Welcome to Wednesday Rewatch, a SYFY WIRE series that challenges writers to rewatch a science fiction, fantasy, or otherwise genre-adjacent movie they've already seen and reevaluate in a new context. This week we rewatch The Incredible Hulk (2008) to mark the 10th anniversary of its release, which happens to be today!
The Incredible Hulk has long been considered the odd, unwanted child of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Coming out a little over a month after Iron Man, it was the second official release from Marvel Studios following the company's launch as an autonomous, full-service film production entity. But it was not without baggage that, in the eyes of many fans, kept it in a strange gray zone with one big green foot outside the MCU and one inside.
For starters, it was originally conceived as a sequel to 2003's Hulk, the Ang Lee-directed film starring Eric Bana that was produced by Universal Studios long before the MCU became its own distinct entity. When Hulk failed to do the box office business Universal was hoping for, the creative rights reverted back to Marvel. Seeing an opportunity, the nascent studio decided that it would do a soft reboot of the character and incorporate the Hulk into the MCU — although Universal still retained the right to distribute any future Hulk standalone movies.
So even though four of the first five Marvel Studios movies were distributed by Paramount (until Disney bought Marvel in 2009), The Incredible Hulk was released by Universal, and that's why you have yet to see Marvel produce another film based solely around the Hulk, instead keeping him in ensemble films.
I saw The Incredible Hulk at a press screening just a couple of weeks before it was released in theaters. There was a level of anticipation and excitement for the film because Marvel had reportedly overhauled the entire concept, moving away from the arthouse-meets-comic-art esthetic of Ang Lee's film while also incorporating more material from the comic books themselves. Behind the camera was Louis Leterrier, a French director who had proven himself capable of creating kinetic actions sequences in films like The Transporter and its sequel.
And in front of the camera was a whole new cast, led by Edward Norton as Bruce Banner/The Hulk. Landing the (at the time) two-time Oscar nominee for just its second standalone feature was considered a major coup for Marvel: Iron Man's Robert Downey Jr. was more or less a reclamation project and a gamble, while Norton was a healthy, thriving, A-list talent. Norton had also worked on the screenplay for the film (which is credited to Zak Penn), seemingly indicating his personal investment in the production.
Joining him was Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, William Hurt as General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross and Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky, whose comic book origin was altered to make him a deadly special ops officer who is eventually transformed (via super soldier serum) into longtime Hulk comic book villain The Abomination.
I remember the sinking feeling that I had the first time I watched The Incredible Hulk as I realized the film wasn't working. At first it looked promising: dispensing with the origin story during the credits was a smart idea on Marvel's part, seeing how it had been just five years since the last movie and there was no need to go over that ground again.
The film opens with Banner hiding out in a favela in Rio, but unlike previous (and future) iterations of the character, he's not helping people there as a doctor. He's working in a soda bottling factory while tracking a flower that may be able to provide an antidote to his condition. He barely says a word during the first act of the movie, which kind of drags along until the first — and admittedly thrilling — action sequence, in which Banner transforms into the Hulk while being pursued through first the factory and then the streets by a Blonsky-led team.
I recall The Incredible Hulk having three major problems when watching it the first time: a thin story that merely served to string together three major action setpieces, poorly developed characters, and wildly divergent acting (Norton weirdly lacks energy in the role, while Hurt chews up every piece of scenery he can find), and less-than-spectacular CG, which made both the Hulk and the Abomination look like video game avatars for the most part.
After the exhilirating energy and humor of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk trudged morosely in its wake, substantially lacking both.
THE OFFICIAL REWATCH
Over the past decade, as the MCU has become the monster box office and cultural phenomenon it is now, there have been occasional attempts to look back at The Incredible Hulk and perhaps give it more credit than it was initially afforded, while also reassessing its place in the MCU itself.
But rewatching myself for the first time in years (I can't really remember if I ever saw it again all the way through since that first press screening), it quickly became apparent that the same problems that plagued the movie back then are still glaringly obvious today.
The Incredible Hulk is just, in a word, dull. It comes down to two main issues: the lack of narrative momentum in the script and Norton wasting the opportunity to do anything remarkable with the character of Bruce Banner. He shows occasional flashes of both anger and humanity, but he's mostly a cipher, allowing himself to be chased from one situation to another without ever fully taking charge of his own story until the end, when he chooses for the first time to Hulk out in order to face the Abomination.
The most interesting character is Roth's Emil Blonsky, who sees the super soldier serum as a way to salvage his aging body and make himself useful for years to come as a military operative. But even Blonsky's arc becomes a stock scenario, in which he's driven mad by the formula (something that never happened to either Captain America or Banner himself) and ultimately transforms into a monster, although by the time that happens, Banner has been captured and there's no real reason or motivation for Blonsky to go full Abomination.
