The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Iron Man did a number of things. It set up an entire universe (whether that was intentional, or largely just to set up a future Avengers movie and have done with it, I'm still not sure) that would, after years of stumbling, bring the main Marvel characters to life. While Iron Man was a strange place to start, part of the reason was because at the time everything wasn't largely consolidated under one studio. Almost every major movie studio had grabbed the characters at one time or another and, often, did little to nothing with them - at least nothing that could be considered watchable.
One of the few that was at least tolerable was Ang Lee's Hulk. The problem is that it was one of those times everyone who wanted that elusive "character development" got exactly what they wanted, at the expense of much of what made the comic and, more importantly for many of us, the television show enjoyable. Instead, it was an Ang Lee movie, which is typically a good thing if you're watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Brokeback Mountain. It's not the best thing if you want to see a large green guy in purple pants smash bad guys.
The Incredible Hulk, therefore, was in a weird spot. It was the second film in the new Marvel series, supposed to give us a story about Bruce Banner prior to becoming an Avenger. Problem is this was also originally supposed to be a direct sequel to Ang Lee's film; however, Hulk, though intending to set up a story line for Bruce Banner, was never intended to be part of a wider universe like Iron Man was. Wisely, Zak Penn and Edward Norton, who significantly rewrote the script as the movie went on, decided not to ignore the fact the other film existed and just five years prior had given us all the origin story we needed.
Norton plays Bruce Banner in this movie, and we quickly run through the origin in the opening credits. With that out of the way, we find Banner hiding in Brazil and working in a bottling factory while communicating with a scientist back in the United States codenamed Mr. Blue. He has managed to keep the Hulk from emerging, using meditation and breathing techniques to keep the transformation from happening. Problems arise when some of his blood is bottled along with the soda, and the person who drinks it has a major adverse reaction.
The bottle is traced back to its factory, and soon Banner finds himself once again on the run from General Ross (William Hurt). Predictably, this causes the Hulk to emerge, and he quickly dispatches most of Ross's troops. Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), one of Ross's soldiers, manages to catch a glimpse of the Hulk and barely survive the encounter. Because of Blonsky's curiosity Ross decides to try an experiment, injecting Blonsky with some of the same serum that caused the mutation in Banner.
Initially it makes Blonsky stronger and able to run faster, as well as heal quickly. Further applications start having more adverse reactions. Meanwhile, Banner returns to the United States to get the data on his experiments in preparation for a meet-up with Mr. Blue, who claims to have the possibility of a cure. On the way he accidentally encounters his old girlfriend Betty (Liv Tyler), who also happens to be General Ross's daughter. The two go on the run, eventually meeting up with Mr. Blue, who indeed may have a cure but also has his own agenda. At the same time Blonsky is himself transforming into a creature of his own - one only the Hulk can defeat.
I was not looking forward to seeing this particular movie again. What I remembered mostly was two CGI blobs fighting each other and, in the end, it still is largely that. There is some debate over whether Hulk or The Incredible Hulk had a better rendition of the creature, and I say neither. He's big, he's muscled, and they manage to add some emotion to his eyes around Betty, but there is nothing about the creature that doesn't scream cartoon. Keep in mind this is a movie in which they took a year to animate a drop of blood falling, and it looks worse than most CGI from 10 years prior to this movie. They could have saved time with a series of quick cut scenes and red corn syrup and it would have been more convincing. It's tempting to say that painting Lou Ferigno (who pops up as a security guard and also voices the Hulk) green again might have even worked better for the Hulk himself.
The Abomination, though much more monsterish, looks more realistic. I just wish more of the movie did, as every time something important is happening that doesn't involve the characters on their own I became distracted by how fake it looked. Iron Man had the benefit of getting some of Stan Winston's last work, but all we get here is a decent looking adversary fighting a Saturday morning cartoon.
This leads into what really got me while watching this the second time. Unlike most of the MCU movies, there is an emphasis on developing characters where, when the payoff comes, the audience cares what happens. I'm quite sure this is largely Edward Norton's influence, as we still get plenty of the angst that Ang Lee gave us with Eric Bana's portrayal of the character, but it doesn't overwhelm the rest of the film. Norton also manages to have good chemistry with Liv Tyler, largely because they worked out an entire backstory for the relationship that is not shown on screen. I just wish that, with all that preparation, Betty Ross wasn't such a typical damsel role.
While General Ross is largely the bad guy, mainly due to his amorality, Blonsky is the main adversary. In a bit of a twist, the Abomination largely emerges due to Blonsky wanting to recapture his fading youth and to get a chance to be a better soldier than he was in his younger days. He doesn't necessarily understand the consequences, while Ross does.
For a movie that does pay quite a bit of attention to the story that is unfolding, it gets quite sloppy toward the end. The conclusion of the Hulk's fight with the Abomination is confusing, while Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), the mysterious Mr. Blue, has a fate that should be integral to the plot but is never resolved, even in later MCU movies. It may have been intended for a later standalone Hulk film, but so far he has appeared as a supporting character rather than a starring role. Also, someone needs to inform Hollywood that Brazil is as diverse as the United States, if not more so. I also wonder if, even having Hulk properties part of the way but having to walk and hitch the rest, if it is possible to get from Brazil to Virginia in 17 days.
Edward Norton has also not reprised the role. Instead, Mark Ruffalo, who director Louis Leterrier originally wanted to play Bruce Banner, took over the role, leaving The Incredible Hulk a bit of an outlier in the MCU. It exists, some of the characters appear later, and it is linked by a brief appearance by Tony Stark, but largely it is remembered as a bit of a misplaced follow-up to Iron Man and a failed reboot of Hulk. It does have some good parts, but with better effects it could have been much more, especially since it seemed determined to fully acknowledge the influence of the successful television version. Still, after all these years and advances in technology, the show is still the best version of the Hulk.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Time: 112 minutes
Starring: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, William Hurt, Tim Roth
Director: Louis Leterrier