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In continuing our review series on the MCU movies, we come to the other 2008 Marvel movie. Just two months after Marvel kicked off its Cinematic Universe with Iron Man, they expanded their roster with The Incredible Hulk. This movie is largely considered to be among the worst MCU movies—which based on the Rotten Tomatoes score is accurate—but that only tells part of the story. The Incredible Hulk currently has a 67% critical score and 71% audience score; the next-lowest is Thor: The Dark World, which also has a 67% critical score but a higher audience score at 78%. Iron Man 2 comes in next with 72% both critically and from audiences. These are the three lowest-scoring movies based on Rotten Tomatoes.
However, a comparison with other Marvel movies (outside the MCU) paints a different picture. The 2003 Ang Lee Hulk movie starring Eric Bana received a 61% score from critics and a painful 29% from audiences. None of FOX’s Fantastic Four movies have rated higher than 37% critically (Rise of the Silver Surfer rates highest, with the most-recent movie rating just a mind-boggling 9%). The three lowest-rated X-Men movies are X-Men Origins: Wolverine (38%), X-Men: Apocalypse (48%), and X-Men: The Last Stand (58%). The two lowest-rated Spider-Man movies are The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (53%) and Spider-Man 3 (63%). Daredevil, Elektra, and even all three Blade movies have lower ratings. One more: both Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman are lower. So even when Marvel Studios makes a bad movie, it’s still better than everyone else’s bad movies!
And with that out of the way, we can get down to business.
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As I mentioned above, The Incredible Hulk was released almost 2 months to the day after Iron Man. And I don’t think it’s an accident that these two movies served as the jumping-off point for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When you look at them together it becomes clear just how well they complement each other. Iron Man is a technologically-enhanced hero; Hulk is a biologically-enhanced hero. Tony Stark embraces his power and tries to use it for good from the beginning; Bruce Banner rejects his power and tries to “cure” it. Iron Man is embraced by the public and tolerated by the government (represented by S.H.I.E.L.D.); Hulk is feared by the public and hunted by the government. As such, I really like The Incredible Hulk as a counterpoint to Iron Man.
As far as the movie itself is concerned, it does a lot of things right. Edward Norton makes a good Bruce Banner (certainly better than Eric Bana, who from what I recall exhibits about as much acting talent as a piece of white bread in Hulk!), particularly when it comes to showing his inner conflict. Of course, that might have as much to do with his already having Fight Club under his belt as it does with the merits of this movie! And at the same time, this movie provides a good origin for both Banner and the Hulk as we see him/them in The Avengers. At the beginning of the movie Bruce fears the Hulk and sees him as a separate entity that he needs to get rid of. However, over the course of the movie (particularly from Betty’s experience with the Hulk at Culver University), he realizes that there is more to the Hulk than mindless destruction; he saved Betty when her life was in danger. By the time Blonsky goes full-on Abomination, Bruce is ready to acknowledge the Hulk as a part of himself and something that is actually necessary. In other words, he makes peace with the Hulk. We see this particularly in the final tease when he is in the cabin in Canada: he is learning to control his heartbeat not to contain the Hulk, but to unleash him.
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The argument has been made that Edward Norton and Liv Tyler share very little chemistry in this movie, and it does have merit. To be honest, I can’t see Liv Tyler without thinking of her as Arwen in The Lord of the Rings, and her voice is so airy that that was a perfect casting! That being said, a lack of chemistry between Bruce and Betty makes a great deal of sense, considering the story that this movie is telling. From the opening credits we know that the last time he tried to contact her was in 2006 (meaning that he probably gained his powers shortly before then), and from both Iron Man 2 and the tie-in comic “Fury’s Big Week” we know that the main events of this movie run concurrent with Iron Man 2 and Thor (which I assume to have occurred in 2010, when Iron Man 2 was released). Consequently, it’s probably been a good 4 years since the last time he’d even seen her, and she had moved on with Dr. Samson (who sadly doesn’t get green hair in this movie!). Tell me honestly: how much chemistry would you have with an ex that you hadn’t seen in 5 years and who’d moved on with her life? Probably not a lot.
