Following the excellent Iron Man, we have The Incredible Hulk, which, in retrospect, is a bit of an odd ball in the Marvel Universe (and not just because star Edward Norton ended up being recast when the character returned for The Avengers). It has a darker, heavier tone than most of its fellows, with very little in the way of humor and a greater emphasis on spectacle than character.
Incredible Hulk was an early effort in the ‘soft reboot’ formula; it doesn’t follow 2003’s poorly-received Hulk, but it doesn’t exactly ignore it either. Actually, the closest parallel I can think of is Evil Dead II, which essentially was an abbreviated remake of the original for its first third or so before settling into its own story. Incredible Hulk opens with a credits sequence swiftly recapitulating the Hulk’s origin and early career, with more details being filled in later, before picking up with Bruce Banner hiding out in South America, reflecting how the 2003 film ended with him hiding out in (I think) Central America.
This was a pretty canny move, avoiding the problem of spending too much time on the origin and dropping us straight in on the action. But not only that, the film is as much an adaptation of the classic 1970s TV series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno (both of whom have cameos: the late Bixby via archive footage) as it is a straight adaptation of the comics. The entire first act plays out essentially as an episode of the show; Banner is hiding out in a menial job, trying to find ways to control and/or cure his condition, where he flirts with an attractive local woman and runs afoul of local bullies, eventually leading to him hulking out and having to move on (they even include his eyes glowing green when his transformation starts: a detail unfortunately dropped from the later films). As someone who enjoyed the series, this was hugely satisfying, especially when the sequence actually concludes with the haunting “Loneliest Man” theme from the show.
Only, in this case Bruce is driven out of hiding, not by a dogged investigative reporter, but by General “Thunderbolt” Ross’s hit squad (I don’t think he’s ever called “Thunderbolt” at any point in the film, apart from the end credits by the way). The General, we learn, was the original funder of Banner’s experiment, which, unbeknownst to Banner, was an attempt to recreate a supersoldier program from WWII (and which we will learn more about when it comes time to meet Captain America). Ross now considers Banners “entire body to be property of the US Military” and is relentlessly hunting him down. At the same time, though, his daughter, Betty Ross, was Banner’s girlfriend, whom he is still in love with.
And it is about here that we start to run into some serious problems.
There is a lot of potential drama here, but unfortunately the film misses most of it. Ross simply isn’t a very interesting character, and his motives for pursuing the Hulk are very weak; he just wants to turn it into a weapon. Why that is so important to him is never explored or explained: he’s just your typical Hollywood general who wants to turn everything he finds into a weapon regardless of any practical concerns. Speaking of which, why does the government give him so much support? He’s able to turn huge numbers of resources and manpower to seeking out the tiniest hint of Banner’s location, then bring massive military ordinance onto a college campus: who is authorizing this and why? Does no one involved question whether this mission is worth the time, money, and lives it’s costing, or whether there might possibly be a better use for them? Why does Ross wield such unchecked authority, especially when every single one of his missions ends in failure if not outright disaster. Even if the government wants the Hulk that badly, surely they’d put someone else in charge after Ross ends up turning a college campus into a war-zone with nothing but several million dollars worth of equipment loss and a high casualty count to show for it.
William Hurt compared Ross with Ahab pursuing the White Whale, but Ahab had a personal investment in Moby Dick in the form of his leg (and the vast, faceless power of fate of which the whale is only a mask), as well as an all-consumingly arrogant personality in his own right. Had Ross been given something of a personal reason for hunting the Hulk, or at least something more tangible than “think of the weapons potential,” it would have gone a long way to making his character more interesting.
Or they could have done more with his relationship with his daughter. Having the hero’s love interest be the daughter of his archenemy is a great idea, but in the film it doesn’t amount to much since both father and daughter have already made their choices before the film even opens: Betty hasn’t spoken to the General in years, and Ross can’t even honestly say that he values her safety over catching the Hulk. There are a few good moments between them, mostly amounting to the few times that Ross shows a little humanity, but their relationship is almost a non-factor in the story.
Again, the film could have done so much more here, if it was genuinely a question whether Ross cared more about his daughter or the Hulk, or if she cared about him enough to be torn by the conflict, maybe to have a crisis of conscience of whom she owes allegiance to, there could have been some real drama there. As it is, her attempts to mediate between the two amount to a brief suggestion that she and Bruce go talk to the General, and to her futilely begging Ross not to attack the Hulk.
