The Incredible Hulk
It’s fortunate the bookends of Marvel’s Phase One are so sturdy, as the intervening four movies simply aren’t that special. Mediocre might be too strong a word – although, at least one qualifies for that status – but they amount to a series of at-best-serviceable vehicles for characters rendered on screen with varying degrees of nervousness and second guessing. They also underline that, through the choices of directors, no one was bigger than the franchise, and no one had more authority than supremo Kevin Feige. Which meant there was integrity of overall vision, but sometimes a paucity of it in cinematic terms.
The Incredible Hulk arrived off the back of what many considered a creative failure and commercial disappointment from Ang Lee five years earlier, yet it managed on just about every level to prove itself Hulk’s inferior. A movie characterised by playing it safe, it’s now very much the unloved orphan of the MCU, with a lead actor recast and a main character who, due to rights issues with Universal, can currently appear only in ensemble efforts.
There’s something approaching a solid movie in The Incredible Hulk, somewhere entangled within the character work pruned back from Louis Letterier and Edward Norton’s preferred version (there are 42 minutes of deleted/extended scenes on the Blu-ray, and they favoured a 135-minute cut over the studio’s 112), but it’s still fatally scuppered by starting strongly and then petering out into a splutter of quite unsightly CGI.
Hulk’s final act was also awash with pixels, but there, Lee brought an artistic and sometimes poetic sensibility to the visuals. Letterier felt there was an undesirable weightlessness and smoothness to that version’s less-than-jolly green giant, so going in the direction of grittier and darker (yeah, okay) and perhaps even a little scarier; the result is entirely underwhelming, a ’roided version of the Hulk who never looks less than cartoonish, complete with a rather silly floppy fringe. At best, he’s acceptable in relation to the even dafter Abomination
Letterier, who started out with Luc Besson and got the job on the strength of Transporter 2, still probably his best and certainly most deliriously demented movie, The Incredible Hulk is a prime example of a promising director underdone by the Hollywood machine. Both The Incredible Hulk and Clash of the Titans were shorn or mangled in the editing room and his efforts since are probably best not dwelt upon. By his own admission, he isn’t the most refined of directors, but he does, left to his own devices, have a good eye for action and the construction of a kinetic scene. He can’t create excitement out of CG monsters duking out, but very few can (the finale feels a lot longer than it actually is for that reason).
Give him a well-structured sequence, though, and there are a few in the front half of the picture, and he more than delivers. The opening twenty minutes, from the montage recap/retcon of Hulk – producer Gale Anne Hurd decided to term The Incredible Hulk a “requel”: a reboot/sequel – to the very TV series Mexican retreat of Banner, attempting to control the beast within – there are cameos for Lou Ferringo, who also voices the Hulk, and Bill Bixby via a TV movie he starred in, while Leterrier is definitely referencing the show with the chiaroscuro accompanying Ed Norton’s eyes turning green and the TV theme filtering in at one point – to the spilt blood in the bottling factory, Stan Lee’s (once again very funny) cameo and the rooftop pursuit of Banner, find the movie really working and can comfortably rank with any given sequence from the MCU. However…
Degrees of controversy surround Edward Norton’s involvement in The Incredible Hulk, less in respect of his performance – he’s fine, lending the part a low-key dweebiness, albeit that would only really play effectively if accompanied by a less muscular, more thoughtful style than his director’s – than the degree to which he exerted an influence on the production . Reportedly, Eric Bana didn’t want to return (which I guessed sealed the deal on it not being a sequel), Letterier wanted Ruffalo (but the studio favoured Ed), and David Duchovny was in contention. It seems Norton had the studio’s blessing in rewriting Zak Penn’s screenplay; Penn took offence at Norton claiming he’d written the entire thing, as it was structurally pretty much the same – Ty Burrell’s Doc Samson was added … and then mostly removed in the studio edit – and the Writer’s Guild agreed with him. Probably no bad thing Norton got the red felt tip out, as the Penn’s comic book record isn’t the best, aside from Avengers… which was rewritten extensively by Joss Whedon.
The Norton-Marvel relationship subsequently turned sour, in the wrestling over the final cut, which then became public. Norton later disowned the disagreements, characterising them as a “healthy process”, but it did nothing to dispel his reputation as a difficult fish; he put a spin on wanting more diversity in his career when the role was recast, but it’s simpler to conclude he was passed over for Avengers, not perceived as a team player for an upcoming team movie, and having starred in a picture that failed to make nearly enough to justify its expense.
