Marvel Cinematic Universe Retrospective Part Two: The Incredible Hulk

Catch up on last week’s entry, Iron Man, here!

It’s hard to remember that in 2008 The Incredible Hulk was seen as a good movie. When looking at the MCU as a whole it’s easy to pick out the weak spots, most of which happen early on in the movie. The Incredible Hulk is the first of these, not because the Mark Ruffalo version of the character got better material to work with (although that is true), but because it feels half-baked. There are a lot of interesting things happening within the movie, but altogether the movie is so much less than the sum of its parts.

Part of the reason the movie was so well-received at the time of it’s release was due to the disastrous Ang Lee adaptation of the character five years earlier. Lee’s po-faced existential family melodrama, shot and edited in the style of a comic book, apparently with the intention of inducing vomiting in people with a weak stomach. The Incredible Hulk, helmed by Lois Letterier, who had previously directed the first two Transporter movies, had a back-to-basics approach that paid homage to the Hulk’s TV origins but with better action. The smartest part of the movie is how it condenses the Hulk’s origin into an expositional title sequence that also helps the audience get comfortable with the new cast which included Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, and William Hurt as Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross.

Dealing with the aftermath of the failure of Hulk, and the success of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk had to distance itself from the former while feel connected to the latter. Bruce Banner is the furthest a character can get from Tony Stark, while still sharing his status as a super-genius. Banner is a unique presence in superhero media as he is one of the only heroes who is desperately trying to get rid of his gift. That’s his main goal in this movie: where Stark was gleefully admitting that he was Iron Man, Banner was living in obscurity trying to cure himself of the Hulk. This difference in personality and goals gives the movie a distinctive attitude next to its flashier peer. That’s about the only thing The Incredible Hulk has going for it, except for a pair of cool action scenes: one being a foot chase through a Brazillian village, and the other a battle on a college campus.

Apart from these aspects, the movie is decidedly weak. While the central theme of mishandling power for corrupt reasons is a good one, its bogged down by a lot of flat dialogue and some suspect performances. William Hurt is the best of the lot, and Tim Blake Nelson is fun as an early version of The Leader (which will probably never pay off) but the real culprits are Norton and Tyler. I’ll get to Tyler and Tim Roth in their own sections, but Edward Norton is quite disappointing. I’m a huge fan (imagine me saying that one syllable at a time while leaning in way too close to your face), but there is nothing in this movie that allows Norton to put his mark on the character. It’s true that for long stretches of the movie that Bruce is isolated, and keeping his emotions at bay, but he feels like a cipher as a reault

Worse than the performances is the plot itself. As soon as Bruce is back on home soil, after a fun start in Brazil, the film falls apart. To save time let’s talk about the worst choice: the decision not to kill the Abomination. The Hulk has already killed a bunch of soldiers at this point (in self-defence if I’m being fair) and killing the Abomination is clearly the best course of action as he rounds on the Hulk in a violent attack in the final act. He’s crazy, powerful and at the mercy of an army that couldn’t even capture the Hulk. How are they going to hold him? Obviously, it’s so he could appear in future films, but Universal has blocked all opportunities on that front and as a result the choice leaves the Hulk feeling impotent.

Ticking the Romance Box

If you’re wondering why Betty hasn’t appeared since this movie it’s probably because she and Bruce have the most lukewarm romance in MCU history. Partly due to the script and partly the performance of Liv Tyler, who is still in Elvish whisper mode six years on from Lord of the Rings, Betty is just a little less empty of character than Bruce himself. The you-wouldn’t-like-me-when-I’m-horny joke was top notch, in all fairness, so credit where credit is due.

Wasted Villain Corner

Tim Roth isn’t too bad as Emil Blonsky, even if his entire character can be summed up with him shrugging “uh, fancy a fight, I guess?” Still, his CGI abs are a lot more noticeable ten years on, and everything interesting about the character disappears when he transforms into the Abomination.

The Incredible Hulk is a good film until it isn’t. After a strong start that sets up an interesting dilemma, it becomes a generic comic book movie with more style than the substance that makes Bruce/Hulk so compelling in later films.

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