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The Incredible Hulk (2008) [MCU Retrospective]

This is a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Retrospective series (ie. a sane person's marathon of the MCU). All entries can be accessed by clicking here.

Director: Louis Leterrier

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 67% Domestic Gross: $134,806,913; International Gross: $128,620,638; Total: $263,427,551

Was The Incredible Hulk as bad as I remembered it? For many (or most?) who have chosen to completely wipe any memory of this film from their collective memories, re-watching it is a stark reminder that Marvel wasn’t constantly hitting home runs right from the start. This forgotten child of the MCU that the studio has seemingly ret-conned from its own universe feels painstakingly out of place today. In truth, I don’t believe it was ever felt to be in any kind of place to begin with, so this is far from a bright revelation. Long story short, The Incredible Hulk was just as bad as I remembered it, but viewing it again did bring on some interesting thoughts.

The most obvious problem with The Incredible Hulk is the big green man himself. Ed Norton is a fine actor, but absolutely sucks as the Hulk. Even without taking into consideration how good Mark Ruffalo ended up being, on its own, Norton’s interpretation of Bruce Banner is muddled in mediocrity. The struggle between Banner’s own inner self and that of his anger filled alter ego is blurry at best. There’s not really a lot of contrast between these two characters because Norton feels a constant need to wear his angst and fury on his ripped sleeves. From beginning to end, he’s grumpy and bitter, with no real compassion for existing as a normal human being. In order for a character as one dimensional as the Hulk to work, you need a Bruce Banner who exhibits more emotional complexity than what we get here. When both characters are personifications of pure grumpiness, you end up some grumpy audiences too.

Moving on to other characters, you find yourself encountering the same issue of un-likability. Like Norton, Tim Roth is usually a pretty talented actor. Not surprisingly, he’s pretty terrible as the primary villain of the film. As bad as Norton was as the Hulk, you can’t help but feel that his performance was well intentioned in some way. Ed Norton, who it seemed had a bit too much creative control here, meant well, but just didn’t understand what the character needed. Tim Roth, on the other hand, just doesn’t seem to care at all. A large part of this stems from a severely poorly written character, but he’s gotta take some blame here too. My favourite character in the film would have to be Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross. She's not the most interesting character out there, but there's something about Tyler's tender performance that makes her surprisingly relatable and a character worth rooting for. While for the most part serving as a damsel-in-distress, Tyler breaks out of this mould from time to time to demonstrate that she has a personality of her own. She deserved to be in a better film, and I honestly felt bad that she was stuck with the rest of the gang here.

As a side note, I almost forgot that The Incredible Hulk was filmed in Toronto. And as someone who studied science at the University of Toronto and spent a lot of time around where those campus scenes were shot (ie. the Medical Sciences Building), the manipulation of the green space here was very distracting. I'm sure people familiar with other locations for other films have been distracted in a similar manner, and it's of no significance to the film itself, but simply a small self-serving fun fact. Another fun fact is that I actually saw Liv Tyler on location when they were filming that scene with the tanks in the field. If only I could go back in time and tell her to bail while she still had a chance.

Anyways, back to more serious things. Another big reason why this doesn’t feel like a MCU film is because it has a total fun factor value of absolute zero. From beginning to end, this is a ride that that lacks any humour, kinetic energy or genuine excitement. Regardless of all the behind the scenes drama, nicking this one out of the MCU was certainly a correct decision. It was cool that they brought back William Hurt’s character in subsequent films because I tend to be a William Hurt fan. But it's also a bit strange that they never end up addressing Liv Tyler’s character. Even though the Hulk is played by a different actor now, it’s still the same character and he was madly in love with Betty Ross in this film. I don’t think Ruffalo’s version of the Hulk has interacted with General Ross since his character returned, but given the centrality of the love story in The Incredible Hulk, you would think that they would at least attempt to address this plot point. No matter which version of Bruce Banner you consider, and no matter how attractive you think Scarlett Johansson is, he’s a sentimental guy and wouldn’t just forget about his true love like this. So with my biases for William Hurt aside, bringing him back was a bit of strange choice.

Now truth be told, I completely forgot about Liv Tyler’s character until I re-watched this the other day. And I’m sure that’s what Kevin Feige was hoping for when he decided to move on without Ed Norton as the titular character. Kudos to that guy for recognizing a dud when it landed on his front door. No matter how you spin it, this film doesn’t belong in the MCU. Not that all MCU films are perfect, because they certainly aren’t, but The Incredible Hulk falls into a category of its own. The good news is that Marvel learned from its singular mistake of a film here, and despite some bumps here and there, never seemed to look back.


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