The Road to Infinity War – Part 2 – The Incredible Hulk

Last week I started off by saying that it can sometimes be easy to forget that Marvel’s Iron Man wasn’t a sure thing when it arrived in theaters in May of 2008. That said, it can be equally easy to forget what a gigantic bummer The Incredible Hulk is. Full disclosure – I liked the film a lot when I saw it in theaters nearly ten years ago. And I’m not the only one. Interestingly enough, despite the film’s neutral to negative reputation these days; it was a moderate financial success at the time and has a fresh rating of 67% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s not a rousing endorsement but it is positive nonetheless.

Upon re-viewing The Incredible Hulk starts strong and promising. The cast – Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, & William Hurt – is outstanding. Additionally the film gets all the exposition out of the way during the credits. This allows us to jump right into the story without having to sit through something most audiences have seen before. The movie starts, Banner is in Brazil, he’s 158 days without incident, and boom. Great. From there however, Hulk starts stumbling downhill. Coming directly off the heels of Iron Man the tech in Hulk feels generic and out of date, the intense and game Tim Roth is vastly underserved and underused, and there’s no hint of joy or levity to be found anywhere. The few jokes there are feel out of place and forced. Banner is mostly dour and mopey and Betty Ross really only gets to yearn for him & yell at her father. The balance – like the proportion of Hulk’s head to his body – is off.

Fundamentally I think that the problems with Hulk actually come down to that clichéd excuse – creative differences. Edward Norton seemed to want to bring real drama to the character. The opening scene to his script saw Banner attempting suicide in the Arctic. It’s a scene that’s more suited to something like Nolan’s Batman universe than what we now know to be the Marvel aesthetic. And therein lies the problem. Marvel, still in its extreme infancy offered a lot of creative input to an extremely talented, big name actor no doubt to add some gravitas to what is to some, the story of a giant green man who somehow never loses his pants when he changes size. But in the end the studio was unwilling to truly relinquish creative control of the film and the end product is muddled and morose.

It’s an interesting case study in retrospect. You could seemingly pinpoint The Incredible Hulk as the moment where Marvel vowed to keep creative control to themselves, but in the years since Hulk we’ve seen Marvel give what appears to be a large amount of creative control to filmmakers like James Gunn and Shane Black resulting in the incredible Guardians of the Galaxy and the arguably controversial but extremely enjoyable Iron Man 3. The only notable split has been with Edgar Wright who left his Ant-Man project over creative differences. The resulting film, directed by Peyton Reed, is fun, charming, and a refreshingly smaller scale superhero story – much more successful than The Incredible Hulk – and yet, it does have a bit of a reputation as middle of the road Marvel. Solid, fun, but not truly great.

So maybe there’s no Rosetta Stone quality to The Incredible Hulk. Maybe there are no real answers or insight to be drawn from it and it’s just the product of a brand new studio finding its feet – a perfect storm of not so great decisions. But I do think Marvel culled one major lesson from the experience – humor is a major component of their point of view. And as this trip down Marvel memory lane continues, I think, if my memory serves me well, that we’ll see that start to really shine through. Looking back, The Incredible Hulk seems like a bit of an anomaly tonally, aesthetically, and creatively within the MCU. If you laid all these films out side by side its feels as though you would be able to pick Hulk out of the line up as the odd man out. Ultimately it’s not a disaster, it’s just a disappointing albeit interesting film in Marvel’s early history.