My first ever reaction to The Incredible Hulk was just me being thankful that we were given an "apology" for the 2003 Ang Lee directed movie starring Eric Bana that was interesting at best, flat out disastrous at worst. Ok, maybe I don't feel quite that strongly about it but there was no question from me that this new Marvel Studios version was going to be better and is much better in my opinion. I only saw it once at the theater when it released but it was still highly entertaining and had a solid origin story behind it.
I've always had it listed low though on my Marvel Cinematic Universe Rankings, mostly because it was the second movie in the whole franchise and I didn't think it was on par with most of the other offerings in the MCU that came after it. I think that a lot of people share that same sentiment for a number of reasons.
That's not a sentiment I share about it anymore. The Incredible Hulk is a top notch MCU movie and a really strong comic book movie in general in so many ways. I'm kind of surprised that I didn't realize it earlier, but better late than never for me.
The first thing that struck me in watching this movie over again is how little dialogue there is in the first half hour. Seriously, it's a masterclass of visual storytelling to start things out. You get Bruce Banner's tortured backstory in the opening credits, wasting absolutely no time throwing you right into the story as it's happening and when it does, you're in the middle of Banner hiding from the authorities after his accident. Through his actions, his location and Edward Norton's acting, you are told visually that he's hiding from the government and that he's trying to cure whatever happened to him in the Gamma radiation accident. You hear him reinforce this later on in the movie but there's no drawn out flashback or exposition-heavy dialogue to explain this to you. Even when William Hurt's General Ross is explaining this whole situation to Tim Roth's Emil Blonsky, it's still not heavy-handed and filled with a ton of words. It's well-paced, to the point and clear as a bell. Banner wants The Hulk purged from his system, Ross wants him captured to study what went right with the experiment and Blonsky just wants Banner's power for himself. What follows is 135 minutes of fallout from those character motivations.
The Incredible Hulk might be the most visual movie in Phase One of the MCU when you consider cinematography, VFX and location shooting. This is a movie that lives on the rule of "show, don't tell" and we see a lot in that 135 minutes not just from the actors, but also from the scenes and sequences themselves. Norton is a solid Bruce Banner, which is a change from my previous opinion that he was mailing his performance in and making it cookie cutter. No, for the character he is supposed to play here he does a solid job. Not great, but more than strong enough for the movie itself. He makes it very clear that he's a scientist and not a military man like Ross or Blonsky and all he wants is The Hulk gone from his life. In the process of trying to achieve that, he actually learns how to live with it because by the time the movie is over, he's a hero now that has saved the day with his "incredible" ability.
That part of the movie might be the weakest link of the whole thing: the third act. It's weird because for the majority of the movie, it has a great pace and balances visual with dialogue extremely well. You are given solid moments of decompression as an audience to process what you saw in the action sequences and also see the story flesh out organically between what Banner is doing with Liv Tyler's Betty Ross, what her father General Ross is doing and what Blonsky has up his sleeve for the critical juncture of the film. There's a moment where it seems like Banner is cured by Tim Blake Nelson's Dr. Samuel Sterns, but Banner is captured by Ross and his soldiers and taken into custody. At that point you have two soldiers questioning Sterns about the research and his crazy lab before Blonsky shows up, takes out the soldiers and orders Sterns to give him a version of the super serum that he has and has been craving since he had the first injections from Ross. Within minutes, Blonsky is transformed into The Abomination and starts wreaking havoc on Harlem, forcing Ross to turn around his helicopter and trust Banner, who may or may not still have The Hulk in him, to save the day.
This all happens in less than ten minutes on screen after about an hour and a half of well-paced sequences throughout the movie. It's just really fast compared to everything else and it seems kind of flimsy. It's not that Blonsky's motivations haven't been teased the whole time and you understand why Banner wants to take responsibility for taking Blonsky down, but you wonder why Sterns, a creepy guy with ulterior motives the whole time is THAT intimidated by Blonsky to just randomly give him whatever serum he wanted, and why Ross would even consider the notion of releasing the guy he's been hunting the whole time as a danger just to take out one of his own that has gone AWOL. I have to believe that Ross at some point had a "what have I done" moment, not just with Blonsky but also with Banner and thought this would be a great opportunity personally to take some responsibility for his incredibly stupid idea of trying to resurrect a dead super soldier program from World War II. A program that by the way, we would learn a whole lot more about in Captain America: The First Avenger.
The fight between Hulk and Abomination is pretty awesome though. If I'm being honest however, I have to admit that this Hulk CGI is more in line with comic book sensibilities than it is with a live action movie in my opinion. I give them a free pass on it here not only because CGI and VFX are not that serious of an issue with me for movies in general, but also because it was the first time Marvel Studios had done it here. They clearly wanted to do something that looked less like the Ang Lee version and had some more comic book punch and style to it and that's what they did. It's not my favorite but by no means does it ruin or even heavily affect the movie for me.
Outside of the third act being a little fast for me, I was more than impressed with the serious tone of The Incredible Hulk throughout. This is another movie in the MCU that uses bits of humor here and there to support a solid story about Banner's struggles and the pursuit of him from the military. You get a lot of emotional weight and impact from Norton's performance as well as the performances of the rest of the cast, even Ty Burrell's quick turn as Doc Samson, the other half of Betty Ross that was helping her get over Bruce after he disappeared from the accident. Seriously, this movie deserves a lot more credit that it gets in general in my opinion and along with the rest of Phase One is certainly emblematic of a tone that the MCU was embracing early on that was more serious and grounded overall compared to what they have been doing lately. This one is going to move up on my rankings list. A lot. Even with that third act.
Oh and for the record, I still like Mark Ruffalo as Banner for the rest of the franchise. Norton would have worked out fine as well if he had stayed, but I'm good with what Ruffalo has given us. It would have been interesting to see him in this movie from the start.