The History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Part 2: ‘The Incredible Hulk’
In The History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ScreenCrush editor-in-chief Matt Singer looks back at every film in the MCU to date, leading up to the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War on May 4. Previous chapters can be found here.
Chapter 2: The Incredible Hulk
Director: Louis Leterrier
Writer: Zak Penn
Release Date: June 13, 2008
U.S. box office: $134.8 million
Worldwide box office: $263.4 million
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 67 percent
Metacritic score: 61
Letterboxd average grade: 5.6
What Holds Up
I like director Louis Leterrier and writer Zak Penn’s choice to make The Incredible Hulk more of a continuation of the old ’70s television show with Bill Bixby than a sequel to the 2003 Ang Lee movie that most audiences hated. They completely ignored all the weird changes Lee made to the character’s backstory (Remember Nick Nolte as Hulk’s mumbling father who turns into a big energy creature? Good times!) and instead brought Bruce Banner (now played by Edward Norton instead of Eric Bana) back to basics.
It’s also refreshing that Leterrier decided not to retell the Hulk’s origin five years after the last movie did it. At this point, we all know how the Hulk became the Hulk, and even if we don’t, does it really matter? We know the important stuff; he turns into a big angry green guy who smashes stuff. Spending an hour on the finer points of how this all started really doesn’t lean into what people like about the character (i.e. being a big angry green guy who smashes stuff, which he can’t do until after all that setup is done).
The bare minimum of information we need is gotten out of the way in The Incredible Hulk’s opening credits (which are also a fun homage to the Bixby Hulk TV show credits). And then it’s on with the adventure!
Then things start to suck.
What Doesn’t Hold Up
Abomination, this movie’s bad guy, looks like a bony turd. So I’m going to say that doesn’t hold up.
Neither does the overall look of The Incredible Hulk. Its hideous villain is laughable but appropriate; the ugliest Marvel Cinematic Universe movie deserves the ugliest Marvel bad guy. The Incredible Hulk is dim, murky, and drab; even the Hulk himself is colored a dingy, pond-water green, with so many muscle striations he gives off the vibe of a constipated dude who wants desperately to poop but can’t. (I guess that does explain why the Hulk’s so angry.)
Comic books and comic book movies are all, on some level, about visual spectacle; basking in these wondrous, impossible images. But The Incredible Hulk is consistently unpleasant to look at. The computer effects are atrocious. Here is Tim Roth, playing a pre-Abomination Emil Blonsky with his new Super Soldier “muscles.”
Who thought it was a good idea to cast Tim Roth as the world’s most elite military officer? He’s a shrimpy 5’7” and even after the Super Soldier Serum gets done with him he looks like someone started a create-a-wrestler in WWE 2K18, got bored, and gave up halfway through. Roth is a great actor, but he’s so wrong for this part he makes the choice of Liv Tyler to play cellular biologist Betty Ross comparatively inspired.
Coolest Foreshadowing of Future Marvel Events
Although the organization is almost never mentioned out loud (and Agent Coulson never pops up for a cameo) the SHIELD logo appears onscreen a bunch of times, including in the sequence where the U.S. government intercepts an email from Bruce Banner to Dr. Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), a scientist who believes he can cure Banner of his gamma sickness. In close-up we can see that SHIELD was actually listening in on these communications through a FISA warrant. I guess technically this isn’t a foreshadowing of future Marvel events (there’s not much of that in Incredible Hulk, outside of the post-credits) but it feels pretty prescient anyway.
Best Marvel Easter Egg
The Incredible Hulk has a Stan Lee cameo, of course, but it has a second tip of the cap to “The Man.” The pizza parlor on the campus of Culver University is called “Stanley’s,” a clear nod to Stan Lee (real name: Stanley Lieber). I hear their Excelsior Eggplant Parmesan is outstanding.
10 years later, it’s kind of astonishing that The Incredible Hulk has a better Rotten Tomatoes score (67 percent) than Ang Lee’s (62 percent). In hindsight, it seems like so many people were so annoyed with Lee’s more psychological approach to the character that they were just happy to get a straightforward action movie that was very deferential to the Hulk’s classic mythology. I’m not sure any sequel has benefited more from lowered expectations and following an unpopular predecessor than this one, because by any other measure, The Incredible Hulk is a disaster.
Norton was a decent choice for Bruce Banner, and while I prefer Mark Ruffalo in the part, it would have been interesting to see him interact with Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and the rest of the team in The Avengers. But Roth and Tyler — who has zero chemistry with Norton — are both terrible, and Tim Blake Nelson as Sterns (comics fans know him as The Leader, one of the Hulk’s most persistent antagonists) has so little screen time that he’s forced to go from brilliant scientist to deranged lunatic in the span of a single scene. He also gets saddled with possibly the single worst line of dialogue in all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, when he reluctantly agrees to inject Blonsky with gamma radiation and says, “I don’t know what you have inside you already. The mixture could be ... an abomination!” Laurence Olivier on his best day couldn’t have made that sound not stupid.
There’s been rumors about another Hulk solo movie in the decade since The Incredible Hulk, but I’m glad they’ve never come to fruition. As different as they are, Lee’s and Leterrier’s Hulk movies both expose the major flaw in the character, at least from a cinematic perspective: You invest all this time and energy and emotion in this guy, and then he turns into a rampaging computer-generated monster for all the action sequences. Iron Man gives you that shot from inside his helmet of Tony Stark’s face; we actively hear Peter Parker quipping from beneath his Spider-Man mask. Even when they’re doing heroic stuff, we never lose their characters or their humanity. At least so far, no one’s figured out a way to do that with the Hulk.
That’s why he’s so much better as a supporting player in The Avengers and Thor (at least in my memory, we’ll see how I feel when I rewatch them). He doesn’t have to shoulder the film’s entire emotional load and can instead be the comic relief or the guy who just beats up a lot of dudes. (It also helps that the Hulk CGI improved by The Avengers, and they made that version look like Ruffalo; the Incredible Hulk Hulk looks more like young Jack Nicholson than Edward Norton.) That’s one of the great parts of the MCU; their huge stable of characters allows them to stop franchises that don’t work and start new ones, or turn leading heroes into sidekicks in other movies.
So The Incredible Hulk is pretty bad. It is also, in the grand scope of Marvel, one of the most important projects they ever made. The key moment comes two minutes and 51 seconds into the film. That’s the moment when an onscreen graphic flashes “Requisition Request: US Army: Stark Industries” and we see the Stark Industries logo — the exact same logo from Iron Man — on blueprints for an advanced weapons system. Later in Incredible Hulk, we’ll see these weapons in action, and in a post-credits scene, Tony Stark himself will show up to talk to General Ross (William Hurt) about a mysterious team he’s putting together.
The specifics of that scene don’t completely make sense when compared with The Avengers. (Tony refers to Ross’ “problem,” meaning the Hulk, as if the team he is putting together is going to take down Banner instead of recruiting him, and I’m not sure Tony and Bruce have ever had a serious discussion about Stark Industries making weapons to kill the Hulk, which seems like kind of a big deal.) But the sheer fact that these two movies fit and worked together, and that characters and concepts from one crossed over into the other was genuinely groundbreaking in 2008.
Remember: At this point, Marvel was still distributing its movies through partnerships with other studios; Iron Man was released by Paramount and The Incredible Hulk was a Universal picture. Two movies from two studios with this kind of synergy was (and still is) very rare. In the early days of Marvel Studios, when the notion of a shared cinematic universe was still largely theoretical, the fact that they pulled this off was a major breakthrough. The movie around it wasn’t exciting or particularly entertaining, but this one element was truly incredible.
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