"The Incredible Hulk" Revisited: Action Should be Driven by Character, Not Just Smashing
Released in June of 2008, in partnership with Marvel Studios, The Incredible Hulk was Universal’s second attempt at bringing the eponymous not-so-Jolly Green Giant to the big screen. The first came just five years earlier with Ang Lee’s stylish and often idiosyncratic Hulk (2003) starring Eric Bana.
Most people who had seen Ang Lee's version likely went into 2008 with flashbacks of an iridescent green Hulk, bounding across the desert like a giant superball. Coupled with the cinematically ambitious (and often annoying) split screen editing and excessive dialogue, Lee’s Hulk was a noble attempt at cinematic art that lacked punch, which, as you might conclude, is problematic for a story with a green rage monster as its protagonist.
When 2008 rolled around, fans were already quick to note from artwork, film posters, and trailers, that the Hulk being introduced in Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk looked MUCH different than the Ang Lee Hulk. It was a much darker, grittier, and muted Hulk than what we had previously seen. And yet, with Ironman being released just a month prior, the MCU’s second film had a tough act to follow. Unfortunately, on its own, it never managed to step out of the shadow of the MCU’s true narrative giant, Tony Stark.
As a whole, The Incredible Hulk is a lackluster second chapter in an otherwise exceptional franchise. When most people forget that this film is even part of the biggest franchise in movie history, that’s a problem.
I don’t really know which is worse: being a bad movie or a mediocre, forgettable movie. I guess the latter is more damning because The Incredible Hulk is still the MCU’s lowest box office film to date (August 2019).
On the surface, there are several things that actually work really well with The Incredible Hulk. Edward Norton gave us a solid Bruce Banner and actually one of the more faithful comic book adaptations as he played the brilliant yet socially awkward scientist with a quiet reserve to contrast the Hulk’s fury.
Norton’s Banner is also a dramatically refreshing everyman compared to the rest of the Avengers. The Hulk may be the team’s big gun, but Bruce is just an average guy with a much more reserved personality audiences can relate to.
I often wonder what The Avengers and future of the MCU would have looked like with Ed Norton’s Banner/Hulk suiting up with the rest of the team. We will never know as Norton was replaced by Mark Ruffalo for The Avengers (2012), and perhaps for the better.
So what did go wrong with The Incredible Hulk, and why did the Hulk, of all characters, fail to break out on his own in the early days of the MCU?
1. We Have a Hulk Problem
The main problem with The Incredible Hulk is not really with Bruce Banner. It really has more to do with his alter ego. It was clear from the get-go that the technology needed to bring the Hulk to life on the screen had improved dramatically from 2003’s Hulk; but it would take another four years for the character to make another technological leap for The Avengers. By then, the studio realized that motion capture was the better way to go.
As much as the two are distinct characters, the Hulk will always have a part of Banner inside of him, just as Banner can never fully get rid of the Hulk. They are two sides of the same coin, the Janus archetype, and the Jekyll and Hyde of the MCU. This is something we probably need to see.
Having Mark Ruffalo’s performance drive the Hulk’s facial expressions and physicality makes a world of difference for both characters and how we relate to them.
Yes, Lou Ferrigno had previously provided the monstrous alter ego for Bill Bixby’s Dr. Banner in the television version of The Incredible Hulk, but that was pre-CG and pre-motion capture. Options were limited and the producers decided to take advantage of the physical stature of Ferrigno.
Even the much-maligned League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) balanced CG with prosthetics to make sure Jason Flemyng’s Mr. Hyde had a hint of Dr. Jekyll inside.
In both instances, an actor’s performance was driving the monster’s rage.
What’s the lesson here? The Incredible Hulk, like its predecessor, failed to take advantage of its actor’s abilities. Unfortunately, Edward Norton had little to no involvement in the creation of the Hulk as a character.
A fully CG Hulk, with no actor involved in his movement or motivation, is a Hulk without the heart and soul of Bruce Banner. The two cannot be separated that easily. Banner has to be there somewhere. If not, the Hulk’s action sequences have no stakes because they are too disconnected from the actual human being trapped within.
The Incredible Hulk, unfortunately, hadn’t figured this out yet, so we were given a detached CG Hulk that audiences couldn’t connect with.
2. Uncertain Marketing
In pure story terms, The Incredible Hulk struggles to define what kind of story it wants to tell. It’s not really an origin story. All of the events that led to Banner becoming the Hulk are told in a pre-credits sequence or in flashback. It was also a little confusing to audiences when the events of The Incredible Hulk pick up where Ang Lee’s Hulk left off, just five years prior, with Bruce Banner hiding in the jungles of South America/ Brazil.
Is this a sequel? Is this a reboot?
I heard of the producers label the film a “re-quel,” a term you’ve probably never heard because it should never be used again.
If you can’t effectively communicate what kind of adventure fans are about to go on, they’re not likely to pay to get on board.
Were we getting a sequel to a movie we didn’t really love or were they rebooting the Hulk and starting over entirely? We don’t know because the filmmakers wouldn’t (or couldn’t) answer this question.
Marketing matters, and yes, clear marketing is an essential part of effective storytelling.
3. Why are You Running?
If this is a fugitive narrative, which it very well could have been, we have to know what Banner is running from and what he is running towards.
There’s a reason why The Fugitive (1993) is so memorable. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) is not just running from the law; he’s also working to piece together the clues that will prove his innocence and exonerate him in the killing of his wife. Of course, there’s also the matter of a husband seeking justice. If Kimball gets caught, not only does he go right back to prison, his wife’s killer goes free. That’s something even we as an audience cannot tolerate.
