We often remember The Incredible Hulk, the second film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as a flop, but it made $260 million and was reasonably well-received by critics. But because it was a soft reboot of Ang Lee’s Hulk, and because Edward Norton wouldn’t continue in the role, it’s been reduced to a weird detour in the early MCU. If it were much better or much worse, it would be remembered more clearly. Instead, the movie’s pretty-goodness has given it a fuzzy legacy. But the film helped sustain a burgeoning franchise, even if it’s not remembered that way.
15 years and 31 MCU films later, it’s wild to remember The Incredible Hulk was the second MCU film. Coming out a mere month after Iron Man, it cast Norton as Bruce Banner, a man with a Hulk inside him on the run from the American military, as represented by General Ross (William Hurt). Ross, who sees the Hulk as government property, wants to weaponize Bruce’s power. But Bruce is hiding out in Brazil, working to keep the Hulk in check and his destructive potential out of Ross’ hands. Like Iron Man before it, the film taps into post-9/11 anxieties about American military power, even if the Pentagon had to sign off on its use of expensive military equipment as props.
What stands out about The Incredible Hulk, especially in retrospect, is that it’s not an origin story. This must at least partially be thanks to 2003’s Hulk bringing the character back into pop culture, but it’s a notable outlier in Phase One nonetheless. Preceded by Iron Man, and followed by Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, The Incredible Hulk makes the brilliant decision to speedrun Bruce Banner’s backstory in the opening credit sequence. In three minutes, we see the gamma radiation experiment that transforms Bruce into the Hulk, Bruce injuring his scientist girlfriend Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), and his subsequent decision to flee so he won’t hurt Betty or be transformed into a weapon.
The film doesn’t do a great job balancing these two themes, and it works better as a star-crossed love story than as a treatise on the responsibility and anxiety of having immense power. But The Incredible Hulk is still a fine movie, and it was proof that Iron Man’s take on big-screen Marvel superhero storytelling was not a one-off. Norton’s struggles as Bruce aren’t as entertaining as Robert Downey Jr.’s romp as Tony Stark but, like Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk sells us on its central romance by throwing us into the middle of it. It’s not a will-they-or-won’t-they, but a question of whether they’ll overcome Bruce’s transformation into the Hulk. Bruce’s life as a superhero is immediately given relatable, human consequences.
As the movie progresses, we get to know Bruce through his relationship with Betty and his penchant for self-loathing. Meanwhile, Ross injects British Royal Marine Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) with the experimental Super Soldier Serum to take Bruce down, but a transformed Blonsky becomes hungry for more power. Bruce convinces Ross that Blonsky is the real danger, proving that he’s able to use the Hulk for good.
The forgettable CGI fight that follows is an early example of the MCU’s third act problem, although it benefits from its relatively short duration and Liv Tyler’s human performance as bystander Betty. The movie ends with Bruce on the run yet again, separated from Betty but approached by Tony Stark for his new team. The meeting teases the importance of Bruce and Tony’s relationship moving forward, and the larger importance of the Hulk as an MCU character, even if the character’s distribution rights have kept Bruce from being the star of his own feature film ever since.
Audiences would have to wait another two years for the next MCU film, Iron Man 2, and another year after that for the introduction of a major new character in Thor. It’s easy to forget now, but at the time, it was unclear if the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be an expansive, multi-protagonist story told across worlds and time periods, or if it would just be an Iron Man series. Marvel always had ambitions for the former, but The Incredible Hulk, in all of its pretty-goodness, made that possibility feel more tangible at a time when the MCU needed it the most.
The Incredible Hulk is streaming on HBO Max until March 31.