(In anticipation of Avengers: Endgame’s impending release, we’re taking a look back at the entire MCU, film by film. Rather than doing straightforward reviews, our goal with this retrospective is to trace the footsteps of Marvel Studios in order to understand the decisions that were made along the way to becoming a Hollywood Powerhouse.)
The Incredible Hulk had the misfortune to be released almost immediately on the heels of Iron Man. That film was a massive hit with audiences and critics alike. The Incredible Hulk came out just over a month later, and it had big shoes to fill – both literally and metaphorically.
Unlike Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk was put in the awkward position of following Ang Lee’s 2003 film, Hulk. While Hulk had moderate box office success when it was released, the film ended up being a disappointment. Universal – who owned the full rights to the character at the time – had originally intended to make a direct sequel to the 2003 film. But when Universal failed to start production on time, Marvel reclaimed production and licensing rights for the character. The caveat was that Universal held onto the distribution rights for any Hulk sequels. It still has those rights, which is why there hasn’t been a Hulk movie since.
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Shortly thereafter, Marvel Studios made plans to self-finance the reboot, with the intent of having Universal distribute. This was a rare opportunity for Marvel to step outside of its distribution pact with Paramount. The deal simultaneously allowed Marvel to retain full creative control. As one of Marvel’s most indelible and recognizable characters, Bruce Banner/Hulk was an essential building block. This film also gave Marvel a second chance to get things right.
Director Louis Letterier had expressed interest in directing Iron Man. However, Marvel eventually offered him The Incredible Hulk. Letterier agreed to join the project after learning the film wouldn’t be a sequel to Lee’s film. This allowed the Unleashed director to put his own stamp on the material. Letterier began developing concept art without a script. Marvel hired Zak Penn to write the script for the film, and The Incredible Hulk was officially in pre-production.
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Penn was insistent on making the movie similar in tone to both the 1978 TV Hulk series and Bruce Jones’ comic run. As a result, The Incredible Hulk become more of a fugitive movie. It even skipped past the origin story in an opening montage. Penn eventually completed three drafts of the film before leaving to promote another film that he directed. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but the script still wasn’t in optimal shape. That left the filmmakers were facing an impeding June 2008 release window. Forced to power onward, the only major piece left to place was the actor who could embody the eponymous dual role. That’s where Edward Norton fits into the picture.
As much as The Incredible Hulk is an anomaly of the MCU at large, Norton’s time working with Marvel is also an oddity. Although Letterier wanted Mark Ruffalo for the role, Norton was eventually approached to star in the film. Norton was hesitant – apparently due to his displeasure with the script – but he eventually took the role. However, Norton insisted upon rewriting the screenplay. Norton had roughly a month to complete his pass, and he continued writing well into production. Noton contributed character and dialogue changes, as well as Bruce’s early email correspondence with Samuel Sterns. However, Norton was ultimately denied a writing credit by the WGA.
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Despite Norton’s constant rewrites, production went relatively smoothly and the film was finished on schedule. However, that the fractured nature of the final film truly began to take shape during the editing process. In retrospect, it’s the film’s infamous editing battles that diminished the movie and left it disconnected from the MCU. After early test screenings, the nearly three-hour cut was trimmed down significantly. Norton and Letterier preferred the longer, more introspective cut of the movie. But the Marvel Studios brass settled on a shorter, more fast-paced action/adventure movie. The latter is the cut that eventually arrived in theaters. Because of that battle, the film feels at odds with itself.
On paper, it’s easy to see how Norton could embody the duality of the Hulk and Bruce Banner. But he was still a bit of an unconventional choice for the character. Norton’s interpretation of Hulk is more rooted in finding the humanity in Banner than anything else. While Banner feels fleshed out enough, it’s The Incredible Hulk’s interpretation of the big green guy that really falls flat. Norton only seemed interested in playing Banner. There’s no part of Norton’s performance that shines through in the Hulk himself. That was unfortunate, because Norton was actually a pretty decent version of Banner.
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Truth be told, the direction in The Incredible Hulk is actually pretty solid. Whereas Jon Favreau’s shooting style on Iron Man was more classical in nature, Letterier’s style was the exact opposite. He used kinetic movements and an often-handheld camera to help sell Banner’s constant inner battle. Letterier’s direction is always rooted in character. However, the film’s edits often feel disjointed with some logical leaps that don’t make sense. It’s not entirely Norton’s fault, but his creative input on set and in the edit bay certainly wasn’t a vision shared by Marvel. Both sides should have known that from the start.
Norton is also notorious for exerting his own creative vision on his movies. By bringing Norton on as an actor and a writer, Marvel ultimately doomed the film. In the long run, this led Marvel Studios to limit the creative control of their filmmakers. Arguably, this also lend to the singular vision MCU films that would eventually become box office juggernauts. All things considered, The Incredible Hulk is a movie that – like the title character – is very much at odds with itself. That’s why it is so easily forgettable.
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