Whatever Ed’s rewrites amounted to in terms of substance, they failed to amend the picture’s chief flaws effectively, and the deleted scenes don’t leave a sense that anything vastly improved went astray; there’s a really good fireside chat over a glass of wine, with Burrell wearing his shrink hat (it’s better than anything between Bruce and Betty), and a reference to “resistance against that depleted uranium no one likes talking about” that probably disappeared for being a little political.
As such, the picture begins to lose its way at about the forty-minute mark, when Bruce returns to the US. Pretty much when Liv Tyler’s simpering version of Betty enters the scene (aside from that one raging outburst against a taxi driver: “Asshole!”). There’s zero spark between Betty and Bruce, and anything with her and Hulk seems like it’s going through the motions, be it evocative of Tarzan and Jane or Kong and Ann Darrow. When, in a clinch of passion, Bruce warns her off with “I can’t get too excited”, and our response is an increasingly weary “Neither can we”.
There’s too little in the way of twists and turns; Norton felt Hulk strayed too far from the fugitive story, but the results her are just too linear. There’s a retcon of Banner’s research as super soldier related (“He thought he was working on radiation resistance”), ensuring a tie-in with the forthcoming Captain America: The First Avenger and Emil Blonsky’s reinvigoration, but the latter’s plotline simply isn’t sufficiently interesting.
Nor is Roth, who neither looks nor sounds like a credible soldier (“Born in Russia, raised in England” is the kind of forgiving line they write for an Arnie accent). Oh, and his super running is unintentionally hilarious. I like Roth, but he’s a poor fit here. That said, there’s an amusing instance of his goading Hulk (“Is that it? Is that all you’ve got?”) that results in his being splatted against a tree (“bones like crushed gravel”).
Bruce Banner: They don’t want the antidote. They want to make it a weapon.
Samuel Sterns: I hate the government just as much as anyone. But you’re being a little paranoid, don’t you think?
Also fishing for positives, the increasingly routine nature of the stateside portion of the picture is relieved enormously when Tim Blake Nelson arrives as Samuel Sterns. He’s a shot in the arm, and it couldn’t come soon enough. Nelson’s every line delivery is delicious (“Look, I’ve always been more curious than cautious, and that’s served me pretty well”), even when they don’t sound that great on paper, and his interaction with the menacing Blonsky is a particular treat (“Why are you always hitting people?”; “You look like you’ve got a little something in you already, don’t you?”) It’s a shame he was a one and done.
Indeed, the majority of the elements introduced here have been rather brushed under the MCU carpet. William Hurt essays a serviceable Thunderbolt Ross, broader than Sam Elliot’s, but there isn’t really much between them, and would be promoted to Senator for Captain America: Civil War. Aside from him, we’ve only since seen a recast Bruce, no Betty, and no more Abomination (he was considered as a supporting villain for Avengers: Age of Ultron, though, and referenced as a potential Avenger in one-shot The Consultant, laboriously retconning the final scene here). And nothing has been made good on the promise of Sterns transforming in to the Leader (which is a cardinal crime, as Nelson had all the makings of that MCU rarity: a memorable villain). Downey Jr turns up in the coda, of course (not a post-credits scene as many recall it), observing “the smell of stale beer and defeat” percolating around Ross, but you could otherwise easily cast The Incredible Hulk adrift.
Samuel Sterns: The mixture could be an abomination.
At one point in the picture, Banner compares his Hulk experience to experiments he and Betty volunteered for at Harvard – “like someone’s poured a litre of acid into my brain” – which is a lot more colourful and suggestive than anything we end up seeing in the movie. The CGI is never believable, neither interactive nor emotionally underpinned, making the standard explosive finale a snore (a monster mash in the manner of Kong vs Godzilla, or Iron Man vs Iron Monger). It’s a good idea dropping Bruce out of plane, but it entirely fails to pay off. We don’t care about Bruce or Betty.
The trick with this film should have been to make us want Banner to hulk out and simultaneously not to want him to. At least, that’s what I always got from the TV show. It’s something you never feel with Ruffalo’s version, and here, the plot beats are too perfunctory for any sense of inner conflict to develop. The problem is, The Incredible Hulk’s essentially meat and potatoes as a reaction against Hulk’s wild artistic licence. There’s no sense it’s striving for something greater than the sum of its formula. It’ll do, but that’s all it does.