Marvel’s early days are somewhat strange. It’s clear that the people behind-the-scenes knew that these movies could all be connected someday. And they knew that there was something bigger they were building toward. While it seems like they mostly figured that out by Iron Man 2, it’s really The Incredible Hulk that winds up being the forgotten child and the biggest casualty of the early stages of this grand experiment. That said, for all of the vocalization from the fanbase wanting a Hulk solo movie, we have one in the MCU already. It just has Edward Norton instead of Mark Ruffalo in it.
As far as revisiting all of these MCU movies leading up to Avengers: Infinity War, I was incredibly curious about taking another look at The Incredible Hulk. I remember seeing this movie when it first came out and, though I haven’t watched it in quite some time, I remember it being a perfectly good comic book movie. In many ways, that’s still true. However, this doesn’t really feel like an MCU movie. It hardly feels connected to the larger universe at all and there’s definitely evidence of the sort of old ways of thinking about comic book movies in here. Lots of weird slow motion. Bizarre, kind of cringeworthy things, like the “days without incident” counter always flashing on the screen. And it certainly isn’t the most beautiful MCU movie. I’m no cinematography expert, but this thing just looks sort of unremarkable. Maybe that’s just Louis Leterrier as a director. We are talking about the guy who directed The Brothers Grimsby.
But I’m not here to pick on this movie. In fact, complaints aside, I still feel this movie is a little unfairly overlooked. At least to the degree that it’s overlooked. But what went wrong? The Incredible Hulk may be the only MCU movie that suffers as a result of having way too many cooks in the kitchen. For those who may not know, the reason that we haven’t seen another Hulk solo movie since is that Universal Pictures still owns the rights to any solo movies starring Marvel’s big green rage machine. Now that Marvel Studios has become such a dominating force, they don’t really have any desire or need to split profits with Universal, since Hulk can, per the complicated contract that was agreed upon when the rights were initially sold to the studio, appear in team-up movies. So, Marvel can just use him in things like Thor: Ragnarok instead and they don’t have to deal with Universal.
Practicalities of getting Mark Ruffalo his own movie aside, let’s talk about the movie we do have, which isn’t nearly as bad or forgettable as its reputation may imply. The Incredible Hulk is a perfectly decent comic book movie. Sure, it doesn’t have a lot of connectivity to the larger MCU, though we do get a subtle reference to a “super soldier” program in WWII and that excellent stinger, which works like a post-credits scene but is really a pre-credits scene, if you will, with Tony Stark approaching General Ross about The Avengers. Choice bits of connectivity aside, that’s probably why it’s easy to forget the movie at this point, but that doesn’t take anything away from the fact that this movie works, for the most part, in its own right. Is it perfect? Hell no. Not by a long shot. But the good far outweighs the bad. And compared to Ang Lee’s disastrous Hulk movie, this thing looks like a masterpiece.
Speaking of Ang Lee’s Hulk, this is also a rare example of a soft reboot that works. This movie kind of picks up where the first Hulk movie, which features Eric Bana as Bruce Banner, left off, but replaces many of the characters. However, thankfully, Thunderbolt Ross is still played by William Hurt, and as you’ll note if you’ve seen Captain America: Civil War (and if you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet you have) the MCU is much better for it. Not only that, but Hurt as General Ross is very easily the best thing about this movie. It’s an early example of perfect casting within the MCU.
But the biggest thing one realizes when watching this movie now is just how different the MCU could have been. Edward Norton is an excellent actor in his own right. There’s no denying that. He’s just so radically different in the way that he approaches the role of Bruce Banner, when compared to Mark Ruffalo. Whereas Ruffalo brings a charm to go with the torment, Norton plays the whole thing pretty straight. Relatively speaking. I mean, the dude still has to play the duality between a rage monster and one of the world’s greatest scientists. You can only play something like that so straight. Not only that, but especially after seeing Thor: Ragnarok, it’s clear that Ruffalo actually brings something very deep to the Hulk part of this whole thing. It’s not just some CGI monster.
Granted, who knows where Edward Norton could have taken it? But still, it feels like we got the better actor for the part at the end of the day. Another interesting thing to consider when talking about this movie is just how near it was released to Iron Man. The movies barely had a month between one another, which certainly didn’t help The Incredible Hulk at the box office. To date, it’s still by far the lowest-grossing movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, having made just $263.4 million worldwide. It’s not hard to imagine that Avengers: Infinity War could almost make that opening weekend.
The Incredible Hulk represents a comic book movie that is middle-of-the-road and, for many, is just an unremarkable flick with an unremarkable villain, played admirably by Tim Roth, who does well with what he’s given. But it’s a classic example of the bad guy getting the shaft in favor of the good guy in an MCU movie. While this movie deserves a bit more love, it’s easy to see why fans so desperately want a great Hulk movie from Marvel. Though, after a revisit, I’d say we could try a little harder to like the one we’ve got.