Before there was an MCU, Marvel Comics sold the movie rights for their most popular characters in order to avoid bankruptcy, and among those sold was The Hulk. Universal Pictures bought the rights and hired artsy director Ang Lee to make the movie. It was not well received and Marvel struck a deal with Universal to co-produce movies that would be included in the MCU. So in 2003 we got a movie just called Hulk starring Eric Bana, and in 2008 we got a movie called The Incredible Hulk starring Edward Norton.
I have never liked The Incredible Hulk. I’ve always tolerated it as part of the MCU canon, but I could never understand why this movie is such an unpleasant experience compared to the rest of the MCU. People love to say that the Hulk is an uninteresting character and doesn’t work on his own, but any character can carry a movie as long as the story is compelling and appropriate. Yet, we still ended up with two lackluster Hulk movies in quick succession. Hulk from 2003 was far too garish and ridiculous, stretching the bounds of movie making into comic and cartoon territory. Ang Lee didn’t understand or respect the character and is just not suited to tell this kind of story. The Incredible Hulk, however, failed in much different ways.
This movie was released the same year as Iron Man, so it’s safe to assume that both movies were produced concurrently. Without direct collaboration it would have been extremely difficult for the two filmmakers to really understand what the other was doing, so the two movies had wildly different tones. While Iron Man was fun and irreverent, The Incredible Hulk was laborious, weighed down by the mass of its own seriousness. This movie is joyless to a fault; you can count the moments of levity on one hand. That wouldn’t be such a problem if the movie had a firm identity that required it to eschew humor and fun, but it doesn't. It’s a patchwork quilt assembled of generic scenes and stereotypes too vague to be interesting. Aside from sequences featuring the actual Hulk, you could piece this movie together with clips from other movies. All we know about the main villain Emil Blonsky is what the general was told in the exposition dump by Vague Army Guy #6 during his intro with a caravan of generic tough guys who just came from the latest direct to DVD Steven Seagal flick. What does Blonski want? What makes him a threat? Fuck you for asking. Even General Ross lacks clear motivations or personality; I feel like we get a better idea of who he is from his few minutes of screen time in Captain America: Civil War than the entirety of this movie. If the movie was a person, I would say that it’s afraid to be itself, trying to be something it’s not by hiding behind worn out tropes and 2000s era cheesiness (does Banner really need to work at a plant that makes green soda?). But that’s not entirely accurate, and it doesn’t really explain some of the less forgivable moments of laziness, such as the filmmakers putting in army fatigues and military rifles that wouldn’t have been accurate after Vietnam, especially since Iron Man came out before this movie and got it right.
There are choices by filmmakers that I don’t love but still respect, like the way they designed the Hulk to carry himself upright and with a face that looks mostly human, maybe to match Edward Norton’s face. It was a choice as deliberate as the casting of Norton, and while you can dislike those choices, you have to accept them as the foundation these projects are built on if you accept the movie at all. That’s not to say there was nothing to appreciate in this movie. When we finally get to see the Hulk, his fight choreography is interesting and a pleasure to watch. The continuity nods to the super soldier program from WW2 or the Stark Industries logo on some of the army tech, and the appearance of Tony Stark himself are fun and make it clear that Marvel Studios was already building plans for the shared universe.
The Incredible Hulk is proof that Marvel Studios has grown and learned, and are not immune from making mistakes. It doesn’t accomplish much except assuring everyone this movie takes place in the same universe as Iron Man. Yet somehow the good parts aren’t obliterated by the rest of this joyless, personality free movie. Ultimately, it feels like the filmmakers just didn’t care enough and we ended up with a movie that is better remembered than rewatched. 2/5
Coming up next: Iron Man 2 (2010)