Ten years after its release, Louis Leterrier’s often-dismissed Hulk movie does everything that current MCU fans are asking for.
Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk hits its tenth anniversary this week, as the film was originally released on June 13, 2008. So we figured it was time to take a look back at the movie and see how it stands up against its current reputation.
When people rank the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies, as they so often do, one of the films that typically ends up near the bottom of the list is Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk. At a glance it’s easy to see why. It stars Edward Norton, an actor whose work was swiftly overshadowed by his replacement, Mark Ruffalo. It’s a gloomy movie that treats its hero like a Universal Monster, instead of one of the quippy, positive character development-centric adventure flicks that the MCU movies eventually became.
But it’s also a film that addresses many of the major points of contention that critics of the MCU currently have. It’s connected to the other Marvel movies in a meaningful, story-driven way, but it’s also completely self-contained. It eschews the typical superhero origin story and gets right to the action. It’s the leanest MCU movie on record, with a relatively short, under two-hour running time. It’s got an emotionally intense romance at the center the story. And all of these elements work very well.
The Incredible Hulk may not be the best MCU movie, but it’s an exceptionally good one, and easily the most underrated film in the franchise.
It wasn’t long ago now that Spider-Man: Homecoming earned kudos for skipping past the hero’s origin, because that origin had only recently been told in another film. Well, The Incredible Hulk did that first. Ang Lee’s (strange but also underrated) adaptation of the character, a film known only as Hulk, was only five years old when Louis Leterrier’s movie came out. So The Incredible Hulk skims past the origin in a fast-paced opening credits montage. It’s a scientific experiment gone wrong, Bruce Banner is a monster on the run, and we don’t need much more than that.
And yet, The Incredible Hulk eventually adds more than that. We learn over the course of the film that General Ross (William Hurt) secretly used the gamma radiation research of Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) to further the long-failing super soldier program. That’s the same program that gave birth to Captain America during World War II, in a story that fans wouldn’t see told – in the MCU, at any rate – for three more years, in Captain America: The First Avenger.
That’s a far more organic way to integrate the Hulk into a freshly created, shared universe than many of the later attempts to interconnect the MCU movies. The awkward foreshadowing of Avengers: Age of Ultron and the unnecessary (but fun) Falcon cameo in Ant-Man are only two of the more obvious examples.
And it’s not just an offhanded reference. The weaponization of human biology is at the forefront of The Incredible Hulk, and the push-and-pull between scientific innovation and the military industrial complex is the centerpiece. What if Captain America didn’t want to be a soldier? What if the experiment was an accident and the government tried to use him for warfare anyway?
In the film, we’re introduced to Bruce Banner as he’s desperately trying to control his anger. He’s avoiding conflict as he hides out in Brazil. He’s learning martial arts to increase his physical control over his inner being. He’s doing everything in his power to resist anger and violence, and to avoid becoming like General Ross: a cigar-chomping, war-mongering, mustachioed, emotionally unavailable epitome of motion picture machoness.
General Ross and Bruce Banner are completely at odds, story-wise and thematically, but they are connected by a common love: Betty Ross, Bruce’s ex-girlfriend and the general’s daughter. As played by Liv Tyler, she’s a deeply passionate person who openly expresses her feelings in ways neither General Ross nor Bruce Banner are completely comfortable with. She yells at cab drivers, she initiates sex, and when – after years of estrangement – she sees Bruce at the back of the room, only for an instant, she abandons her new boyfriend mid-sentence to find him. Their love is real, and it has a powerful meaning.
The Hulk kicks a lot of butt in this movie. He knocks around military equipment, destroys buildings and comes across as a monstrous brute. But he’s also a representation of Bruce Banner’s repressed emotions, and those emotions aren’t limited to fury. When he comes face-to-face with Betty, the Hulk is capable of tenderness, protectiveness, and even expressing a childlike fear of thunder and lightning.
It’s a sensitivity that both Banner and Ross view as a weakness, for completely different reasons. Bruce is afraid of his own destructive power, but Ross is in awe of it, and wants a version of the Hulk that doesn’t suffer from Banner’s emotional fragility. So it makes sense that the film’s other villain, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), represents the extreme version of Ross’s vision. He’s another aging soldier, yearning for physical power and an outlet for his violent urges. Blonsky takes an altered version of the serum that gave the Hulk his powers, with a little bit of Captain America’s serum in there as well, and it transforms him into an Abomination that revels in his capacity for destruction.
One of the most popular lines in the history of the MCU comes in The Avengers, when Bruce Banner (then played by Mark Ruffalo) admits, “I’m always angry,” before revealing that he can transform into the Hulk at will. In retrospect, it’s odd that this scene ever came across like some sort of revelation, or any kind of big deal at all, since it was the entire point of The Incredible Hulk. Over the course of the film, Bruce Banner tries to cure himself of the monster within, only to accept by the end that his anger has utility. His anger can be controlled and directed, and used to save the world instead of destroy it.
The movie literally ends with Bruce Banner transforming into the Hulk on purpose, and smiling. It’s a complete story about the character’s transformation, which still leaves room for new stories to be told afterwards.
The Incredible Hulk is a lean, mean motion picture. Louis Leterrier cut his teeth on films like The Transporter and Transporter 2, and applies that action movie bravado here, in rough-and-tumble set pieces that show off the Hulk’s destructive capabilities. It’s built like a fast-paced action movie, and a smart revision of the hit TV series. Both the live-action show and this movie could easily be described as “The Fugitive, but if the fugitive was a giant wolfman,” except the TV series captured the episodic serialized version of The Fugitive, and the movie captures the relentless pacing and thrills of the feature film.
The Incredible Hulk is 10 years old now, and overdue for a re-evaluation. It may not feel of a piece with the friendly, rollicking superhero adventure series that the MCU eventually became, but that’s completely appropriate. It’s the story of a man who conscientiously objects to treating his superpowers like they’re a good thing, only to ironically lose himself in his own self-control. It’s a monster movie in a superhero universe, and it’s a very good one.