Countdown to Infinity War: Revisiting The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Previously: Iron Man was tremendously successful both commercially and critically, and we comic book readers in particular loved it. It seemed that our long drought of bad comic book movies was at last over, and Marvel was serious about making quality superhero films. The Incredible Hulk was slated to come out just a few scant weeks after Iron Man, and we were optimistic. In fact, we were ecstatic; bear in mind that unlike today when we see six or seven superhero movies released a year, just having one come out during the summer was an event. We were getting two within a couple months of each other. Truly, the Age of the Nerd was upon us.


Also, back then, scenes after the credits were pretty rare. Everyone remembers the post-credits scene of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, with Matthew Broderick poking fun at the people who had stayed until the bitter end.

And sure, there was one at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006, but no one knew about it beforehand; one of the ushers at the theater told me and my friends, so we stuck around. Unfortunately, none of the ushers in 2008 did the same for us when we saw Iron Man, so it wasn’t until days after we had seen the movie that one of us spotted it on YouTube.

This meant that Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk were going to be part of a shared universe! More than that, every Marvel Studios release was going to be part of this shared universe. The implication was not lost on us nerds as we speculated what that might entail. Could we actually see an Avengers movie? Such a hope was deemed a silly pipe dream just a few years prior, but now, with the commercial and critical success of Iron Man, all things were possible. All we needed were consistently profitable and well-produced films to ensure that the dream would come true. So to say the pressure was on for The Incredible Hulk to deliver was putting it lightly. And did it?


The plot: Doctor Bruce Banner…

…is working for the US Army on a means of treating soldiers to endure high levels of radiation, and decides to experiment on himself. The result is the creation of an monstrous alter ego with immense power, a power he wishes to be rid of. Unfortunately, General “Thunderbolt” Ross…

…wants the power for himself. He conspires with captain Emil Blonsky…

…to subdue Banner, but Ross’s unorthodox methods combined with Blonski’s unstable personality produce horrific results that only Banner’s hated other self might be able to stop.

Before I get into this, let me say how difficult it is to talk about this movie and not compare it to Ang Lee’s 2003 film Hulk. As easy as it would be to size these films up against one another, I’ve tried very hard not to; for one, that’s not the purpose of these articles, and for another, the Agony Booth has gotten plenty of mileage out of roasting the ’03 Hulk before, including a comparison/contrast with another cheesy comic movie that came out the same year. I guess a third reason is the Ang Lee film has its fans, and they’ve suffered enough. Nevertheless, some comparisons will be made here and there, and perhaps some of my observations will surprise you.

It’s interesting to look at the later Marvel movies, and how loud and over the top they can be, and then look back at a movie directed by loud and over the top action movie director Louis Leterrier and how… understated The Incredible Hulk is by comparison. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing; The Incredible Hulk is an origin story and it’s supposed to introduce us to the various players in the game, and to Leterrier’s credit he does an effective job at giving us some strong character moments, especially where Banner is concerned.

Edward Norton is a pretty darn good Bruce Banner. I forgot how good he was because I had gotten so used to Mark Ruffalo in the role.

Norton’s Banner is beaten down but unbeaten, a man who in his time on the run has learned to survive on his wits. I saw a parallel between him and Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, in that they’re intelligent men who are well respected, and each living what they consider to be ideal lives. And then those lives are taken away and they’re forced to adapt and struggle in circumstances they’re wholly unfamiliar with. And no, I’m not saying living in a Brazilian favela and working in a bottling factory is akin to being a hostage in a terrorist’s cave; I’m just saying these characters have the bottom dropped out underneath them, and are taught humility.

Say, I wonder if this is a theme that will continue later with another founding Avenger? Hmm…

Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross is…well, she’s okay. I’m not saying she’s a bad actress, just that her performance here, as in the Lord of the Rings movies, never overwhelms me. She’s decent enough as Bruce’s love interest…

…and honestly, I felt more chemistry between Norton and Tyler than I ever did between Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson, but more on that in a later article.

