Countdown to Endgame #5: The Forgotten Hulk

As The Avengers: Endgame approaches, Team Midnight has committed to watch all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films released to date in chronological (story) order: 22 films in 8 weeks. Follow along with us.

Credit: Universal Studios, Marvel Entertainment

Though one of the first films made, in the MCU story arc the events of The Incredible Hulk were happening simultaneously with the end of Iron Man 2 and most of Thor. There is a teeny bit of S.H.I.E.L.D. action and a few nods to Stark Industries but (other than the titular character, of course), the biggest contribution Hulk makes to the MCU is the character of General Thaddeus Ross, played by William Hurt, who shows up again in later films.

Hero: Bruce Banner / Hulk

“Leave me alone.”

A brilliant scientist, Bruce’s cutting edge work with gamma radiation backfired; now, whenever he gets too agitated, he transforms into a giant, green (indestructible?) rage monster. Aware of how dangerous his powerful alter-ego can be, he lives alone in Brazil – hiding out from the government agencies of the world  and trying to stay mellow as he figures out how to cure himself and rid the world of the Hulk.

Other heroes:

  • Betty Ross
  • Tony Stark

Villain: General Thaddeus Ross, Emil Blonsky / Abomination

“As far as I’m concerned, that man’s whole body is property of the U.S. army.”

American Military General and his British subcontractor friend.

Villain Complexity Rating: 2/5

General Ross and Blonsky are a two-fer: different arms of the same power-hungry American military beast. Obsessed with Dr. Erskine’s success developing a supersoldier serum in WWII (see: Captain America – The First Avenger), Ross is chasing the only (accidental) success the project has had since the formula was lost 60 years ago – the Hulk – in order to dissect him and figure out how to breed an army of monsters. He’s really not THAT different from Red Skull – both high-ranking, rogue leaders of military science divisions, both set on world domination (in a way) – the difference being that Ross is working within the machine of American military power, rather than creating his own super-nation. Blonsky is Ross’ obsession incarnate: a soldier in love with violence and power, so much that it makes a monster out of him.

“What’s at Stake” Rating: 2.5/5

If Ross is able to achieve his goal, the U.S. military will be led by an army of monsters – distorted, manipulated human beings with uncontrollable rage. Though our heroes aren’t facing planetary obliteration or anything, not only would Ross’ victory escalate the stakes of war on earth, the irreversible exploitation of soldier’s bodies and lives is an extremely problematic human rights issue.

What did our hero(es) learn?

Until the events of this movie, the Hulk has only brought pain and destruction to Bruce and the people unfortunate enough to be around him when he transforms. Through his confrontation with The Abomination in New York, however, Hulk is given the opportunity to use his power to help people for the first time. Though still alone and in exile, the last scene in The Incredible Hulk indicates that Bruce has decided to stop trying to get rid of the Hulk and to start figuring out how to control him, a significant shift in Bruce’s beliefs about what’s possible for Hulk and the beginning of a journey he’ll continue to struggle with throughout the stories to come.

Heroism Rating: 3/5

Bruce’s heroism is grounded in his selflessness – choosing to give up everything that is meaningful about his life in order to keep the power of the Hulk away from those who might exploit it in order to hurt people. Dude has some serious conviction and fortitude – taking a very difficult high road. He also jumps out of a helicopter (as Bruce) in the hope that Hulk will appear to fight the Abomination in New York City (he does) – saving some people (and cars and buildings) in the process. Though definitely heroic, the scope of Bruce’s actions and impact in this movie isn’t really big, world-saving stuff yet.

Visual Aesthetic/CGI Rating: 2.5/5

Let’s just get this out of the way: the Hulk/Abomination CGI is really bad. The last fight scene is terrible-looking, way worse that the Mines of Moria (which apparently is the Midnights’ threshold for bad CGI). And I’m still not sure whether/not the Hulk was supposed to look anything like Edward Norton, which seems like a real problem. The often-terrible CGI doesn’t totally sink this movie, though – because of smart, stylish directing choices. For example, the first Hulk confrontation in the bottling plant in Brazil is straight-up scary monster movie suspense stuff, shot in dark corners with Hulk only visible in occasional silhouette or shadowy glimpses. The chase through the Brazilian favela is thrilling, and the fight scenes are effectively choreographed to make both Hulk – and in particular, supersoldier Blonsky – look really powerful and cool. Whereas most Marvel movies have a shiny, colorful visual personality, The Incredible Hulk is dark and rain-soaked, more Fincher than Favreau – which totally fits with the characters and action of the film.

