The Incredible Hulk (2008): Revisiting Edward Norton’s Only MCU Movie

Current fans of the MCU have come to know Dr. Bruce Banner a.k.a The Hulk as a friendly, wise cracking, selfie taking, and athleisure wearing supporting muscle for the other avengers. But before he was making cocktails and…babies- the Hulk was once an extremely complicated and emotionally unpredictable character who you could not trust with a hard taco.

And while we all really hope to see Mark Ruffalo’s take on the character to eventually get his own headlining outing, we must also remember that the MCU does indeed have a solo Hulk film. A film about a man who’s terrified of his own powers and is forced to live in isolation in order to protect EVERYONE. And while it’s certainly a departure from the less complex version we have in the MCU today- This movie is set in the same continuity, and sets up all the context for the Hulk’s initial involvement in the Avengers. 

The Incredible Hulk came out in 2008, shortly after Iron Man and fans were intrigued to see what Marvel would do with the character after the failed adaption released just 5 years before it. Now, the Hulk may be a household name nowadays, but similar to Iron Man, this was a character that was not as widely known by non-comic book readers. With Robert Downey Jr. being the one to kick off the MCU, Marvel wanted an established A-List actor with box office draw to take on the mantle of their next Avenger. Louis Leterrier cited the Hulk Grey comic book title as his key inspiration for the film. The comic book was a modern retelling of the character’s origin and included more dark materiel to match today’s audiences. When Marvel approached Edward Norton, he insisted on re-writing the script to suit his own ideas of the character. Leterrier recalled this in an interview for the movie stating quote:

Edward’s script has given Bruce’s character real gravitas. Admittedly, I’m not the most adult director, but just because we’re making a superhero movie, it doesn’t have to appeal to just 13-year-old boys. Ed and I both see superheroes as the new Greek Gods.

And had this film gone differently behind the scenes, Edward Norton would still be the Hulk to this day. I got to admit- I have mixed feelings about that thought. But with Iron Man being a smash hit with critics and fans, Marvel was hard at work at fast tracking production on their other properties. The Hulk, of course, has been seen in live action before with the hit TV 1970’s TV series starring Lou Farigno, and the 2003 live action adaptation by ang Lee simply titled “HULK”. This movie doesn’t break any new ground but in many ways this is the closest thing to an MCU solo Hulk movie that we’re going to get. See, the film rights to the Hulk are not actually owned by Marvel, even though they do have the rights to the character still, so we’re able to get team up movies like Thor Ragnarok and The Avengers without Disney being able to fully devote a solo title to the big guy.

But as always, what’s important here is how this movie holds up all these years later. 

So, let’s all take a deep breath and grab our scratchiest pants, and let’s get into 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.

The Incredible Hulk stars Edward Norton as the titular green giant green hero. It was directed by Now You See Me and Fast X director Louis Leterrier. It’s the second film ever to enter the MCU and despite having different actors in the role, the movie is cannon to the original MCU timeline. Meaning, this is still our current Hulk and this story is very much part of the life and times of this guy.

This movie doesn’t waste time re-treading hulk’s origin which we saw in And Lee’s 2003 take on the film- but it does utilize the opening credit sequence to recap how Bruce gets his powers and how he almost kills Betty Ross (the love of his life and daughter to general Ross) after the first time he hulks out. 

The sequence is similar in tone to the Sam Raimi Spider Man movies which did the same sort of recap of the previous film’s events in the opening titles.

It’s worth mentioning that Banner’s comic book origin is slightly different. The Hulk was debuted in 1962 in his very own comic book series called- ready for it?- the Incredible Hulk- created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The original version of the character suffered from Dissociative Personality Disorder with the Hulk being Banner’s alter ego. It’s a similar situation to the idea of Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde. And this movie does attempt to make a more somber and dark Bruce Banner as he resents and fears his alter ego and doesn’t see it as something to be used, but subdued. 

So, Banner is living off the grid after the incident that nearly killed Betty, played by Liv Tyler in this movie which definitely adds points. He’s living in Brazil in a minimal apartment with minimal accommodations and working a job that provides minimal stress. He’s also taking martial arts lessons and learning to control his rage through intense breathing exercises. The goal is for him to stay off the American government’s radar long enough to find a cure for his condition. Now, this movie’s tone is slightly different than what we’ve come to expect from Marvel. It’s not ultra dark or anything, but it certainly takes itself more seriously. I do love some of the smaller details in the movie though, like Bruce’s heart rate monitor and how you can hear it beeping every time his blood pressure goes up. That’s a nice touch. 

