Reeling Backward: The Incredible Hulk
The "forgotten" MCU feature is now available on Disney+, and it remains an interesting if flawed vehicle for Edward Norton that might have taken the Avengers saga in a very different direction.
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Most people know that “Iron Man” is the first ‘official’ film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an unexpectedly huge hit in 2008 that changed the entire moviemaking industry. But most have forgotten about the second MCU movie, released just a month later to much less critical and commercial success.
“The Incredible Hulk” starred character actor Edward Norton in the titular role,as well as his Dr. Bruce Banner alter-ego. It arrived just five years after the even less-appreciated “Hulk” starring Eric Bana, which among other things was castigated for then-primitive CGI effects.
A Universal Pictures production, the rights have reverted to MCU owner Disney and as of a few weeks ago is now available for streaming on the Disney+ platform. I decided to catch up with it, having not seen it since its debut 15 years ago, and it was stimulating enough to pen a bonus Reeling Backward column.
It’s a very interesting flick that does some things really well, and other stuff not so much. Norton is terrific as Banner, a very different take on the character than Mark Ruffalo, who has played the character across a number of Avengers films, crossover character features and streaming series without ever getting his own solo flick.
There’s an inherent intelligence and peevishness to Norton’s acting style. He never tries to charm the audience. His Banner is stubborn and focused on only one thing: purging himself of the curse of the Hulk. As the story opens, he has been hiding out in Brazil for several months, working in a bottling factory to support himself while experimenting on a cure in partnership with another scientist he knows only as “Mr. Blue” over their encrypted chats.
Of course, he goes by the moniker Mr. Green.
There’s a lot of humor in the story, with a screenplay written by Zak Penn, at that point known mostly as a funnyman for the “Harold & Kumar” comedy. I also appreciated his introduction to the material, which in a worldess montage over the opening credits provides the backstory of Banner’s experimentation gone awry, turning him into the Hulk and also resulting in injury to his partner/lover, Betsy Ross (Liv Tyler). This stokes the eternal enmity of her father, General Thaddeus Ross, who funded the laboratory work as an offshoot of Captain America’s Super Soldier serum and considers Banner’s entire body to be military IP.
It was so nice to skip over the tedious material everyone knows all too well at this point. The movie also contains several pieces of fan-servicing callbacks to the TV show, with the “Lonely Man” musical theme turning up as well as Lou Ferrigno, who played Hulk in hilarious green body paint and freakshow wig, making a cameo as a security guard.
Norton reportedly rewrote much of the script himself, though he did not receive a screenwriting credit. Director Louis Leterrier was selected based on his work with action films starring Jet Li and Jason Statham. His action scenes are crisp and kinetic, but the human side of the story struggles to hold our attention, particularly whenever Norton is offscreen.
The CGI for the Hulk is better than the Bana film, though still not great, and screencaps make him look rather fake and plastic-y, with the hue of Silly Sludge. Sometimes the technology is just not there yet. Norton and Eli Roth, who plays Hulk antagonist Emil Blonsky/Abomination, both did extensive motion capture acting.
Notably, the Hulk does not appear until nearly halfway through the movie, and we only see him obliquely in a fight inside the darkened factory. His big “reveal” moment comes during a tussle on a college campus with Gen. Ross’ forces, and it’s a bit underwhelming.
The romantic chemistry between Betsy Ross and Banner is quite genuine, and she dumps her new beau (Ty Burrell) in a hot minute when she learns he’s still alive. Although they’re unable to consummate their reuniting owing to Banner’s constant fretting about keeping his heart rate under 200 beats/minute lest a certain green giant take over the proceedings. (Betsy seems less worried and possibly… intrigued???)
The movie grows less interesting in the second half as it becomes a typical superhero stomp-fest, Hulk and Abomination laying waste to whole city blocks during their tussle. It was interesting in that you can clearly see Abomination killing civilians (though from a distance) and Hulk himself slays any number of American soldiers hunting him on behalf of Ross.
“The Incredible Hulk” did not make the sort of money MCU features usually do, probably a break-even proposition at best. Norton, who has a reputation for not being the easiest actor to work with, was quite vocal about his disappointment in the film. Then-Marvel studio chief Kevin Feige took the rare step of letting it be known his services were no longer desired:
“Our decision is definitely not one based on monetary factors, but instead rooted in the need for an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members. The Avengers demands players who thrive working as part of an ensemble.”
Wow. Harsh stuff.
To be fair, Norton himself subsequently claimed he turned down the chance to reprise Banner/Hulk because he wanted more “diversity” in his acting career. I’ll let you judge for yourself on the veracity of all that, and resist the urge to make jokes like “Hulk smash career!”
Certainly, his record as a leading-man in major Hollywood productions has been pretty sparse since then, appearing largely in supporting roles and a favorite of Wes Anderson for his little diorama ensembles.
Whatever you think of “The Incredible Hulk” as a standalone picture, it was a notable building block in the MCU, helping set up much of the Avengers saga over the next decade-plus. A number of characters introduced in this movie became important chess pieces to the franchise.
William Hurt continued playing Ross as a minor antagonist in a bunch of MCU movies. (Following his 2022 death, Harrison Ford will take over his role in the next Captain America movie with Anthony Mackie in the lead.)
Roth reprised the Blonsky/Abomination part in the “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” feature and “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” series, with a much more comedic take in the latter.
Tim Blake Nelson, who is eventually revealed to be Mr. Blue and gets irradiated with gamma rays himself, will also return in the Captain America movie as forehead-blessed villain Leader.
And Robert Downey Jr. turns up in an end credits cameo about “putting a team together.”
Curiously, Liv Tyler’s Betsy Ross, who is still very much alive and in love with Banner at the end of this movie, has been memory-holed for subsequent MCU projects, not even mentioned or referenced while Ruffalo’s Banner carried on the world’s longest will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Her character now being definitely declared dead, one wonders if Betsy has a chance of a reprise.
I will say I appreciated Edward Norton’s take on the character, even as Ruffalo, with his more empathetic portrayal, has come to ‘own’ Banner/Hulk in most everyone’s minds. Maybe if “The Incredible Hulk” had been a little better and done a little better at the box office, we could have been living with a very different sort of green icon.