The Incredible Hulk Revisited

(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: revisiting the oft-maligned and underrated The Incredible Hulk.)

It’s easy to dismiss The Incredible Hulk when revisiting the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Striking it from canon seems to have few long-term narrative repercussions, and the recasting of Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner in future films primes it all the more for being swept under the rug. However, it’s an integral part of what the folks at Marvel were attempting to do in their early days, the then-unprecedented shared universe concept that now seems to be on every studio’s mind. While the film has crossover references a-plenty, it’s set apart from the rest of the MCU by its distinct tone, one that feel less “superhero movie” and more “classic monster picture,” though the way it marries said tone to the now familiar Marvel sensibility helped build the platform from which The Avengers would be launched. Forgettable or not, the road to Infinity War would be incomplete without it.

The Incredible Hulk Revisited

A Dark Mirror to ‘Iron Man’

Just six weeks after Iron Man cleaned house at the global box office, The Incredible Hulk stormed into cinemas to slightly less enthusiastic fanfare. A mere five years out from Ang Lee’s Hulk, a film The Incredible Hulk may as well have been softly rebooting, Louis Leterrier’s monster picture didn’t necessarily give audiences something they hadn’t seen before. It did however use familiar language to nestle itself amidst the pieces of the growing Marvel puzzle. The film opens in lurid montage, with Craig Armstrong’s unsettling opera scoring Bruce Banner’s first transformation over the initial credits, cutting between rows of dimly lit “mad scientist” like X-rays and the first-person perspective of the Hulk itself, as the creature tears through both foes and loved ones.

Banner is at once Victor Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster, only the angry townspeople in pursuit are, well, the U.S. Government. They refer to the Hulk as “the bogey” the same as they did when Iron Man intervened in the Middle Eastern town of Gulmira. And as the American military would go on to with Stark’s technology in Iron Man 2, they want to seize and re-create the Hulk’s power and weaponize it en masse. But like Iron Man, the hero whose politics are still in a questionable space, they too intervene in a foreign country in order to get a weapon out of what they perceive as the wrong hands – only they want this weapon for themselves and are willing to kill anyone who gets in their way.

A mere six weeks out, the Marvel script has been flipped. The shadowy government villains have stepped into the shoes of the hero, with this film’s protagonist embodying their lust for power itself. One would have to imagine this thematic remixing was far from unintentional.

Where the first Iron Man film was mechanical, with its protagonist engineering his way to a new heroic path, The Incredible Hulk is its biological equivalent, and a more unwitting one at that. Where Stark can simply take off his suit, Banner can’t get the Hulk out from inside him no matter how hard he tries. And where Marvel’s first entry is about Tony Stark becoming Iron Man, its second is about Banner trying to un-become the Hulk, before the series switches back to another installment about Stark holding on to his creations. In effect, while this film impacts no other individual character, it forms a bridge between installments, elaborating on the state of the world and what challenges its heroes will have to face when dealing with their newfound abilities. The military acts in conjunction with S.H.I.E.L.D., a group of heroes in the first film and a vital puzzle piece in 2011’s Thor (where they also seize technology that would grant them greater access to its hero), but perhaps most pertinent is the film’s oft-forgotten connection to Captain America: The First Avenger, and how both films deal with power and those who seek it.

The First Crossover

Where the first Iron Man featured a post-credits sequence that few people stayed to watch (the first appearance of Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, as he tells Tony Stark about his idea for a superhero team-up), it was The Incredible Hulk that began stitching the fabric of this shared universe together. Not only does the film end with what feels like a post-credits scene moved forward – Stark shows up and states his own team-up intentions; a substantial step for the Marvel Universe – the film is littered with building blocks of a world waiting to be discovered. These ideas however, seem to work to the film’s narrative detriment despite contributing to shared-universe concept.

Tim Roth’s Emile Blonsky is one of the special ops gunmen on the Banner’s tail. Long before he turns into a twisted version of the Hulk, he first becomes a Super Soldier. Yes, the same kind of Super Soldier as Steve Rogers. He undergoes the same treatment that Steve underwent during World War II in order to become Captain America (as we’d go on to see on screen three years later), making Blonsky among the fastest and strongest human beings alive. Though as he pursues the Hulk at Culver University, Blonsky sprints towards him in a manner that suggests he covets the very power that Banner wields. Strong as Blonsky may be, he wants more, and his ruthless pursuit of strength is ultimately what leads him to injecting himself with Banner’s blood and becoming The Abomination.

But in an inversion of what many perceive as the “Marvel problem,” wherein the MCU’s villains aren’t given nearly enough to do as their heroes, Blonsky’s narrative is well-articulated. What he wants, why he wants it, and what he represents in the broader political world are crystal clear – he is the ugly outcome of the US Military’s unchecked pursuit of power. But what isn’t clear is any sort of concrete direction for the hero, who spends most of the film running away. There’s nothing tethering him to this narrative, and nothing stopping him from seeing himself as potentially heroic either, at least not in any way that’s dramatized.

While Hulk versus Abomination is the second in a long line of Marvel heroes fighting mirror versions of themselves, the villain here represents an interesting narrative quandary. Thematically, he’s almost entirely disconnected from The Hulk despite being born of the same DNA. Where Banner has only ever wanted to rid himself of power, Blonsky wants to accumulate it.

And yet, while the Abomination still fits the overall fabric of the story at hand, he isn’t so much a foil to the Hulk (Banner has never coveted power) as he is a foil to the military, and how both they and the world at large see the Hulk’s destructive power. The Abomination is the power that William Hurt’s General Thunderbolt Ross hopes to weaponize, on display at its most unhinged. But Blonsky is always, always in control, unlike Banner’s fears of what he may become if he loses himself. It’s in seeing this power wielded intentionally and unchecked, rather than by chance and instinct, that the Hulk is reflected back to Ross as a far lesser threat. In a film where General Ross were the protagonist, it would be a perfect thematic fit. But what does it do for Bruce Banner?

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