Bruce works as a maintenance guy at a soda bottling factory in Brazil and when he accidentally lets his blood drop into a bottle, Stan Lee drinks it and the afecta lead to the government tracking down Bruce’s hideout in Brazil. It’s about 20 minutes into the movie where we get our first Hulk transformation. When General Ross and his right-hand man Emile Blonsky played by the legendary Tim Roth, get to Banner, he’s forced to Hulk out in order to escape. 

I really like this action scene as a whole and while I also enjoy that they tease us with small glimpses of the hulk, it goes on for way too long. They have like 6 teasers in a row before showing the first hero shot and for me it could’ve been trimmed down a bit.

Edward Norton the Incredible Hulk 2008

Bruce needs to escape and head back to the United States to meet with Mr Blue, an anonymous scientist that is aware of Bruce’s radiation poisoning and claims to be able to cure him. I’m order to get the information they need, Bruce needs the help of his once lover, Betty Ross. Bruce accidentally runs into Betty with her new man and the couple are reunited shortly after.

Betty was one of Bruce’s colleagues who helped him with the radiation experiment, and she’s since continued her work and moved on to find love with the dad from Modern Family– who by the way is just so much fun to watch in the scenes he’s in.

Bruce seeks the help of an old friend who owns a pizzeria to help him gain access to some of the lab work he needs. This is probably the silliest scene because of how silly it feels in the midst of this otherwise serious story. Also, Martin Starr is in this scene right here, and he’s also a teacher in Spider-Man’s homecoming trilogy. So… does that mean that he’s the same person?

Now, you’d think this would be more complicated considering that Betty’s father is the one hunting him, but the movie doesn’t waste any time, they just say Betty hasn’t spoken to her father in years and that’s that. I’m actually a little bit disappointed in the approach to this relationship. I think when you have an interesting angle like the villain being related to a supporting hero character, there should be some recourse to that and there should be some grey area to experiment with. But alas, nothing comes from it.

The movie does have a few fun Easter eggs and homages that nowadays would seem standard but at the time we’re really fun. We see things like Lou Farigno making a cameo, a joke about the purple pants, and more.

Betty and Bruce meet with Mr Blue played by Tim Blake Nelson who I’m always happy to see in a movie. Blue attempts to cure Bruce and unfortunately is unsuccessful, meanwhile, General Ross is already hard at work giving Blonsky a dose of radiation serum to make him sort of a super soldier. But Blonsky, of course, wants more power if he’s going to go up against the Hulk. He threatens Blue to give him a bigger dose and we get to witness our first look at everyone’s favorite Shang-Chi cameo- the Abomination. Also, Liv Tyler is set to reprise her role in Captain America: Brave New World!

My biggest problem with this movie is a similar problem that I have with many of Marvel’s movies both pre and post MCU- and that’s the plot. This movie’s story is extremely generic and has become somewhat of a templated story for marvel. The government or a corporation wants to use the hero’s power to misuse it and they resort to creating a bad guy with the same powers as the good guy to make them fight.

There’s just no flavor and even though I like the design of this version of the hulk, and I think the cast is almost completely ideal (I still like Ruffalo as Banner more than Norton) the movie just doesn’t offer you anything you can’t get from any superhero movie. 

Once we get to the movie’s final battle, the only thing we want to see is the hulk smashing into shit while abomination goes fully berserk. And in that, this movie delivers. The final conflict includes my favorite Hulk transformation yet as Bruce throws himself out of a helicopter and hopes to transform before he hits the ground- which he does- and it’s awesome.

I’m the end, the hulk wins and goes back off the grid to continue searching for a cure, or at least, learning to control the rage and power inside of him. 

So really, the movie ends exactly where it began. Bruce is on the run, and no closer to returning home. Internet review of Iron Man, I called this movie forgettable. And it is. I’m not saying I don’t like it, but I am saying that it doesn’t matter. Nothing that happens really affects anything. I would’ve loved to see a Hulk movie that committed to the duality of Bruce and Hulk. A movie that dared to be bold and experiment with the strange and dark journey of a man who is, despite being a hero, completely unwell. 

The Incredible Hulk is a relatively successful and generally inoffensive superhero movie that looks pretty good and has solid acting performances. It’s not as punk rock as iron man and it doesn’t have the heart of Guardians of the Galaxy but it does work as a functional story in the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe. And for me, that’s good enough.

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