This Spring will see the release of Avengers: Infinity War, the third Avengers film, and the 19th film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Once a week leading up to the release of the film, we’re going to dive into each of the Marvel films that led up to it. Today we’re continuing things with a look into the second film in the MCU, The Incredible Hulk.
There’s a lot of footnotes to add with this movie, as well things to keep in mind when looking back at it. For one, this movie was put together originally as less of a “second entry to the Marvel films” and more of Universal deciding to reboot the Hulk. Universal had owned the rights to the Hulk for a while and technically still own the distribution rights to a Hulk solo feature. They had released a film directed by Ang Lee and starring Eric Bana in 2003. That film was a slight success making $245 million worldwide off of a $137 million budget. But most audiences were put off by the film, which clocked in at over two hours and didn’t feature much screen time for the big green guy. The film that would become The Incredible Hulk began to lean more into the Marvel Universe when Universal’s contractually obligated timetable for making a sequel to Hulk timed out. Marvel Studios would essentially make the film, but Universal would distribute it.
Another interesting aspect of this film is Edward Norton. Norton signed on to not only star as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, but also to write a draft of the script. He wrote what was essentially the final draft, and throughout filming, rewrote pages and scenes of the film. Originally, Norton was signed on to play the Hulk in the Avengers film and a sequel to The Incredible Hulk. However, when the film was edited down and numerous scenes that Norton believed were important were cut, there were “creative differences” that, while downplayed by Norton and director Louis Leterrier, seemed to push Norton away from things. Norton didn’t participate in the majority of the promotional tour for the film and chose to do charity work in Africa instead. When it came time to put together the Avengers film, Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel Studios, decided to recast the role with Mark Ruffalo playing Banner/Hulk.
The Incredible Hulk starts off with an opening credits scene that gives the audience a look at the origin of the Hulk. We see Bruce Banner (Norton) experimenting on himself and turning into the Hulk for the first time. He wounds his girlfriend and fellow scientist, Betty (Liv Tyler), as well as General Ross (William Hurt), who was overseeing the project. He escapes and goes on the run. We get a montage of Ross attempting to find him using different strategies, including quick shots of a memo from Nick Fury and some Stark Industries blueprints. These help to build the bridge between the film and the MCU. The opening credits end with a note saying that there haven’t been any sightings in five months, a defeated-looking Ross, and finally, Banner stopping a metronome as he comes out of a moment of meditation.
We then get a glimpse of what Bruce Banner’s life is like current-day. A counter is shown on screen that indicates that he has not had “an incident” in 158 days. Banner is currently hiding in Brazil, has a dog, and is shown working on not only controlling his anger, but trying to lead a very simple and secluded life. He works at a factory that bottles soda, and he mostly does grunt work, occasionally helping out with some technical errors in the factory. When he fixes a malfunctioning power switch for one of the belts in the factory, the owner asks to put him on the payroll and give him better work to do. In that same scene, Banner cuts his finger and a drop of blood falls down onto the conveyor belt holding all of the empty bottles. He rushes down, yelling to turn everything off, and cleans the blood off the belt. He uses superglue to seal the wound, clearly showing that he’s trying to be as careful as possible in his current life. However, what he doesn’t see is the blood actually dripped into an empty bottle as well, and it continues along the conveyor and into a package heading to the US.
There’s a few great moments in the opening few scenes that further establish Bruce’s life. One moment features Banner flipping through channels and seeing a clip of Bill Bixby who played Bruce Banner in the old live-action TV show. There’s also a moment in the factory where he’s trying to defend a young woman from some men harassing her; as he tries to tell them, “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry,” the language barrier causes him to say “hungry” instead of “angry.” Banner is also trying to find a way to cure himself, and he communicates with someone over an encrypted network that goes by “Mr. Blue.” He gets a flower that is supposed to be the last step in finding a cure for him, but it doesn’t work. Mr. Blue tells Banner they should meet and that he needs a blood sample, but Banner says that it’s too dangerous. Then Ross comes into the picture.
We get our obligatory Stan Lee cameo as he drinks the bottle of soda that has Bruce’s blood in it, giving him Gamma poisoning. Ross is told about the poisoning and sets out to continue his hunt for Banner. Ross puts together a black ops team, led by Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), a Russian-born British Marine. Banner discovers that Mr. Blue might actually have some sort of antidote; he sends Mr. Blue a blood sample after Mr. Blue insists that he needs more data, data that is back with Betty in the US.
The military locates Banner and chase him down through the streets and rooftops of the small Brazilian town. Throughout the chase, it’s clear that Blonsky is a great soldier, as he’s the only one to stay on Banner’s tail or corner him repeatedly. There’s a great quick moment where Banner and General Ross come to a stop and square off, giving each other a fierce look that gives off this feeling that they truly despise one another. That moment helps solidify their relationship for the rest of the film. There are very few times these two characters actually intersect on screen, but the majority of the film consists of this cat-and-mouse game. This one moment helps define their contempt for each other and highlights the antithesis of their relationship.
