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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)

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A Hero Emerges

Iron Man (2008) by Jon Favreau

It’s been almost twelve years since Iron Man graced the big screens with his inflated ego, his quips, and a new cool-nerd presence. You may wonder why I chose to write about him now that his story seems officially over within the Marvel Cinematic Universe that he launched.

Well, I’m in the process of going back, you see. To the beginning. When I didn’t feel compelled to watch all MCU movies at the theater, to when I didn’t even know about most of Marvel’s heroes and wasn’t really interested either way.

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You see, Iron Man and Marvel have changed my perception and understanding of superheroes in much the same way that Kenneth Branagh and Much Ado About Nothing changed my understanding of Shakespeare – in that they made it possible. Up until Iron Man, the most I’d seen of superheroes were Batman (who I don’t like as a character) and Superman (whose 80s movies are awfully dated and whose 90s show I can’t watch anymore because Dean Cain voted for Trump), so I’m not what you call target audience for any kind of superhero franchise. There’s the added difficulty that while I loved 90s superhero shows, they all had female protagonists (what a time to be alive to watch Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Star Trek: Voyager within the same week, that’s the most representation of female heroship I remember from when I was growing up!) and let’s face it: Marvel, as well as DC, still have to up their game on that front.

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And yet! And that’s why I’m here because Iron Man and his cohorts lured me in despite myself. I watched all the movies, plus Agent Carter, plus a lot of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., bloopers, WHIH Newsfront, what have you. I wouldn’t call myself a die-hard fan, just someone who enjoys – a lot. And before any questions come in as to my background: I’ve never read a single Marvel comic (I only own two DC comic books, both Wonder Woman), I only recently watched a Marvel animated series (The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) on Netflix (and didn’t have time to finish it before they pulled it), and I enjoyed the Marvel superhero game on Facebook which is also long gone but gave me a view of the vast line-up of heroes and their superpowers. So, if you now think my opinion is not worth your time, so long, but if you’ll like to know what I’ve got to add to the subject, great to have you.

Back to Iron Man:

I had the perfect intro here that I had to revise because upon checking my collection of movie tickets (dating back to the earliest from 1993, I was serious about the nut part in movie nut), I found out that I did watch Iron Man at the theater. So the year is 2008, I’m studying North American Studies in Berlin (the one in Germany, yes) and I must have been shocked seeing Robert Downey Jr. in a trailer. So much so, that I went and watched Iron Man.

For those who don’t know what it’s about:

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is making good money selling weapons to the U.S. Military. However, as he finds out while being kidnapped in the Middle East, the military is not his only buyer. A group calling themselves the Ten Rings wants him to build his newest weapon, the Jericho, in a cave from parts of his other weapons. Instead, Tony Stark builds his first Iron Man suit and leaves captivity.

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Back home, he finds himself conflicted by what he’s seen and wants to shut down the weapons manufacturing part of his business. But that doesn’t go over well with his closest friend/adviser Obidiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) who’s been the one behind Tony’s kidnapping and wants to take over Stark Industries. Iron Man emerges, having to fight (not for the last time) his own creation.

Iron Man is a great origin story. It may not be entirely new (the rewatch invoked thoughts of Hamlet in me) but it’s still a fantastic watch and a great start into a new universe – multiverse even. Robert Downey Jr. carries this iconic character almost effortlessly, transforming into the character but also making him his own – it’s a perfect symbiosis that way. And he isn’t the only recognizable actor by a long shot: Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, and even director Jon Favreau round out an ensemble that would make any movie proud – Paltrow and Favreau in recurring roles. The movie is perfectly paced, mixes storytelling with action with fun.

And this is really what drew me in – imagine knowing only Batman (and only loving him in that wacky 60s show) and then coming across Iron Man. Yes, they do have similar backstories, yes, they’re both super-rich and don’t have superhuman abilities. But similarities end there. Tony is nothing like Bruce and that is his strength because you don’t have to sit through another bleak version of Gotham City and see its strongest hero flagellate himself (metaphorically) over the deaths of his parents over and over again. Tony has a sense of humor where Bruce has only depression. I know that there are voices out there who think Marvel is overdoing its trademark quips at the disadvantage of earnest storytelling. But if DC movies are the alternative then, please Marvel, keep making inappropriate jokes.

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It’s astounding to read that Iron Man was never the biggest draw among Marvel’s comics because he’s become the biggest draw in the MCU and we’ll have to see how Marvel manages without him (if they will, who knows what’s gonna happen?).

There has been talk about how superhero movies are not great cinema or whatever another old white director-dude has shouted at a cloud lately (no, not a Scorsese fan here) – this is, of course, bull. For one, if you look at Iron Man alone, it’s positively Shakespearean (with the uncle-figure trying to kill the heir-apparent of the throne and such), for another: how dare you? Superheroes have been around almost as long as mobsters and have actually done the world some good, so there!

Iron Man is a very entertaining movie, you won’t even notice that two hours have gone by since sitting down (and don’t forget to watch the post-credits scene like I did last night). The MCU couldn’t have chosen a better character or actor to introduce us to their (lesser-known) stories. It didn’t necessarily get better from here (not right away) but it has done what few movies have done before – it launched a movie series where even the worst are still watchable.

Next: The Incredible Hulk (speaking of the worst…)