally, I think the way in which that legacy is approached is one of the best novelties of the movie. It brushes past the needless origin retelling and moves onto the meat of the piece, which is a late 90s thriller, a la Enemy of the State and The Bourne Identity. It’s a story that’s been done before, but now with new and improved superhero gloss! Personally, I love how the score homages “The Lonely Man” theme from the TV series.
It’s a serious action thriller
Aside from the movie maintaining previously established interpretations of the characters, the movie strikes a totally different tone. In fact, it’s so different I wouldn’t be surprised if people didn’t realize it was an MCU movie. It’s a stern and tightly paced action thriller that is totally devoid of the trademark MCU snark. The only time they really allow for that is when Betty and Bruce are trying to make their way to Mr. Blue in New York City. Only then does the movie feel like a few jokes are tonally warranted. To be honest, it’s a breath of fresh air to allow the movie to live in the darker material after the snarkfest that was Thor: Ragnarok. When Banner transforms into his alter ego, the Hulk truly feels like an uncontrollable force of nature, and the movie allows you to consider the ramifications of being an uncontrollable, indestructible monster without having to show those terrible ramifications. You know and understand that Banner can’t control it, and it’s worth sacrificing everything to make sure that he doesn’t come off the leash. This is accomplished by action movie veteran Louis Leterrier at the helm. The fights in the film feel very visceral and explosive, and they enhance the themes of the film beyond just being good-looking fights. They raise the stakes in each successive fight, and it’s the conflict between the Hulk and Tim Roth’s Emil Blonsky that escalates the film. When Banner looks at himself, he sees a monster. When Blonsky and General Thunderbolt Ross look at Banner they see raw untamed power. They want to reach out and say, “If we can only claim this raw power, we could be gods.” They know what could be done with that strength, and the weaponization of that strength is the crux of the conflict in the film. It’s actually interesting that both The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man hit on the theme. Both movies see the antagonist wanting to weaponize their power for the good of the United States and/or themselves. Both of them perceive a threat to their own personal power, and by extension their nation. Obadiah Stane and Ross both make comments about returning power to back where it belongs, as if both sense an existential threat to the US. Seeing as these movies take place at the height of the War on Terror, this isn’t accidental. This may even explain the nature of the US government of the MCU as a whole (which we’ve discussed at length here), where the US is perceived as a waning empire in need of more superhero juice to help them combat the other nation’s growing list of superpowered goons (now that we know Winter Soldier has been hanging around on the fringes this whole time). I don’t know if this was what was intended by both films, but they both struck the same chord.
The relationships feel real
Following off the heels of Iron Man and the previous Hulk films, it makes sense that they would focus on grounding the relationships, as what happens to those Banner cares about may trigger the monster lurking within. In particular, his relationship with Betty Ross feels the most fully formed. Unlike every other marvel movie, the relationship between Betty and Bruce feels genuine. It’s not a scripting afterthought, and Betty actually serves the story beyond “Bruce’s Girlfriend.” In retrospect, it’s Betty’s absence from the later MCU that makes this film feel so disconnected. Roles have been recast for other characters, so trying to see Mark Ruffalo and Ed Norton as the same character isn’t that difficult, but not having Betty in the later movies feels strange considering how they progress in this movie.
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The movie, with nearly all of the cast being either abandoned or recast, is strange to go back and rewatch. In addition, the tonal and cinematic difference is jarring in comparison to even other Phase 1 movies. By the time Phase 2 rolls around, that style is almost entirely abandoned. It’s a shame, really. If anything, the MCU needs more movies like this, that are willing to forgo their narrative punches, and let them land, implications and all. ■