As I just began a review series leading up to Avengers: Infinity War, I started with the instant-hit, 2008’s Iron Man. Of course, with that film, there was a rich history of comics to draw from, but as far as the character’s place in pop-culture, he really wasn’t that well known to general audiences. It’s success says a lot of how great it was as a film.
Still, later that same year, Marvel Studios hit the ground running with another comic-hero, inarguably more well known than him: The Incredible Hulk. Aside from the general populace being aware through the comics and his appearances in several animated series, the most popular iteration of the character came weekly in live-action on television screens for many years. Bill Bixby starred in the television series and several TV movies throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and in them, he brought humanity and an endearing face to the tortured scientist, David Banner (a change from the character’s traditional name of Bruce Banner). Forced on the run due to his uncontrollable transformation into the massive, angry Hulk, Banner did his best to lay low, find a way to cure it, and help those he met along the way. One can’t highlight Bixby’s incredible work without also highlighting Lou Ferrigno, who brought the Hulk to life every week with full fury. In many ways, that TV series has remained the quintessential medium of choice for people familiar with the character.
Of course, in 2003, Ang Lee directed Hulk. In his slightly revisionist take on the property, his art-house cinema sensibilities clashed for most expecting a purely enjoyable popcorn film. When it released, the effects were impressive, finally allowing us to see the Hulk with the size and destructive power that was unable to be done on a TV budget. An imperfect experience, overall, but not the complete bust it is made out to be. Still, those impressions carry over, whether we agree with them or not. So, in 2008, only a few years after that misfire, Hulk returned in a completely unrelated movie. Reboots are the Hollywood norm now, but it is possible that some audiences steered away from this film at release, as it never performed to the expectations, even though it wasn’t a financial loss (the same went for 2003’s Hulk).
Why all the history and box-office talk? Well, overall, even at the film’s release, this film never seemed to get a shot on its own. Existing in the shadows of the TV series and the Ang Lee film (both projecting onto it in different ways) and following the immediate success of Iron Man, it seems like this film was always going to disappoint many for different reasons. It’s no big secret that this is the film that the MCU and audiences have largely forgotten; still, should they have?
There is a lot this film gets right, especially within the confines of its own runtime; however, viewing it in succession of all that precedes and follows it (an inevitability of any film in the MCU) begins to show its flaws as a film in a larger series, especially in a series as referential as these films are. First off, the movie isn’t an origin story, as it uses the opening credits to get audiences up and rolling with the fairly well-known mythos of the Hulk. The visuals employed effectively recreate the look and feel of Banner’s lab experiment gone awry from the TV series. The equipment, shots, and the whole look and feel of it all seems like they time-warped Edward Norton in place of Bill Bixby. As a fan of that show, I have to say that watching both now and at the time of the film’s release excited me. Following that, we immediately pick up on the “wanderer” aspect, again from the TV series, as Bruce Banner is now doing his best to live incognito, working in a Brazilian soda bottling plant. A simple accident there that brings blood and contaminates a drink (insert the Stan Lee cameo) brings Banner to the attention of his pursuers, General Ross (William Hurt) and the U.S. Special Forces. Bringing in the high priority target that is Banner, the team enlists an outside Russian-born specialist from British Special Forces, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), whose body can’t quite keep up with his determination and tactics. Together, this team pursues Banner, who only wants to be left in peace to pursue his cure. With the belief that his body, blood, and all that can be achieved in studying him belongs to the U.S. Government, Ross and Blonsky will not stop in bringing him. It is this pursuit that gives the film its greatest strengths. There is a very competently paced and executed action movie here, along the lines of the Jason Bourne films. I was reminded of these, especially during those early scenes in Brazil. Weirdly, enough, the movie works best here. When Banner returns to the U.S. and seeks out Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) and Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson) in search of the cure, the film loses some momentum.
Sometimes, children of famous people get a bad rap for not having talent for themselves, but I know that Liv Tyler can act. She’s done great work over the years on her own merit. Here, though, Betty Ross isn’t given much to do. In fact, the dialogue between her and Banner yields some of the worst romantic chemistry in the MCU. Betty, over the years for the comics, has been a major reason for the keeping of Banner’s humanity and giving him a reason to not give up. Later on, when Mark Ruffalo plays Banner in The Avengers (2012) and beyond that film, Betty is never spoken of or referenced, which I’ve always felt bad about. Still, this film doesn’t make much of a case for the vital nature she plays in the story. Jennifer Connolly was given a “better Betty” on the page in 2003 than what Tyler gets to play here. Along those lines, while William Hurt does a very good job of bringing Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross to life (following Sam Elliott‘s portrayal in 2003), the dynamics of “Bruce/Betty/Gen. Ross” feels very half-baked here. The push-pull of where to place duty to your country, in relation to the love of your daughter is there, but none of it lands with all it needs to have.
