Is there a more underappreciated movie in the MCU than The Incredible Hulk? Tonally different from both what Iron Man established before and pretty much everything that came after, it seemed to be the antithesis of everything it’s older, iron suited brother achieved with a darker, less assured style.
Looking to distance itself from Ang Lee’s ambitious, yet severely strange Hulk movie back in 2003, this new attempt at Bruce Banner’s tetchy id monster chooses to take more than a few queues from the cult Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigarno TV series an focus almost entirely on our hero on the run from his own government.
Holed up in Brazil and learning the local lingo from dubbed episodes of Sesame Street, Bruce (a perpetually sullen Edward Norton) works hard at keeping his head down at a local bottling plant while trying to cure his condition on the side, but the military has other ideas. Hot on his heels is the tyrannical General Ross (a magnificently growly William Hurt) and super soldier serum junkie Emil Blonskey (Tim Roth glaring through a fringe soaked in supervillain flop-sweat) desperately trying to ensnare Banner’s promethean properties for their very different agendas.
So the stage is set for a titanic beat down as The Hulk squares up to a monstrously jacked up Blonskey in the streets of Harlem.
The balancing act every Hulk movie seems to face is how much on screen time to hand over to our hero’s jade juggernaut. The plot demands he keep the Hulk locked away in his subconscious lest people get hurt and yet the audience demands this very thing to occur in order to get our damn money’s worth. We want him to get angry, we really like him when he gets angry.
Director Louis Leterrier styles the proceedings more like a Jason Bourne movie (if Jason Bourne could lose his shit and punch over a building), full of breathless chases and resourceful characters, plus interesting little quirks pepper the film with neat details that enhance the story. For example, Bruce, Betty and General Ross all carry scars from their first Hulk encounter to show how the gamma accident has marked the survivors inside and out and Banner having traumatic Hulk flashbacks while still lucid is a concept I would have liked to seen more of.
However, as the film trundles on, some weird alchemy happens that may or may not have been deliberate which I happened to respond to anyway. Maybe it’s the timing of the Hulk scenes equally dotted throughout the run time or maybe it’s the weird rubbery quality of the CGI, but I got a massive Ray Harryhausen, monster movie vibe throughout the whole thing (considering Leterrier went on to make the Clash Of The Titans remake, maybe it WAS deliberate). Like if Harryhausen was still working his magic today, this is the kind of film had be making.
The other strong point that TIH boasts is it’s supremely muscular action beats. While the first set piece of The Hulk swatting special ops guys around a factory and the climax where he and his nemesis remodel Harlem with their biceps, it’s a middle scene set in a university that truly impresses. Cornered and goin’ green, The Hulk wades through all the waves of varied assults that General Ross can fling at him. Bullets, humvees, a super soldier, sound cannons, a helecopter; the army just pours it on to exhilarating effect and it’s probably on of the best action scenes of the MCU’s first phase.
So why the lack of love? The movie is barely referenced in it’s own cinematic universe and the only actor to reprise a role was Hurt, 8 YEARS later with not even a mutter of Liv Tyler’s spunky Betty Ross.
The truth is that for all of its successes and all of it’s flaws, The Incredible Hulk just doesn’t fit into the collective universe as smoothly as everything else, sticking out like a sore green thumb.
But maybe that’s also a plus, as once again The Hulk is Marvel’s ultimate outsider. Hulk smash, yes. But Hulk no smash hit.