The Incredibl(y Mundane) Hulk
Ah, The Incredible Hulk. Where to even start with you, my sweetest green monster (sorry, Shrek)? After the overcaffeinated intensity of Iron Man, a movie that deftly balanced high-octane, hyper-polished thrills with legitimate character development (Tony Stark may have some fairly reprehensible qualities, but at least that’s a consistent thing we know about him), The Incredible Hulk (I’m gonna call it “TIH” from here on) feels like a major step backwards. In short, this movie is clunky as hell, slap-dash with its characters, and feels like more of a prototype action-scene-delivery-system than a thought-through filmic experience.
But before I get into just what kept this movie feeling so perpetually off-kilter and ho-hum, I want to talk about the cast, because the cast is bonkers. More so than Iron Man, more so than any other movie from the era I can think of, really, the cast of TIH presents an incredibly specific, weirdly narrow window into 2008. Through whatever unlikely happenstance, most of the actors/actresses in TIH playing protagonist characters have, by 2019, either fallen off the map or been relegated to considerably smaller roles, while actors/actresses playing supporting characters have seen their stars go rocketing skywards. Here, for instance, is a short list of the protagonists of TIH: motherfuckin’ EDDIE NORTON in the starring role as our titular Hulk, although I’m not totally clear on whether he’s hiding somewhere inside the green machine himself or just representing his slimmer, less violently brooding scientist alter ego, Bruce Banner; William Hurt as General “Thunderbolt” Ross, a stock military guy hunting Bruce for purposes of studying his body to help churn out an army of Hulks (I think); and Liv Tyler (?!) as Thunderbolt’s daughter and Bruce’s obviously conflicted love interest. With a cast like that, you might as well just go ahead and film yourself an Armageddon or other late-90s banger; to have this starting lineup in a flagship 2008 movie is deeply weird, and I think the MCU puppetmasters must have realized that, because I’m almost certain that none of these people show up in any later movies. Oh, oh, and here’s a sample of the non-marquis names that show up for no more than a handful of scenes: Martin Starr appears for literally thirty seconds as a computer lab guy, forecasting his future Silicon Valley starring role; Ty Burrell is Liv Tyler’s new beau after Bruce’s early disappearance and is cast off with brutal quickness upon Bruce’s return; and Tim Blake Nelson - Buster Scruggs himself! - plays Mr. Blue, a friendly scientist pen-pal with a Reservoir Dogs name that helps Bruce with tricky research projects. So, yeah: deeply weird.
Plot-wise, the first signs of amiss-ness in TIH show up in the opening credits, which, through a montage of past news reports, make clear that Bruce has already turned himself into Hulk, has been on the run from the US government for quite some time, and is presently hiding out in some sort of shanty town in Brazil and working in a factory that bottles...energy drinks? Moving away from “origin story” as a default mode is a great choice in theory, and there are plenty of other perfectly acceptable, even exciting ways to frame superhero movies, but the choice does this movie no favors, as it removes an opportunity to color in Bruce’s completely colorless character. Because, for real - who is this guy? By the end of the movie, here’s the totality of what I know about Bruce: he is/was involved in science, maybe as part of a government weapons program; he somehow Hulked himself; and he’s apparently into Liv Tyler, although you sure wouldn’t know it from watching the two of them say lines at each other’s faces. That’s it.
Anyway, the movie starts in media res in Brazil, and plot starts happening at a breakneck pace from there. Thunderbolt (I’m not calling him “General Ross” when “Thunderbolt” is an option, because “Thunderbolt” is mega-hardcore, even if it doesn’t hold a candle to OBEDIAH STANE), forever hunting Bruce, learns of Bruce’s location when Bruce gets in a scuffle at work and drops some Hulk blood into a drink, which later kills Stan Lee (cameo-ing this time as a random old man) when he guzzles it down. That’s apparently enough to put the US government on high alert, so Thunderbolt sends some goons after Bruce, Bruce gets angry and Hulks the goons into oblivion and then rapidly starts changing locations (if there were transitional scenes, I missed them, so I’m left to assume he Hulk-raged across entire countries and oceans), ultimately ending up at Culver University in Virginia, where Liv continues to do SCIENCE and otherwise canoodles with Phil Dunphy. Bruce’s overall mission, it would seem, is to track down Mr. Blue in order to acquire an antidote to Hulkness and get on with his boring life, and Liv’s mission is to help Bruce do so.
