Published on April 20th, 2015 | by Greg Payne


MCU Retrospective Review – The Incredible Hulk (2008)

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Year of Release: 2008

Film Number: 2

Budget: $150 million

Box Office Takings: $263.4 million

Director: Louis Leterrier

Written By: Zak Penn, with uncredited rewrites by Edward Norton

The Green Sheep Of The MCU Family

If there’s one component in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe—strictly defined for the purposes of this retrospective as the interlocking and cross-referencing narrative, made up of movies, shorts, TV shows and comic book tie-ins, that comes to its second summative peak with Avengers: Age of Ultron—that seems like the red-headed stepchild of the family, that would have to be its second step out of the gate, 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.  As Robert Downey Jr. rode the Iron Man wave to the absolute peaks of Hollywood paydays; while a racoon and a tree taught us how to get down to Redbone; and as Kevin Feige was info-dumping the next four years’ worth of tightly-woven movie continuity, most of which seems to take place either in outer space or on the astral plane, onto an adoring geek nation, this thrice-adapted tale of a modern green Jekyll and Hyde myth has fallen more and more by the wayside. And quite undeservedly so. The lowest-grossing entry in the MCU so far, The Incredible Hulk is unique on so many fronts that its uniqueness is both its curse and the reason why it’s still a fascinating and essential part of the puzzle. How is it unique?  Let’s count the ways:

It’s the only film in the MCU that was released, and is still owned, by Universal instead of Paramount (or Paramount in conjunction with Disney, once the Mouse bought Marvel).  It’s important to remember that from 1998’s Blade onwards, Marvel’s strategy for big-screen rights was to shop them around to various studios where they’d find the most creatively receptive home. It was a plan that served them well for a while: Sony made billions with Spider-Man, Fox raked in the green with a band of merry mutants, Lionsgate got as many kicks at the can as they could handle with the Punisher.  It didn’t always work out (Man-Thing, anyone?), but by and large it gave the creative minds behind the properties a freedom not enjoyed at their competitors. With Warner Brothers owning DC, everything from the megahit Dark Knight trilogy to the borderline arthouse risk Watchmen to the turd-on-a-stick Catwoman were all built in the same shop. Marvel Studios eventually brought everything for which they still owned the rights free and clear back in-house, but the fallout from the first intramural experiment is still causing legal and artistic headaches (see: the spiteful axing of the Fantastic Four comic). At any rate, Universal had just made a movie about the green goliath a few years earlier, Ang Lee’s Hulk, to mixed success. Neither an all-out flop nor a major blockbuster, the 2002 movie didn’t turn into a franchise as planned but it did mean that…

The Incredible Hulk is the only film in the MCU in which the character had actually been seen on the big screen before. And as such, even though by its very nature a reboot has to dispense with the specifics of the previous origin story, the fact that audiences know the basic gist of it—gamma radiation experiment goes wrong, mild-mannered scientist turns into an inarticulate muscle-bound green behemoth when angered—lets the story get the tedious bit out of the way in a quick montage under the opening credits which, it bears mentioning, slyly ape the set design and even the camera angles of the first live-action version of the property, the 1970s TV show. So the pacing of this film is unlike anything else, particularly in Phase One but also in everything from Spider-Man through the Fantastic Four, since it can leap right into the action and assumes the audience is all caught up and good to go.

It’s the only film in the MCU in which, two brief cameos aside, no actors from any other film in the franchise appear, and none of whose actors appear in any other film (even as the same character, but more on that later). This makes it feel even more like a side concern, or as if it’s continuing the strategy outlined above of shopping the properties around and basically putting the kaibosh on crossover. If not for the occasional Stark Industries logo on a cryo tube and one sighting of a S.H.I.E.L.D. computer screen, this may as well be another standalone entry. Even the closing walk-on by Tony Stark seems oddly tacked on; Downey Jr. brings with him the whiff of a brighter, bigger-budgeted, glossier world.  Speaking of which…

It’s the only film in the MCU which was shot largely in Canada. Which may not seem like that big a deal, since everyone knows how Canadian cities double for the U.S. on a regular basis for film and TV, and Marvel’s non-MCU cinematic outings have never resisted the urge of the provincial tax credit. And this may not be as obvious to non-Canucks less skilled in the age-old game of Spot Toronto, but The Incredible Hulk has a certain…feel to it. A certain darker visual palette, and a more lived-in non-soundstage city as a backdrop. Remember again where this film fits in the release schedule, bookended by the first two Iron Man instalments, giddy rollercoaster rides that were set largely in the blazing California sun, with iconic landmarks ranging from the Malibu coastline to the Randy’s Donuts sign as part of the scenery. Here, on the other hand, to see the eponymous character hulk out and lay waste to the University of Toronto’s Knox College on a summer day that manages to be greyish and misty makes one feel like this particular puzzle piece has some oddly-fitting edges.

