Dissecting The MCU: Ten Years of Marvel
The Incredible Hulk-2008
In 2003, I visited New York City with my family. We saw “The Lion King” on Broadway. We took a boat tour that went around the entire island of Manhattan. We walked through the museum where they shot “Ghostbusters 2.” We walked slowly, human-to-human throughout Time’s Square. We saw the Statue of Liberty. We took those red bus tours that showed us an up-close look at every possible building you’d want to see in the city. We went and took a look at ground zero. After so much sight-seeing, we went to this cool-looking, old school movie theater and saw “Hulk.” The one with Eric Bana, Jennifer Connolly and Sam Elliot. I wasn’t much of a fan of that movie. In fact, if I remember correctly, there weren’t too many admirers of that film. You can’t really take an action-packed superhero character, make an art film out of him, and expect the target audience to be satisfied. A writer once did a near-perfect comparison. 2003’s Hulk was like “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” Both movies took geek material and tried to make experimental, arthouse films out it. Both films were beautiful to look at, no doubt. But they both failed to move mainstream audiences.
In 2008, I figured anything would have been better than what we got in 2003. After much back and forth, Universal Studios was ready to give The Big Green Meanie another roll. But this time, Marvel had much more control, and that meant planting The Hulk in Marvel’s new deal. Which in 2008, a mere month after “Iron Man” had been released, that plan was still unclear at the time. All we really knew at the time was we were getting a new Hulk movie. Was it a sequel, to the film that came out in 2003? Well, that was tough to say. Universal pushed for a sequel to that film. But Eric Bana didn’t want to be in it, stating that being The Hulk was a “one time thing.” I remember reading a rumor that Universal approached David Duchovny about the sequel, but when he turned it down, Hulk sequel news fell flat. Then suddenly re-emerged with Edward Norton attached. Was this new movie intended to be a sequel? It’s hard to say, I mean this new film picked up in Southern America, where Bruce Banner fled after the events in the 2003 film. But the more you watched the new film, the more it took after the Ultimate Marvel version of the Hulk. But hey, the further we were from 2003’s stupid version of Bruce’s father, the better off we were.
“The Incredible Hulk” was a massive improvement on the first film in every way. Sure, it wasn’t sequel, this was a reboot set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it took the bad taste left in my mouth from 2003 and it replaced it with something lemony fresh. In this film we don’t get the Hulk starring at fungus on a rock for five minutes. We don’t get muddled flashbacks of the same thing happening behind a green mushroom cloud. We don’t get a near three hour film that direly needed an editor. No, with “The Incredible Hulk,” we got a big, fun, wild and crazy Hulk movie. That’s how this character was always intended to be seen on screen. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t get any character development. Bruce Banner, played by Edward Norton, is a tortured soul in this movie. He’s trying so hard to get his curse out of his body. Away from General “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) who wants the Hulk monster to weaponize it. He wants to get back to Betty (Liv Tyler) so he can have somewhat of a normal life for the rest of his days. Banner is proactive about getting rid of his curse, this rage monster that could unleash itself, even if Banner does something has harmless as going on a jog. There is a scene late in “The Incredible Hulk” were Betty and Banner are on the run, and in a hotel room, they rediscover their love and affection for one another. Without getting too graphic, things start to get hot. But when Banner notices his heart-rate going up, he stops. I sympathize with Banner there. If I couldn’t have sex anymore thanks to my Hulk powers, yeah those powers would be a deal-breaker for me too.
Now, some of you are probably thinking, Mark Ruffalo is the MCU Hulk. Well, you’re not wrong, but Edward Norton was first. Edward Norton was intended to star in “The Avengers” and beyond. The events of “The Incredible Hulk” are indeed canon to the MCU. In “The Avengers,” Ruffalo talks about “leveling Harlem,” which is a reference to his fight with Abomination at the end of “The Incredible Hulk.” Tim Roth, who portrays Abomination, has a couple more movies left on his contract. In fact, Joss Whedon put Abomination in some of the earlier drafts for “Age of Ultron,” but the character was written out eventually. The events of “The Incredible Hulk” do take place in the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe, even though that movie barely feels attached the greater shared universe. (Even though Coulson mentions Abomination in an early episode of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and General Ross did show up for “Civil War.”)
So, what happened? Well, in the early days of the MCU, they had a knack for hiring actors who are notoriously difficult to work with. There are rumors that Terrance Howard is difficult to work with, and the same is said about Edward Norton. Norton loves having control over the characters he plays, whether they add up to the vision of the director or not. He’s fought for changes in movies he’s made, he’s had bad blood with directors, with studios. That was totally the case with “The Incredible Hulk.” He re-wrote pieces of the script. He had fights and disagreements and feuds with “The Incredible Hulk” director Louis Leterrier. Apparently, it was a nightmare to shoot thanks to Mr. Norton. Joss Whedon met with Edward Norton for lunch before he began shooting “The Avengers,” just to gather ideas for the movie. According to Norton, the lunch went really well, but we also heard that Norton wanted to push for The Avengers to fight Hulk, that he would be a secondary villain in the movie. (Again, Norton apparently loves the Ultimate version of the character!) Before we knew it, Edward Norton was kicked off the movie, and was replaced by Mark Ruffalo. Because they wanted someone who believed in the Marvel vision.