Characters can run, but eventually, you have to give the character a goal to work and run towards.
In 2017’s Logan, mutants have effectively been eradicated from the population. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is feeling the effects of old age, as is Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who’s lost control of his telepathic power due to his rapid dementia. To fly under the radar, Logan and Charles must stay hidden in the Mexican desert, while they look for a boat to live on, away from humanity and the risk of another incident.
This objective quickly changes when a young mutant, Laura (Dafne Keen) comes into the picture. From then on, the heroes are focused on getting Laura, one of the last mutants on earth, to safety.
In The Incredible Hulk, Bruce Banner does a lot of running. This is all fine.
We get that he wants to stay hidden, but why?
Is Bruce hiding because he’s afraid of the Hulk getting out and hurting people? Is he hiding because he’s afraid of those hunting him? Is he merely trying to keep the Hulk out of the hands of the government? Is he actually trying to cure himself?
Maybe Bruce just wants to get back to the woman he loves (Liv Tyler) and craves normalcy?
What does Bruce really want? How badly does he want it? And what is he willing to do get it? There are a lot of mixed motivations that we never fully understand or are able to define.
4. Who’s the Real Villain?
We also need to know who Bruce Banner fears the most.
This leads to my second narrative question: is this a monster movie? It could have been, and this is what makes the Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde, and stories like it, so timeless.
Imagine the most terrifying monster and how much more terrifying it would be to know that the monster wreaking havoc on the world is actually you.
The best monster movies work when the monster is far more powerful than the heroes. Be it Jaws, Alien, Predator, Jurassic Park, or even Twister or The Perfect Storm, we’re left to wonder: how are our heroes ever going to beat the monster and get out of this alive?
What happens, though, when the hero is the monster? Are we actually supposed to root for the Hulk? Is the Hulk the hero or is he a villain of this story?
The Hulk, if released, should be terrifying. People should be afraid. Very afraid. He can do a LOT of damage, and Banner should know this. As we eventually see in Avengers: Age of Ultron, every time the Hulk gets out, Banner bears some responsibility (and guilty), especially when innocent people get hurt.
Like an alcoholic who went on a drunken rampage, hurting those he cares about, Banner feels responsible for the destruction caused by a part of him he can’t control (or even remember).
In The Incredible Hulk, we don’t get to see the monster until Act Two, and when we do, his rampage has no stakes. It’s just mindless smashing that isn’t that interesting.
Now contrast the Hulk’s first appearance in The Incredible Hulk with his rampage on the helicarrier in The Avengers. Banner and Natasha Romanov (Black Widow) are actually terrified of his presence.
If your character is going to run from something, be it a monster, machine, or antagonist, what they’re running from better be a real threat. The bigger the threat, the better the chase. This isn’t the case with The Incredible Hulk.
Great villains make it harder for the hero to get what they want. The stronger the villain, the more the hero has to work for their meal and the more we root for them to win.
The villains of The Incredible Hulk simply aren’t smart enough to catch Banner or strong enough to defeat the Hulk.
I keep thinking of the villains in films like No Country for Old Men, Predator, The Terminator, The Fugitive, The Matrix, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and The Empire Strikes Back. All of these films have villains who are relentless in their pursuit of the hero, and they are legitimately terrifying when doing it.
If General Ross (William Hurt) is meant to be the hunter, he needs to be someone we’re convinced might actually capture Banner/The Hulk. He’s not.
Emile Blonsky (Tim Roth) makes absolutely no sense as an antagonist either. His motivations are unclear, he has no connection to Bruce Banner, and he only transforms into Abomination in the final act, a turn that comes out of nowhere.
Why does this matter? The lack of an interesting, properly motivated antagonist provides no stakes for the final showdown. It’s a fight with no heart and nothing on the line. We simply don’t care enough about either character to root for Hulk or root against Abomination. It’s a lot of mindless smashing that does nothing for either character. And to many, it’s just plain boring.
There’s a reason why Tony Stark vs. Steve Rogers in Captain America: Civil War is such a tense and powerful sequence. These are two characters we care about, and there’s a lot on the line for whoever wins. The same is true for Steve Rogers and The Winter Soldier (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), T’Challa and Erik Killmonger (Black Panther) and the Avengers vs. Thanos.
Action sequences are only interesting when they’re driven by character, not spectacle.
The Hulk is (or at least should be) the biggest obstacle to Banner getting what he wants. If treated like both a hero and a villain, as he is at times in The Avengers, Age of Ultron, and Thor: Ragnarok, he can be an unpredictable force of nature and danger to himself, his allies, and other villains, all of whom should tremble in his presence.
The bottom line is, if you can’t come up with a villain strong or interesting enough to challenge or threaten the Hulk, then you need to make the Hulk the villain.
The Incredible Hulk is not the worst film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it is easily its most forgettable, filled with too many missed opportunities.
It took a while to get the Hulk right in the MCU, and by then, we were introduced to what felt like an entirely different character.
I’ll be curious to see where the MCU takes Mark Ruffalo and the Hulk next. It is possible Endgame was the last outing for our favorite green giant, which would really be a shame since we all know he has more to give (or smash).
Anyway, that’s it for this week. Thank you so much for reading. I’ll be back to revisit Ironman 2, a film that probably deserves another look, in the coming weeks.
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Thanks again. Now get back to writing.