I haven’t really said much about Edward Norton, our lead, in the role of Bruce Banner, but within the confines of the runtime, his portrayal is adequate; the problem is like that of Liv Tyler: he doesn’t get much on the page. It’s most apparent when Bruce and Betty are together, but other than that, our lead is mostly expected to just run from place to place. There aren’t many opportunities we get to understand our protagonist, and while general audiences come into the film knowing the Jekyll & Hyde dynamic behind the character, personally, I never got the connection I wanted to have with him as the lead. This is made an even bigger problem when Mark Ruffalo was given the ability to project more emotions with less screentime in The Avengers, and he has been the character in every film (and after-credit sequence) Banner has popped up in since. Would I have liked to see Norton continue to grow in the role? Sure, if for no other reason than to build a better connective tissue to this film in the series, but that will never be. Respect to Ruffalo for later developing the character, but it’s undeniable to not feel a little remorse for not seeing Norton work any beyond this film. That effect continues throughout, as very little of what happens here is brought up again in the MCU.
Tim Roth makes a man going toe-to-toe with the beast that is the Hulk believable. When he is in pursuit-mode, he conveys a savagery that comes without changing into a raging monster. Marketing pictures and ten years of being out lets it be known that Blonsky later becomes even more monstrous than Hulk as Abomination, and the film goes from a pursuit film to ending with a battle on the streets of Harlem between the large titans. The CGI displayed here (and really for the Hulk scenes in general) hasn’t aged as well as the effects in other movies. That has everything to do with the nature of being entirely-digital, but the effects are best in viewing the characters still before they get into full-fisticuffs.
Recasting and dated effects aside, one of the main difficulties in reconciling this film into the series comes with the Hulk himself. Here, the character is leaner, meaner, and much more savage than any portrayal to follow. Hulk is scarier here than he was in the 2003 film, and it shows in every bit of how he is animated here. Pipe organs even feature in the musical cues during his transformation scenes, so yes, he is a monster here. Obviously, Joss Whedon would later deliver a more crowd-pleasing character in his Avengers films, and Taika Waititi amplified it even more in Thor: Ragnarok; still, here, we have a purely dangerous monster. Comedy is largely devoid of this movie, but most damagingly during any scenes involving the Hulk. Beyond that, there is a serious case to be made for the necessity of bringing him down, because aside from trying to stop Abomination and the misguided plans to exploit Banner for military gain, there really isn’t any heroism on display from Banner. He doesn’t mean to harm, but he isn’t given many opportunities to be a traditional hero either. It just all yields a movie with a less effective “heroic story arc” than Marvel films are best known for.
With regard to content, there is some language and harrowing action scenes, but nothing that is brutally graphic. In one scene, parents might get a little worried that they might have to shield their kid’s eyes from an impending sex scene, but Banner puts a halt to that. There isn’t anything particularly Christian on display in the film to speak of, but one could draw parallels between grappling with one’s base nature of sin. Horrible things can result from it, and some seek to exploit you into bringing it out. Also, when performing experiments on ourselves, it can potentially yield problems, like we see with Hulk & Abomination. Again, this is all discussion that could lead from the film.
Did I enjoy the film? It sounds like I didn’t, but I did. It is very imperfect and works best when it’s purely a “chase film”. Trying to reconcile the film into the larger MCU doesn’t yield much in favor of it. Still, I wouldn’t write it off either as unwatchable. If anything, this film remains to show the MCU is fluid, imperfect, and in need of adaptation moving forward. I think about the film more as its potential than its execution, and that means it isn’t as good as it needed to be. If anything, it set the character of Banner up by film’s end with a hope of being heroic, a trait that is carried through moving forward. I do hope that someday (if rights issues are ever rectified with Universal) that the Hulk can have another solo film to his own again. Maybe with the lessons learned here and in subsequent appearances, it can be an overall more crowd-pleasing film than this film ultimately proved to be.