The Incredible Hulk (2008)

"As far as I'm concerned, that man's whole body is property of the U.S. army." -- Gen. Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt)

While I was there to see Iron Man on opening day on May 2, 2008, I was decidedly not there to watch The Incredible Hulk on the day it opened six weeks later on June 13, 2008. In retrospect, I have to question why The Incredible Hulk was even made — the demand for a movie about the Hulk character was just not there, frankly. Five years before the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the great director Ang Lee — who has since gone on to win two Best Director Oscars — made Hulk in 2003, which was a disaster on just about every front. Though critical reception was lukewarm, with 62% of critics liking the movie, just 29% of more than 400,000 audience members liked it, according to Rotten Tomatoes. Needless to say, another Hulk movie was going to be a tough sell just five years later with so many of its potential viewers having hated the previous one.

Yet with Marvel making the transition to an actual production company and making its films in-house, it had its eyes set on making The Avengers, and the Hulk, like it or not, is one of the Avengers. Still, just because Marvel was taking greater creative and financial control over movies based on their characters doesn’t mean it made sense to do this movie — I don’t really buy that fewer people would have showed up to see The Avengers if the 2003 Hulk hadn’t been “corrected” first with this movie. One of the central problems is that this version isn’t an origin story, since that’s what the 2003 version was. Instead, the 2008 version of The Incredible Hulk begins with Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) already on the run and off the grid, living in faraway Rio de Janeiro, training himself to control his pulse so that he doesn’t turn into the Hulk.

close-up shot of the incredible hulk's angry face in the dark

There’s an opening credits sequence that’s basically there to kinda sorta catch you up on the events of the first film, though of course the original actors have been swapped out, so it’s also as if the 2003 Hulk never happened. In the context of the MCU, this clearly isn’t ideal — the film definitely doesn’t feel as pertinent as a result. You know you’re not watching an origin story since he’s already the Hulk, but you also are supposed to ignore what you have seen before. Considering the circumstances, I’m not sure they really could have done anything else, but that still doesn’t mean any of what transpires on screen needs to happen at all. More disappointingly, Edward Norton was dropped in favor of Mark Ruffalo by the time The Avengers actually arrived four years later, so in retrospect, making this movie was pretty much a waste.

The only actor in The Incredible Hulk that resurfaces in later MCU installments is William Hurt — here, he is General Ross, but he returns as Secretary of State Ross in Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019). Actually, that’s not quite true: Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) actually shows up to talk to General Ross at the very end of the film, just before the credits roll. It’s Marvel being Marvel, planting the seeds for the eventual Avengers film and tantalizing us with the possibility of having multiple superheroes on screen. Of course, those who were around at the time will recall that Marvel marketed the hell out of that Tony Stark cameo in order to get people to show up to the theater.

bruce banner with green hulk eyes

And to some degree, it worked, at least in the United States: The Incredible Hulk grossed $134 million domestically, which isn’t bad (though it ranks dead last among MCU films). However, the foreign box office just wasn’t there — at all. We’re quite used to seeing foreign grosses outweigh domestic grosses by a factor of 2 — or even 3 — to 1. Well, The Incredible Hulk grossed just $128 million overseas. Considering the movie cost $150 million to make, this means the movie lost a considerable amount of money. Generally speaking, a movie needs to gross about 2.5 to 3 times its budget to break even. Considering $263 million is more than $100 million south of $375 million, The Incredible Hulk likely lost tens of millions of dollars. Not only did this (at least partly) cause Norton to not return for The Avengers in 2012, but Marvel also hasn’t gambled on making another Hulk film.

What they have probably long since realized is something that is painfully clear when I just watched The Incredible Hulk again: to be blunt, the Hulk just isn’t a very interesting character. He gets mad and smashes things… and there really isn’t much else to it. When you get right down to it, he’s not really a superhero, but a freak or monster that gets hunted over and over. Not helping matters is the fact that, when Bruce Banner does become the Hulk, he loses all control to the point that he no longer really possesses any agency. The Hulk is essentially no different from King Kong. I realize I’m being kind of harsh here, but what the hell is so heroic about getting angry and turning into a monster with no sense of self-control? Even if he does something good while he’s the Hulk, he’s not doing it because he truly wants to, so this always is pretty unsatisfying.

emil blonsky gets injected with super soldier juice in the incredible hulk

It also isn’t really clear what can actually kill the Hulk. Machine gun fire certainly doesn’t work. Bruce Banner, at one point while still in human form, falls from a helicopter from so high up he goes right through the asphalt, only to emerge from the rubble as the Hulk a few seconds later. About halfway through the film, gigantic sound wave cannons are used on him, but the Hulk is able to fend these off too. What’s his Kryptonite, exactly? We’re never really provided this information. Instead, we are given Tim Roth, a great actor in many Quentin Tarantino films, who plays a soldier deployed at General Ross’s behest to hunt down and kill Banner. Over the course of the film, Roth is given increasing amounts of chemical treatments to pump him up, first into a super soldier and then into Abomination, a Stegosaurus-like monster only the Hulk can destroy. What still isn’t clear, after the dust settles, is whether Abomination can actually kill the Hulk.