I do have issues with William Hurt’s General Ross, and here’s where I’m going to contrast and compare the portrayal of the character between this movie and Sam Elliott in the 2003 Hulk. I won’t deny that Hurt’s take is far closer to the comic book character; comic book Ross had descended into cartoonish parody years before this. Nobody had taken General Ross seriously for quite some time, seeing him as an outmoded dinosaur of a soldier who, like J. Jonah Jameson and his obsession with Spider-Man, went beyond simple hatred and into near-psychotic mania. How he got made Secretary of State in a later film flies in the face of common sense and really stretches my suspension of disbelief. For God’s sake, he helped the Hulk wreck Harlem! I much preferred Sam Elliot’s take on the character, as a no-nonsense professional tasked with doing a job. His mustache was also far more epic, even trimmed down as it was.

Maybe what was needed was a further exploration of Ross’ motives in the newer film. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if the General’s reasons for taking down Banner were as much about controlling that power as it was about hurting the man who had put his daughter in the hospital? At heart, “Thunderbolt” is a father and he was unable to protect his little girl from a monster.

Imagine the toll that would take on his ego. This movie had Doc Samson in it, and not once did they take advantage of his maybe being able to take an instant read on Ross and advise him that whatever he has in mind is going to blow up in his face, because his motives aren’t pure, he isn’t thinking straight, and a more objective man needs to be in charge. Imagine that after that scene, Ross begins to have second thoughts about pumping Blonsky with super soldier juice. I think there was a ton of potential here to explore how badly Ross wanted more to hurt Banner than to control the Hulk.

As for Tim Roth’s Emil Blonsky, I don’t think there was anything really bad about his performance, and he delivers where necessary. Blonsky is at heart a mercenary, and an adrenalin junkie who’s in it for the thrill. I like the idea of his character realizing he’s a lot closer to forty than thirty, and the job has taken its toll on his body. Facing mortality and getting even a touch of power might turn an amoral man into a monster. So yeah, he works fine as the movie’s physical antagonist. I’ve got no complaints, really. I even think his alter ego the Abomination looks alright.

And let’s face it, when it comes to the villain, they could have done a lot worse.

“At least I made the list. Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer didn’t even rate an entry!”

The film certainly delivers in the action department, with things escalating from the bottling plant altercation (screenshots not included here as they are really, really dark and murky), to the battle on campus, and ultimately to the Hulk’s confrontation with the Abomination in New York City.

One thing both the 2003 and 2008 films have in common is they both know how important it is to showcase the struggle between the Hulk and the United States military. The Hulk’s first adversary in the comics was the US Army, which is one of many things that made him unique among the other heroes of the day. I would go so far as to say there shouldn’t have been a super-villain at all in the first film, and it should have been entirely a conflict between Banner and General Ross’s forces, but I guess that might have been too “art house”. A superhero movie without a super-villain? Madness. What is this, Steel?

“Don’t diss me; my movie was the third best black superhero film before Black Panther came out!”

But was the Abomination the way to go in the second film? The Hulk doesn’t have the extensive rogues’ gallery of a character like Spider-Man or Batman, so options were limited. However, I think in the long run, this choice contributed to the main problem with Marvel villains, in that the heroes almost always seem to be fighting their evil doppelgangers, which is an issue we continue to see to this day.

Blonsky/Abomination was a safe choice, and in retrospect, I guess I can’t blame producer Kevin Feige for choosing to take a more cautious approach. I think we take for granted just how lucrative superhero movies are these days, but back in 2008, if your movie didn’t contain the word “Batman” in the title, you were still taking a huge gamble.

The film also does a nice job of paying homage to the ’70s TV series, and as somebody who absolutely loved that show back in the day, I was very appreciative of those Easter eggs, from Banner’s experiment…

…to the classic “green eyes” that presage the oncoming transformation…

…to Lou Ferigno and Bill Bixby’s cameos.