And in between all that, there’s a whole lot of fluff. Like I mentioned above, too much of this movie is comprised of action set pieces, and they’re formatted as a series of “Hulk v. ______” battles of escalating danger/intensity. Near the beginning, there’s Hulk v. Goons, and the special effects are cool, and Hulk is humongous, and we learn that bullets and explosions don’t have any tangible effect on Hulk’s armor-y green skin. Next, there’s Hulk v. Thunderbolt’s War Gadgets, which include goodies like helicopters, missiles, and peskily debilitating sound wave machines, all of which Hulk ultimately defeats. Along the way, though, Emil Blonsky, a Military Guy who is introduced as though he’s some kind of world-famous badass even though he’s played by Tim Roth and relatively diminutive, has been dosing on Thunderbolt’s non-perfected Hulk formula and is slowly becoming both very quick and very slimy and hungover-looking. It’s never clear why, exactly, Thunderbolt thinks that giving Blonsky the Hulk-ish formula is a good idea, but he keeps doing it - why Blonsky? Why is another Hulk-man the answer? - and eventually Blonsky completes his transformation into a skull-themed, decidedly evil approximation of Bruce’s considerably more wholesome Hulk.
Director Louis Leterrier offers up some effectively unsettling Cronenbergian imagery throughout Blonsky’s transformation, although the final evolution is a bit of a letdown in the sense that last-phase Blonsky is reduced to a roaring one-liner machine like he’s the final boss in a PS3 action game; actual quotes include “GIVE ME A REAL FIGHT!” and “IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT?!” and “YOU DON’T DESERVE THIS POWER!”, all of which only highlight that we don’t know who Blonsky is anymore than we know who Bruce is, and we have no idea what could possibly be motivating him outside of, I guess, POWER. It’s also worth noting that, although this is only MCU Movie #2, it’s the second movie to feature a final confrontation between the superhero protagonist and some schmo who got his hands on the protagonist’s powers and warped them for evil (Iron Man v. Mech-Obediah, Hulk v. Skull-Blonsky) and if these movies are going to stay interesting, that needs to not become a pattern.
Of course, in a final battle reminiscent of the NES video game Rampage (it’s maybe telling that this movie kept reminding me of old, unsophisticated video games), Hulk takes down Blonsky in spectacular fashion and even gets to thunderously clap out a helicopter fire in the process, which, okay. And that’s about it, plot-wise. The special effects and CG are all acceptable- at no point did I find Hulk lol-worthy, which seems like an achievement - and, for the most part, the basic points of the plot are competently strung together. But the characters, whether due to the script or wooden acting or a bit of both, feel wholly underdeveloped, and the movie seems to be aiming for a tone of dead serious-ness, which only serves to make the few weak attempts at comedy feel out of place. Edward Norton and Liv Tyler give a master class in chemistry-free romance-because-the-script-says-so, and a “funny” scene where they experience a wackily rough NYC taxi ride and Liv gives the taxi driver a piece of her mind reads as bizarre in the context of the rest of the movie. It’s like: grim war science, meaningless civilian fatalities, widespread destruction of infrastructure, but also lol, taxis in New York, y’know?!
The Hulk lore is under-explained, too, which could be partially the result of excising the origin story. Some points are halfway revealed or hinted at as the story progresses (Hulk is impervious to certain things, doesn’t like sound machines, and can jump really high; the Hulk-transformation trigger appears to be based on blood pressure and not anger specifically, based on an unsuccessful and very unsexy romantic encounter), but others are left unclear. How much English can Bruce understand while in Hulk mode? He seems to recognize Liv most of the time, but he can’t or doesn’t speak, while Skull-Blonsky can’t stop yelling lame taunts. How long does Hulk mode last? In the movie, he seems to sleep it off like some kind of weekend bender, but we never actually see Hulk deflate back into Bruce. What’s the meaning behind Bruce’s meditation at the end of the movie? Is the implication that he can Hulk at will now?
TIH is not a great - or even a good - movie. It’s partly the juxtaposition with Iron Man that hurts: after such a strong charge out of the gate, it’s disappointing that the second entry in the MCU had to be this ho-hum action flick.
Bits and Pieces
There’s still some weirdness in the early MCU’s approach to gender stuff. Bruce works in a factory inexplicably staffed in part by grimy supermodels, and during his exit from Brazil, crashes into the apartment of a scantily-clad Brazilian woman, on whom he plants a totally unprompted kiss. She, of course, loves it. It’s uncomfortable, not to mention way out of character based on what little we know of Bruce.
Bruce swallows a goddamn FLASH DRIVE and later yaks it up on command! If I tried to swallow a flash drive, there is a 150% chance that I would choke and die. This guy is a superhero.
Liv Tyler’s character’s name is Betty Ross. I have to assume that’s some kind of remnant of or reference to the 1960s comic, because that name is hilariously anachronistic in a 2008 movie and makes me think only of Betsy Ross, the upholsterer who stitched together the first American flag in the late 1700s.
Nice to see Lou Ferrigno in a quick cameo as a security guy, but the cameo does highlight the disparity in size between Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk (extra-big human) and Edward Norton’s Hulk (two-story building).
I imagine Stanley’s Pizza Parlor is yet another Stan Lee reference. Good one, Marvel!
The tie-ins back into Iron Man and the MCU at large are subtle and few, but Stark Industries appears a few times, and Tony pops up at the end to note that he’s putting a team together. Could it be...THE AVENGERS?! Well, yeah.