I consider myself a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ve seen almost all of the movies in theaters since the release of Iron Man 2, some of them multiple times, with the exception of Doctor Strange which I am still sad about missing. What the MCU is doing with their titles, creating standalone films that build on each other to capture both the bombastic spectacle of film and the longterm, ongoing development that has made television a uniquely powerful medium for writers… well, it’s incredible in that it’s something that has never been done before. I genuinely love almost everything they put out.
And that leads me to this: I don’t know how, but until I sat down to prepare for this piece, I’ve never seen The Incredible Hulk.
It might be because I wasn’t really floored by the first Iron Man. I liked it well enough, and Robert Downey Jr. was just perfect from the start, but it didn’t grab me the way subsequent installments did. It was Iron Man 2 – the fun of it, the scope, the way major characters were brought onboard in unexpected ways, the way the humor and the drama mingled in a way that made me suddenly see the genius and originality in what this franchise was doing. From then on, I’ve been in love… but I never looked back at the big green guy until today.
So here’s where I am. The Incredible Hulk is an enjoyable, solid movie. It’s also the worst Marvel Studios film by a wide margin.
The thing that makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that special spark of life – the I-can’t-believe-they-made-this-work element. This is the studio that picked Chris Evans as Captain America and proved all of us wrong by giving us a hero worthy of that title. The studio that chose Paul Rudd to play Ant-Man. The studio that dropped Thor after a universe of primarily science-driven heroes and made it work seamlessly. The studio that then made Rocket Raccoon not only a pop culture icon, but a nuanced and three-dimensional character in a summer blockbuster. None of that should have worked, but it all did with a grace that seemed almost magical. The Incredible Hulk doesn’t have that spark of life. It was consistently enjoyable, but I never found myself at the edge of my seat concerned for the characters the many times that they were in peril. There are none of the moving moments or laugh-out-loud bits that these films would later become known for. From the soap-opera-meets-silent-film-acting montage at the beginning to the reunion at the diner, I found myself waiting to care about a cast of characters that would never live up to the standard the subsequent films would set. It’s an unfair burden to lay upon a film that was so early in the conception of the MCU, but I couldn’t help but notice how many of the essential elements weren’t there.
Ed Norton is an amazing actor, though. He doesn’t embody Bruce Banner in the way Mark Ruffalo would do in The Avengers and subsequent films, but Norton is definitely a highlight of the film. He’s consistently likable in an everyman sort of way, and manages to make me invested in him even when the things he’s doing aren’t entirely interesting. The action is stellar, and the sequences of the Hulk smashing through things make up for some of the more ineffectual quiet moments where I’m trying to care about characters we weren’t given enough time or information about to invest in. The final Hulk vs. Abomination fight was an awesome climax, and the final moments of it were thrilling and visually stunning.
Another strong aspect of the film is connecting the Hulk’s origin to an attempt to reinstate the supersoldier initiative, which adds an interesting layer to the governments pursuit of Bruce Banner and the monster within. A lot of this movie was just Banner getting chased, transforming, and ultimately escaping over and over, so that new twist on the mythos helped make that angle a little more nuanced, as well as establishing a connection to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.
And that’s the thing. It has direct connections to the MCU, but it doesn’t feel quite like it fits – and not because Banner is played by a different guy. Rhodey is clearly two different dudes, but Iron Man, upon revisiting it, fits right in with the feel of the movies that would come down the road. I think The Incredible Hulk is an outlier because of the tone and some of the flaws in the script that aren’t present in later Marvel movies rather than any of the more obvious reasons like the cast changes or the less convincing Hulk effects. But you know what? If a movie this enjoyable is the worst of the entire MCU, all I can do is be thankful that we’re living in a renaissance of fantastic superhero content. The Incredible Hulk might not feel part of that cohesive whole, but it was absolutely one of the stepping stones toward creating this groundbreaking universe.