The Incredible Hulk - A Green Headed Step Child
For starters The Incredible Hulk was distributed by Universal Studios not Paramount Pictures. Paramount, after the success of Iron Man would sign a deal to distribute the rest of MCU Phase 1. After Disney purchased Marvel Entertainment and the distribution rights from Paramount, it appeared everything was vertically integrated. Except for the Hulk as it turns out. During press engagements for Age of Ultron the current Bruce Banner, Mark Ruffalo, revealed that Universal actually still has right of first refusal to distribute a new solo Hulk film. While Disney has license to use him a supporting role in their films they cannot distribute a solo feature from him themselves. Disney isn’t about owning a piece of the pie, it’s about owning the pie. There is simply more for them to be gained from leveraging fully integrated properties then ones that are only say 90%. Look at the role merchandising plays in the relationships between licensee studios like FOX and Sony for more information on that.
Now lets say magically that Disney could distribute, and get all the profits of a Hulk, film would they want too? That’s a calculus question that needs more information then the general public has access to. However what we do know is that of the 13 released MCU films, The Incredible Hulk is the lowest grossing film at $134.806.913 domestic and $263,437,551 world wide. On a budget of $150 million that isn’t great, the generally held belief is that to be profitable you generally have to gross 2x the budget. Hulk didn’t meet this level and while he continues to have a cult following, Disney's inability to fully control and benefit from the product makes the odds of a solo film slim to none.
The role of Bruce Banner is rather unique in the MCU, it is one of the few that have been recast. The only other instance that comes to mind is that of Fandrol from the Thor series. Joshua Dallas could not commit due to scheduling interference with Once Upon a Time (ironically another Disney property) leading to Zachory Levi appearing in Thor: The Dark World. Banner is played by Edward Norton in Incredible Hulk but from the Avengers onward the role has been played by Marc Ruffalo. This change in lead actor makes utilizing Banner footage from the The Incredible Hulk difficult to impossible since it could confuse the audience (one of the few times I’d put stock in that argument). Which is to say nothing of the fact that the Hulk in Incredible and Avengers look entirely different from one another. Look at this official Phase 1 & 2 retrospective, there is barely any Incredible Hulk in there and what little there is deals with the Hulk and Abomination not Banner in very quick cuts. This isn’t to say that Incredible Hulk has been wiped or forgotten from MCU continuity, it just isn’t really utilized. The most recent instance being a newspaper story written by Ben Urich in the Netflix Daredevil series.
These above factors make are some clear (kinda boring) barriers to using The Incredible Hulk as the MCU progresses. But in the abstract, free of these factors does the film warrant the association and continued praise Iron Man, Thor, and other Phase 1 films get?
Marvel Studio features have come under criticism for being too “funny” recently as a means of writing their products off as having the entertainment nutritional value of cotton candy. That is an idea that doesn't make much sense to me. The Marvel features have shown on multiple occasions the ability and willingness to use real world phenomena as shading and texture to contextualize their stories. Before normally ending on and reducing complexity into a very clear moral message of righteousness for the protagonist. These films take their property and the expectations that come with it head on, adapting them often in a thoughtful or interesting manner. A better adjective for this franchises would be playful, something that gives them the latitude to embrace of the more outlandish elements and pithy one liners while sneaking in some perhaps interesting commentary or allusion. This playful tone is the root of The Incredible Hulk various divergences from the Marvel house style. It’s something else.
Compare Hulk’s lead with the one that sandwiches it. Edward Norton may have more actor cred then Robert Downey Jr. but he lacks the affable, sheer screen presence of Downey; who manages to turn what is an asswhole of a character into a charming one. As such Norton gives the film a different wavelength that largely eschews one liners for a more melancholic tone. Once Banner and Betty Ross reach New York there is a short taxi cab gag that in most other movies would’ve worked but falls completely flat and feels out of place in Hulk. This is due to two main reasons. Norton operates on a completely different wavelength from everyone else from an acting and writing standpoint. Norton is the only one who dimensionalizes his character due to his craft, screentime, and the fact the script written by Zack Penn only dimensionalizes him. Everyone else is cartoonish and one note in comparison. Thunderbolt Ross and Emil Blonsky are a pair of power hungry tribal military types, who like everyone but Banner in the film, does not think of the consequences their actions take. The late addition of Tim Blake Nelson as Samuel Sterns makes it a trifecta of male ego. Liv Tyler largely hits her one note well enough, after being handed another underwritten love interest/female lead you find in most Hollywood action films. These four supporting characters cartoonish-ness make it very dissonant when they share screentime with the more reserved Norton.