Heroic Cinema Saturation Index

Betsy Rating: 3/5

The Incredible Hulk is a chase from start-to-finish, taking cues from the Bournes/Bonds and apex David Fincher, with a superhuman twist. This pacing and aesthetic really work for the movie’s character development and narrative, but are part of why – I think – Hulk is kind of the red-headed-stepchild of the MCU. It’s a really different kind of movie from the rest, especially from Iron Man, which came out in the same year. It’s dark and serious – which feels appropriate for Bruce Banner, whose life is pretty f**ked up.

Ed Norton’s Bruce is serious, soft-spoken, and lonely, pining for his abandoned love, Betty – whose only friends are his dog and his online chat pal, Mr. Blue.  His race to figure out how to cure himself before the government catches up with him is well-paced and engaging. Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross is fearlessly devoted to Bruce, creating real emotional stakes as the government (led by her father, General Ross) continually closes in. Despite a couple minor complaints (Tim Roth has way too much swagger for a soldier, the daylight CGI is god-awful), I like this movie, and I think the way that it explores the central conflict of Bruce’s character adds a lot to the overall MCU narrative.

There’s this one part where, after encountering Hulk for the first time, Tim Roth is trying to describe him and says something like “He was big, really big – and green, or maybe grey. Green-grey. I think.” That, for me, sums up what keeps this movie from being great. It’s good, but it’s grey: dark and misty and kind of difficult to remember.

Justin’s Rating: 2.5/5

The MCU version of the Big Guy was released just a month after the first Iron Man film, but comes in chronological story order at #5, after Iron Man 2. This created minor confusion among casual fans, who may have also been feeling the first pangs of Acute Superhero Saturation in Movies About Dudes (ASSMAD) in 2008, which also saw the release of Christopher Nolan’s mega successful The Dark Knight along with Hellboy II, that really garbagey Punisher flick, Hancock, and yes, The Spirit. 2008 even saw the release of Superhero Movie, which I’m assuming is too funny to watch. Poor old Bruce Banner’s story got a bit lost in the shuffle for many of us, but the fact that it was retroactively included as MCU canon saved it from being relegated to Ghost Rider status.

There’s a lot that’s kinda too bad about this film. The timing was unfortunate considering its relation to other films in the MCU. The CGI is bad, though good for its time. It’s a reboot. Ed Norton is not Mark Ruffalo. Most unfortunate though, is that it’s been consigned to oblivion by so many for these faults. That’s too bad because it’s a pretty good film. 

Where previous films drew fans in with Stark’s quick-quipping supergenius and Rogers’ heart of ethically-sourced gold, The Incredible Hulk plunges viewers into the darker side of superpower. Bruce Banner is a man who watched in horror and sadness as he dismantled his own life with a single, irrevocable act of hubris. His life’s work and passion, his love, and his freedom were all lost to him the moment Hulk smashed his way into the frame. Ed Norton’s portrayal of Banner conveys the grief that would accompany this kind of disruption, but never really any of that trademark anger. Instead, he’s almost wistful in his efforts to reclaim his old life as a regular old genius physicist working on secret government projects involving human test subjects. Maybe that was by design, but it’s clear in hindsight that Mark Ruffalo gets something about simmering rage that Norton doesn’t.

What Norton does give effectively is the impression of years lived on the lam in constant fear and paranoia. Banner’s post-transformation existence is one of carefully weighed risks, each taken to bring him closer to a cure without blowing his cover. When events lead to a Hulk out, he’s mortified about hurting innocents as much as he is about getting caught. I imagine Banner experiences his time as “the other guy” similar to the way people describe night terrors; he’s aware of what he’s doing, but unable to stop. So we don’t get the fun, Thor-punching Hulk we see by the end of The Avengers in this film because he’s not having anything resembling fun. He’s practically frozen inside a monster possessed of limitless destructive power* with a pinky on the steering wheel, so “Leave Hulk alone” makes a lot more sense here than “Hulk Smash!”

The rest of the casting here is fine, but the film suffers a bit from the aforementioned CGI and a pretty stupid villain in Abomination/Emil Blonsky. General Ross presents a bit more interesting if predictable adversary for Hulk/Banner, though it’s too bad his daughter (and Bruce’s love interest), Betty, hasn’t been seen since this film.

The Incredible Hulk is definitely worth another look despite what you may remember of it. In fact, this origin story provides the MCU a timbre of emotional authenticity previously lacking and has had significant impact on the Big Guy’s direction moving forward.

OVERALL: 2.6

The Incredible Hulk is available rent/stream for a few dollars through Vudu or the Google Play/iTunes app stores. Definitely recommended!

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