My Marvel Diary: The Incredible Hulk

Image: Marvel/Disney

Taking a cursory glance at today’s cinematic landscape it would appear that Marvel, or more accurately Disney, rule the world. Since 2008’s Iron Man the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built itself up into a box-office behemoth with huge cultural influence. I, however, have always been something of a sceptic when it comes to Marvel. A long-time lover of ‘proper’ cinema and arthouse flicks, in recent years I have fought against this tendency to be a ‘film snob’. My Marvel Diary is a challenge to myself to watch all 23 MCU films, perhaps proving my prejudices correct, or perhaps turning me into a lifelong fan of all things superhero.

Release Date: 13th June 2008

MCU Phase: One

Director: Louis Letterier

Writer: Zak Penn

Starring: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson

May contain spoilers.

I’ll be honest, watching The Incredible Hulk felt like the biggest chore in this project. Its place at the start of the franchise often made be put off starting the whole thing. I may have been very unfair and judgemental, but it’s hard to avoid when approaching this film. It’s the bastard child of the MCU, a film that scarcely fits into what otherwise appears to be a meticulously well-marketed series. It also represents one of the MCU’s greatest critical and commercial failures, and is the source of its only major casting change. Suffice to say, my hopes were not high.

I would love to say that The Incredible Hulk trampled all over these expectations and is in fact an under appreciated gem; or alternatively to trash it gleefully in a cruel-but-fun way. The reality, rather boringly, sits somewhere in the middle. It’s okay. The film itself is not bad, but not great. It does not feel of a piece with Iron Man or what I have been led to expect of the MCU. It is much what I expected, but is not without its strong points.

Edward Norton may have been magically transformed into Mark Ruffalo for later films, but that is no slight on him as an actor. He may not give off the energy Marvel supremos were looking for, but he makes for a good man-on-the-run and does his best to add depth to Bruce Banner that is barely there in Zak Penn’s script. The casting change for future films may well have been motivated more by the desire to banish the memory of The Incredible Hulk, than a criticism of Norton’s performance.

Tim Roth, too, gives a strong performance, and proves to be excellent casting as nasty soldier Blonski, who becomes jealous of the Hulk’s power and serves as the film’s primary villain. We know Blonski is a bad dude because he shoots a dog. This is ‘movie code’, you see. When soldier-baddies are killing people there is a layer of ambiguity as to whether they are really a villain or not – after all it is their job. But as soon a they lay a hand on any animal, let alone man’s best friend, they are marked out as a sadistic sociopath and the embodiment of all that is wrong with the world.

Some of the action scenes in the film’s middle act are a strong point too, entertainingly staged and helped by the heavy involvement of central characters beyond our hero – principally Bruce Banner’s love interest Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) and her disapproving Army General father (William Hurt). The film was directed by Louis Letterier, who proved he knows his way around a good set-piece with magician thriller Now You See Me. Nothing here is especially clever or audacious, but it’s not boring either. There is a good pace to the film that ensures it holds the attention throughout.

Despite some decent flourishes, The Incredible Hulk is frequently dragged down by how formulaic it feels. An exposition-laden montage over the opening credits is a nice way of getting major plot background across quickly and efficiently, but the whole ‘science experiment gone wrong stuff’ feels more hackneyed than thrilling at this point. The romantic plotline driving most of the story doesn’t feel 100% successful either. Having an emotional core to anchor an action film is a good thing, but the relationship between Betty and Bruce feels both clichéd and inauthentic. It’s basically just Beauty and the Beast meets King Kong with no discernible personality of its own. It is the same with much of the film – there is nothing wrong with covering the same ground as most action films in itself, but Letterier and Penn add no individual flavour to it.

Despite these problems, they alone do not explain why The Incredible Hulk has been quite so banished from MCU history. Well, perhaps it is because this film came directly after the big success of Iron Man, and feels nothing like it. The visuals, even, are murkier, and the slightly-higher budget is certainly not evident in the special effects. Maybe it’s just confirmation bias, but The Incredible Hulk feels out of place.

It seems odd that I could be criticising the film for its difference to Iron Man when one of my principal scepticisms about the MCU was that the films would all be too similar to each other, too formulaic. Yet the problem with this film is not that it has an originality Iron Man lacked, but that it is formulaic in a way that feels very old-hat. Iron Man seemed like it could have been made yesterday – it felt fresh. The MCU is at least accused of sticking to its own formaula.

It is a formula that, on the strength of Iron Man, is light and zippy. The Incredible Hulk, meanwhile, is frustratingly po-faced and self-serious. Its climactic battle, for instance, is intended as an action spectacular, but struggles to elevate itself beyond ’smashy smashy man hits other smashy smashy man’ – a style that can quickly become tedious. From my limited knowledge – we are only two films in after all – the MCU’s stock in trade is character and humour, two things sorely lacking from The Incredible Hulk. Some of the best bits of Iron Man were when its heroes and villains were just talking. The characters and dialogue here only serve the plot.

I have two brief side notes on this film. Firstly, Michael Kenneth Williams, AKA Omar from The Wire, turns up for about three seconds, which has reminded me to tell anyone that will listen to watch The Wire because it’s one of the best TV series ever made. Secondly, this is the second time in a row that the film’s principal bad guy is a knock-off version of the hero, wanting some of the power for themselves. With Iron Man 2 up next, I wonder if this is a socially-conscious trend that will continue, or give way to a different style of cartoon villain.

The Sting

Coming just before rather than straight after the credits this time, the ‘sting’ here is just about the only thing to tie this into the rest of the MCU. Tony Stark rocks up to tell General Ross about ‘putting a team together’, planting a further seed of the Avengers fun that is to come. This tells us nothing new, really: a further reason why The Incredible Hulk seems to lift right out of the MCU canon.

Where it Ranks

Almost everything I have written above has been comparing The Incredible Hulk to Iron Man, and largely unfavourably at that. It comes as no surprise then that the second film in My Marvel Diary takes second place in my ranking.

  1. Iron Man
  2. The Incredible Hulk

Andrew Young