Not surprisingly, the most lazily written character is Betty, who is there merely to either a) provide comfort to Banner or b) be thrust into dangerous situations (the MCU was years away from the likes of Black Widow, Valkyrie, and Okoye). Liv Tyler is not the best actress even under good circumstances, and her breathy, little-girl voice does little to sell her as the intelligent, practical and willful woman Betty was in the comics.
But even regardless of the cast's ups and downs, The Incredible Hulk suffers the most from a script that never truly fleshes out its characters nor gives them a compelling, propulsive storyline. 10 years later, the movie still mainly plays as a chain of setpieces held together by one expository scene after another. The best of these remains the favela chase, since Leterrier shoots it almost like a horror movie, keeping the Hulk in the shadows as long as possible.
Obviously, technology has progressed in leaps and bounds in the past decade, and it's almost unfair to compare the Hulk of today's Marvel movies to the big green-gray guy in The Incredible Hulk. But even by 2008 standards, both the Hulk and the Abomination never look like more than generic CG creations. Marvel at the time was operating on relatively low budgets and it shows most clearly in the movie's monsters, along with some scenes that are either eerily empty of people (like the first battle with Hulk on the Culver University campus) or set-bound (like the final rooftop fight in Harlem).
Thaddeus Ross Redux: The only actor to return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe from The Incredible Hulk is William Hurt's Ross, who has since turned up in Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War after receiving a promotion to Secretary of State. It was nice to see him again in both films, if only so that Marvel could acknowledge that, yes, The Incredible Hulk is still part of the MCU.
Follow The Leader: On the other hand, the MCU brain trust has missed an opportunity by not bringing back Tim Blake-Nelson as The Leader. Blake-Nelson appears for a handful of scenes in The Incredible Hulk as Dr. Samuel Sterns, a loopy and ethically challenged scientist who first helps Banner and then Blonsky. His final scene in the movie finds him on the floor, super soldier serum dripping into his skull, which begins to throb and expand. Comic book fans will recognize this as the beginning of his transformation into The Leader, one of the Hulk's best-known foes. The lack of a Hulk standalone movie has perhaps kept The Leader offscreen, but we'd love to see Marvel find a place for him somewhere.
Easter eggs: As with all the MCU movies, there are plenty of references to the Marvel Universe in The Incredible Hulk. Curiously it also features three nods to the beloved 1978 TV series that shares its name: the origin sequence that plays under the credits is staged like the one in the series, original Hulk Lou Ferrigno cameos as a security guard, and there's a glimpse of the late, great Bill Bixby on a TV screen in his other popular series, The Courtship of Eddie's Father.
As for cinematic nods, most of the weaponry in the movie is branded with the Stark Industries logo, Banner is tracked at one point by S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury's name is glimpsed on a memo. Ty Burrell plays Betty's boyfriend Leonard Samson, who appears in the comics as sometime-Hulk ally Doc Samson. Stan Lee, of course, shows up in the second of his many MCU cameos as a man who drinks a bottle of soda tainted with Banner's blood (we'd love to see Stan Hulk out, but we never find out what happened to the character).
There are other little references as well, but the biggest Easter egg is reserved for the end of the movie — not after the credits, by the way, but before they roll. As General Ross sits in a bar downing drinks, he is approached by Downey's Tony Stark, who says that a team is being put together — a clear reference to the Avengers. Looking at it now, however, the scene makes little sense since Tony was initially reluctant to join the Avengers. And why does he want to loop in Ross? To recruit the Hulk or stop him?
With neither Hulk nor The Incredible Hulk blowing up the box office (the latter remains the lowest grossing of the MCU's 19 movies to date), it seemed apparent that there was not a large public appetite to see the Hulk in his own movies. And although Norton was reportedly going to come back in the role for 2012's The Avengers, he allegedly wanted too much creative control for Marvel's liking and was replaced by Mark Ruffalo, who has successfully played Banner/Hulk in four films, one short and a post-credits scene.
The Incredible Hulk certainly did not do much to help its own cause, and neither Norton nor Leterrier really did enough to warrant their continued involvement, either. Perhaps the Hulk just doesn't work as a character on his own, at least in the movies, because he's neither a full-blown superhero nor an all-out monster. That tension between the two sides of his personality may function better as a literal time bomb in the middle of an ensemble, who never know when they may have to stop fighting an army of Chitauri or Ultrons and start grappling with one of their own.
If you're an MCU completist, The Incredible Hulk should be part of your collection for sure. In the end, however, the movie suffers from conflicting creative directions and Norton has neither the blazing charisma and humor of Robert Downey Jr. nor the heart of Chris Evans. The closest comparison I can find is On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the 1969 James Bond film that starred one-and-done 007 George Lazenby. While OHMSS is actually a superior film on its own terms — which The Incredible Hulk is not — both exist adjacent to their respective mythologies, like a distant member of the family whose parents everyone remembers but who themselves is kind of a stranger.