“Don’t make me…hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry.” This silly send-up of Bill Bixby’s iconic line, uttered early on in The Incredible Hulk, perfectly captures the character’s desperation to break back into the public consciousness. In 2008, Hulk was the hungriest franchise of them all. Spider-Man and the X-Men were obese with our affection, and even Blade scored three good gobbles, but poor Hulk was still begging for seconds. He wanted a piece of that pie, and as the first Marvel comic book character to have any serious kind of pop culture impact, Kevin Feige believed they needed him to secure their Avengers banquet.
Seventeen films later, the Hulk is still starving. While not necessarily a total box office bomb, The Incredible Hulk failed to ignite the fanboy enthusiasm of Iron Man, and currently rests as the lowest grossing entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Why? Is it a terrible film? No. It may not be your favorite flick in the franchise, but it’s certainly superior to Thor: The Dark World (can’t wait to chat that one up in Day 8 of this series). Is director Louis Leterrier to blame? The Frenchman responsible for the first two Transporter movies, and the highly underrated Unleashed brought a lot of energy to the action and certainly didn’t get lost in the idea of adapting four-color panels as Ang Lee did in 2003. Was Edward Norton the wrong fit for Bruce Banner? While he certainly doesn’t play well with others, if The Incredible Hulk had been a rip-roaring success, I think his version of the puny scientist could have fit into the Marvel initiative.
The truth is, the first two cinematic versions do not understand the appeal of “The Strange Case of The Incredible Hulk and Mr. Banner.” It’s not about controlling Banner’s monstrous self. Once the Gamma radiation experiment occurs, and the biological schism ruptures, there is no longer one being. It’s not Banner/Hulk. It’s Banner and Hulk. This is not a werewolf story; it’s Jekyll and Hyde. Here are two characters fighting for dominance on our plane of existence. Joss Whedon would start to explore this idea in The Avengers, when the recast Mark Ruffalo exclaims, “I put a bullet in my mouth, and the other guy spit it out.” Hulk has a right to life, and he shouldn’t be relegated as a flavor to spice up dwindling Thor sales. While I was astonished and absolutely thrilled to see the comic book Hulk finally appear in Ragnarok, it was clear to me that this version could carry his own movie. We may have to wait until Disney purchases Universal Studios for that to happen.
Of course, even in the comics, no one can agree on the relationship between Banner and Hulk. When Stan Lee spoke to Rolling Stone magazine as part of the publicity push around Avengers: Age of Ultron, he said that the Hulk was humanity’s extension of rage. “We all lose our temper, we all get angry…it’s something very easy for other people to identify with.” In the interview, he says that he did draw from Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster to fuel his stories. Jack Kirby, the Hulk’s other creator, told The Comics Journal in 1990, that the monster was an exaggerated expression of what we’re all capable of committing. He goes as far to say that he thought of the Hulk after witnessing a woman lift a car to rescue her baby, “It suddenly came to me that in desperation we can all do that.” Peter David, who wrote the character over a celebrated 12 years, told Entertainment Weekly that Banner “displayed all the symptoms of what was then called Multiple Personality Disorder.” He called his version “The Merged Hulk,” and while they weren’t exactly copasetic while behind the wheel of the jolly green giant, Hulk and Banner managed to exist as one to keep the muscle-bound iteration at the forefront, and selling comics. Rage, desperation, or a broken psyche, the point is that you have to give character to the CGI monster as well as the bum with the capability to string a sentence together.
Zak Penn’s screenplay for The Incredible Hulk is a little too in love with the original television show’s on-the-run concept, which in itself was lifted from the 1960s series The Fugitive. Thankfully, the Gamma origin is whipped together during the opening credits, and we pick up on Bruce Banner in Rocinha Favela, Brazil. He spends his days tinkering inside the Pingo Doce soda factory while his nights are preoccupied with the mysterious Mr. Blue’s email correspondence. Like every live-action Hulk story before it, finding a cure drives the narrative. Through a contrived series of events, Banner’s blood plops into a bottle of Pingo Doce destined for the belly of Stan Lee’s thirsty soda importer. The authorities are alerted to Banner’s presence, and the manhunt is on.
The Hulk only appears on screen for three set-pieces. That’s all he’s worth to Penn and Leterrier. The first Hulk-Smash occurs when General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) sends in his goons to kidnap Banner from his South American hideaway. The second sighting terrorizes the students of Culver University. The third and final offers a nice precursor to the Battle of New York when Hulk and The Abomination (Tim Roth’s CG counterpart) utterly pulverize a Harlem backlot. As far as these things go, the action is decent, but the ’08 effects can’t quite convince you that this Hulk comes from Edward Norton’s DNA. The color is off, the lighting seems iffy, and the bangs are an altogether different disaster. Ultimately, the Hulk should be more than a ticking time-bomb used to trick an audience into suspense.