Although I did not purchase a ticket to watch The Incredible Hulk in theaters, I did in fact see the movie in a theater in 2008, but it was during the fall. Once movies were out of theaters and the film prints were returned to the distributors, these prints were then made available for exhibition at places like the Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami, where I was a student at the time. I was part of a campus group called the Cinematic Arts Commission that showed a movie every Wednesday, and The Incredible Hulk was one we showed at the Cosford (the campus movie theater) during the fall of 2008. Most of the time, distributors sent us a film print and we ran it through a projector, but occasionally we would only receive a DVD instead, particularly if it was an older movie when we would show one of those. (Blu-ray was still very new; I didn’t know anyone at the time who had it.)

bruce banner jumps from roof to roof in a rio favela in the incredible hulk

For The Incredible Hulk, we received — I shit you not — a VHS tape. In 2008. Keep in mind, if you went to your local Blockbuster Video at this time (back when those were still around), there would not be a single VHS tape in the store. We were flabbergasted that not only were we sent a VHS tape of The Incredible Hulk, but that a VHS tape of The Incredible Hulk actually existed in the first place. (Don’t believe me that this could have possibly occurred? Check out this marketplace to see a list of copies of The Incredible Hulk you can buy, some of which are on VHS.) Anyway, this was how I first saw The Incredible Hulk: on VHS, in a movie theater. It was a disaster, to say the least. First, the aspect ratio was cut from 2.39:1 to 1.33:1, which is OK on a TV in the pre-HD era, but not on a big screen. Second, the level of detail was absolutely atrocious. There were times during the final battle that I couldn’t tell who was who because everything blurred together.

That was how I experienced The Incredible Hulk. To say it was pretty much impossible to give it a fair shake is certainly an understatement to say the least. So I was actually pretty eager to watch it in 4K, since I hadn’t seen it since watching it on not Blu-ray or DVD, but VHS. (Sorry if I’m emphasizing that a lot, but Jesus Christ, it really is absurd.) Unsurprisingly, watching The Incredible Hulk in 4K is like watching a whole new movie if you have only seen it on VHS. (To my eye, it looks better than Iron Man does in 4K, thanks in no small part to what appears to be a much greater application of HDR.) The beginning of the film takes place in Brazil with Bruce Banner living off the grid, and this part of the movie actually works really well. In fact, it drew me in to such a great extent that I was pretty hopeful that my decade-old opinion of the movie would be reversed.

the hulk gets hit by sonic cannons in the incredible hulk

As I kept watching, though, I grew less and less interested in what was happening. For one thing, the plotting is murky at best in places. Banner turns into the Hulk in Rio, manages to escape a military attack, and then wakes up again as Banner in Guatemala. In case you haven’t looked at a map of Latin America lately, Guatemala is a long, long way from Rio de Janeiro. The idea that the Hulk could somehow run through cover of tropical rain forest all the way from Rio to Guatemala without being noticed is pretty absurd. However, the central problem with the film is what I mentioned earlier: if anything, Bruce Banner is essentially presented as a victim. While he does step up to voluntarily become the Hulk again and take on the Abomination on the streets of Harlem during the film’s climax, the Abomination only exists because Banner is a problem in the first place. So this gesture doesn’t really feel that heroic as a result.

The film’s action sequences are much stronger than I remembered. Like I mentioned earlier, the sequence in Brazil is very good, as is the sequence in the middle of the film when the military launches basically everything except nuclear weapons at the Hulk and he still manages to fight them all off. The climactic fight between Hulk and Abomination isn’t all that great, particularly because it’s not clear what either one’s weaknesses actually are. (And honestly, watching CGI creations beat each other up Transformers style just isn’t interesting.) I should also point out that the actors are all very good here, as Marvel has once again cast great dramatic actors in action movie roles to pretty nice effect. A genuinely funny scene I had totally forgotten about is the one between Banner and Dr. Elizabeth Ross (Liv Tyler) when they start to gear up for a love scene but it sends Banner’s pulse through the roof and they have to stop.

bruce banner and betty ross in bed in the incredible hulk

So is The Incredible Hulk the disaster many remember it being? No, not at all. The script isn’t great, but the actors are good, the action is pretty strong, and the visual effects hold up a lot better than I would have thought. It still, however, is a mostly pointless film that I can’t imagine many will have any interest in revisiting (and not that many bothered to even watch it in the first place). Certainly, there’s no pressing need to watch it now if you haven’t. It’s the most inessential movie in the MCU canon, which, I’m sure many would argue, doesn’t contain any truly essential movies in it to begin with. To read a review of how The Incredible Hulk looks and sounds on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, check out what Blu-ray.com has to say. Keep in mind that, as with Iron Man and just about every other MCU movie, The Incredible Hulk was finished on a 2K digital intermediate (or DI), so the 4K image is just an upscale of the original 2K image. A native 4K (or 8K or 16K) resolution image of a film finished on a 2K DI will never exist, sadly.

Summary
Though certainly the most forgettable of the early films in the then-nascent Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Incredible Hulk is not completely without value. A superb cast and robust production values frequently offset the weak script.
Good
  • Good cast; Marvel's decision to continue to use great dramatic actors like Norton and Hurt is a welcome one
  • Level of filmmaking craft is pretty high -- good cinematography, visual effects and sound
  • Action sequences are pretty impressive
  • Locations are utilized well
Bad
  • Edward Norton's subsequent disappearance from the MCU makes the movie feel irrelevant
  • Awkward story; since this isn't an origin story, it doesn't fit very snugly into the MCU
  • The Hulk isn't a very compelling character when isolated from the other Avengers
6.5
Fair

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