At the end of the chase scene, Banner runs into the men who harassed the young woman in the factory, and they begin following him as well. Banner tries to hide in the factory, where they catch him and start beating him up. The men ignore his warnings to stop, and Banner transforms into the Hulk. At that point, the black ops team arrives. They try to take him down, not knowing what they’re up against, and Hulk essentially takes out everyone except Blonsky. Hulk escapes before they can do anything. Blonsky brings Banner’s bag to Ross, where they find his computer and realize that he’s been talking to someone in the US. During the scene, Blonsky tries to get more information out of Ross. He’s amazed at what he came up against, and he believes that Ross knows more than he’s willing to tell. Later in the film, Blonsky admits that he’s done stuff like this before, cleaning up a military’s messes. But this is different. Up until now, the audience doesn’t know who Blonsky really is. Not only does he push Ross to reveal more information about Banner, but he was sprayed by some soda in the factory, causing his skin to look almost green in the light. It’s a great way of foreshadowing the fact that not only is Blonsky going to turn into a monster like the Hulk by the third act, but the real monster is this version of Blonsky, the man wanting access to this power for his own gain.
Banner wakes up in Guatemala and decides to keep heading north to the US, to find Mr. Blue and try to cure himself. Meanwhile, Ross begins turning Blonsky into a super soldier by giving him serum that was left over from past experiments. There’s a moment where Ross goes into a closed-down lab and takes out a vial from a container that is marked with both Stark Industries and the name of the Dr. Erskine, who helps turn Steve Rogers into Captain America. Banner gets to the US and sees Betty at the university she’s working at. He sees that she has moved on to someone else. He tries to get into her lab, but can’t because he needs to provide a university ID. He ends up staying with an old friend of theirs named Stanley who owns a pizzeria, and he uses the delivery uniform to get into the university.
When Banner walks into the building with the pizza, he stops by a security guard played by Lou Ferigno, who played the Incredible Hulk in the live-action TV series. Banner gives him a free pizza and heads into Betty’s lab. There he gives some pizza to a young intern or student played by Martin Starr. Starr is also featured in Spider-Man: Homecoming as one of Peter Parker’s teachers. Marvel usually doesn’t recycle actors for different roles (unless they’re playing someone who is a descendant of the previous role), which means there’s a good chance Starr is the same character in both films. Banner doesn’t find anything on Betty’s computer, but as he’s about to say goodbye to Stanley in the pizzeria, Betty sees him. He tries to get away, but she finds him, takes him home for the night, and gives him a flash drive with the data he needs. There’s a gentleness between Banner and Betty, a clear indication of true love and a desire to be with one another. There’s also a clear broken-heartedness between them because this whole ordeal has torn them apart.
The next scene is the first big action sequence in the film. The military locates Banner and Betty at a bus stop and begins to attack. He swallows the flash drive to keep it safe, turns into the Hulk, and begins fighting the military. The scene is a great action set piece and keeps building as general Ross tries to throw everything he has at Hulk, including Blonsky. Blonsky fights Hulk for a bit; he does well at first but ends up getting kicked across a field and into a tree. One of the things that pushes Hulk to attack the soldiers and all of their impressive weapons is that he believes they’re hurting Betty. Whether it’s simply restraining her or it’s actually doing something to inflict pain on her, Hulk keeps getting angrier and angrier. At the end of the sequence, she walks up to him, attempting to calm him down, but Ross has already called in an air strike. It comes in and fires down on Hulk and Betty; Ross screams, worried for Betty. Hulk guards her and takes down the helicopter. There are huge explosions and fire, and Hulk is left standing in the flames, holding Betty’s unconscious body, glaring at Ross. Hulk disappears in the smoke and flames.
The next two scenes are great; the first one shows Ross meeting Betty’s boyfriend, Dr. Leonard Samson (Ty Burrell). In the comics, Doc Samson is another Gamma powered hero, and although Burrell was signed for multiple films when this film was made, he hasn’t been seen again since this scene. Samson (who saw the air strike) says that Betty is safer with Hulk and rips into Ross for endangering Betty. The next scene features Hulk and Betty in a cave. Betty gets scared of Hulk and he backs away. Hulk gets scared of the thunder, and Betty calms him down. It’s a sweet, tender moment between the two of them. It also helps build on the idea that there’s more to the Hulk than just the rage-filled monster. From here on out, Bruce and Betty work on getting to the mysterious Mr. Blue. While Ross is still trying to hunt down Bruce, Blonsky ends up making a recovery and is given another injection.
Leading up to the meeting with Mr. Blue, the earlier-established love and care between Betty and Bruce continues to build. There’s a moment when Betty asks what it’s like to turn into the Hulk. Banner explains that it’s almost like having acid poured onto his brain and that feels like he’s not in control at all. She explains that from what she’s seen, there is a softer side to the Hulk, one that seems to recognize her and could maybe be controlled. Banner disagrees and says he just wants to get it out of him. Banner sends an email to Mr. Blue saying he can meet, Ross and his team get word of it through SHIELD’s Internet surveillance. Ross and his team, including Blonsky, plan to capture Banner at the meeting.
Mr. Blue is revealed to be Dr. Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), who in the comics becomes the character known as the Leader. More on that in a second. Sterns is astonished by Banner and all the data they bring with them. He talks about the power Banner has inside him and how he’s always been more curious than cautious, both of which are slight insights to his true character. They attempt to cure Banner, uncertain if it will just calm him down from his Hulk episode, cure him completely, or kill him. When it’s over, Sterns explains that he has more subjects and shows them that he’s recreated a mass amount of Banner’s blood. Banner tries to get him to destroy it just as the military arrives. They take Banner away, and with no one around to stop him, Blonsky forces Sterns to turn him into a Hulk-like creature. Sterns remarks that Blonsky may become an “abomination,” the comic book name of his monster character. When the transformation is complete, Blonsky knocks over Sterns, who receives a gash on his head. Some of Hulk’s blood pours into the gash and his brain and head begin to expand. He’s becoming the Leader. (In the comics, the Leader was exposed to Gamma radiation and has an enlarged head and green skin. He’s extremely intelligent and one of Hulk’s signature villains.) Nelson is signed for more films, but we haven’t seen him since this last shot of his head expanding.
As Ross takes Banner away in handcuffs on a helicopter, he gets word that Hulk is terrorizing Harlem. He sees a video feed of Blonsky, or Abomination, destroying everything in his path. Banner knows that he is the only one who can stop this. He doesn’t know if he can control Hulk, but maybe he can point him in the right direction. Betty points out that they don’t know if he’s really cured or not and he says he has to try. He kisses Betty one last time before falling out of the back of the helicopter. He doesn’t turn at first, and he smashes through the pavement before emerging as the Hulk. The final climactic battle ensues, and it’s fantastic. It moves from the streets of Harlem to the rooftops of the city to fighting while hanging onto Ross’ helicopter and back to the ground. There are times where Abomination gets the upper hand, but Hulk wins the fight overall after a great “Hulk Smash.” Hulk is about to kill Abomination when Betty stops him. Hulk incapacitates him instead, before having a small moment with Betty. Wiping a tear from her face, he runs away and disappears into the night.
The film wraps up with Bruce hiding out in British Columbia. He’s gotten a necklace Betty sold to help them get to Sterns and is sending it back to her. He goes to meditate and we see the counter again. It goes from 31 days since last incident down to zero as we close in on Banner’s face, and he smiles with piercing green eyes. We’re left to wonder if he’s finally found a way to control Hulk or if the back-and-forth will continue.
One of the things that I think is overshadowed a lot when it comes to The Incredible Hulk is the amount of excellent character work that is done with Bruce Banner throughout the film. He has this great arc of starting as someone who wants to destroy the monster inside of him to accepting it and acknowledging that it is more than a monster. Betty is an important aspect of that as well, both in how she interacts with the Hulk and how she pushes Banner to try to find a balance. This film is the only solo Hulk film, and aside from the Avengers films and Thor: Ragnarok, it’s the only time we see the character. Every other Avengers character has been in multiple films, but Hulk is only ever an Avenger. And honestly, that’s okay based on what this film does. It creates such a great and solid arc for Banner and Hulk that you don’t need much more outside of what they change with each Avengers film. It takes Tony Stark three solo films and two Avengers films to realize he needs to be responsible. It takes Bruce Banner one solid film to realize he can be more than this conflicted “Jekyll and Hyde” guy.
The final scene of The Incredible Hulk isn’t Banner though, and is often thought of as the “post credit scene,” but it actually happens before the credits. Ross sits in a bar, drunk and defeated. Tony Stark walks in, and he says the super soldier program was put on ice for a reason. Ross says Tony always wears such nice suits. Tony says, “We’re putting a team together.” Ross asks, “Who’s we?” Credits roll. This is the most blatant tie-in to the rest of the MCU of the film. I didn’t realize or notice some of the earlier-mentioned tie-ins during my past viewings of this film, but I also hadn’t actively looked for them. This was my first viewing concentrated on finding these Easter eggs and tie-ins, but overall, there’s not much from Hulk that carries on. The biggest aspect that continues past this film is General Ross, and he doesn’t even come back until Captain America: Civil War (which is eleven films and eight years later). It’s kind of a shame too because the film has so many great nuggets, like Doc Samson, the Leader, and everything with Betty to build on. But we’ll see how things play out in the future.
Overall, The Incredible Hulk is truly one of the most underrated Marvel films, possibly because it lacks a lot of connection to the rest of the MCU. But it’s a really solid film. Each actor brings their A-game, it’s full of great action sequences, it has great character development, and it leaves you wanting more. The other irony to the film is that it kind of feels like a political thriller/spy film – the kind of film where the hero acts against the government for the greater good and is constantly on the run trying to save himself and the world. That whole genre is ingrained in the film, but no one ever calls it that type of film. People refer to later MCU films like Winter Solider and Ant-Man as “political thrillers” and “heist films,” but not The Incredible Hulk, the film that feels least like a straight-up superhero film and more like a film that just happens to feature a superhero protagonist.
That’s it for now, but check back with us next week when we dive into the first sequel in the MCU, Iron Man 2.