Weirdly low-profile for a giant green monster, 2008’s The Incredible Hulk is the forgotten overshadowed superhero stepchild of the same movie summer that brought us Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man.
It’s flawed, for sure, and lacks the machine-tooled precision that the MCU movie-making machine has settled into. But when it works, The Incredible Hulk still feels to me like the best Hulk movie we’ve had to date. I think of all the Hulks we’ve seen on screen, it remains the closest to the “classic” Hulk – doomed scientist on the run from his curse, haunted and heroic. Ang Lee’s muddled 2003 film mixed intriguing ideas with a bizarre plot and felt like a Hulk in name only, and in a series of Avengers and Thor movies, Hulk has been more of a superheroic comic sidekick.
Incredible Hulk opened mere weeks after Iron Man but these days is often lumped at the bottom of lists ranking the 30 or so Marvel movies. Still, nearly 15 years on, The Incredible Hulk is having a weird revival in the MCU – its villainous Abomination portrayed by Tim Roth has returned in the She-Hulk TV series, and the super-smart Hulk villain The Leader, whose heel turn by Tim Blake Nelson was only hinted at way back in 2008, is reportedly set to appear in the next Captain America movie. Often dismissed in MCU fandom, there’s still a lot I like about Incredible Hulk.
Edward Norton’s tense, nervy turn as Bruce Banner owes a lot to Bill Bixby’s classic stressed-out Banner in the 70s Hulk TV show. The movie wisely skips over the Hulk’s origin in a quick few cuts and jumps to the status quo of Banner on the run from the government, hiding out in a colourful Brazil favela. The South American setting for the movie’s first act is already something a bit different, grittier than the typical superhero movie, and while there’s barely a Hulk to be seen for the first part of the movie, Norton’s haunted portrayal and the sense of impending doom carries the film well.
We follow Banner from South America back to America, where he catches up with long-lost love Betty Ross (a great Liv Tyler) and the late William Hurt’s cruel and stern Thunderbolt Ross, as well as a tightly-wound soldier named Emil Blonsky (a coiled and ruthless Roth) who wants to take down the Hulk. When the Hulk does finally appear in broad daylight in a university campus battle, it’s suitably impressive. No, the Hulk doesn’t get a lot of screen time here, but when he does, he leaves his mark. The 2008 CGI is perhaps less smooth than modern motion-capture, but I like the somewhat ravaged, demonic look this Hulk has.
Incredible Hulk captures the cat-and-mouse game that Banner played with his pursuers so often in the comics, reminding us that the Hulk at his core is a misunderstood monster, not a superhero (and really, not an Avenger despite the movies – in the original Avengers comics, he lasted to the second issue before quitting the group).
Where Incredible Hulk goes off the rails is in a rushed and silly final act, where Roth’s Abomination becomes a CGI gumby and New York City ground zero in a battle that doesn’t feel like it has any of the stakes or tension of the preceding hour or so of the movie.
Director Louis Leterrier isn’t really A-list – movies like The Transporter or the terrible Clash of the Titans remake – yet the many deleted scenes on blu-ray show he and Norton were trying to make a different sort of movie than it turned into when it was shoehorned into a Marvel Cinematic Universe building block. Norton clashed a lot with Marvel and wasn’t invited back to play the Hulk again.
There are brief moments in Incredible Hulk that feel raw and adult compared to a lot of superhero flicks – Betty calming the enraged Hulk down when he’s frightened by a rainstorm; Bruce and Betty’s fleeting hotel room tryst, ruined when Banner realises, “I can’t get too excited,” or the keen glittering madness in Roth’s Blonsky, which has been erased for comic effect in She-Hulk.
The Hulk has proven a remarkably protean character in the last few decades in the comics – after settling into the childlike “Hulk smash!” brute for most of the ‘60s and ‘70s, in the mid-1980s writers started experimenting with variations on the Hulk’s dual identity, pioneered by the great, tragically curtailed writer Bill Mantlo when he introduced a lengthy take on the “smart” Hulk – one with Bruce Banner’s intelligence – and perfected by Peter David in his iconic 12-year run on the character where he brought us the calculating Grey Hulk, a “merged” Professor Hulk and much more. Since then we’ve had Red Hulks and Immortal Hulks and Robot Hulks and Son Hulks and much more. There’s so many Hulks.
Yet, I’m still a bit partial to the simple, crisp duality of the “Incredible” Hulk, a lumbering Frankenstein-ish monster who isn’t inherently evil but is treated that way, and a Bruce Banner whose life is ruined by trying to live with this unpredictable curse.
To be fair, I like Mark Ruffalo and his charmingly dorky Banner, but too often his Hulk has never quite felt like more than a CGI strongman. His Banner seems annoyed by being the Hulk, not haunted like Norton. The “merged” Hulk introduced in Avengers: Endgame is more awkward and bumbling than the confident version introduced in Peter David’s comics. Endgame skipped past all the settling of the Hulk’s inner conflicts introduced in Infinity War, waving all that off in a time-jump. I simply feel there’s a little too much Ruffalo in the Hulk in his current MCU incarnation and not enough, well, Hulk.
It’s a big “what if” whether Norton could’ve been good as a Hulk in an ever-expanding, ever-calculating Marvel Cinematic Universe. His portrayal is a bit too idiosyncratic, a bit too “real” to play well with others. But it’s still the screen Hulk I like the most.