The initial theatrical poster for this film (a modified version posted at top) immediately sells a different tone than Iron Man. Iron Man was a film about a man coming to grips with and connecting with the people around him for the first time. Bruce Banner and the Hulk aren’t about that. Banner is always on the run and cannot form more then transitory connections with those around him. He never lets himself get attached or intimate with just about anyone, save for canonical love interest Betty Ross. And even then he, and the film, treat her more as an object to be kept at arm's length and to gaze voyeuristically upon but never get too close with. He’s become disconnected and wants to be left along. Cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. does a good job of representing that distance in shots like the one above with a shallow depth of field. Students come in and out of the frame but they are blurry appearing ethereal and disconnected from Banner who’s in sharp focus as he stares at Betty off into the distance living a normal experience.
The connection between Banner and Betty Ross should have been one of the big emotional pillars holding the film up. Norton and Liv Tyler just don’t really have any chemistry, not just in the purposefully awkward moments after their initial reunion but throughout the film. During their reunion, the film stages everything in ways that tell the audience to love this couple and to be emotionally invested in their reunion. When Betty sees Bruce for the first time in years, she chases after him like she’d seen a ghost, the music swells into a lush melody, and Tyler gets to do some half way melodrama with her misty eyes. It’s the kind of thing that Spielberg does all the time, constructing a multilayered arrangement to evoke a desired emotion in the audience, just much better. The fact that as a viewer I was cognizant of all these ques in the moment and not in retrospect is a sign that you’ve lost me.
Everything points to the idea that this is both a major sequence and that there is a connection between these two and that we should feel...something. Everything points toward this except Edward Norton, he’s cold as ice. Norton plays Banner as extremely reserved and inert. His lack of affect runs counter to Tyler’s. It’s not a good sign that there is more chemistry between Tyler and the digital Hulk in the cave sequence then between her and Norton anywhere else.
Banner and Hulk, don’t want to be a heroes. And while it has moments of spectacle it doesn't want to be a superhero movie (extraordinary man discovers the ability to do good, fights injustice). The Incredible Hulk is a road movie, a film driven in episodic intervals. Its three major set pieces: The Favela/Bottle Plan, showdown at Culver University, and Battle of Harlem, also follow the basic interactions of monster cinema. The film rightly uses these setpieces as transition points to the next episode. The first sequence is Jaws at higher octane, hiding the monster as he rips through the bottle factory and Blonsky’s squad. The film next goes into a larger human on monster like King Kong. Before the finale of two manmade kaiju duking it out in Harlem.
These first two sequences are chase sequences. Allowing Leterrier and Menzies Jr to create some real energy and tension as Banner inevitably is forced to run from Thunderbolt Ross. There is some great motion in these sequences, helped along by the films trio of editors: Rick Shaine, Vincent Tabaillon, and John Wright, who cut on motion when they could. The Favela and showdown at Culver University settings provide a wide berth to stage this chaotic action. There is a usage of geography in these two sequences that a lot of action films don’t really get. This is why the Battle of New York works so well in The Avengers. The action is the biggest highlight of this film.
The episodic structure dose provides some subversion to the traditional strong protagonist in these kinds of films. Barring the incident that disrupts the protagonist world, they generally are set on a path to mastery of their new surroundings (and abilities). Banner doesn’t have mastery of the Hulk or his surroundings ever. Inevitably his stability is always interrupted by chance and the actions of others. He becomes driven by circumstance and rarely by choice making him appear weak.
While the road picture genre works to structure the film, it is in-service of a quest that can never leave the audiences going home happy. Bruce wants to find a cure for the Hulk and that just can’t happen if he’s going to be a franchise player. The movie tries to sidestep this by implying at the end he has found a way to control the Hulk, in a surprisingly ominous ending. It is a very odd thing to see a character that so often in the film seemed meek and scared of his shadow, to show a bit of bravado. It’s an ending that led to questions and years of speculation that Hulk would in some way be an antagonist in the Avengers. This kind of fan speculation is good for Marvel’s business since it keeps them in the cultural conversation. But how that speculation clashed with the rest of the film is perhaps the films biggest undoing. Nothing in the emotional journey Norton and the film portray this potential malice within him. The final image is the opposite of how Banner acted up to that point. Throwing everything off and making one reconsider everything they’d just seen and not in a great twist kind of way.
The Incredible Hulk isn’t a bad movie but it isn’t a great one either. Competent seems the best descriptor. The cast is broadly written save for its lead and that I’d credit that more to Edward Norton’s craft. Like most things Marvel, there’s something there that explains why people would want more of this. But with a poor track record at the box office and distribution issues, getting more in the solo variety seems unlikely. This is the red headed step child of the franchise (so far) but that isn’t terrible. It presented a different way of doing, even if it didn’t fully succeed in that effort.
More Essays on the MCU can be found HERE