Why it Doesn't Work: "The Incredible Hulk" Fails to Unleash its Own Monster
Updated: Jul 30
Welcome to the second entry in my Marvel Cinematic Universe Revisited series. This week I’ll be taking a look at the second film in the MCU and the immediate follow-up to Ironman, The Incredible Hulk.
Released in June of 2008 in partnership with Marvel Studios, The Incredible Hulk was Universal’s second attempt at bringing the eponymous Hulk 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 saw this version probably went into 2008 with flashbacks of the green giant, bounding across the desert like a superball. Coupled with the cinematically ambitious (and often annoying) split screen editing and an 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 version. It was a much darker, grittier, and realistic Hulk than what we had previously seen. However, with Ironman being released just a month prior, the MCU’s second film had a tough act to follow; and it never managed to step out of the shadow of the MCU’s true narrative giant.
As a whole, The Incredible Hulk is not a bad film. It’s just a lackluster entry in an otherwise exceptional franchise. When most people forget that this film is 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 being a mediocre, forgettable movie. I guess the latter is more damning because The Incredible Hulk is still the MCU’s least financially successful film to date.
On the surface, there are several things that work well with The Incredible Hulk. Edward Norton gave us a really solid Bruce Banner and is actually one of the more faithful comic book adaptations in the MCU, playing the brilliant but 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 most audiences should relate to, perhaps even more than Steve Rogers. I often wonder what The Avengers and future of the MCU would have looked like with Ed Norton’s Banner/Hulk interacting with the rest of the team. Sadly, we will never know as Norton was replaced by Mark Ruffalo for The Avengers (2012).
So what did go wrong with The Incredible Hulk, and why did the Hulk, of all characters, fail to break out in the early days of the MCU?
1. We have a Hulk... Problem
The 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; and 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 way to go. As much as they are distinct characters, the Hulk will always have a part of Banner inside of him, just as Banner can’t ever 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 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. A fully CGI Hulk, with no actor involved in his movement or motivation, is a Hulk without the heart of Bruce Banner. The two cannot be separated that easily. The Incredible Hulk, unfortunately, hadn’t figured this out yet, and so we were given a detached CGI Hulk that audiences just didn’t connect to.
2. Confused Marketing
In pure story terms, The Incredible Hulk struggles to define what kind of story it’s trying 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’s also a little confusing to audiences when the events of The Incredible Hulk pick up where Ang Lee’s Hulk left off with Bruce Banner hiding in the jungles of South America/ Brazil.
Is this a sequel? Is this a reboot?
One of the producers labeled the film a “re-quel,” a term you’ve probably never heard because it should NEVER be used! EVER!
If you can’t effectively communicate what kind of adventure fans are about to go on, they’re not likely 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. Too Much 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 iconic. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) is not just running from the law; he’s also working to piece together the clues that will prove himself innocent of killing his wife. If he gets caught, he goes right back to prison.
Characters can run, but eventually, you have to give the character a goal to work and run towards.
In 2017’s Logan, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) are hiding in Mexico, trying to buy a boat to escape on the ocean. This objective quickly changes when Laura (Dafne Keen) comes into the picture. From then on, the heroes are focused on getting Laura to safety, while also evading capture.
In The Incredible Hulk, Bruce Banner does a lot of running. This is all fine. We get he’s trying 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 what Bruce fears the most.
This leads to my second narrative question: is this a monster movie? It could have been, and this is what makes Jekyll and Hyde stories so timeless. Imagine the most terrifying monster being unleashed and how much more terrifying it would be when you 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 big bad and even 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 loose, Banner should be wracked by guilt. Like an alcoholic who went on a drunken rampage, hurting those he cares about, Banner should feel 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, he’s not that scary. Now contrast the Hulk’s first appearance in The Incredible Hulk with his turn on the helicarrier in The Avengers. The heroes, Banner included, are actually terrified of his presence.
If you’re going to run from something, be it a monster or an antagonist, what you’re running from better be terrifying. 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.
If General Ross (William Hurt) is meant to be the hunter, he needs to be a relentless predator who we’re convinced might actually capture Banner/The Hulk. He’s not.
Emile Blonsky (Tim Roth) makes absolutely no sense as an antagonist. His motivations are unclear, and he only transforms into Abomination in the final act, a turn that comes out of nowhere.
The villains of The Incredible Hulk 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 them have villains who relentlessly pursue the heroes for most of the film, and they are legitimately terrifying in doing it.
The bottom line is, if you can’t come up with a villain strong enough to challenge or threaten the Hulk, then you need to make the Hulk the villain. 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 Incredible Hulk is not the worst film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but 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 side character.
I’ll be curious to see where the MCU takes Mark Ruffalo and the Hulk next. It’s 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. See you then.
Until Today, Storytellers