The climactic scene set in Harlem is especially hilarious for a Hogtown viewer. To explain if you’re from away: the set designers painstakingly recreated the famous borough for the film by…putting a big “APOLLO” false front on one building. Right next to the Zanzibar strip club and across the street from a Swiss Chalet chicken franchise.  Actually, one can also spot an “African Hair Salon” with New York’s (212) area code phone number on the storefront in a couple of shots, though the 555 exchange renders that a swing and a miss on the authenticity front. I remember the late summer of 2007 as filming was still going on: one could walk up Yonge Street during the waning days of TIFF and see a vacant lot, one that’s occupied these days by the tallest condo building in the city, filled with trashed cars with New York State licence plates, which would be hauled back out onto the street at night for set dressing. Truthfully, I get a bit wistful at the shots in this scene which fleetingly takes in a pre-renewal Yonge & Dundas, before many classic buildings got knocked down for tourism purposes (“It’ll be just like Times Square! But without anything that New York has!”) and the iconic illuminated billboard for the long-closed Sam the Record Man still lit up the night.

The Incredible Hulk occupies an odd position in the balancing act that was the opening salvo in Marvel Studios’ master plan. Produced right after Iron Man and released only a couple of months following it, TIH still bears the signs of an organization debating how much to go all-in on a huge gamble. My own feeling is that as it was shot and edited before the first film was released to such massive critical and commercial acclaim, it walks a tricky line between universe building and “well, this’ll be an in-joke for the die-hards.” Iron Man may have set the stage for S.H.I.E.L.D., and with its post-credits Nick Fury cameo, the possibility of an ongoing bigger narrative, but TIH doubled down on another key part of both the backstory and the unspooling future, namely the Super-Soldier program. Captain America isn’t mentioned by name in the film, though a famous Easter egg shows he was definitely on the creative team’s mind. The original opening scene was set in the Arctic, with Bruce Banner trying to commit suicide, being foiled in the attempt by the lurking monster within, and the resultant avalanche kicks loose a certain frozen-in-the-ice all-American Avenger for a blink-and-you-miss it moment. As far as foreshadowing  goes, it wouldn’t get much more subtle than this even if the scene had made the final cut: personally, I went through the sequence frame by frame, sitting three inches from the screen and didn’t see bugger-all until I finally upgraded to Blu-Ray.

And it was then largely forgotten.  In the TV special “Marvel: Building a Cinematic Universe,” fewer clips appear from The Incredible Hulk than any other entry in the MCU. Rights issues can’t be helping, but aside from some news playback off to the side towards the end of Iron Man 2, no footage is reused elsewhere in the franchise as a flashback. Timing didn’t help, either: after the summer of 2008, it would be two more years before the storyline of the MCU picked up again, and from then on out no calendar year would pass without one or even two big screen extravaganzas teasing their way towards a narrative collision course. And while The Incredible Hulk may have done its job in terms of backstory momentum by introducing the element of weaponizing genetic experimentation, the second Iron Man film is where the path was laid out explicitly. Nick Fury appeared in more than just a supporting role, he sat down a soused Tony Stark in a diner and laid out the idea that Big Things Were Afoot, and also brought along another hero to flesh out the team in the form of the Black Widow. Captain America’s shield made an appearance, Phil Coulson was revealed to have more on his mind than just dropping coy hints to Pepper Potts, and the post-credits sting was, for the first time, a direct preview of things to come. TIH may have had a slumming Robert Downey Jr. hinting at “putting a team together,” but IM2 got specific with Thor’s freaking hammer embedded in the desert sands.

