a THE INCREDIBLE HULK retrospective musing

Just one month after the release of IRON MAN in May 2008, THE INCREDIBLE HULK was unleashed onto theatergoers. The Hulk has been a tricky character to get right, with Ang Lee’s HULK (2003) not exactly beloved by fans, the 2008 film version proceeds to recast Bruce Banner from Eric Bana to Edward Norton. Yet, they pick and choose which pieces to carry over from 5 years previous, visually retelling Banner’s origin under the opening credits. This turns out to be the last standalone Hulk movie (as of the publication of this post). Universal Studios owns distribution rights to a Hulk movie, while Marvel Studios (and now Disney) has film production rights which is why Banner is allowed to appear in MCU movies.

I wasn’t really aware of those exact parameters behind the making of this specific movie at the time of its release, so I didn’t find out about this until the closing scene, where Tony Stark shows up. The movie and Marvel Studios is announcing that, yes, they are going through with this Avengers Initiative.

As the opening credits roll, Norton’s Banner origin story is retold, mimicking events from the first film. It is retconned (retroactive continuity; i.e. the events of a past movie/episode/comic are recontextualized; for example, in SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007), it is revealed that Flint Marko was actually the one behind Ben Parker’s killing) that Bruce was part of an experiment to replicate the super soldier serum, aka what gave Captain America his powers. In a great expositional device, a “Days Without Incident” counter is shown. Bruce is learning to control his anger and health through breathing techniques and eating habits. He maintains a low profile in Brazil, living in the favelas, and keeps in contact with a mysterious Mr. Blue, to whom he also send samples of blood to. I’m a sucker for the look and environment of favelas (ie FAST FIVE; though I’d rather not live in one), and this setting is an interesting juxtaposition to the latter parts’ shiny, clean locations. When Banner accidentally lets some of his blood into a bottle at a factory he works at, an elderly man (Stan Lee’s cameo in this movie), drinks it, and the U.S. military is able to track Banner down through that bottle. A military squad commanded by General Ross (William Hurt, who reprises his role in 2016’s CIVIL WAR; he is the only character from this movie to come back in later MCU films so far) and led by Tim Roth, playing Emil Blonsky.

The special forces team is unsuccessful in capturing Banner, after he turns into the Hulk. This scene is played like a horror movie, with Hulk picking off the soldiers one by one, hiding in the shadows. With this and the Mark I armor in the cave and the emergence of Obadiah Stane’s armor in IRON MAN, the MCU is relishing a horror tone in most of its sequences. Banner finally leaves Brazil, and Blonsky decides to be injected with a similar serum as Banner’s original serum.

Bruce travels back to Culver University in America, and eventually reconnects with his old flame, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). Tyler has such a soft, sweet voice that she seems to be more fit for a damsel-in-distress type, but it works in contrast to her character here. Sadly, Betty is now dating Leonard Samson, played by Ty Burrell. I’d love to see Burrell come back in some capacity, especially since America has come to love him as a goofy dad on Modern Family. Betty savagely leaves him in the dust, only to serve the main character's interest, and doesn't really evolve into more than that throughout the movie. (In another cameo type role, actor Martin Starr appears, credited as “Computer Nerd”, but in the novelization is credited as Amadeus Cho. Interesting choice, since Cho is currently the Hulk in the comics, and is, you know, Asian… I sincerely hope that if Cho ever shows up in the MCU again that this little side character is forgotten. They have already taken a step forward in that respect, because Starr plays the academic decathlon coach in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.)

Samson rats out Banner, and General Ross comes full force to the University to capture him. Blonsky, now with the serum flowing through him, can run fast and his strength has grown. It’s the audiences first sign of what Steve Rogers (Captain America) will be like in his movies. This sequence is fascinating to watch, and we can feel every emotion that Hulk feels, every bullet bouncing off of him. It ends with some Planet Hulk imagery, as he cocoons around Betty, and they escape to a nearby mountain range. We get more great shots while they’re in the cave, as it rains and Hulk and Betty sit next to each other.

