The time has finally arrived to discuss the only solo Hulk film in the entire MCU, and why I think it is severely underrated.
The circumstances surrounding this film’s conception are absolutely fascinating to me, and I think are worth remembering. Having released the infamous Howard the Duck in 1986, Marvel Studios sold the rights to their arguably most prolific characters to stay afloat, including Spider-Man, and The X-Men. Our primary focus today is on Bruce Banner/The Hulk, who was purchased by Universal Studios for a seemingly undisclosed amount. Their plan was to launch into a solo Hulk venture as soon as possible, but the project promptly entered Development Hell, where it remained for a solid decade. In all that time the script went through various re-writes and producers, before it finally came to director Ang Lee in 2001.
2003’s Hulk featured Eric Banna as the titular character and details his origin story, along with the negative relationship he has with his father. The film also stars Jennifer Connelly as Betty Ross and Sam Elliot as her father General Thaddeus Ross, with Nick Nolte portraying Bruce’s father David, who eventually becomes The Absorbing Man. Hulk was criticised for not providing enough action in its 140 minute runtime, and for the exceptionally flat CGI of The Hulk himself. This film ends with the Ross’ relationship frayed and Bruce on the run, but it’s where we go from here that interests me. Hulk isn’t essential viewing. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I watched it. But it is still semi-relevant to the MCU’s Incredible Hulk. This film acts as a pseudo-sequel to its predecessor, but without any of the same crew, or indeed any canonicity to the MCU. The Incredible Hulk follows General Ross as he continues to hunt down Bruce whilst remaining mildly estranged from his daughter which seems to follow on directly from Hulk. The opening credits montage even details some of the events of Hulk, although the method through which Bruce is exposed to Gamma Radiation is different. His father is never mentioned, the CGI is noticeably better, and the film doesn’t hold any of Ang Lee’s unique visual stylings, so you could easily not notice how sequel-y The Incredible Hulk is.
If you want a more complex introduction to these characters then Hulk is probably worth a watch, but Incredible Hulk manages to condense all that story down into the aforementioned opening credits montage and through the context within the film. Kevin Feige made it very clear that he wasn’t interested in telling the origin story of a character that the majority of people already knew, and I think he made the right call. It allows for more focus on the characters, including the villains. As events unfold, General Ross hires Royal Marine Emil Blonsky and injects him with a failed recreation of the Super Soldier Serum given to Steve Rogers during World War 2, which leads to him becoming a Hulk-like creature called The Abomination. The contrast between Blonsky and Bruce Banner is central to the plot, with Blonsky obsessed with holding an amount of power that Banner wishes he’d never been given (technically stolen). The film has been criticised for being slow in places, but I think that if any hero deserves a little time to have their psyche explored, it’s The Hulk.
Bruce Banner is a man with a terrific amount of intellect, who could be winning Nobel Prizes but is instead unable to be a part of society because he could become a genuine threat at any moment. Chronologically, this is the 5th film in the MCU, and so far we have had two superpowered individuals, and one billionaire, who can easily settle into normal lives should they choose to. They have control over their abilities, and weapons in the case of Stark, but Bruce Banner doesn’t. He doesn’t have a superpower, he has a curse, and the film does a brilliant job of displaying that. Occasionally the film verges on psychological thriller, although it remains an action film at its core. To me, The Hulk has always been one of the most interesting characters because of this. He isn’t just a green rage monster that smashes things, he is a man desperately trying to prevent himself from becoming so much of a threat that he has to be taken out.
The biggest complaint I’ve seen levied at The Incredible Hulk is that it isn’t relevant or important enough to be included in your MCU marathon because nothing really carries over. To be honest with you, it’s a narrative that I am sick of seeing. Just because it doesn’t have major ramifications in the wider universe doesn’t make it not-worthwhile. Stating that it isn’t worth watching because it doesn’t matter is reductive, and kills any genuine conversation that could be had about the film. Also, the claim that it doesn’t matter in the MCU is becoming less true by the day. General Thaddeus Ross would go on to reappear 8 years later in Captain America: Civil War as well as several subsequent appearances. If it turns out that Marvel is working towards a “Thunderbolts” movie like many have theorised, then he will suddenly become one of the franchise’s key players. Betty Ross doesn’t reappear, although she is mentioned, and the super-habit of going on the run and hiding in a cabin in the woods makes its debut here. Perhaps the most unavoidable, and most exciting, is that The Abomination is set to return in the upcoming She-Hulk television series which is a direct part of the MCU. However, we are still to see Dr Samuel Sterns again, who in the comics went on to become The Red Leader which is set up here.
I also want to talk about the appearance of Tony Stark during the climax of this film, because that is super important. Iron Man stands on its own as the very first film in the MCU, but it is not solely responsible for building that world. The first time this world is built upon is right here, during the final scene of The Incredible Hulk where Stark approaches Ross at a bar to inform him that SHIELD is putting a team together. If you want to create a movement, then that first person is important, but so is the first person who follows their lead. It gives a thing validity, and I refuse to just let The Incredible Hulk‘s place in history be forgotten about because it “isn’t that important to the larger story”. Once you’ve finished watching this film, then the Marvel One Shot The Consultant is a must watch. It provides a really important piece of context to that final scene, as well as giving us an answer to where exactly The Abomination ended up.
As you can probably tell, I have a massive soft spot for The Incredible Hulk, and I kind of struggle to understand why it has received the level of hate within this fanbase that it has. It wasn’t received poorly upon its release, has a 7.7 rating on IMDB, and is sitting with an audience score of 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, so clearly the film is at least average. I suspect that there is this real belief with some fans that any MCU film that is less than perfect is bad, although that is something I have noticed about fanbases in general, and I will just never subscribe to that way of thinking. I really hope that people revisit it in light of the She-Hulk series and that we can begin end this frankly toxic view that seems to be prevalent in some corners of film criticism. In my humble opinion, The Incredible Hulk has always been one of the finest pieces of underappreciated media and I look forward to re-visiting it soon.