The Incredible Hulk (2008) – The Road to the Avengers
This article is part two of an ongoing feature on my blog, “The Road to the Avengers“, which hopes to convey my thoughts on the current films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, culminating on my thoughts of The Avengers when it is released on Friday, May 4th.
The Incredible Hulk takes the brunt of the critical hate in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The majority of the complaints boil down to “all action, no story”, but I respectfully disagree. But what makes me appreciate the film so much more than the critics out there? Louis Leterrier’s film does ramp up the action compared to Ang Lee’s more introspective origin story but I find it hard to say that the film has no story. Before I really delve into the critical perception of the film, I’ll talk about my thoughts.
The opening credits of this film are beautifully done, allowing attentive viewers to partially inform their knowledge of the Hulk’s backstory in record time. Not to mention there’s a throwaway glance at a “Stark Industries” tie-in and Director Fury’s name pops up too. I think the Rio de Janeiro sequence in this film really gives roots to Banner’s story — he desperately searches for a way to eradicate the beast within him, but while he searches he attempts to contain the beast with meditation. He’s clearly unhappy with his circumstances, he doesn’t want to be a recluse, but General Ross’ determination to harness the Hulk and his power for the US Army forces Banner to live a solitary life, at least until he can lose the Hulk. The first action set-piece and chase through the favela is well executed without falling victim to the “chaos cinema” of the past few years, it’s actually possible for the viewer to follow the action and I thank Leterrier for not shaky-cam-ing the film to death.
Bruce’s journey back to the fictional Culver University is intercut with a more backstory with General Ross and Blonsky’s decision to utilize the Super Soldier Serum. There’s one scene, however, that really pulled at my heartstrings. When Betty catches a glance at Bruce in Stanley’s restaurant and runs through the kitchen to the back alley where Bruce is hiding behind the dumpster and the music swells, you can really feel Betty’s love for Bruce and Bruce’s love for Betty as the pained expression falls over his face when she calls out for him in the night. I think the score in this film is criminally underrated, including its call-backs to the Bruce Bixby TV series. Wrapping up the second act, we’ve got the Hulk-out at Culver University where Betty gets her first real glance at the monster that Bruce can become, and General Ross almost kills his daughter while the monster he seeks to cage saves her life. I think that’s a really poignant moment, and Leterrier shows some skill in providing exposition even in the action sequences in the film when one is willing to pay attention to the subtext, or even the text in this case, seeing as how Ty Burrell’s character brings it up to Ross in the next scene.
In the third act, Mr. Green and Mr. Blue finally meet and attempt to eradicate the Hulk himself. Samuel Sterns is an interesting character, a Hulk fanatic of sorts, who is eager to apply Bruce’s gamma radiation poisoning to the common man about as much as General Ross, albeit for completely different reasons. Sterns calls Bruce’s affliction “Promethean Fire” with which illnesses of any kind could be obliterated. I think this complimentary character to Ross doesn’t get enough time in the film, which could be due to the fact that 70 minutes of film ended up on the cutting room floor and Norton/Leterrier wanted a 135 minute cut where the studios wanted a sub 120 minute cut of the film. Also, Sterns ultimately receives some Bruce blood, possibly suggesting his transformation to “The Leader” for future Hulk films, but that can be discussed later.The final action sequence in the film is the Hulk’s fight with the Abomination. I think the Abomination provides a good villain for the Hulk but also follows a similar formula to that of Iron Man (2008) — essentially the Hulk fights a version of himself in the end of the film but the special effects are fantastic and the “choreography” is great. We get a few Hulk staples – the thunderclap and of course, “HULK SMASH!”, so it’s hard not to walk away from this fight satisfied. The movie ends with a shot of Bruce’s ability to control his Hulk outbursts and a quick cameo by Tony Stark himself, which we’ll talk about shortly.