I dig the comic-booky moments with soundwave cannons, cop car boxing gloves, and the Hulk’s shockwave clap, but you never sense trust in the source material that future Marvel Studios films would exude. The Incredible Hulk could almost pass as another version of its ’03 predecessor if not for one or two franchise-linking tidbits. Say what you will about the quality of the films that come after Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, but they are out and proud with their ridiculous origins. No need to hide under cool black leather. So yeah, X-Men, why not yellow spandex?
Marvel is primed to give us a great Hulk solo movie. Avengers: Infinity War concluded with the Hulk/Banner Civil War raging ferociously with the mean, green machine refusing to come out. Is he too scared to face Thanos? Or is he straight up pissed at the puny guy’s self-loathing disrespect? In Ragnarok, we saw a Hulk motivated by desire and fear. Like Banner, Hulk has plans for his life, and they don’t include the other guy. Are they any less worthy than those of the scientist? That’s the story, Marvel. Chase that. Don’t worry; there will still be plenty of opportunities for Hulk-Smash.
What The Incredible Hulk Contributes to the MCU:
- General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross – Until Captain America: Civil War, you could practically skip over The Incredible Hulk when conducting your annual Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch. Giving up those gold stars to be Secretary of State, Ross still manages to be a thorn in the side of our heroes by stoking the flames of distrust amongst our favorite Avengers. Is it an understandable point of view? Sure. Is he a dick? Totally.
- The Super Solider Program – In a geeky bit of exposition, Ross explains to Tim Roth’s gung ho nut-job that Banner’s Gamma research has its origins in the Super Soldier program of World War II. At the time, it may have been the coolest comic book reference ever. Who dared to imagine a Captain America movie of actual quality?
- Mr. Harrington – In an effort to sneak back into his research facility at Culver University, Bruce Banner bribes his entrance with a slice of pepperoni pizza to a dialogue-less college student. That student is played by Martin Starr, who would reappear in Spider-Man: Homecoming as the Academic Decathlon Coach, Mr. Harrington.
- Pingo Doce Soda – It’s not just a one-and-done delicious refreshment. The neon soda returns in Ant-Man on a billboard advertisement that Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang unknowingly passes on the sidewalk. So, yeah, important canon stuff.
What The Incredible Hulk Withholds from the MCU:
- Betty Ross – Sorry Liv Tyler, your love interest is unwanted. Joss Whedon would practically erase the general’s daughter from existence when he paired Banner with Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Is it possible she could make a comeback? Not on this side of the Infinity Gauntlet. “Sun’s getting real low.”
- Emil Blonsky, The Abomination – Spider-Man has Venom; Iron Man has Iron Monger, and Hulk has The Abomination. The villainous dopplegänger is a trope all comic books get to eventually, but I don’t think Ruffalo will be squaring off with this bad guy anytime soon. While the CGI is a little wonky in the film, I dig his design, especially when it allowed Hulk to break off bones for additional stabby support.
- Samuel Sterns, The Leader – In the comic books, Sterns was a janitor who gained super intelligence and green skin when he was exposed to Gamma radiation. He naturally went bug-nuts crazy. In the film, it’s revealed that the mysterious Mr. Blue was, in fact, Tim Blake Nelson’s power-curious Dr. Sterns. He “helped” Banner with his cure, but only as a means for furthering diabolical research. During the climax, Sterns gets a bump on his noggin, and a little Gamma juice drips on in. It might be fun to see someday, but The Leader is a goofy character that could easily reach Schumacherian heights of embarrassment. In a universe featuring The Collector though, anything is possible.
Banner by Brian Azzarello and Richard Corben – When the Hulk devastates Santa Fe, the military sends in their Gamma irradiated psychologist, Doc Samson, to track down and sooth the beast back into the man. Not necessarily the comic one thinks of first when contemplating the Hulk (that would be either Peter David’s historic run or Planet Hulk), but I appreciate how it handles Banner’s agony over his condition. Part of Marvel’s short-lived Startling Stories line, Azzarello puts Banner at the end of his ropes. Here is where you see the suicidal scientist attempt to eat a bullet, and the Hulk spits it out. The monster deserves his rage against the military industrial complex. He will not allow Banner’s self-wallowing to deny him such satisfaction. Richard Corben is the go-to artist for creepy, gross monster stories. His style accentuates Banner’s anguish and fear of letting the beast return to wreak havoc. Covering just four single issues, “Banner” reads like a fever dream, but it’s a haunting comic that has shaped my concept for Marvel’s first tragic super-hero.
Read more from our series about the Marvel Cinematic Universe: