It is remarkable, 13 years after launching with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, just how far Marvel Studios have come in producing film and television content out of their stable of comic book characters. These days it all forms an inter-related network of parallel narratives where the Disney+ series Wandavision dovetails into a Doctor Strange sequel while The Falcon and the Winter Soldier follows Avengers: Endgame while also picking up plot threads from Captain America: Civil War. Back in 2008 it started with just two films, and much simpler idea of a superhero franchise.
Let’s take a look back at The Incredible Hulk, which has become something of an orphan in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The MCU did not begin as a wholly-owned Walt Disney franchise; the studio bought the entire Marvel empire once the films were already coming out. Early MCU titles such as Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger were funded and distributed by Paramount Pictures. The rights to The Incredible Hulk, however, sat with Universal thanks to a 2003 Hulk film directed by Ang Lee. An already in-development sequel was repurposed as an MCU relaunch; protagonist Bruce Banner was recast from Eric Bana to Edward Norton, and a new origin story was clearly jammed into the opening titles to separate one film’s continuity from the other. Unlike Paramount’s MCU franchises, The Incredible Hulk could not easily be separated from Universal’s control. While Disney could produce as many Hulk films as they pleased, they would contractually be required to allow Universal to distribute them in return for a proportion of the revenue. As a result, the Hulk character was consigned to supporting roles in The Avengers and Thor: Ragnarok. There has not been a Hulk solo picture since. The Incredible Hulk remains the only MCU title not currently available on Disney+.
This is all a great shame, because of the three iterations of the Hulk in cinemas – Eric Bana in Hulk, Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk, and Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers films – this is the most effective and entertaining of them all. Bana’s tight paranoia comes across as a little too stiff. Ruffalo seems far too laid back. Norton nails the character: he is an enormously talented scientist living in a panicky nightmare where the slightest loss of control could mean entire city blocks get levelled. There is a charisma to Norton’s Banner. He can still crack a joke, but there is a palpable desire to rid himself of his Hulk persona. He also operates the best out of the three as a heroic character in his own right and as a romantic lead.
The Incredible Hulk sees Banner in hiding in Brazil, as he attempts to find a cure for the gamma poisoning that has brought the Hulk into being. At the same time the belligerent General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) continues to pursue him, with the assistance of Russian/British soldier Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth). When Banner returns to the USA to recover his original experimental data, he reunites with his wife Betty (Liv Tyler) – Ross’ daughter – while Blonsky uses a military super-serum to enable him to fight the Hulk one-on-one.
Of all of the original MCU films – referred to as “Phase One” – The Incredible Hulk feels the most grounded and realistic. It carries more believable stakes in its story, and feels more urgent and personal for its characters. It contains the most believable romance as well, with its reconnected spouses offering more believability and depth than, say, Thor and Jane Foster’s 36-hour trip from strangers to lovers. Critically it is a story about Banner and not the Hulk, who essentially comes along for whenever an action scene is required. Even then, it’s Banner who plays out the film’s first action sequence – he only transforms into the Hulk during its climax.
The action is innovative and stunningly conceived. Director Louis Leterrier – who cut his teeth on the likes of Unleashed and The Transporter 2 – masterfully presents a foot chase through the hilly streets of Rocinha, a shadowy Hulk vs soldiers fight in a bottling factory, a showdown on a university campus, and a one-on-one giant monster fight between the Hulk and a mutated Blonsky on the streets of New York. It is this final action sequence that interests me particularly – I am usually loathe to see two computer-generated effects punch each other as a movie climax, but here the character work done through the film pays off marvellously. I feel Marvel Studios have missed a trick in not pursuing further Hulk films. It is the closest thing America has to a homegrown Godzilla franchise.
The film benefits from rich, vivid performances. Liv Tyler, like Norton, brings far more brightness and warmth to her character than her 2003 predecessor (Jennifer Connelly). William Hurt’s blustering, mean-spirited General Ross is wonderfully hammy – and remains one of the few elements of this film to be brought into the ongoing MCU. As Blonsky, Tim Roth is an excellent villain whose growing obsession with fighting the Hulk offers a proper developing arc for his character.
The MCU needs a solo Hulk franchise. Relegating the character to supporting roles runs counter to the very personal and solitary crisis that he faces. The concept of a brilliant intellectual on the run, constantly terrified of transforming into his very opposite – all physical, no intellect – offers a horrific tone and style not otherwise present in Marvel’s ouevre. As the icing on the cake, what child does not find escapism in the Hulk? The only character in American literature to get away with throwing the ultimate temper tantrum, stamping his feet with frustration while trashing buildings, crushing cars, and throwing tanks? One element that unites all three versions of the Hulk is the glorious mayhem that they bring along with them. I cannot see an action scene involving the Hulk without grinning in the cinema like an idiot. This weirdly disliked, abandoned iteration showcases him at his very best. It is the secret marvel of early Marvel.