I understand that nobody wants to work with difficult people. Edward Norton has since talked about his experience with Marvel, and he sees it as a silver lining that lead to the career he has now. He’s been a good sport about things, and that’s always good. But I have to say, I love Edward Norton. Yes, I get it, he’s difficult to work with, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a damn fine actor. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that a part of me wishes he stayed on. I wish we could have got Edward Norton sharing space with Robert Downey Jr and Scarlet Johansson and Jeremy Renner and the Chris’s and Samuel L. Jackson and everyone else. I am not trying to slam Ruffalo, because he’s done a great job in the role, but I just love Norton. If a multiverse does exist, I hope Norton stayed on the franchise, and I hope I swap with a different version of me someday to see that version of “The Avengers.”
I think some people are still surprised when I tell them that “The Incredible Hulk” is apart of the MCU, not just because Norton was replaced by Ruffalo. But the entire film feels pretty disconnected to the rest of the franchise. We just now saw General Ross again. But we haven’t heard from Abomination again. We never saw Liv Tyler’s Betty again. Ty Burrell, who plays Doctor Sampson in the film had expressed interest in playing Sampson again, and getting superpowers. Ty Burrell with superpowers in a Marvel movie is the best damn idea they’ve had. And I mean, how do you set up The Leader and just never return to him? Better question, how do you cast Tim Blake Nelson as The Leader and just never return to him? Well, apparently Universal still has character rights for The Hulk. That’s why Hulk has been a supporting character in other heroes’ movies and has never had another solo film since. Disney needs to get on that, if you ask me. They just bought Fox assets, now its time to bring ALL the characters home. I want to see superpowered Doc Sampson, I want to see Ross turn into Red Hulk. I want She-Hulk. I want Red She-Hulk. I want a movie where The Hulk faces off against The Leader. It’s just some of the many plot-threads that have been dropped from the MCU, and it makes me want to cry.
Re-watching “The Incredible Hulk” tonight, there were a couple things that I couldn’t help but laugh at. Yes, there is a Stan Lee cameo. Yes, this being a Hulk movie, we also get a funny Lou Ferrigno cameo. I have to say that my favorite cameo of the film was when Bill Bixby shows up on a TV screen in a blink-and-you-miss-it moment. For those of you who never saw the original Hulk television show from the late 1970’s through early 1980’s, it was Bill Bixby who played Banner. When he turned into Hulk, Ferrigno played him. I loved seeing the Bill Bixby cameo. Also, on the show, Bixby’s character was named David Banner, not Bruce Banner. (Even though, I am pretty sure Bruce was his middle name.) At the end of “The Incredible Hulk,” Hulk flees after his big fight with Abomination, and he secludes himself in Canada. He gives himself the new alias David Banner. I always got a good laugh out of that too. Of course, this is all just extra stuff that will make any true Hulk fan smile with delight.
These were the early days of the MCU, so it was getting quite fun to see all the extra tidbits that connected this movie to the greater shared universe. There is a moment when General Ross is trying to capture Banner after he tried to meet up with Betty, and the results are less than great. When Banner “Hulks Out,” one of the weapons Ross attempts to use to subdue him are these sonic cannons. They look like Jack Kirby drew them, which makes me smile. And you learn at the beginning of the film that they were designed at Stark Industries. Before Emil Blonsky becomes The Abomination, he works for Ross in trying to capture Banner, and Ross injects Blonsky with a serum that is closely resembles the serum that was given to Steve Rogers the day he became Captain America, they even discuss the Super Soldier program from World War II. There is a small Tony Stark cameo and an even smaller S.H.I.E.L.D. cameo, but we began to see, much clearer than even a month previous, that Marvel was going to try something that went beyond ambition. (In the "Incredible Hulk" DVD, there is a deleted scene where Banner goes somewhere in the Arctic to commit suicide. The suicide goes wrong, and Banner ends up "Hulking Out," and breaks a huge sheet of ice while he does it. If you look really close at the crumbling ice, you'll see an outline of Captain America's body in the ice.)
No, this was batshit insane. Only because we’d never seen anything like it before. I remember leaving the theater the first time I saw “The Incredible Hulk” and my mind was racing. What was the future going to look like? What was The Avengers movie going to look like? Who else would be included? Who would play Thor? And more importantly, who would play Captain America? This was the movie that really got me obsessed with this shared universe. I couldn’t believe there was going to be a day where I saw all these heroes, side by side, after being introduced in their own franchises, together in one movie. The future never looked so bright.
Next week, we’ll visit with Iron Man once more for “Iron Man II!” Hulk smash!