This has not aged well.
At the time of release, I think people were just happy that The Incredible Hulk wasn’t Ang Lee’s Hulk. It’s a good half-an-hour shorter with a snappier pace and a climax that was much more exciting than Hulk vs Water Dad.
Edward Norton also managed to overshadow Eric Bana as Bruce Banner. Unfortunately, Mark Ruffalo would go on to eclipse that eclipse when the studio put Norton’s contract into the paper shredder. It was a heavy loss for the thespian, but it did allow him to act alongside fellow comic book movie dropouts Batman and Gwen Stacey in some Oscar-winning irony.
The Incredible Hulk is certainly no Oscar winner. Not that it needed to be; people just wanted an acceptable Marvel superhero film. At the time, what counted for ‘acceptable’ was anything better than the disappointing Spider-Man 3, the piss-poor X-Men: The Last Stand, the forgettable Ghost Rider and two unwelcomed Fantastic Four movies. Not even Iron Man’s greatness could erase that pudgy record.
Expectations were low, and The Incredible Hulk met those expectations. If the film came out today however, fans would shit on it like overfed pigeons. It simply doesn’t meet the standards of the current MCU.
It starts promisingly with a Hulk Origins 101 montage that slips in a few Tony Stark and Nick Fury references for good measure. We see Banner on the downlow in Brazil, learning basic breathing techniques to keep the Hulk subdued while secretly working on a cure with a person online codenamed Mr. Blue.
On first watch, my idiot head was convinced Mr. Blue was Captain America. Turns out he’s biologist Dr. Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson) who, in the comics, became big brain supervillain The Leader. The film tries to set him up as the next Hulk nemesis – a subplot Disney also fed to the paper shredder.
Seeing Banner practice breathing and meditation to control his heart rate – and thus, his Hulk-ness – is still quite cool and thematically sets this film apart from Lee’s origin story. Unfortunately, much like The Leader, these intricate workings don’t add up to much in the long-haul. Any detailed explanation this film tried to conjure up for Banner’s self-control were quickly replaced by three words from The Avengers: “I’m always angry.” Oh well, off to the shredder with you too.
However, what really makes The Incredible Hulk feel distant from the modern MCU isn’t the things that got shredded – it’s the tone. The whole thing is so humourless you could’ve sworn Josh Trank directed it. I’m not saying all MCU films need to be Waititi chuckle-fests (more on that when Captain America rolls around), but when the better Marvel films attempt to sell you a silly character like Rocket Raccoon, they make sure not to take it too seriously.
For a movie about a big green angry man in stretchy pants, The Incredible Hulk takes itself a bit too seriously.
The best joke they have is when Banner swallows a USB stick, regurgitates it, and shows it to his GF Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). Betty says “You ate a USB stick?” Bruce says “Yep.” Betty says “Wow.” It’s as not-funny as it sounds.
Tyler delivers that line with the authority of a mild gust of wind. In fact, she delivers almost all her lines that way. She’s had far better performances.
Conversely, Tim Roth is TOO good as the criminally underwritten Special Forces leader who eventually becomes Abomination. The character is a soldier who wants ultimate strength. Dull, I know, but Roth at least takes his character’s obsession and addiction to its sweaty limits.
Getting the porridge just right is William Hurt as General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross. He has the steely reserve of a vet while allowing just enough vulnerability to creep through, letting you know he has the best intentions for his daughter Betty and the rest of the world even though he’s choosing the absolute wrong means to do it. He luckily managed to avoid the Disney shredder, popping back up in Captain America: Civil War.
There are other bits and pieces to like. The final fight has a surprisingly brutal moment where Hulk breaks Abomination’s forearm bone and stabs him with it. My spine also tingled a little seeing Hulk turn two halves of a car into makeshift boxing gloves.
However, you don’t say a meal was good because the forks were shiny. This is the case here. The Incredible Hulk is too bland and forgettable to stand with the better MCU films. It’s so forgettable, in fact, that it made it easy for Disney to scrap most of what it tried to do.