Of course, Betty is still a rather one-note character, and that’s not a particularly interesting note. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what her arc is in this movie. She’s with Samson at the beginning, but she dumps him like yesterday’s trash when Bruce shows up. Then she is hell-bent on helping him out while they are on the run. Then after playing Ann Darrow to his King Kong, she just lets him run off at the end.
The antagonists in this movie are quite good. Ross does a very good “Captain Ahab” impression in his dogged pursuit of the Hulk. His motivations are clear throughout the movie, and at the same time he shows a willingness to do some terrible and impulsive things because he is so singularly-focused on capturing the Hulk. At the same time, we don’t get much sense of how he came to be like this: what was he like before the accident? Did Bruce endangering Betty factor into his hunt? More to the point: if he already has a semi-working serum (the one he gave Blonsky), why does he need the Hulk?
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Blonsky himself is another one-note character. He’s a military man who lives for the fight but is starting to age out of the action. He covets the Hulk’s power, so he leaps at the opportunity afforded him by Ross. And once he’s tasted power, he craves more and more of it. So when he hears Stern talking about what he can do with Bruce’s blood, he leaps at the opportunity to gain more power. In this way he is a foil for Bruce: Bruce has the power and doesn’t want it; Blonsky gets a taste of the power and craves more and more. At the same time, he’s just not interesting enough. Of course, you don’t put the Abomination in your Hulk movie because you are looking for Oscar-worthy character development; you put him in your Hulk movie so the two monsters can beat the snot out of each other!
And on the subject of the fights and effects, this movie holds up okay for the most part. I really like the slow reveal of the Hulk: we only get a couple small glimpses of him in the factory fight—and that in the shadows, and we don’t see him clearly until the Culver University fight. The whole transformation is only shown once in the movie (in Sterns’ lab), and it is believable.
However, there is one place where the CGI is just bad: the climactic fight scene when the helicopter is shooting at the Abomination while Hulk and Abomination beat on each other. I don’t notice it as much with the monsters (ironically), but the helicopter looks a little too clean. The same is true about the background: it’s just too clean to be real. Really, it makes the middle part of the fight look like video game graphics.
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Beyond that, the plot of the movie really works well for me. I like that the “origin story” is presented in a montage with the opening credits, rather than turning the entire movie into an origin story showing him having the accident. Doing it this way opened them up to tell a slightly different story, rather than a rehash of the origin from the 2003 movie. Following this “origin,” the movie picks up with Bruce living off the grid in Brazil and working at a soda bottling plant. He is trying to cure himself of the Hulk with the help of the enigmatic “Mr. Blue” (which in the comics is an alias for Betty herself while she is trying to help an unsuspecting Bruce to cure his condition). However, he comes to the government’s attention and must go on the run. His search for a cure brings him back to Culver University and Betty, and from there to New York and Samuel Sterns. In New York he finds a temporary cure, but has to reconcile with the Hulk in order to save the city (and Betty) from Abomination.
The one thing about this movie that always saddens me is knowing how unlikely it is that any of the sequel potentials will be explored. Sterns becomes the Leader at the end of the movie. Doc Samson is introduced, though he doesn’t get exposed to gamma radiation. They even include a Rick Jones Easter egg during the opening credits. And it’s unlikely that any of these things will pay off in the MCU.
As a whole, this movie works. It’s certainly not the best movie Marvel has ever produced, but it is not nearly as bad as the awful comic book movies we’ve seen in recent years. And it was at least enough for Marvel Studios to continue producing movies.
What did you think of The Incredible Hulk? Do you prefer Edward Norton or Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner? Which other The Incredible Hulk characters do you want to see again in the MCU now that Ross has reappeared? Let me know in the comments!