By the time 2011’s double header of Thor and Captain America busied themselves with a crossover saga of a cosmic MacGuffin, The Incredible Hulk had faded from primacy in the arc. Not only that, but star Edward Norton was out (for any one of a spectrum of reasons) and Marvel had decided not to give the character his own sequel as it would with other characters. When Mark Ruffalo is introduced as Bruce Banner early on in Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, one realizes that, much as the filmmakers were able to skip over the finer points of the origin story in the 2008 movie, you don’t even need to see his Chapter One to know what’s up. Brilliant scientist with a green rage monster inside, on the run, and suddenly the previous movie seems almost unnecessary. Bring on the Chitauri and smash away.

So where does it leave the actual film, this sort of lost chapter? Well, as Part Two in the MCU saga, it does still seem a bit flown in from a slightly off-brand factory, but it holds up terrifically well. The action scenes are top-rate with a lot of heft and menace to them, and the SPFX are still impressive seven years on.  While Ang Lee’s earlier film soared artistically with its primary colours and shifting pop art panel motifs, it lost its plot footing with the seemingly endless parent/child dime-store psychological couch sessions and retconning Banner’s father into becoming the Absorbing Man (which seems especially jarring after two hours of Nick Nolte muttering monologues with a look on his face like he’s just taken a large frozen mackerel to the back of the head). Letterier darkens the hues of the Hulk’s world, as well as the Hulk himself, and limits the headshrink stuff to Emil Blonsky’s (a wiry Tim Roth, who pulls off the role of a bitter military man with with and style) fear of aging. Edward Norton was perfect casting as Bruce Banner: a notoriously prickly method actor, he’s a performer who both projects a keen intelligence and often seems to have a certain subcutaneous seething going on. And coltish beauty Liv Tyler has rarely been better onscreen; she’s all open heart and tough resilience and makes a wonderful grounding element amidst all the craziness.

The Incredible Hulk is nowhere near as weak as its relative box office standing would lead one to believe, and its aesthetic break from the rest of the MCU is really the only thing working against it. It’s frustrating, as a genuine fan, to see where it would have gone had a proper sequel come along with all the casting intact: plot strands involving the Leader (Tim Blake Nelson) and Doc Samson (Ty Burrell) which were left unceremoniously dangling could have played out and who knows after that? She-Hulk? The Wendigo? Red Hulk? Rick Jones? If I have to pick one other flaw, I’d go with the casting of William Hurt as General “Thunderbolt” Ross. It’s a shame that the reboot needed a clean slate casting-wise: was there ever an actor who more closely and almost eerily embodied his comic counterpart than Sam Elliot did as General Ross in Hulk? I like Hurt as an actor, but a hard as nails military man, he ain’t.

Seeing The Incredible Hulk now, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe spins out semi-annual bonanzas, it seems even more accessible and down-to-earth, as much as a flick about a giant green rampaging id-made-flesh can be, but you get my meaning. One of the joys of Marvel Comics’ output is that there really is something for everyone:  if you like gritty tales of dark avengers battling urban blight, or if you want glossy space opera, or you want intrigue and espionage, there’s a dozen books for you. So this is very subjective, and you may massively disagree, but my heart sank a bit as Marvel unleashed their master plan through 2019 and I saw that they’re leaning hard on the outer-space and supernatural stories: Doctor Strange, a second Guardians and a third Thor, the freaking Inhumans get a movie and then we’re in for a two-parter involving that damn intergalactic treasure hunt. Marvel’s stock in trade in storytelling has always been relatable and recognizable characters in crazy situations. The Avengers on the page were much more interesting working out their personal demons and doing battle on Earth. Captain America hit his peak for me when Ed Brubaker wrote the title, and turned it into a grim espionage saga in which WWII continues to haunt all of us. When I still collected comics, the character of Thor never grabbed me in the slightest and as I watch his movies I keep realizing that I truly couldn’t give a monkey’s about the endless Asgardian palace intrigue and its attendant “look, it’s actually Shakespeare!” pretensions.

The Incredible Hulk is the most relatable movie in the MCU so far. From its foggy, ivy-covered settings to its basement bunker military bases with nary a helicarrier in sight, it’s a vision of our world that just happens to have a not-so-jolly green giant in it. It connects with the audience as a perfect summer popcorn superhero flick with some depth and style thrown in. Which is ultimately the modus operandi of Marvel Studios in general, and which is why despite outward appearances, The Incredible Hulk is still an organic and essential part of the unfolding saga.

Greg Payne
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