In what could be the biggest review series in the history of Obsessive Viewer, I’m committing myself to reviewing all the movies and shows in Marvel Studios’ Cinematic Universe. You can find an index of my MCU reviews here and check out The Obsessive Viewer Podcast here. Now, here’s my review of 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.
A couple months after the release of Iron Man, Marvel Studios released what would become the most inconsequential entry in the MCU to date. The Incredible Hulk, directed by Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, Unleashed) and starring Edward Norton as Bruce Banner with a script by Zak Penn, is a well-made Hulk movie with some awkward connections to the Marvel Studios franchise.
Much like Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, The Incredible Hulk condenses the title character’s origin story into flashes played over the opening credits. This is a welcomed choice as it brings the audience into Banner’s story without wasting valuable screen time. In addition to bringing new audiences up to speed, this credit sequence also makes it clear to existing fans that this version is not connected to Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003). In a genre so burdened by origin stories, it’s refreshing to see two entries in a shared universe franchise treat origins and exposition with such careful brevity.
Streamlining the origin story gives The Incredible Hulk room to develop its titular character’s alter ego and establish Banner’s pursuit of a cure while also sending him on the run from the military. It also allows the movie to avoid one of the issues I had with Iron Man. William Hurt‘s General Ross and Tim Roth‘s Emil Blonsky are immediately established as antagonists and the characters develop accordingly. Their motivations are independent from one another but equally clear and important to the plot. Developing them alongside Banner’s story gives the movie a strong narrative that builds well to its climax.
While the antagonists are fleshed out, Banner’s story is filled in by his reconnection with Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) his former lover and the daughter of Hurt’s character. The emotional crux of the story relies on the chemistry and interplay between Norton and Tyler. Unfortunately, there’s something haphazard about the love story that develops and the lack of chemistry severely derails the movie.
Edward Norton is a talented actor (Fight Club, Primal Fear, American History X) but here he seems to struggle with finding a center in Bruce Banner. It’s a difficult role in which fast paced sequences require that the character’s attention be divided between regulating his heart rate and the situation that’s causing the adrenaline rush. He also has to juggle the character’s need and search for a cure while reconnecting and protecting an old flame. There are a lot of variables to Bruce Banner’s story that require a lot of restraint in the performance. For the most part, Norton handles it well enough but doesn’t do anything to stand out in the movie.
The choreography and special effects in the action sequences are what stand out the most in the movie. Early in the movie, Blonsky and his team chase Banner on foot through a favela in Brazil. The sequence is shot and edited well, running through different areas of varied lighting and increasing narrowness. If you don’t question why Bruce Banner would live in such an enclosed space, it’s a thrilling and kinetic sequence with Banner’s pulse monitor doubling as a time bomb ticking toward the movie’s first transformation.
The movie doesn’t show off the impressive CGI used to create the Hulk until another half hour. The set pieces involving the Hulk and the military play like an intense monster movie where the viewer can’t help but fear for the safety of bystanders, Betty and even the military foot soldiers under Ross’ command. The progression of the action sequences in The Incredible Hulk follows a trajectory that feels like the movie is constantly trying to one-up itself. It’s entertaining and reaches a climactic Hulk vs. Abomination battle that is simply stunning.
It’s unfortunate that The Incredible Hulk feels somewhat forgotten from the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon. As a standalone movie it’s wildly entertaining and fun. But there’s a contrived cameo by Robert Downey Jr. at the end of the movie that feels tacked on with dialogue that has zero payoff anywhere in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the context of the rest of Marvel’s “Phase 1” movies, it sticks out as a last minute addition to connect The Incredible Hulk with Iron Man. That, coupled with Mark Ruffalo replacing Edward Norton in The Avengers, makes The Incredible Hulk feel more out of place than the movie deserves.
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