Meanwhile the other villain of the film, Emil Blonsky, AKA Abomination is even more underdeveloped than Ross. His motive is first that he’s doing his job and wants to finish it, and then that he’s become addicted to the power in the super soldier serum and wants more of it. He’s also a tough fighter who wants to beat the Hulk (which leads to him doing some incredibly stupid things, like walking right up to the Hulk and taunting it).
This is a pretty weak motive, especially when it suddenly leads him to turn on Ross, who had been nothing but helpful and supportive of him this whole time. When he becomes Abomination, he just suddenly starts gunning for Ross with vindictive glee, as if there were already bad-blood between them, but nothing of the kind was ever hinted at. Had there been a scene where Ross tried to cut him off from the treatment or to take him off the mission, that would have made sense. As it is, he simply goes nuts.
One way to address the problem with both villains would be to have Blonsky lose control and threaten Betty, causing Ross to step in and have him arrested or kicked off the mission. That would create a rift between them, which would allow Ross to demonstrate a kinder and more human side while giving Blonsky a reason to go rogue. But they didn’t go that route, leaving Blonsky’s betrayal a simple lust for power. It isn’t that it’s necessarily unbelievable, but it’s not very interesting.
True, Iron Monger was underused as well, but at least Obadiah Stane was charismatic and charming, as well as insidious in his betrayal, meaning he was a lot more entertaining to watch than either of these two.
So, the film is very weak on the villain side, which unfortunately is a fairly large part of the plot. How is it otherwise?
Well, the depiction of Bruce Banner himself is very good (fortunately, since he is one element that the film cannot survive without). Edward Norton is heavily channeling Bill Bixby with his mild-mannered, kind-hearted, but quietly tormented character. Banner is the kind of man who can be on the run for his life, and yet still pause to help someone in need, because he simply can’t look the other way (nicely shown in the opening when he steps in to protect a female co-worker from some harassers). It is this compassionate quality that makes the character a worthy hero and enlists us on his side from the beginning.
His overall friendliness and quietly polite manners naturally make for a striking contrast with the roaring, smashing monster he becomes when enraged, which of course is part of the whole appeal of the Banner–Hulk dynamic: Bruce Banner has to be easy-going and polite; the kind of man who never causes any trouble or starts any fights, who will swallow any insult or ignore any slight just to avoid conflict, but whose sense of decency also won’t allow him to put up with malice or cruelty. The Hulk is what happens when such a man is pushed too far.
Which brings us to the Hulk itself. The special effects that bring the green giant to life hold up quite well: far better than the rather cartoony efforts in the 2003 film, and I really like the more upright, toned design (which, alas, doesn’t continue into the later films). The action scenes with the Hulk are pretty spectacular, questions of motivation and logistics aside, and the film has some gloriously comic-book-style shots, such as Hulk and Abomination leaping at each other, or the Hulk roaring his rage at a thunderstorm.
The first Hulk scene is shot mostly in shadow, mimicking a traditional monster film where we never quite get a clear look at it. But then, just in case there was any concern that they were shy about the effects, we have a big set-piece taking place in full daylight that opens with a full-on close-up of the Hulk in a rage. The smashing and fighting scenes are generally very satisfying, the film giving full-scope to the Hulk’s incredible strength and speed.
I also really like how the Hulk interacts with Betty Ross; how she is the one thing that is able to get him to calm down, and which he won’t just attack without thinking. It’s a nice ‘beauty and the beast’ dynamic, complete with scenes and shots that feel like they came straight out of a 1950s sci-fi film (such as a scene where the Hulk carries an unconscious Betty to a cave following its fight with the military), and it puts the film squarely amid one of the deep streams of human imagination; the strongest of men, who cannot be conquered by battle, is nevertheless ruled by the beauty of woman. It’s a rich, primal, archetypal image, well realized here, and one that will continue to be part of the Hulk’s character as we progress.
On the other hand, I do not like that the catalyst for Banner’s transformation has been changed from anger to simply his heart rate. This does terrible damage to the ‘fury of a patient man’ motif, and with it the instinctive connection the audience makes to the Hulk. We all know what it feels like to be so enraged that we want to smash things and roar and strike back against the world, and it is that primal connection that makes the Hulk such a striking character. By making it purely about heart rate (to the point where Bruce can’t even experience opposite emotions, like exhaustion or sexual desire, without risking the Hulk), the film undermines that link.
