Following the surprising hit of Iron Man was always going to be a tricky thing to do. Building another solo superhero flick around the Hulk didnít exactly help. Sure, the green monster is a recognizable icon in the genre, and he was the focus of a beloved television show. There are a number of problems facing a Hulk film though that director Louis Leterrier couldnít quite overcome.
Is familiar as the general public might be with the Hulk, not many can name an of his villains. Interestingly, that lack of a typical superhero villain Ė one with some sort of relatable or opposing power sets Ė works in favor here. Gen. Thunderbolt Ross is not a top tier villain by any stretch, but his authority over the military makes him a surprisingly interesting foe.
Being an action movie, Hulk needs someone to smash, hence the addition of Emil Blonsky, a.k.a. the Abomination. His character is pretty one dimensional: a life-long soldier whose only sense of self-worth is in his capacity for fighting. He provides the physical challenge for Hulk to overcome. General Ross, however, is a little different.
What makes Ross interesting as the opposition is the way that Ė in any other movie Ė he would be viewed as a hero. The military general trying to rein in the monster on the loose? For decades, that guy was the ďgood guy.Ē In this case, he continues to push too hard and pursue a man who just wants to be left alone. Itís not very often that the US military is presented as ďthe bad guys,Ē but that is the case here. Rossís connection to Betty, Bruceís love interest, makes things play out more melodramatically, but isnít necessarily a net positive in itself.
See, so much of these early MCU stories is the fact that there needs to be a love interest. Betty Ross has almost no real function other than to be the woman Hulk protects to show us that heís not the real monster. Liv Tyler isnít really given terribly much to work with. Her entire existence in the film is to be the object of Bruce Bannerís affection. She even literally drops her relationship with Leonard, who she was seeing long enough to get a home with, just because Bruce showed up.
The action in The Incredible Hulk is actually pretty fun, but there is a lot of moping. This is one of the main issues facing any Hulk solo film. Sure, audiences showed a willingness to endure gloomy, mopey men with Christopher Nolanís Batman trilogy, but those films told deeper narratives than their superhero sources provide. Here, we arenít really treated to anything deeper than continuity-based filmmaking with an emphasis on Easter eggs and set-ups that fans will appreciate.
Thematically, this might just be the most muddled entry in the MCU. It doesnít just lose itís message by the third act, a la The Winter Soldier, nor does it necessarily push something frankly inappropriate and irresponsible, like Infinity War. From the very start, The Incredible Hulk has no idea what to make of the rage-driven Hulk. It canít even be bothered to ask two simple questions: is anger bad or dangerous, and, are Bruce and Hulk one in the same?
These questions get explored a little bit in the Avengers films, but donít even get addressed here. Where Iron Man depicts, to some extent, the start of Tony Starkís journey to become a responsible person, The Incredible Hulk doesnít really tell any clear or discernible moral. Itís not a story about learning responsibility. Bruce is actually already being responsible by trying to stay away from New York. Itís not about learning to control his power: he sort of just does it magically by the end, with no real set up. Plus, we see him struggling to ďaimĒ the Hulk, as he says he will do, throughout the entire final battle.
Arguably, the central thesis of the film is that the quest for power is dangerous and immoral. Blonsky just wants the power to show what a supreme being he is. Itís actually unclear what he might do after he beat the Hulk. Would he keep ravaging the city? Would he just pick fights with world militaries just to show how powerful he is? He obviously seeks revenge against Hulk, but itís hard to tell what his larger risk to the world overall is. We are meant to see him as a threat, but itís hard to say why beyond the fact that he has a thirst for power.
That connects with General Ross, whose entire purpose in the military is to try to recreate the super soldier serum that spawned Captain America. His objective and sole focus is to further empower and strengthen the US military. His thirst for power winds up fueling someone elseís hunger, and it begets a new problem much larger than the Hulk. Where Ross and Blonsky seek power, Banner desires to remove his. He doesnít chase the power; he is constantly trying to flee from it.
Hulk is always a hard character to adapt to the big screen for a feature length film. As a character, he poses a lot of thematic problems. Chief among them is the fundamental narrative it pushes that a manís anger problems are somehow ďnot really him.Ē Given the nature of his existence, it intrinsically seeks audiences to disassociate anger and violence of the monster (presented as a totally different person) from the kind, intelligent, seemingly decent scientist (presented as the ďrealĒ person). This is a difficult sell, particularly as audiences over the years have become a lot more aware of dynamics of abusive men. (Abusers frequently claim that they just get so mad and ďlose control,Ē and too often, victims of abuse tend to see that side as ďa different person.Ē Knowing this makes it extremely challenging to find the Bruce Banner/Hulk character likeable and worth cheering on.)
Mix that with the fact that, as a superhero, we need to root for the Hulk and for his violent, angry behavior, it sends a confusing message. Bruce is frequently seen trying to control his anger, to engage in emotionally healthy behaviors so as to actually be able to control himself. This is unquestionably a positive thing, and the film presents it as such. Though he doesnít seek help from mental health professionals on this, we are meant to believe he is doing the right thing. We know he turns into a raging monster when angry, so doing what he can to avoid that is inherently responsible and good. Yet once he turns into the Hulk, we are also meant to root for him and find his violence against the aggressive, clearly-in-the-wrong army to be valid, justifiable, and acceptable. Indeed, we are supposed to even like it.
It would be one thing if a filmmaker ever tried to tackle this dilemma, but most have not even bothered. In Marvelís second entry to their larger universe, we ultimately sacrifice thematic significance and messaging for the sake of watching Hulk smash. And, as always with the character in Marvel movies, we are expected to never think too much about it.
Itís actually a well edited, well shot superhero flick. Itís pace is brisk, though occasionally veers off course when dealing with the Betty/Bruce drama. The villains are shallow, but Ė in the scheme of superhero movies Ė unique. The action is solid, even if shallow. And a lot of the nuggets for fans are integrated nicely (although certainly some are ham-fisted). The first unveiling of the Hulk was an excellently executed tease. There are plenty of elements of the film that work.
To be honest, itís kind of hard to understand why it rates so poorly among fans Ė it has the lowest score on Rotten Tomatoes and was one of the weakest box office draws in Marvel Studiosís repertoire Ė but perhaps it is simply because the rest are, generally, so much better. It lacks the same charm as the Downey-led Iron Man series, and it wouldnít be inaccurate to say that Ed Norton isnít exactly a big selling point in the film. (Heís fine, but watching Norton mope without the complexity that Mark Ruffalo would bring definitely isnít as entertaining as watching Downey chew up screen time.)
Still, for those looking to examine these films a little deeper, there is a lot that can be said about The Incredible Hulk. Itís, thematically, one of the messiest and more problematic entries. Otherwise, there might be a good reason why Marvel has largely ignored the events of the film, reducing it to a mere reference in The Avengers. Itís worth watching again if youíre interested in breaking down the presentation of anger issues, but beyond that, it doesnít really offer too much more visually than Ang Leeís Hulk did.
Reductive Rating: Itís fine.