Written by David Holland
Can I confess something to you? I feel like I can, since we’re all locked up together in this quarantine. The “Re” in the title of this particular post is doing a lot of work. In fact, if I’m being completely honest, those two letters aren’t entirely accurate. Alright, here it is:
I’ve never watched The Incredible Hulk.
This will come as a shock to my friends who know me as a guy who used to show up at midnight premieres for Marvel movies back when midnight premieres meant midnight instead of 7:00pm the night before. But the story of The Incredible Hulk didn’t really interest me, and then the news came that Mark Ruffalo would be replacing Edward Norton and there were no followup sequels so it just didn’t seem necessary. I told myself that I’d only ever see The Incredible Hulk in the event of a worldwide weeks-long lock-down. So here we go…
It’s sort of funny that I led off my Iron Man post by waxing poetically about the importance of casting Robert Downey Jr as the first Avenger in what would become the MCU considering that Edward Norton was replaced in that same universe after this movie.
In doing a little bit of research on this movie I learned why The Hulk has been sort of an oddball in the Avengers universe. Universal Pictures has controlled distribution rights for Hulk films since the Lou Ferigno days, which meant that a sequel was basically out of the question. Norton was apparently heavily involved in rewriting the script since he is a huge Hulk fan, but his vision and Marvel’s diverged. For everything that Marvel does well, it doesn’t always put up with these sorts of divergences, so Norton was replaced with Ruffalo, who was apparently the studio’s first choice anyway, and Hulk was relegated to a mostly supporting role in the MCU.
How does it hold up?
From what I’ve read it was Norton’s idea to tell the Hulk’s origin story in montage form during the opening credits and if that is the case, we should start a national letter-writing campaign to thank him for his service. Again, contrast this with Iron Man, whose origin story was admittedly less well-known at the time his film came out, and which spent the whole first act making Tony Stark into his superhero alter ego. There had been a previous Hulk movie already in 2003 (which I also didn’t see) and five years would have been a quick turnaround to tell the origin story again. Of course, that has never stopped every Batman director from putting Thomas and Martha Wayne right back in that alley.
The Incredible Hulk is a good standalone film but it also does the sort of world-building that early MCU films had to do to increase audience anticipation for the growing Avengers world. SHIELD was still a shadowy acronym with Men In Black style agents, recurring irritation General Ross got introduced, Stark Industries showed up as an Easter Egg and RDJ appears, fulfilling the role that Nick Fury took on Iron Man to tie the universe together. Even without all of this, Banner’s ultimately fruitless search for a “cure” while fleeing Scary Army Guys keeps the film moving in a very Jason Bourne style, if Jason Bourne had been, you know, greener.
The similarities between Bruce Banner/The Hulk and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde are so clear that I’m certain the latter inspired the former. It wouldn’t be the first time Marvel ripped off preexisting material.
But where Jekyll’s goal was extracting his evil traits and depositing them into a separate person, only to find that the evil persona ultimately corrupts the good (oh, spoiler alert I guess. It came out in 1886 and you should’ve read it in 9th grade anyway), Bruce Banner is looking to control an alternate “person” built of pure rage. In future MCU installments, Banner refers to Hulk as the “other guy”, while in this film he angrily denies the possibility that he is somehow inside the Hulk and an onscreen counter tracks “Days Since Last Incident” like a warehouse following OSHA regulations.
In a way, Norton’s vision for Hulk was realized to an extent, although not in the way he wanted. Throughout the MCU films, Banner goes from seeing himself and Hulk as opposing enemies, to Hulk wresting control away at the end of Age of Ultron, to the loss of confidence triggered by the failure to stop Thanos’s snap. Watching this movie was the first time I really put the whole arc of Hulk’s character in perspective. Banner spends so long trying to control Hulk that it takes until Endgame for him to accept that Banner is Hulk and vice versa. This film centers on failed attempts at control, even down to Banner’s very last scene in which the onscreen counter resets to zero again, but it sets the character on his journey toward not only control, but the ultimate resolution of contraries. Which, in my opinion, is an absolute win.