As far as the core members Avengers go, I’ve always been a fan of the big green monster known as the Hulk. I first became a fan of the character when I was about three years old through reruns of the old Bill Bixby/ Lou Ferrigno TV series. I think the young son of a dear friend of mine said it best as to just why the character appealed to me so much when I was little, “he’s big and strong, and I’m not.”
Thus, between the first Iron Man movie, and the 2008 Incredible Hulk movie, if you were ask me which film I was looking forward to more in 2008, I would have gone with Hulk. However, with a work schedule and The Dark Knight coming out a few weeks later, like Old Shell Head, Hulk had to wait until it reached my dollar theater. Then a two weeks after I got to see Iron Man, I walked down to that theater once again, plopped down a few bucks and sat back to watch the Not So Jolly Green Giant’s latest exploits.
There had been another Hulk movie back in 2003 that told his origin story, and for the most part it failed to appeal to many fans. I was not one of them. While the mutant poodles were a bit overdone, I have to applaud Ang Lee for tapping into some of Hulk’s tragic back story even before the gamma burst gave him powers. However, most people don’t want a Hulk movie that focuses mainly on psychological analysis, or existential angst, they want “Hulk Smash,” and in that regard 2008’s Hulk delivered.
Instead, of rehashing Hulk’s origin story, The Incredible Hulk gives a recap of how he came to be, reminiscent of the opening of the old TV series. Along with this intro they also gave a a welcome cameo by Lou Ferrigno as a security guard, referenced a student reporter named Jack McGee talking about Hulk’s rampage, and a posthumous cameo by Bill Bixby ( via Bruce surfing channels and coming across as scene from The Courtship of Eddie’s Father starring Bixby), all making it clear from where they were drawing inspiration. The Bixby/Ferrigno series had made an indelible mark on the character, even superseding the comic book, and made him a house hold name. It perfectly balanced the struggle of Dr. Banner and the Hulk and followed him as he traveled the country looking for a way to free himself from the beast, and thus the filmmakers knew it was the perfect way to approach the character.
Playing Bruce Banner in this iteration is Edward Norton. Some of his on-set behavior has been well publicized, and thus is not worth mentioning here. Suffice to say, it led Marvel to part ways and replace him with Mark Ruffalo in the Hulk’s later appearances. Each Banner brings something different to the table, and while Ruffalo plays Banner as a likable, every man in the style of Bixby, and there was a certain excitement that Eric Bana’s Banner had in discovering he had these powers, Norton plays Banner as a haunted man on the run from his past. He looks and feels like something can set him off, making it all the more pertinent that the timer on screen is telling us how long it’s been since his last Hulk Out.
Playing Hulk’s Inspector Javert figure, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, is William Hurt, who plays the old general with the same fire that most would reserve for Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. He wants to catch the beast for what it did to his daughter, and take it apart to make it into a perfect weapon. Lord of the Rings alum Liv Tyler plays Banner’s love interest, Dr. Betty Ross. While she may not seem like a scientist type, her ethereal quality makes for the perfect Beauty to Hulk’s Beast. She is tranquil, calming, and gentle, at least as long as she’s not in traffic in Manhattan, or standing up to her father.
Fans also were treated to an appearance by a villain they had hoped to see since a sequel to the 2003 Hulk movie was first announced, Emil Blonsky, better known as Abomination. Tim Roth plays the character, Emil Blonsky, in his human form, and supplies the motion capture for Abomination in his creature. A dedicated military man, all Blonsky wants to do is have one more battle, and for him in seeing the Hulk he finally finds a worthy adversary, subjecting himself to a number of experimental procedures he becomes a rival who can finally go toe to toe with Hulk in their epic show down in the middle of New York, and shows just why Hulk is “Strongest one there is”.
Rounding up the cast is Ty Burrell as Doc Leonard Samson a head shrink and Tim Blake Nelson as Samuel Sterns. In the comic books, Leonard geoso n to become Hulk’s ally Doc Samson, while Sterns became the Leader, and the film set up the possibility for the later. However, due to the current status of the Hulk franchise, these sadly amount to nothing more than some Easter gees for the wide world of the Hulk. That said, they both play their roles perfectly, and Nelson left fans wanting more to this day as they hope to see The Leader on the big screen.
In only four years time, the special affects artists had made an even better hulk than in the 2003 film. Some critics complained that the Ang Lee version of the monster looked like a cross between Shrek and a Play Station game character. Here, like Gollum or an Orc in Lord of the Rings, Hulk is given a more “earthy” tone to his green flesh to make him more believable. Think more like a green bean and less like a bright neon green. Further, while he is certainly Incredible we get to see the character himself strain in his battles, allowing us to better root for him in his big battles.
Helming the film was French director Louis Letterier , best known for the Transporter films. While Ang Lee leaned almost too much into the “comic aspects” of Hulk, right down to scene transitions that looked like comic panels, Letterier grounded his film in the same tone as Iron Man. While still a comic book film, it feels real in its character drama. Further, Letterier shrouds the Hulk in classic horror movie tropes, even obscuring the monster till it’s big reveal making it that much more impactful. The Shark in Jaws and the T-Rex in Jurassic Park are scarier because we don’t ‘see them all the time, and The Hulk is even more incredible for that same reason.
At the heart he pounding, primal score by Craig Armstrong is Joe “Hornell’s classic “Lonely Man Theme” from the old TV series. Like the heroic sounding Superman March by John Williams, or the theme form the 1960s Spider-Man’s fun loving free swinging style, “The Lonely Man” theme perfectly captures The Hulk’s eternal isolation and his search for freedom. However, Armstrong doesn’t just ape the classic theme, inf act in true Hulk fashion, it serves as a balance point between an almost Jaws like theme in Hulks more monstrous stages, and a more heroic sound with heavy percussion and brass to keep the audience cheering for him.
While Iron Man proved the first hint at a shared universe, The Incredible Hulk made the first steps towards that goal through very subtle Easter Eggs through references to the Super Soldier from Captain America, a S.H.I.E.L.D. database, and even guns we’d later see at a weapons demonstration by Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2. Overall, the movie was well received by the fans but sadly is still the lowest grossing film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe . Among the contributing factors to the the movie’s low box office was poor marketing on the part of Universal as they proudly showed off in the trailers the cameo appearance by Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark from the mid credit sequence that, like Nick Fury showing up in Iron Man, was meant to be a big surprise for the fans in order to help generate more buzz for the MCU.
While Ruffalo would go on to become my favorite live action Hulk after the classic Bixby/Ferrigno take on the character, as a lifelong fan of the Hulk mythology, I couldn’t have been more pleased with the Hulk. While The Amazing Spider-Man duology and the attempt to do the Fantastic Four have failed to live up to their superlative, the 2008 Hulk movie was truly Incredible. Pulse pumping action, big giant monsters tearing up the city, and more importantly focus on Banner’s struggle with himself is all I could have asked for in a Hulk film, and I got it. More importantly, it would only be a small taste of what would lie in store for the character in his future appearances.