Attempting to Explain the Critical Response
I’d like to hope that my thoughts/recap above already flies in the face of the fact that critics thought the film was lax on story. But I think the majority of the complaints come in the wake of the “surprise” success of Iron Man. Released a month and a half later than Iron Man, Bruce’s lack of a clearly defined character arc could be really detrimental when Tony Stark’s wonderfully written character arc is fresh in your mind. But the film is about more than a transition for Bruce, it’s about the struggle for control of his body. He plays slave to an “enormous green rage monster” (thank you, Mr. Stark, for the phrase) who prevents him not only from being with the woman he loves but also from leading a normal life in the first place. Not to mention there’s people like General Ross (and Sterns, as I said earlier) who seek to use him as guinea pig, which, if done haphazardly, could be extremely dangerous for those involved. How is all of that not compelling? I think Leterrier’s Hulk received a bad rap in the wake of Favreau’s Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk didn’t find the fans it deserved while in theaters (myself included, I sadly never saw it on the big screen).
I think intelligent viewers could really pull a lot more out of this film than the critics clearly did. Maybe this is the comic book fan inside me wanting to give Leterrier and Norton more credit than they deserve, but to borrow a phrase from the wonderful Joss Whedon (pictured right):
All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend. Art isn’t your pet — it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.
Personally I feel it’s unreasonable to have the viewer do the heavy lifting when experiencing a story but I don’t think that’s a category that The Incredible Hulk falls within. I don’t find that my love of the film took a lot of labor in filling in story which a select group of critics (I suppose they would be the minority) felt was not there. So maybe these complaints shouldn’t be taken so seriously. However, even some Marvel employees think there was something wrong with The Incredible Hulk. Marvel’s “President of Consumer Products”, Paul Glitter, revealed in a Forbes interview recently that he finally feels like the Hulk will be in a good place for a sequel post-Avengers:
His sales are up in a major way. We repositioned him from where he was always misunderstood to now depicting him in a more heroic and aspirational manner.
The Hulk is “misunderstood” in their eyes. I think they’re correct in that assumption, seeing as how there were a lot of people who thought the film was all action flare with no substance behind it. Maybe Whedon’s Banner/Hulk will make me realize what could be wrong with Leterrier/Norton’s rendition. Only time will tell. Speaking of The Avengers…
The Incredible Hulk in Relation to The Avengers and the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Alright. It’s no secret that Edward Norton is not in The Avengers. Yeah, I was pretty disappointed at that fact as well. The bigger issue is what does The Incredible Hulk mean to The Avengers with this discontinuous portrayal of Bruce Banner? I think the answer to this question lies in what Marvel and Marvel Studios have done to temper the film’s ties to the universe. So Iron Man had Agent Coulson, Director Fury, and a little more SHIELD action in it than The Incredible Hulk, but The Incredible Hulk also has a little Iron Man in it. Schematics for Ross’s sonic blasters are shown as courtesy of Stark Industries, and the SHIELD logo and Director Fury’s name pop up a few times. But the real universe legwork comes in the form of a scene at the end of the film depicting Stark approaching General Ross about the Avengers initiative. Under the context of the film, one may assume that Stark hopes to retrive the Hulk for SHIELD’s use with the help of Ross, but Marvel Studios seems to have (somewhat ingeniously) ret-conned the meaning of the scene with a special feature on the Thor (2011) blu-ray. The Consultant shows what leads to Tony’s appearance in The Incredible Hulk and a little bit of what follows. The one-shot makes a bit more sense, post Iron Man 2 (2010), as to why Stark is referred to as “The Consultant”, but overall it shows you that Marvel essentially rendered the scene useless, showing that Stark was employed to deliberately force Ross to refuse a misguided request to use the Abomination on the Avengers. It’s ingeniously written around the facts of what have been presented in the movies released prior to the short and can be appreciated on that level.
Other than a big, open reference to Sterns becoming “the Leader” in the third act (which apparently is being dealt with in “Fury’s Big Week”, a miniseries comic prequel to The Avengers) there aren’t a lot of large ties to the Cinematic Universe, leaving Marvel somewhat free to do what they wish with the Hulk in the future. Obviously, if a second Marvel Studios Hulk film presents itself (as Kevin Feige suggests it will), Marvel will need to decide whether they’ll tiptoe around the existing elements in The Incredible Hulk or if they’ll remove its canon status to open up the possibilities (e.g. reuse the Abomination and Samuel Sterns), but that bridge will be crossed when we get to it.
The Incredible Hulk is an entirely underrated film. The struggle within Bruce Banner is portrayed fantastically, with a moving score and great direction. Some critics may disagree, but I hope those of you reading agree. I’ll see you tomorrow for a write-up of Iron Man 2.