General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross once met with Dr. Bruce Banner, the boyfriend of his daughter, Betty, with an interesting proposition. Ross aims to recreate the results of a World War II-era program in order to create an army of super soldiers. Had it been successful, he would’ve found a way to make humans immune to gamma radiation. Unfortunately, the experiment failed, and the radiation caused Banner to transform into a giant, raging beast for brief periods whenever his heart rate exceeds 200 beats per minute. Five years have passed since that day, and Banner now works at a bottling factory in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro. He is determined to seek a cure for his condition, secretly corresponding with an unidentified individual known as Mr. Blue. He has not transformed in five months, but his peaceful existence is not to last.
Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk wasn’t the first blockbuster feature to feature Marvel’s enraged green giant. Ang Lee, fresh off his successful wuxia film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, tried his hand at adapting the famous superhero five years prior in a feature simply entitled Hulk. Despite being a commercial success, it was met with a mixed reception. Detractors were not pleased with the fact that the title character barely featured in the film at all. Instead, it was a completely serious, introspective drama that had a negative view of the human condition. The central conflict revolved around Bruce Banner’s deep-seated issues with his father, and most critics agreed that when the film introduced the Hulk, he was jarringly out of place. You would get this slow-paced drama suddenly bombarded with over-the-top action sequences. The Hulk had been no stranger to his fair share of dramatic stories, but Mr. Lee’s adaptation tended to suffer because it ultimately couldn’t decide what kind of film it wanted to be.
In light of this, The Incredible Hulk could be seen as the kind of film fans of the character had been waiting for all along. While certainly dramatic in its own right, one scene early on practically winks to the audience, letting them know what they’re in for is far more in line with the comics.
Dr. Banner, despite possessing one of the more brilliant minds on Earth, is a little rusty in his Portuguese. His attempts to speak it result in him amusingly butchering the character’s catchphrase.
Despite being unrelated to Ang Lee’s Hulk, this film operates under the assumption that the audience is passingly familiar with Bruce Banner and his backstory. His origin is shown in a scant few flashbacks and the film doesn’t begin in earnest until he is in Brazil. Although The Incredible Hulk isn’t nearly as dark as Ang Lee’s adaptation, it does manage to be dour in its own right. Leading man Edward Norton was a fan of the character, and, true to form, would end up rewriting Zak Penn’s script to make the film capture the spirit of the comics.
The Hulk makes his first appearance after Banner gets in a fight with a gang of belligerent factory workers. He doesn’t settle for merely rending these men unconscious either; he throws them through multiple solid objects. Even if the film equivocates when it comes to whether or not he actually killed them, they were, at best, critically injured. In his first few appearances, the Hulk is cast in many hard shadows, depriving the audience a chance to get a good look at him. Nonetheless, the sheer power this entity wields is undeniable, and anyone who gets in his way is done for. In this respect, one could consider The Incredible Hulk a horror film in which audiences are meant to root for the monster.
Although Mr. Leterrier’s adaptation is quite a bit different from Mr. Lee’s, there is one strange commonality between them: father issues. Banner himself lacks them, but Betty Ross develops quite a bit of antipathy toward her own father. It’s perfectly understandable; her father insists on hunting down Banner and reproducing the results to create an army of super soldiers. Therefore, quite a lot of destruction sown by Banner when he is the Hulk is General Ross’s fault. He may not be outright evil, but he clearly has poor judgement.
What I like about how this pans out is that the public isn’t completely on General Ross’s side. The most striking example is when, the man Betty is currently dating, Leonard Samson, sees the military attempting to carpet-bomb the Hulk. It was a refreshing change of pace seeing him draw the correct conclusion: the Hulk saved Betty from the explosions. Interestingly, Samson was to be characterized as the same kind of boorish character Ty Burrell portrayed in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dawn remake before Mr. Norton rewrote the part. I’m personally thankful for this change because outsiders immediately being against the monstrous protagonist and giving the military the information they need to track them down was overdone even in 2008.
Though the Hulk is put through many trials and tribulations, things don’t get completely out of control until he comes face to face with the Abomination. After a Russian-born officer of the Royal marines Commandos lent to General Ross named Emil Blonsky desires Hulk’s powers, he willingly injects himself with several serums to give him superhuman durability. With them, he is able to recover from one of the Hulk’s attacks, which leave his bones resembling loose gravel, and eventually transforms into the Abomination. The ensuing fight is appropriately intense with Hulk uttering the immortal words “Hulk smash!” before proceeding to defeat the Abomination handily. Betty pleads with Hulk to spare Blonsky’s life, causing him to back down and eventually flee New York.
Although The Incredible Hulk has a fairly basic plot, there is one moment that left audiences in shock. Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with any of the action sequences, but rather the mere fact that they saw Robert Downey Jr. enter one of the final scenes of the film. This wasn’t meant to be an elaborate gag that references his role as the title character in Iron Man; he is, in fact, Tony Stark here. He then causally mentions to General Ross that a team is being put together. It’s nothing special now, but back then, audiences had no reason to believe these two films took place in the same universe – even if they were both Marvel properties. They wouldn’t know it at the time, but what they just witnessed was a mere prelude for things to come.
Though still possessing an overall dark tone – particularly when compared to the recently-released Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk manages to be a bit closer to what fans wanted than Ang Lee’s interpretation. That does make it more of a worthwhile watch, though despite offering an interesting story beat here and there, The Incredible Hulk is a standard example of its genre. I can certainly see fans of action films enjoying it, but everyone else will likely be left underwhelmed. Still, while it certainly wasn’t the coup that Iron Man managed to be, the modest success of The Incredible Hulk ensured the shared universe would spawn many more sequels. This eventually led to the formation one of the most ambitious projects in cinematic history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. By this point, its impact speaks for itself, but whether or not you want to experience those first small steps towards greatness firsthand is up to you.
Final Score: 6/10