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The Outcast

The Incredible Hulk (2008) by Louis Leterrier

On a list I made last year of my favorite to least favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, this one ranked last. I actually claimed that I liked the Ang Lee movie, Hulk (2003), better. I’m not sure where I am on that statement but I freely admit that The Incredible Hulk is better than I remembered.

This is basically why I do this whole rewatch and reassess because watching all these movies in relation to every other MCU movie is important. I didn’t understand when I first watched this movie how big its world is. And yet, of course, The Incredible Hulk is the one movie that could be said to have been left behind by the MCU.

Let’s look at the plot:

Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is living in hiding in Brazil, working a menial job at a soda bottle plant. He’s learning to breathe through his anger, is taking self-defense classes, and looks at a picture of his ex Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) a lot. But he’s still a hunted man because General Ross (William Hurt) wants to extract the secret of Banner’s angry alter ego to make supersoldiers.

The hunt starts after a soda contaminated with Banner’s blood has been consumed (by none other than Stan Lee) and the man leading this hunt is Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), a very vicious and ambitious man. He will stop at nothing to capture Banner and defeat the Hulk, while he transforms into something even worse than what he’s hunting.

There’s a lot to unpack here, especially since the film feels a lot longer than Iron Man. It’s not as action-packed, it’s also not an origin story. Marvel must have felt that after the 2003 movie (made by Universal who had the rights to The Hulk and still owns distribution rights for the hero [there are rumors about a change in this but nothing seems definite at this point]) and the well-known 1960s tv show, they didn’t need to delve into the origin story again. Instead, they used the intro to the movie to mark Banner’s becoming Hulk and Ross’ obsession with catching him.

This is very well done. Yes, you have to pay a little more attention to the intro than you normally would (at least, if you don’t know Hulk’s origin) but the story can move on from here and focus on Banner’s struggle to keep control. And this is, after all, the interesting part of Banner – the Dr. Jekyell and Mr. Hyde conundrum, the fight against one’s own inner beast. Once the beast is unleashed, The Incredible Hulk becomes more of a creature feature than a superhero movie.

This is probably at the core of Marvel’s struggle with this character, why The Incredible Hulk isn’t as successful as its other movies. And why they abandoned the hero as a standalone after just one movie: when the Hulk is teaming up with other heroes, we get his best – the smashing, him fighting against the biggest and strongest opponents. But when we have just Hulk then we need another ‘monster’ as an adversary and the result is something more akin to Kong vs. Godzilla than Iron Man fighting Iron Monger or Whiplash.

According to actor Tim Blake Nelson, he was asked to play Dr. Samuel Sterns for three movies total but the additional two movies (probably Hulk stand-alones) never materialized. The Incredible Hulk hints at his change into the Leader but the character is never heard from again in the whole MCU. The same goes for Betty Ross, for Blonsky/Abomination. The only character beside Banner/Hulk who reappears in other movies is General Ross – a less insufferable version of him anyway. Whole storylines seem to have vanished into thin air. Why? Because The Incredible Hulk wasn’t as successful as Marvel hoped? Because of distribution conflicts between Universal and Disney after Disney took over Marvel? Or maybe because Edward Norton abandoned the character after one outing?

Whatever the reason, Marvel pretty much forgot about its second installment of the Cinematic Universe. Which is a shame because it’s not a bad movie at all. It may not have Iron Man’s pizzazz or Captain America’s level-headed wholesomeness, but Banner never was the kind of hero Stark or Rogers were. His hero-persona is basically outside himself, is his own worst enemy at the beginning. Learning to work with his green alter ego is Banner’s story and it’s well-executed here.

You don’t believe me? Go back, watch it again with all you now know about Banner’s and Hulk’s roles in the MCU. It may surprise you.

I think what you can see in The Incredible Hulk more than in any other of the MCU’s movies is how it was still trying to get its footing. It may be its darkest entry and it may actually be worth watching just because it doesn’t rely on catchy one-liners and quips. It has a unique feel, one that differs a lot from all the other entries in the MCU. Maybe it would’ve been more successful if it had been done later, maybe not. Judge for yourself, but I may go back over my favorites list after I rewatched all the movies and change The Incredible Hulk‘s place on it.

Next: Iron Man 2 (the one everyone hates but me)