The Incredible Hulk is a superhero familiar enough to not need much of an introduction: Dr. Bruce Banner is a scientist transformed by an excessive dose of gamma radiation so that whenever he gets too angry, he becomes into a massive, super-strong, green-skinned behemoth that is a living embodiment of unthinking rage. The Incredible Hulk is a tragic figure, a lonely guy whose superpowers are not cool, but a curse. There have been a few adaptations of him to screen, including 1970s show that worked pretty well, and a 2003 film that really did not. But the best version is what we got in the early days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.
As the story of this version begins, Bruce Banner has already been living with his strange condition, constantly moving from place to place in an effort to find a way to synthesize a cure for his gamma poisoning. Inevitably, he has episodes when he transforms and wrecks stuff, and that forces him to move on. In a world growing increasingly populated by superhumans, he knows he’s on the radar of the U.S. Army among other folks, so he can’t afford to go green. Of course, fate eventually conspires to bring him from the Brazilian favela where he’d been laying low back stateside, where he reunites with his old flame Betsy Ross, a fellow scientist and the daughter of General “Thunderbolt” Ross, the honcho in charge of tracking down and neutralizing the Hulk. A commando named Emil Blonsky is brought in to aid the search, and is eventually transformed into something like the Hulk as well, only more…abominable. By the end of it all, we get a city-wrecking slugfest by the Hulk and the Abomination that results in Banner once again having to leave behind everything that matters to him so he can sequester himself far off the grid, where he might master his powers.
As far as MCU movies go, the Incredible Hulk is probably the weakest of the bunch. It was developed almost simultaneously as Iron Man, which came out just a few weeks prior, but the two movies could not be further apart, tonally. Iron Man was a true comic book movie; the Hulk was an action movie about a comic book character. Every reference throughout the main story was within the Hulk canon specifically. Was it cool to see the Abomination? Doc Samson? The Leader? Absolutely. And it was also pretty cool to see some nods to the character’s own printed history, like a Buscema-esque moment when the Hulk is fighting off an Army ambush on a college campus and an explosive shell just bounces off his head. After all, it’s not a Hulk story unless the Hulk is destroying about a billion dollars’ worth of Department of Defense hardware. But despite those familiar beats—or perhaps because of them—this one still feels like a bottled universe, with a hero whose scope wasn’t really meant to go any farther than what we see in the movie itself. You feel that creative ring-fencing throughout the story. And you know what? A universe built entirely around the Hulk just isn’t all that interesting. Thankfully, a post-credits scene featuring a reprise of Tony Stark proves that indeed, the shared universe was happening but we would just have to be patient while established itself…starting with the next movie.
Thankfully, this was the last movie Marvel would make that captured the high-functioning mediocrity that characterized so many superhero films before it. After this one, Avi Arad would depart as a producer, and Kevin Feige would take over. Arad didn’t buy into the shared universe vision that makes the MCU such a wonderful thing, but Feige lived and breathed it, and would drive that collective look, pace and feel that makes Marvel movies work not just on their own merits, but collectively, as well. So it makes sense that the Hulk feels a little off, and might also explain why we never got any sequels to it, or even got any of its principal actors to reprise their roles in other movies. As far as the MCU goes, The Incredible Hulk a kind of forgotten stepchild, overshadowed by all of the other heroes around it. Hell, even Ant-Man got a sequel.
There’s still plenty to enjoy here, though, especially the theme of a beleaguered guy who just wants the world to give him enough space to figure out how to stop being such a threat to it. But the very world he wants to protect from himself keeps coming after him; the danger Banner/Hulk pose to the world is at least half of the world’s fault. When Ross’s goon squad comes looking for trouble, you’re glad that they find it. The moment of truth comes when Banner manages to cure himself right when only the Hulk can possibly save the day. Faced with a choice between a simple life with Betsy or the lonely torment of being the Hulk, Banner jumps out of a freaking helicopter, convinced that the fall will force his transformation back into the Hulk. He lands hard and what gets up proves that his hunch was right, and the slugfest that follows isn’t just an exciting finale, it’s proof that Banner knows that if even if he doesn’t want the hulk the world kind of needs him. That Banner broke free of his monstrous burden and then chose to take it back is a particularly Marvel turn. Marvel heroes are regular people who wish that things could go back to the way they were, and that goes double for Banner. Just because he can carry the weight of the world on his shoulders doesn’t mean he should have to. But he does, because he knows that nobody else can. And that is what drives the Hulk, ultimately. Not his rage, but his humanity.