This movie isn’t as goofy as IRON MAN, and the most comic relief we really get is Tim Blake Nelson (playing Samuel Sterns). Chuckles are earned when Bruce and Betty start to get hot and heavy, but cannot proceed because his heart rate monitor starts to go off. It’s a somewhat tragic beat, since it’s like he’ll never be able to receive those kinds of pleasures. In AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, Banner is in the early stages of a relationship with Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and in THOR: RAGNAROK, a romance is hinted at with Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). I’m hoping that Bruce does get back with Betty, since she is basically his Lois Lane.

Bruce and Betty make their way to Mr. Blue in New York City, who turns out to be the aforementioned Samuel Sterns. In his first and only appearance, Sterns has apparently made an antidote for Banner, but also synthesized Banner’s blood so that it can be used for medicinal benefits, but Bruce is scared that the military could use it for devious purposes. Blonsky attacks again and finally captures Bruce and Betty. As they are taken away, Blonsky coerces Sterns into injecting Banner’s blood into him, and he becomes an “Abomination”, so that’s his super villain name. Cool. Meanwhile, Stern gets some of Banner’s blood spilt in his wound, mutating while he laughs maniacally. In the comics, Sterns becomes Leader, an extremely smart villain who literally has a big head. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where he comes back in the current MCU, since he’s a bit outlandish to me; maybe he would have fit in the Baron Zemo slot for CIVIL WAR, but obviously, changed the backstory for the character. Otherwise, he seems to have been forgotten in the weeds, so it’d be difficult to reintroduce him to audiences.

Blonsky becomes a bigger/scarier version of the Hulk (two-for-two for these types of villains so far!), and General Ross allows Bruce to Hulk out/Hulk smash all over the city. Bang boom pow, Harlem is pretty wrecked, but if I recall correctly, this isn’t really touched upon in later MCU films. (Another fun cameo, Michael K. Williams of The Wire fame appears for a quick sec. Apparently, his role was cut down to these few frames, but the MCU would never hurt to have another great actor appear, especially since his role in HAN SOLO was recast.) The CGI still looks pretty good in this battle, but the concern for the collateral damage during the fight isn’t particularly remarked upon this early in MCU. The Hulk smashes, and The Abomination is captured, and still hasn’t shown up in later films. If they make a Legion of Villains group or whatever soon, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Abomination included.

Hulk runs away, and makes his way to Canada, where he controls his transformation, rather than suppress it. This characteristic is found in Ruffalo’s Hulk, as he reveals that he’s always angry in THE AVENGERS. In a pre-credit-but-post-movie-scene, Tony Stark shows up at a bar to speak to General Ross and lets him know he’s putting a team together. It’s a pretty useless scene, and seemed like an extraneous excuse for a cameo to tie up the connection to the MCU. 

Edward Norton was an interesting Bruce Banner, since it mirrored his public persona, similar to Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man. Norton is notorious for being incredibly difficult to work with on set, and was unable to negotiate to come back for THE AVENGERS. He demanded final script approval and edit, and for Kevin Feige, the head honcho of Marvel Studios, that was a big no-no. Feige had been working for years to make sure this cinematic universe was tonally similar, so he decided to replace Norton. Mark Ruffalo made his debut as Banner in 2012, but we’ll get to that in a few weeks!

THE INCREDIBLE HULK is an odd entry in the MCU, since this was the early stages of building up the universe. It still doesn’t have a handle on the comedic tone and takes itself a little too seriously at times, but still has lots of heart that we see in later films. The set pieces are hampered by the fact that our hero is an indestructible beast, although the presence of innocents and/or his love interest changes the dynamics of each fight. It’s not particularly well remembered, since this isn’t the Hulk we know and love now. Banner has evolved into a goofy, smartass, but it’s great seeing where he started.

See the rest of the Marzoña's Musing MCU Retrospective Series HERE!

Planet Hulk - a 2007-2008 comic that inspired Hulk’s Sakaar storyline in THOR: RAGNAROK. In a hugely powerful moment towards the end of the story, he saves one of the characters by cocooning them as a fire engulfs them.