Yet the film still talks as if it were tied to his anger, including Banner’s classic catchphrase “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” (here amusingly mangled by his attempt to say it in Portuguese). It’s an inconsistency and a dumbing-down of the story that could have easily have been avoided.
As for Betty herself, her character is okay: not particularly memorable, especially compared to Pepper Potts, but pleasant enough company. She doesn’t get to evince much personality or agency in the film, unfortunately (apart from a funny scene where she loses her temper at a New York cab driver), particularly since, as noted above, her relationship with her father isn’t utilized as well as it might have been. She spends most of her time simply being warm and supportive of Bruce and following his lead, which is fine and makes sense given their circumstances, and Liv Tyler fills the role adequately, but the character doesn’t leave much of an impression, except for her scenes with the Hulk.
(By the way, why does Betty’s computer have the same encryption program that Bruce’s laptop did, to the point where he casually just pulls it up and start’s a new email after hacking in? Is that standard issue on university computers?).
There are a few very nice, very human scenes between Bruce and Betty, including one where she sets him up to sleep on her couch and they each hesitate a long moment before saying goodnight and walking away: a fine example of a scene saying one thing and really being about something else. Another has her asking him what it’s like to turn into the Hulk. Though that one leads to Bruce denying that he and the Hulk are the same person; an idea that, unfortunately, is never explored further in this film.
Then there’s Dr. Samuel Sterns, Bruce’s oddball anonymous contact with whom he’s been working on a possible cure. Sterns stands out among the rest of the cast as the one who seems to be having the most fun; weird little eccentric genius whom Bruce and Betty can barely keep on track and who may not be quite as benevolent as he appears (his motivations, briefly sketched as they are, are a lot more believable than either Ross or Blonsky’s, but unfortunately the twist involving his character never got to go anywhere).
On the other hand, Betty’s psychologist boyfriend, Doctor Samson, comes and goes in the film so briefly that one almost forgets he’s there, and he probably could have been left out entirely (the trailers indicate that he originally had a larger role, and indeed, why have a psychologist in a ‘Hulk’ film if Banner isn’t even going to talk to him?).
The climactic battle between Hulk and Abomination is very cool, and despite the weaknesses of Blonsky’s character I’d call it a step up from the Iron Monger fight. It opens with a striking, almost documentary-style scene of a couple hapless soldiers reacting to the Abomination’s initial appearance, where, like the Hulk’s introduction, the creature is kept largely just off camera, so that we catch glimpses of it, but don’t see it clearly. The fight is suitably cathartic and frenetic, with the Hulk showing some surprising moments of cunning to offset the Abomination’s more berserker style.
Though I have to say, much as I appreciate having the line ‘Hulk Smash’ in the film, the delivery feels very forced, particularly since it involves the Hulk going from beaten on the ground to standing, saying the line, and pounding the earth in a jarringly abrupt manner. Also, it doesn’t fit with the fact that, earlier in the film, the Hulk had clearly said, “Leave me alone.” I don’t know why they didn’t simply re-dub or remove the earlier line, but it’s and unfortunate mistake in what could have been a classic scene.
Also, I have to wonder: what exactly are they planning to do with the Abomination after the fight? He’s beaten and exhausted, but seems conscious, and even if he isn’t, what’s gonna happen when he wakes up? It leaves the fight feeling a little unsatisfying; as if it only ended because the script said it was time to stop, but they didn’t really have a conclusion for the villain.
The ending for Banner, with him alone in a cabin and (apparently) purposefully unleashing the Hulk, seemed like a strange and somewhat sour way to end the film, but that thread, at least, was picked up and explained by The Avengers, so we will wait to discuss that until later.
All in all, The Incredible Hulk is definitely a step down from Iron Man. It’s certainly entertaining, stylishly filmed, and has very real strengths, but it makes a number of key missteps, especially with the villains, and there are a lot of moments where the script seemed rushed or incomplete.
In fact, one of the most satisfying scenes of the film is simply the ending, where Ross is drinking away his failure in a bar and none other than Tony Stark walks in. Despite flashes of ‘SHIELD’ and ‘Stark Industries’ in early scenes, it was this that cemented the idea that, yes, these stories existed in the same world, and yes, they are “putting a team together.” It was a high note to go out on for a film that was pretty good, but could have been a lot better.