Two months after Iron Man released, Marvel Studios released their second feature film, through Universal Pictures. The Incredible Hulk released in June of 2008, and out of all the MCU movies, this one feels the most separated from the rest. Besides William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross and Robert Downey Jr. making a cameo at the end of the film, pretty much nobody from this movie’s cast has ever re-appeared in an MCU movie. But let’s start from the beginning.
Back in 2003, Universal Pictures released Hulk. Although Hulk was a financial success at the time, it received mixed reviews from both critics and audiences for bad CGI (which hasn’t aged well either), slow pacing and a bit of a melodramatic tone. Shortly after the movie’s mild success, Marvel Studios re-acquired the rights to the Hulk’s cinematic releases. However, they still gave Universal distribution rights to the Hulk’s solo movies, something they still hold today. That’s a major reason why there haven’t been any further Hulk movies in the MCU since.
I wasn’t able to find too many good gifs of this movie with a quick Google images search, so I’m throwing in a couple gifs from 2003’s Hulk, the 70’s TV show, and even one from the 90’s animated Hulk series. I hope you don’t mind.
At the time of 2003’s Hulk release, screenwriter James Schamus was planning a sequel featuring the Grey Hulk and possibly The Leader and Abonination as villains. Marvel Studios kept the Abomination as the villain, seeing how he would be an actual threat to the Hulk. They opted for a different universe than 2003’s Hulk to, in Kevin Feige’s words, begin “really starting the Marvel Hulk franchise”. Director Louis Leterrier originally wanted to direct Iron Man, but when Jon Favreau took the helm, Marvel offered Leterrier Incredible Hulk instead. Leterrier was reluctant, unsure if he could replicate Ang Lee’s style (Ang Lee directed 2003’s Hulk), until Marvel explained that wasn’t their intent. Considering how unorthodox Ang Lee’s cinematography in Hulk was, that’s probably a good thing.
Early on, they aimed for a tone similar to the 70’s Incredible Hulk TV show and Bruce Jones’ run in the comics. The movie borrowed several elements from the original script for 2003’s Hulk, including one scene where Bruce jumps out of a helicopter to trigger the hulk. Marvel also decided to go with an entirely new cast to separate it from 2003’s Hulk, even if the movie borrowed some elements from it. Instead of retelling Hulk’s origin story, they breezed over it in a flashback during the credits. Edward Norton entered talks to portray Bruce Banner shortly after they began pre-production, and involved himself with fixing up the script. Norton’s influence had SHEILD’s presence toned down, he removed Rick Jones entirely, and he came up with the scene where he tried to create a cure from a rare flower. Although Norton rewrote scenes pretty much every day during filming, the Writers Guild of America decided to give Zak Penn the sole writing credit, arguing that Norton didn’t dramatically change his script.
Fun fact, director Leterrier worked on four units while dealing with a broken foot.
Shooting for the film mainly took place in Toronto Canada, partly because the mayor at the time, David Miller, was a huge Hulk fan. He promised to help the crew with closing some of the major streets for four nights to film the climax. Even the Brazilian bottling factory at the start of the film was shot in a condemned factory in Hamilton, which isn’t all that far from Toronto (only a 55 minute drive, compared to the 19 hour drive it takes to get from Ottawa, Ontario to Thunder Bay, Ontario). Seriously, you can fit the entirety of the UK into Ontario four times, and it’s not even Canada’s biggest province.
Anyway, another fun fact. The Incredible Hulk’s film crew joined the Toronto Green-Screen initiative, to help cut carbon emissions during filming. They figured that with the Hulk being green, they might as well try to go green for filming as well. For example, they used hybrid vehicles with low sulfur diesel as their energy source. They used locally sourced yellow pine for their sets instead of shipping in lauan wood. All the wood was recycled and donated to various construction projects. The Incredible Hulk became the first blockbuster film to receive the Environmental Media Association’s Green Seal, which is displayed during the end credits.
During editing, seventy minutes of footage was cut. A lot of the filmed backstory was never properly scripted, and they were never sure if they wanted it in the final cut to begin with. They considered releasing some of those clips on the internet instead. Some of the footage was used in the opening montage. There was one scene where Banner travelled to the arctic to commit suicide. When that scene ended, you could see the frozen body of Captain America, but that moment wasn’t included in the final montage. Leterrier didn’t want that shot lost amid the montage – it would have been too important, so they just cut it.
Both Leterrier and Norton wanted the film to be around 135 minutes, while the producers wanted the movie to be less than 2 hours. This dispute went public, and rumors spread that Norton wouldn’t cooperate with publicity plans if he wasn’t happy with the cut. Norton dismissed this however, saying that the rumors greatly exaggerated the debate.
Like The Hulk before it, The Incredible Hulk was a mild success, taking in $263 million on a $150 million budget. It received a 67% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 6.2/10. Roger Ebert was not a fan, stating “The Incredible Hulk is no doubt an ideal version of the Hulk Saga for those who found Ang Lee’s Hulk too talky, or dare I say, too thoughtful. But not for me.” The New York Post review however praised the action scenes. The Seattle Times said that it’s an improvement over 2003’s Hulk, but noted that the CGI wasn’t great either. Their reviewer also complained that The Hulk rarely talked, but that’s actually appropriate for the Hulk’s earlier appearances, so I’m not sure what that complaint is about.
Personally, this is my least favourite of the phase one MCU movies. It’s not bad by any means. The focus on Bruce’s search for a cure works on a dramatic level, and Edward Norton does a good job as Bruce Banner. The fight scene between the Hulk and Abomination is fun to watch. And although the CGI is nowhere nearly as good as the Hulk’s appearances in Avengers and his other appearances since, it’s at least competent here. That said, even with its shorter running length (112 minutes), the movie still feels slow at times. It feels a bit melodramatic as well, even if not as much as 2003’s Hulk movie.
The casting is a bit uneven as well. Norton is fine as Bruce Banner, Tim Roth gives us the right level of intensity for the soldier who eventually became Abomination, and Hurt is great as Thunderbolt Ross. That said, the love story can only be as good as its cast, and Liv Tyler as Betty Ross is just ok. She never feels like the scientist that she’s supposed to be. With the exception of an amusing scene where she gets really angry at a taxi driver, her performances are a bit wooden. I remember this one internet critic video saying that Tyler’s kind of made a career of staring at things, and that’s kind of true. Again not a bad performance, but not a good one either.
And as much as Norton is good as Bruce Banner, I can’t help but think that Eric Bana put in a more balanced performance in the role back in 2003. For that matter, Jennifer Connelly was much better as Betty Ross. For all of Hulk 2003’s faults, the casting and acting was fairly good across the board.
I’m not sure what else to say about this one. There’s a chance that after this blogathon, I might eventually look back at some of the pre-MCU Marvel movies (there’s no way I’ll ever watch all of them), and if I do, 2003’s Hulk is worth looking back on.
Next up is 2010’s Iron Man 2, followed by Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. We all know what movie came next – the movie that nobody ever though could be made. It feels a bit silly now, but I remember when we were all amazed that The Avengers movie could even be possible. Now we’ve got 3 Avengers movies already released (4 if you include Captain America: Civil War), and other crossovers in-between them. It’s already feeling neat looking back at the early days of the MCU and seeing how far it’s come.