An outsider’s take on the Marvel Cinematic Universe: ‘The Incredible Hulk’ (2008) (Movie review)

This blog series chronicles my first viewing of the complete MCU movie saga. I’ll examine each film under various categories that reflect popular discussion points. Next up is the second film, “The Incredible Hulk” (2008):

STRENGTHS

I loved looking at this film and spending time in places like the slums of Brazil, where structures seem to be built atop each other (wouldn’t want to live there, wonderful to visit on screen). Later, the Big Apple looks delicious, whether it’s daytime shots of shop-laden streets or a helicopter approaching the nightscape. Cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. and the location scouts no doubt deserve credit, and so does composer Craig Armstrong for his Mark Snow-like approach of filling every second with music, but in a soothing way.

WEAKNESSES

Like “Superman Returns,” “Batman v Superman” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “Incredible Hulk” is one of those weird movies that’s a “sequel” to a backstory that was never actually captured on film. I’m not saying I wanted the Hulk’s origin story repeated – we had just seen a version of it in 2003’s “Hulk” – but I don’t understand why this couldn’t have been a straight sequel to that film. As it stands, we absorb the slightly altered backstory in flashbacks, which works fine in and of itself but might be confusing to people who remembered the ’03 film. (It’s unlikely anyone liked that god-awful movie; I’m just saying they might’ve remembered what happens in it.)

HEROES

It’s hard to not sympathize with the plight of Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner/Hulk, who is a fugitive because he is a living weapon — due to a lab accident, rather than something he did. I’m not really drawn to this superhero in a broad sense — his need to control his anger is blunt, whereas so many other fantasy yarns portray the light side/dark side conflict with nuance (Anakin/Vader, Angel/Angelus, etc.). But I do like Bruce. He’s easy to root for as he tries to stay calm, whether being harassed by racist Brazilians or attacked by the U.S. military that formerly employed him.

VILLAINS

General Ross (William Hurt, plus a mustache) is a clichéd single-minded military man who wants to reacquire what he sees as a weapon and what any halfway decent person sees as a human being. One of his soldiers, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), is a roid rage stereotype – what we might fear the Hulk would be in a really bad version of the story – and an equal for our hero to fight in the inevitable final brawl.

WOMEN

As with “Iron Man,” this is a man’s world in the sense that it’s mostly populated by men, not in the sense that it looks down on women. One of the high-ranking military officers is a woman, and while Betty Ross is in the typical supportive girlfriend role, Liv Tyler wonderfully portrays Betty’s pain and bravery. We feel like the stakes are as high for her as they are for Bruce, making this couple into a lower-grade answer to Sarah and Kyle in “The Terminator.” This film doesn’t come close to passing the Bechdel Test; I don’t think two women so much as look at each other.

MIRROR TO REALITY

Like in “Iron Man,” military weapons are a core theme, but it’s more comic-booky here (even though “Incredible Hulk” has richer real-world imagery). I agree with Tony Stark’s assertion to General Ross in the final tag that super-suits are much more practical than super-soldiers. At one point, a metadata program pinpoints Bruce’s location, and this was a bit before Snowden’s revelations, so a tip of the hat there. Dealing with anger is a universal human issue, but this film doesn’t offer a new take on it.

BEST ACTION SCENE

It’s a simple one, but I like the early sequence of Bruce being chased by Ross’ men across the Brazil rooftops and through the alleyways. While the special effects that come later look fine, I must admit I feel disconnected from the idea that Bruce and the Hulk are the same person. (I guess in a way they aren’t the same person, but you know what I mean.)

BEST COMEDIC MOMENT

The film’s tone is serious, but not gravely so. The light humor comes from riffs on the lore, such as Bruce trying to say the famous catchphrase in Portuguese but coming up with “You won’t like me when I’m hungry.” My vote, though, goes to Bruce’s rejection of the purple pants Betty gives him, even though they are the stretchiest pair she could find.

WORLD BUILDING

Here we see more of the U.S. military’s thirst for weapons, making them the most villainous organization in the MCU at this point, which is tastily subversive for a mainstream franchise. We see that S.H.I.E.L.D. is now fully integrated with the military, as that department’s metadata search tracks down Bruce. And Tony obviously accepted Nick Fury’s offer at the end of “Iron Man,” because he is a recruiter himself now, hoping to add Bruce as a teammate in what will eventually be the Avengers (yeah, I’ve caught a few spoilers).

FINAL THOUGHTS/EXPECTATIONS

I liked living in this film in terms of its locations more than I enjoyed the story, which is free of surprises, and is probably why I’ve heard this movie derisively called “Passable Hulk” rather than “Incredible Hulk.” Still, I would follow Norton’s Bruce Banner into more films, although I’m aware this is it for him (Mark Ruffalo, another fine actor, takes the baton for future entries). Overall, this is an enjoyable homework assignment in Hulk lore.


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