I have much less to say about 2008’s The Incredible Hulk movie than I had to say about 2003’s Hulk, because the film is much less ambitious. It’s a strange thing to say about a superhero movie, but it feels … conservative. Safe.
It’s not a bad film. Apart from making Betty Ross a cipher, a love interest and nothing more, it really doesn’t do anything wrong. It makes a series of competent steps from its premise — that Banner has been living with his condition for five years — to its conclusion. You can’t criticise any of them; but you can’t really get excited about them either.
Here’s an oddity that shows how relatively little the film has going on: if you do an image-search for “hulk 2008”, you get back a set of mostly identical images, all of them resembling the one at the top of this post: the top half of the Hulk, facing the camera, angry.
I think that tells you something about how relatively limited a story the film tells, and how limited a visual vocabulary it uses in doing so.
Perhaps the first mis-step is that, by coming in five years after Banner’s first transformation, The Incredible Hulk misses out on the origin story, which is one of the most compelling elements in Hulk mythology. (This may be because the film is undecided about whether it’s positioning itself as a reboot of the 2003 film or a sequel to it.)
While the Fantastic Four got their powers by the arbitrary action of cosmic rays — an act of God, we might say — the Hulk received his blessing and curse by taking the brunt of a nuclear explosion. That’s an important difference. The Hulk was created by humans, by science gone wrong. That makes him not a freak of nature but a Frankenstein monster — or, as Matt Wedel has argued, the American Godzilla. Banner absorbed the power of the gamma bomb, and it’s this that the Hulk manifests. That’s a powerful story with gut-level resonances, tapping into the fears of a generation. You have to question the judgement of a film that skips right over it. (While Ang Lee’s Hulk made changes to the Hulk’s origin, not really for the better, it did at least have a solid vision for what it was trying to achieve in this respect.)
While Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner is undistinguished and Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross is wet, I do have to give credit to Tim Roth’s Emil Blonsky, who somehow convinces as the veteran soldier who wants some of what the Hulk has. The film is at its best when exploring Blonsky’s developing obsession and his awkward power relationship with General Ross. And the one truly arresting image from the film occurs during the Hulk’s rampage on the Culver University campus, during a moment of quiet, when Blonsky meets him face to face and, shockingly, just stands there looking at him. Meeting him as though they were equals.
This works; and so does the Hulk’s casual, dismissive kick that sends Blonsky flying across the screen to smash into a tree, giving him injuries that he would not have recovered from were it not for the Hulk-juice he’d been ingesting.
At this stage, the film feels like it might be headed somewhere, despite the relative anonymity of the Hulk himself. Unfortunately, the place it’s headed is the most predictable of showdowns, as Blonsky overdoses on Hulk-juice and transforms into The Abomination, a huge powerful humanoid with Hulk-like powers. It’s the very epitome of the syndrome that Cracked.com memorably summarised as “You gotta fight this guy, Wolverine, because you both have similar melee tactics.”
So the Hulk and the Abomination face each other in New York, and they take it in turns hitting each other until one of them wins. Which one? Well, the Hulk of course, but only because it’s his movie. There is nothing really happening here — no in-universe reason why the conflict ends one way rather than the other. There’s no sense that any of what transpires is due to the elemental and unique nature of the Hulk, only that when the two big guys start hitting each other, the Hulk turns out to be slightly stronger.
So while the 2008 film is competent throughout, it does something I would hardly have thought possible, which is to make the Hulk sort of boring. I don’t know how much it’s due to lack of ambition on the writers’ part — maybe as an over-reaction to the 2003 movie’s inability to match its own aspirations. Or it might be a failure of charisma in the leads (Liv Tyler makes a better elf than she does a human). Or it might be more to do with the well-documented production problems, but the upshot of it all is a Hulk with no personality.
Which I suppose is why, even though this film is nominally part of the MCU (it was the second film in that universe, following Iron Man), it doesn’t feel like an MCU film. Its only narrative link with the others is a brief post-credits cameo from Tony Stark, but its non-MCU-ness goes much deeper than a lack of overlapping cast. It lacks the sharpness, the smartness, the pervasive wit of mainstream MCU. All of which explains why, when they came to make Avengers, they started all over again with yet another Hulk. But that’s for next time.