When news broke that Sony had cut a deal to eventually send a huge backlog of their movies to Disney+ (including the Tom Holland Spider-Man films), the geek-friendly corners of the Internet seemed to cry out in unison: “Finally, all the Marvel movies will be in one place!” Except that’s not entirely the case, is it? The Incredible Hulk is still being left out in the cold, far away from Disney’s warm bosom. But what’s interesting is that nobody really seems to notice or care.
Well, I care, dammit. But before we get to that, let’s quickly remind everyone how we got here. Back in the early pre-Disney days of the MCU, Marvel Studios had to cut distribution deals with studios to release their movies. Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger were all distributed by Paramount, but The Incredible Hulk was released by Universal, which continued to hold “first refusal” rights to any stand-alone Hulk film after producing director Ang Lee’s take on the character five years prior. That deal remains in place to this day and could be part of the reason we haven’t gotten any more solo Hulk films. It also clearly covers The Incredible Hulk’s streaming rights, as the MCU’s second entry currently isn’t part of any subscription package and is only available to rent.
Which, again, doesn’t seem to really bother anyone in the least. And, on one hand, I get it. The Incredible Hulk was a modest hit in 2008, making $134 million domestic and $263 million worldwide at the box office. That was roughly flat with Lee’s Hulk and less than half of what Iron Man had made just a month prior. It starred Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, but when he and Marvel didn’t see eye to eye during the making of the film, Norton was replaced by Mark Ruffalo for The Avengers. Ruffalo, of course, has gone on to play the Hulk/Banner in five more MCU films (don’t forget his cameo in the Iron Man 3 stinger), putting Norton deep in the rear-view mirror. At this point, The Incredible Hulk can feel like a bit of an MCU practice round that doesn’t actually count.
But I’m here to tell you that it does count. Just for starters, it’s a good movie! I’m not about to declare it top-tier MCU or anything, but it does hold up better than several other phase-one MCU films. (Looking at you, Iron Man 2 and Thor.) Directed by Louis Leterrier and written by Zak Penn, The Incredible Hulk is a lean comic-book film that tells a focused “Banner on the run” story while successfully mixing in elements from the action and horror genres. Rewatching it now, it’s cool to see a take on the Hulk where he truly feels like a dangerous and unpredictable creature (an aspect of the character that has been largely abandoned by the MCU films). Leterrier hides him in shadows early on, treating him like a horror-movie monster, before unleashing him in several appropriately chaotic action scenes.
The look of the Hulk is also more beast-like than we get these days. He’s large but sinewy, not just overgrown but also a tad deformed. It’s a long way removed from Avengers: Endgame’s selfie-taking smart Hulk, and illustrates perfectly why the Norton version of Banner would be keen to find a cure. It sometimes feels like Marvel isn’t quite sure what to do with the Hulk from film to film – first he’s out of control (until suddenly he isn’t), then he’s a metaphor for impotence, now he’s a reluctant warrior – which leaves his overall MCU arc feeling jagged and unformed. Say what you will about The Incredible Hulk, but it’s a movie that knows exactly what it’s doing with the character. And despite whatever happened behind the scenes, Norton makes for a compellingly tormented Banner in the final film.
There are some other good things going on in the movie too. Tim Roth gives an enjoyable, wild-eyed performance as Emil Blonsky, an aging special-ops fighter who’s happy to be injected with some recreated super-soldier serum, regardless of the horrific side effects it starts to have on his body and mental state. With an assist from a sample of Banner’s blood, he eventually turns into the CG monstrosity Abomination, a transformation Blonsky seems to relish. The final showdown between him and Hulk, two monsters whaling on each in New York City, provides a bit of B-movie fun that the MCU has since outgrown.
Female leads of the girlfriend variety haven’t had a great track record in the MCU, and while Liv Tyler doesn’t quite escape that trap as Betty Ross, she and Norton do have better chemistry than several future MCU couples. There’s damn near a sex scene here (in an MCU movie!) before Banner decides his heart rate is a getting too high and has to slow things down. It’s an almost shocking reminder that, once upon a time, the people making these things weren’t worried about how they would play as Disney+ content that you plopped your kid down in front of.
So, have I convinced you that The Incredible Hulk still has value and doesn’t deserve to be forgotten? Well, it might not matter because Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige also seems like he wants to keep the film from completely falling off the radar. After all, he did bring back William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross, bumping him up from General to Secretary of State in Captain America: Civil War and the last two Avengers movies. And during Marvel’s presentation at Disney’s investor’s call in December, Feige announced that Roth would be returning as Abomination in the upcoming Disney+ series She-Hulk. I assume he’ll have reverted back to his human form for at least a portion of the series, as it would be weird to bring back Roth only to do CG motion-capture.
Dare we hope that Banner will one day remember that Betty is out there, probably tracking his Avengers exploits on the news? Or that Marvel will one day circle back to Tim Blake Nelson’s Mr. Blue, who in the closing moments of The Incredible Hulk starts to make his transformation into the comic-book villain The Leader? Eh, these things probably aren’t going to happen. But that doesn’t make The Incredible Hulk any less of an MCU movie – and a good one at that — even if it’s not readily available on Disney+.
Only a few weeks left until the premiere!
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