By the time the Avengers assembled, Marvel Studios and Kevin Fiege had found their formula. They found a rhythm which most of the later Marvel Cinematic Universe films would follow- a rhythm that echoes Iron Man more than it does Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, both released in 2008. Starring Edward Norton, this film is often considered the weakest link in the chain of twenty three movies of world building. It feels like it belongs to another franchise, but this does not necessarily the film is a bad one; rather, it is extremely underrated.
The formal aspects of The Incredible Hulk are much stronger here than in many of the other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is one of the more streamlined entries in the franchise, and has one of the shortest running times. Many have criticised superhero films for being too long- Endgame approached the three hour mark, much to the dismay of those with a small bladder. Part of the reason for this is the fact the film starts in media res. The origin story, which often slows down the pacing of superhero films, delaying the exciting superhero action for at least forty minutes, is told in an effective montage during the opening credits. It is impressive how much of the origin story of Bruce Banner (Edward Norton), and the conflicts that will become central to the film, are told with so few words. With only images and short clips, the audience is brought right up to speed, and we swiftly get into the film’s rising action. The music adds to this opening montage too. In fact, Craig Armstrong’s score is one of the film’s greatest assets, making the action more tense, and the emotional moments more overwhelming. It is very memorable too. MCU movies are rarely known for their scores, but this film breaks the mould of the MCU formula. Formally, The Incredible Hulk is one of the strongest in the series.
Many of the narrative problems that have held back many of the MCU films from reaching true greatness are not present here; for one, it has two great villains. Ross (William Hurt) is ruthless, and a dark cloud that Banner can never quite shake off. The two characters are connected by a love for Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), already giving the hero and villain relationship more complexity than those depicted in most MCU films. Their views on the Hulk are completely opposed. One believes the Hulk is too dangerous and chaotic to be controlled, and the other believes the Hulk can be controlled to be used as the ultimate weapon. Ross is in awe of something Banner fears completely. The fact both worked as colleagues on the project that created the Hulk only adds to the interesting dynamic. Ross’ ruthless pursuit of the power he created leads to the creation of the Abomination, the Hulk’s evil, destructive equal. Once Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), he represents Ross’ vision for the Hulk weapons programme taken to its extreme conclusion. This is not to suggest Blonsky/Abomination is a mere pawn, though. He has many motivations of his own. He is a soldier who has passed his prime. The Hulk’s power reminds him of the soldier he once was, and he wants that back. Further, he is jealous of the power, and does not believe Banner deserves it. Addiction plays an interesting role too. Ross gives him a smaller dose of the super soldier serum that Banner used. As with many drugs, the user is left chasing the high. He relishes in the power given to him, and he wants more. MCU villains are usually like the Brain- they only want to “take over the world”. Or, if Fiege really wants to mix things up, they might want revenge against Tony Stark. This early MCU gem is refreshing because it has two great villains where most MCU films can barely manage one.
Norton’s Banner is a refreshing antidote to the repetitive nature of MCU protagonists. Whilst most MCU superheroes experience positive character development, ooze confidence, display quick-witted humour, and are adored by those around them, Banner is a refreshing change. He is a reluctant hero who sees his powers as a burden. Thankfully, he has Betty Ross’ support to stop him falling into a pit of despair. Their love is another highlight of this film, in fact. It is authentic and moving, rather than just cheap flirting, like in other MCU movies. Banner is different from other MCU heroes in other ways too. Instead of joking about everything, Banner is a lot more muted. Most of Norton’s excellent acting employs the use of his eyes and his body. Captain America, who took a very similar serum, may be a national icon, but Banner never gets a warm reception. The Hulk is something to be feared, and that takes its toll on Banner. To be fair to people who encounter the Hulk, the character design of this version is much more intimidating and frightening. Ruffalo’s Hulk looks huggable and not particularly threatening. Even Thanos would be cautious around the savage, raw power of the Hulk depicted here. Banner is not your typical MCU protagonist, and it is a welcome change for someone who has seen them all.
The Incredible Hulk is completely standalone and self-contained; yet, it is integral to phase one of the MCU. Banner is represented as a dark foil to Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. Both created their superhero powers, but only one wants it. One is allowed to enjoy adoration from the public. The other is feared. One has a close group of supporting friends. The other is a lone American hiding in Brazil. Tony Stark creates most of his villains through his own behaviour and actions. Banner does everything he can to avoid conflict. To understand Iron Man/Tony Stark more fully, you need to see this movie, despite it being completely self-contained. Further, the super soldier serum that creates the Hulk is a 21st century version of the one used to create Captain America. This provides an organic link to the rest of the MCU that does not feel shoehorned in (particularly in comparison to some of the heavy handed foreshadowing of Thor: Ragnarok in Age of Ultron). This film achieves the impressive feat of smoothly sliding itself into the MCU through characterisation and subtle plot points, whilst also being completely standalone.
This film has often been overshadowed. It is the ugly duckling of the MCU. It stands out and uses a different formula from the other movies. It is much gloomier and darker than the typical MCU movie, where nothing can go wrong. However, everything that makes this movie different is a strength. This is one of the MCU’s strongest movies, and a completely underrated gem.