The code name “Mister Blue” was originally used by Betty Ross in the comics when she was divorced from Bruce and still aiding him. And speaking of Mister Blue, we had a nice extended cameo from future Hulk antagonist Samuel Sterns, AKA the Leader.

“I can’t wait to be the main bad guy in the sequel, due out any year now!”

A quick note on the soundtrack: Once again, I think the 2003 film beats out the 2008 film. Danny Elfman gets some flak for being Tim Burton’s go-to composer, churning out what sometimes feel like the same tunes over and over again…

…but I think he really stretched himself with the 2003 Hulk soundtrack. As for Craig Armstrong’s score for the 2008 film, he nails it when it comes to conveying the loneliness and isolation Banner feels, and we even get a tease of the classic “Lonely Man” piano theme from the TV series, heard at the end of every episode where David Banner is alone and walking away from one adventure into another. Somehow, Armstrong pulls off a nice homage without making it sound like parody. However, I wasn’t really feeling the music during the action sequences. It’s a competent score, but it pales in comparison to Elfman’s.

So what was the aftermath? The Incredible Hulk made money, but not the kind of money that warranted a sequel. And it was obvious there were some ideas in the works for a follow-up film. We had Sterns’s origin as the Leader, which would have made a great bad guy in the next movie, and then we had this little cameo at the end…

…where Stark implies that he and Nick Fury are forming the Avengers, with their first target being the Hulk himself. I can’t help but wonder what the cinematic landscape would look like today if this movie had performed better. Could we have seen this a few years earlier?

Who can say? In the end, the Hulk wasn’t deemed popular enough for a third film, and instead we got… well, that’s an article for another day.

So, what was up with the Hulk in the comics at the time? At this point, the epic Planet Hulk story had wrapped up, leading into a pretty awesome follow-up, World War Hulk.

The Green Goliath had been sent off-planet by Marvel’s “Illuminati”, comprised of Blackbolt, Namor, Professor Xavier, Tony Stark, Doctor Strange, and Reed Richards. Their intent was to give the big green guy an isolated planet where he could live out his days without smashing anyone. What happened instead was Hulk smashed up his own ship, sending him off course and landing him on a world where he became a gladiator, and then pulled a Spartacus and led a slave revolt. The planet was destroyed when one of his followers monkeyed around with the ship he had arrived in, and it led to the world getting trashed. Eager for revenge on the six bastiches who had exiled him, the Hulk returned to Earth at the head of an invasion force. All of that was in 2006-07. So what was the follow-up? Interestingly enough, Planet Hulk/World War Hulk scribe Greg Pak switched to writing the character of Hercules. The comic was changed to The Incredible Hercules and a new Hulk series started up written by Joseph Loeb and illustrated by Ed McGuinness. And that’s when we got…

Yeah, Red Hulk. Red Hulk was Loeb’s Mary Sue, a character who was smarter, stronger, and all around more bad-ass than everybody else in the Marvel Universe. The thrust of the series was the mystery of the Red Hulk, who he was, and what he wanted as he carved a path of destruction through various heroes, even wrecking a SHIELD helicarrier. (Although, by this point, wrecking helicarriers had become trite.) “Rulk” turned out to be General Ross himself, and when he rulked out, his mustache magically disappeared. I don’t know anybody who actually liked the character or who was reading the comic, but sales were strong and the title remained one of Marvel’s best sellers for months. As for Banner, he was sidelined for a while and it was some time before he returned to prominence, but by then it seems the character’s glory days were far behind him; the Hulk hasn’t seen strong sales or critical acclaim rivaling the Planet Hulk/World War Hulk days since. As for Rulk, these days he’s some guy named Robert Maverick who appeared in one of the Avengers titles that didn’t sell very well.

Gee, I wonder why.

Next time: I look at the sequel to Iron Man, the creatively named Iron Man 2.

Tag: Countdown to Infinity War

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