Dramatic Disconnect and Deftness in Equal Measure

The Abomination may as well be a Captain America villain three years out from Cap’s debut, since he has more in common with the Red Skull than any antagonist on the Hulk’s roster, or even the Hulk himself. Though despite its many misgivings as a self-contained work of superhero fiction, The Incredible Hulk is still a film worth revisiting both for its historical value in tracing the evolution of Marvel Studios, and for the many narrative beats it gets right.

There’s a lack of momentum from scene to scene, given that Banner’s journey is almost entirely a physical one. While his turn at the climax involves letting the Hulk out as opposed to suppressing it, his story up until this point has little to do with the nature or origin of his rage and how it manifests. There’s a fantastically fun moment where the Hulk uses two halves of a broken police car as boxing gloves to fight Abomination, but there’s a good chance reading this is the first time many have recalled that scene in a decade. Cool as it may be, it’s rendered meaningless, as even the action feels self-contained and separated from the characters; there’s little that separates the Banner of the opening scene and the Banner of the film’s closing minutes other than more physical control over the monster within. The Hulk may be fighting the Abomination, but what he’s actually fighting for, whether to save lives or merely to stay in control, is something the film never articulates.

For Banner, ridding himself of the Hulk is purely a matter of logistics, and so his decision to leap toward heroism feels equally so. Though a vagrant he may be, simply following Banner as he wanders from scene to scene in order to figure out how to rid himself of the Hulk isn’t as interesting a story as it ought to be; accepting the call to heroism is a decision he never once wrestles with. He merely takes a 180 degree turn when called upon, which is perhaps most emblematic of the film’s narrative failings.

The film’s successes however, come through how each individual scene plays out regardless of its lack of through-line. While Marvel would eventually be known for balancing (to varying degrees of success) its dramatic moments with jokes and quips, The Incredible Hulk stands apart through its use of silence, and how that silence is turned to raw emotion thanks to Edward Norton and Liv Tyler. Banner’s overall journey doesn’t have clearly defined stakes vis-à-vis power and transformation, but his relationship to Betty Ross (Tyler) is the glue holding his narrative together, playing out almost entirely through the way he looks at her – and the way she looks at him. There’s a sense of longing the first time he lays eyes on here after years in isolation, the whole world passing him by as he stands frozen in time, watching the woman he loves leave with someone new – as if he’s a relic of the past. If this brings to mind Captain America’s relationship to Peggy Carter, it ought to; both Betty and Peggy facilitated the transformations that sent their respective loved ones away from them.

Once Betty and Banner’s eyes meet for the first time since the latter’s disappearance, while she’s mid-conversation with her new beau no less, the music swells and time itself stands still, turning this riff on the classic monster movie into a riff on classic romance. Even as they cease to occupy the same space, sharing separate rooms after having absconded together, Bruce Banner and Betty Ross lay awake in bed, staring up at different ceilings yet mirrored by one another as the edit drifts between them melodiously. There’s a barely a line of dialogue that’s memorable here, yet the pictures and music do all the talking from scene to scene. If anything, despite its lack of overall cohesion, the film’s moment-to-moment melodrama is something Marvel’s future endeavors arguably failed to live up to. It’s a strange, paradoxical piece of the puzzle, to be sure.

The Incredible Hulk is the kind of film you can watch on mute – the colours pop and the celluloid contrast of light and darkness before the Studios’ switch to a haphazard digital workflow makes the atmophere distinctly alluring – though it’s also one of only a handful of Marvel movies to truly benefit from a great musical score. That’s because it’s also one of the very few films in the genre to employ stillness and silence to emotional effect, often as respite from its computer-generated mayhem. It may not have done much to propel Marvel’s overall narrative forward, though it arguably fleshed out what the world around the characters would feel like for years to come.

But the film’s momentum, constantly torn between trying to be a singular monster thriller as well as part of a larger superhero series, is not why it’s worth revisiting. Rather, it’s in the moments where it ceases to feel like a superhero movie, or any form of genre film, that the film is at its most interesting. When the drama is purely human, divorced from its half-formed backdrop. When Bruce Banner can forget about the raging monster inside him, and when he can stand still on his old University campus, longing for a life he lost – not unlike the Bruce Banner we see in future installments, and certainly not unlike Banner as he returns to Earth in Avengers: Infinity War, having lost years of his life to a creature he’s only just begun to understand.

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