Dramatic Disconnect

The stories of Emile Blonsky and General Ross are told with clarity. What isn’t clear, however, is a concrete direction for our hero, who spends most of the film running away. There’s nothing tethering Bruce Banner to this narrative beyond his presence as the Hulk. There’s also nothing stopping him from seeing himself as heroic — not in any way that’s dramatized, at least — which makes his third-act turn to heroism feel limp.

There’s a lack of momentum from scene to scene, given that Banner’s journey is almost entirely physical. His story has little to do with the nature or origin of his rage, despite it being a sticking point in his romantic relationship. How his powers manifest — driven by pure, animalistic instinct — ought to have been a perfect mirror to the film’s cold, calculating military villains, who kill with impunity. Instead, Banner’s innate heroism never seems to come into conflict with his violent urges. While the Hulk’s origin is told economically, reducing this vital part of his story to a montage robs Banner of the opportunity to discover his destructive potential.

The film never finds a worthy dramatic substitute. Banner never confronts the idea of Hulk, and so he never fully embraces him in his moment of heroism either. Swap out the green rage-monster for an Iron Man suit, and his story remains the same.

There’s an enjoyable third-act moment where the Hulk uses two halves of a broken police car as boxing gloves, but it’s rendered meaningless by what surrounds it. As is often the case with Marvel movies, the action feels self-contained and separate from the characters. The Avengers is one of the few exceptions to this. Some of its most memorable moments even come from the Hulk, who, until the film’s third act, Banner has been fighting to keep under wraps.

Beats similar to The Avengers are present in The Incredible Hulk — Banner wants to rid himself of the Hulk, but eventually decides to let him out to fight the bad guys — but the connective tissue between these modes of self-understanding isn’t concerned with Banner’s inner life. His beeping heartrate monitor in this film makes for great auditory short-hand, but his breathing exercises say little about who he is, where he’s been, or what he feels in a given moment beyond “out of breath.” In The Avengers, Tony Stark poking and prodding Banner leads to revelations about his state of mind, which pay off in his most rousing moments. In The Incredible Hulk, Banner simply wanders from scene to scene — a MacGuffin in his own movie.

The simple “Why?” of Banner’s need to suppress the Hulk — and thus, the stakes of unleashing him — are never in focus here, the way they are in later entries like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Thor: Ragnarok. There’s little delineating the Banner of the opening scene from the Banner of the end of the film; he achieves marginally more physical control over the monster, but he takes no active measures to do so.

The Hulk may fight the Abomination, but what is he actually fighting for? To save lives? To merely to stay in control? This is something the film never articulates, and so accepting his heroism is something Banner never wrestles with.

Dramatic Deftness

The Marvel Cinematic Universe would eventually be known for balancing dramatic moments with quips, albeit to varying degrees of success. The Incredible Hulk however, stands apart through its use of silence. Its biggest strength is the way Edward Norton and Liv Tyler wordlessly convey raw emotion.

Banner’s story doesn’t have clearly defined stakes when it comes to power and transformation, but his relationship to Betty Ross (Tyler) is the glue holding it together. It plays out almost entirely through the way he looks at her (and the way she looks at him). There’s a palpable sense of longing the first time he lays eyes on Betty after years in isolation. The whole world passes him by as he stands frozen, watching the woman he loves leave with someone new, as if he’s a relic of the past.

If this also brings to mind Captain America, and his relationship to Peggy Carter, it ought to. Both Betty and Peggy oversaw the scientific experiments that resulted in lovers’ exiles, though this echo, like so many other Hulk beats in the series, is never mined for its dramatic potential.

Once Betty and Banner lock eyes, the music swells and time itself stands still, turning this riff on the classic monster movie into a riff on classic romance. They remain connected even once they cease to occupy the same physical space, lying awake in bed, staring up at different ceilings. Their images are mirrored, and their restless movements reflect one another, in an expert (and melodious) bit of editing amidst otherwise thankless drama.

There’s a barely a line of dialogue that’s memorable here, yet the pictures and music do all the talking. Despite its lack of overall cohesion, the film’s moment-to-moment drama is something Marvel’s future endeavors arguably failed to live up to.

The Incredible Hulk is the kind of film you can get a lot out of by watching on mute. The colours pop, the celluloid contrast makes for an alluring atmosphere, and the presence of green in most scenes serves as a reminder of things to come. It’s also one of the few Marvel movies to truly benefit from its musical score given how it employs stillness to emotional effect, often as respite from computer-generated mayhem.

The film is at its most interesting in the brief moments when it ceases to feel like a “superhero movie.” But these moments — when the drama is purely human, divorced from the half-formed shared universe backdrop — are few and far between. Moments when Bruce Banner can forget about the raging monster inside him, as he stands still on his old University campus, longing for a life he lost.

Coming out of Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War, Bruce Banner has sacrificed years of his life to a creature he’s only just begun to understand. Ironically, as we head into his finale in Avengers: Endgame, the Hulk now evades Bruce Banner at a time when he needs him most.  

***

Expanded from an article published April 3 2018.

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