MCU Revisited #2: The Incredible Hulk
I went in depth for Iron Man, and I will go in depth for many more, but this one really isn’t worth going in depth on, so I will probably keep this short (unless I start ranting). If there is one movie that just does not fit in any way, shape, or form with the rest of the MCU, it is The Incredible Hulk. While Iron Man offered a glimpse into the future of the superhero movie, Hulk reminds us of the genre’s past. Aside from featuring the Hulk (played by Ed Norton before Mark Ruffalo took over), a Tony Stark cameo, and William Hurt’s portrayal of Thunderbolt Ross, this movie means very little to the rest of the MCU. On its own, this isn’t the problem. Other MCU films have stood alone fine, but Hulk lacks the fun and creativity that let those others work. It’s not a bad movie, per se. Shoddy CGI aside, the effects are quite good, considering they are a decade old. The cast is good, too. The Incredible Hulk suffers from one major flaw above all others. It is utterly uninteresting.
This movie came out just a few years after Ang Lee’s version of the Hulk, and it tries to be an origin without the origin. In theory, this can work. We see the basics of the origin story through an opening credits sequence which tells us what we need to know. We do not need to see the lab accident again, so this is fine. Where this movie loses steam is in the first act, when it starts to act like a sequel to a movie that we’ve never seen and expects the audience to pick up all the little pieces. We get Bruce Banner working at a soda factory in the middle of a Brazilian favela. Why he needs to be here? We don’t know. When he’s not moonlighting as a scientist (complete with one of the funniest attempts at a science montage ever), he is working at a soda factory. Why a soda factory? Again, we do not know. Maybe the move expects fans to have more knowledge of the comics, but while a faithful adaptation is important, a film must be accessible to the new fan, too.
I remember hearing that Ed Norton fought for some creative control on this movie, and part of the reason he dropped out was due to the lack of credit he got for his work on the script. If this is to be believed (it’s 1 AM and I haven’t the slightest bit of energy to fact check this), the first act shows his fingerprints. You can see the guy who wrote American History X all over this first act. However, while the moody, dreary, joyless tones of his most popular writing work in a drama about racism and prison, Hulk doesn’t really need them. The first act drags on, and we learn very little of substance other than Banner is secluded, alone, and joyless. In many ways, the first act seems like it either should have been an entire movie, or left out altogether. Bruce coming back to New York would have made just as much sense without the Brazilian piece, but maybe I am being too harsh.
Once the action gets going, the movie gets a little more watchable. However, while the Hulk’s first real chance to sign is a fun little action note, I can’t help but feel like the action in this movie is more suited for a video game than a movie. Every hit seems like one you’d see in a brawler, and they don’t seem to bear any weight. They are set-pieces through and through, usually with some sort of notable landmark in the background, be it a college campus or the Apollo theater. The action never holds any emotional weight, and the story rarely does, either. There are hints of a personal story with Elizabeth Ross (played well by Liv Tyler), hints of an interesting story about the weaponization of the hulk, and hints of an interesting story of a man whose personal demons literally turn him into a monster, but while the last one gets some interesting moments, all of them seem underserved. They are cutscenes more than movie scenes. Good-looking cut scenes, but cut scenes nonetheless. They never hold the intrigue or excitement of the Iron Man fight scenes, and they seem like they exist independently of the plot.
Louis Leterrier probably deserves a healthy portion of the blame. His films before this were largely mindless action movies which were elevated by the likes of Jason Statham and Jet Li. This isn’t to belittle those movies, I love Unleashed and The Transporter movies. However, that is not the director that you need here. Those types of movies rely on camp and the presence of the physicality that their leading actors offer. Here, we get a scrawny Ed Norton moping around before turning into his CG counterpart. In some ways, the video game nature of the fights fits the MO of a guy who made the aforementioned films, but that doesn’t feel in place for a film that takes itself so seriously.
Ed Norton may have made an interesting Hulk in another movie. I remember liking him before we got the Ruffalo version. Maybe it is 10 years of better movies coming out, but I find his version utterly unexciting watching now. He never comes off the screen. His demons don’t seem personal, and he never seems as though he’s having fun. Ruffalo does a much better job balancing the emotional weight of Banner in Avengers, and we get a more complete story in a fraction of the time. Maybe there’s a universe where Ed Norton grows into a Hulk that is more interesting, but I cannot help but feel like Marvel dodged a bullet by having an early fall out with Ed Norton.
Next there is the villain. Tim Roth knows how to ham it up as a villain, and he certainly does that here. However, Emil/Abomination are absolutely wasted. He is the stock angry military man who inexplicably has evil on his heart, but is given no time to develop. We don’t really know what makes him tick other than bloodlust and revenge, and it is not because he is a complex character like Ledger’s joker. He is poorly written. When Abomination shows up, it is hard to care. He looks cool, but he just serves as a giant thing for Hulk to smash at the end (and yes, Hulk gets a totally unearned “Hulk Smash!” When he gets his winning blow on Abomination).
There are good performances, but almost no interesting side characters in this whole movie. Tim Blake Nelson is entertaining as always when he shows up near the end as Mr. Blue, but he is barely featured, and serves as little more than a set up for a villain we will never see. Liv Tyler is a prototypical love interest who serves little more than as a muse for Bruce Banner. William Hurt’s Thunderbolt isn’t even all that interesting, and is far more complete when he shows up years later in the other movies. Everything about this film is just uninteresting.
Perhaps I am being too hard on this movie. There are worse films out there, but in a universe which is now the benchmark for the superhero genre, this one feels like nothing more than filler. Had Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk shown up as is in The Avengers, we may have felt less lost than I felt watching this one again. It’s a lifeless movie filled with very little that makes it memorable, and I am glad that Marvel was able to right the course — even if it was due to events that were out of its control.
MCU Power Rankings (Thus Far):
- Iron Man
- Incredible Hulk