Welcome to Day 2 of 11 Days of Marvel, where Bill and Erin go through every single extant movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one a day! The project began here, yesterday, with Iron Man, and you should probably start there. Today brings us to:
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Bill’s Response: “Give Me a Real Fight”
It’s often said that superhero movies succeed or fail purely on the strengths of their villains. I won’t say that this is always the case: I think Bane was a pretty good villain and that The Dark Knight Rises was nevertheless pretty crummy. But The Incredible Hulk would be a much better movie if either of its villains made any sense.
William Hurt and Tim Roth are both fantastic actors, with a history of award-winning performances. Hurt’s turn in A History of Violence might be only five or ten minutes long, but it makes the movie, and Tim Roth’s bit in Pulp Fiction is one of my favorite parts of a movie full of favorite parts. But neither of them is given the opportunity to do very much in this movie, and Hurt squanders what little opportunity he is given. He manages to make Thunderbolt Ross entirely uninteresting, yet another instance of the overplayed “obsessed older military dude” trope which permeates popular culture. He spends the whole movie impotent and petulant, shouting hoarse orders way too late to people who can’t hear him. Every time Betty runs off somewhere, he shouts at someone else to bring her back.
Roth does admirably with what little he’s given in the script. Although Roth did apparently do at least some of the motion capture for the Abomination’s final fight, there’s no room for subtlety or gravitas in the ensuing slugfest. And Blonsky’s arc is weirdly truncated – he goes from a soldier who wishes he was younger straight to a lunatic monomaniac in about three minutes of screen time. A few more scenes showcasing his mental decay alongside his physical transformation would have made his post-Abomination decision to go on a rampage through Harlem much more believable. As it is, the final fight exists only because it was necessary for this superhero movie to have a final fight, not because it makes any sense for the character.
I don’t want to talk too much crap about this movie: people like to say it’s terrible, but it’s not. Everything in Brazil is actually great, Banner eating cereal and learning Portuguese from Sesame Street, the way his shirt is soaked through with sweat while he wrangles his makeshift centrifuge, the fantastic chase scene through the streets where Banner has to stop every so often and take a deep breath to avoid hulking out amidst thousands of innocent people. But as soon as Bruce crosses back into the US, the movie becomes rushed and weird, trying to balance its utterly boring romantic subplot with Banner’s increased understanding of the nature of the Hulk alongside what little character development they are willing to give Blonsky and Thunderbolt Ross. In the end, it’s all to no avail: Blonsky makes little sense, Banner is flat, the behavior of the Hulk remains mysterious, and Betty is perhaps the least interesting character the MCU will ever produce. The MCU’s portrayal of women is often not great, but the other Girlfriends of Superheroes (Pepper Potts, Peggy Carter, and Jane Foster) have much more grip to them than poor Betty Ross, who seems to have only one overriding motivation: hang out with Bruce Banner at all costs, preferably while worriedly whispering his name.
I wish the movie would have slowed down a little, given us more Brazil and less New York. I didn’t dislike this as much as I did the last time I saw it, but it’s definitely one of the weaker MCU films. There isn’t very much to hold on to here: the dialogue is serviceable but unmemorable, the CG already looks badly dated, and the action sequences are perfectly adequate, but not terribly interesting. It drops a few references to the Super-Soldier program we’ll see later in Captain America, so it does serve to flesh out the MCU backstory more than I remembered. But it’s a fairly unremarkable movie. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great, either. It’s fine, which might be the worst thing for a superhero movie to be. Nobody liked Ben Affleck’s Daredevil, but they remember it. I suspect this movie will be entirely forgotten except by MCU completionists and Hulk devotees in about five years, if it hasn’t been already.
Also, Ty Burrell is in this movie for some reason.
Favorite Moment: The Brazilian chase scene. It shows us how much time Banner has spent here, since he knows all the hidden alleyways and where all the buildings are. It shows how Blonsky is slowed down by having to work with the other agents and his own aging body, and how he compensates with greater tactical knowledge. It’s probably one of my favorite moments in the entire MCU. To be clear, everything in Brazil is one of my favorite bits of the whole MCU — a movie which delivered on the promise of those scenes would probably be the best one of the bunch.
Least Favorite Moment: Everything with Samuel Sterns, who only seems to exist as a trailer for later Hulk movies that don’t exist.
Goofiest Superpower: The Hulk can apparently clap flames out of existence.
Number of Times Liv Tyler Says “Bruce” In an Insipid Manner: 8.
1. Iron Man
2. The Incredible Hulk
Erin’s Response: “Bruce?” “Bruce?” “Bruuuuuuuce!”
Clearly, this movie was never supposed to have sequels. The opening credits (as seen here) give enough fodder for at least one movie – Bruce works as a scientist, gets cocky, hurts girlfriend and girlfriend’s father, goes on the lam. If this movie had been properly created for the MCU, that whole sequence of events would have merited its own movie. In fact, Bill had to remind me that this was an MCU movie, and not just a super hero movie that came out around the same time to capitalize on the hype of the MCU (read: Man of Steel, Green Lantern, etc.). The tie-ins with the MCU universe are so tenuous—it is clearly the red-headed step child of this larger project.
I remember liking this movie a lot the first time I saw it, although, of course, I have a major, abiding love for Edward Norton (watch The Painted Veil if you have never seen it!) which no doubt colors my view of it. Norton’s Banner is so much more virile, more hungry, more sexy than Mark Ruffalo’s. Ruffalo seems tired, worn around the edges, easy to manipulate, particularly by Iron Man. Norton’s Banner retains his smarts, and his distrust of authority seems well-founded. He is both a professor and a lab rat, and his political sensibilities match these experiences. Watching this movie, I cannot help but wish that Norton had remained involved in the series. I know that he is famously difficult to work with, but his nuance would have been welcome in the MCU, particularly in the Avengers movies. I cannot imagine Norton’s Banner being duped into trying to create Ultron, nor do I imagine that his connection with Natasha Romanoff would be so cold and sour.
That being said, this movie is much more of a trainwreck than I remember. Easily more than half of Liv Tyler’s lines are just “Bruce,” and her voice and character are flimsy throughout. Why is it so hard to have a bad-ass female scientist? Why isn’t she Mr. Blue, the mysterious scientist Banner is communicating with at the beginning of the movie? I can imagine much more interesting things for Betty Ross to do in this movie than say the protagonist’s name over and over in an increasingly infantilized voice.
Best Part: I loved the beginning set in Brazil. It is so rare to see South America portrayed for any length of time in a major motion picture.
Worst Part: While crummy CG tops the list, I think the worst part is when Banner undergoes the procedure that is supposed to maybe, perhaps, make him normal again. It is so boring and clearly isn’t going to work. This whole scene is a waste of 10 minutes of screen time.
Award for the Man Acting Most Like a Woman: Perhaps my favorite (that might not be the right word) part of this movie is the Abomination’s need to be in a younger, more athletic body. Like many women, Emil Blonsky finds himself less than a match for his current circumstances and seeks to rectify it by any means necessary. “If I took what I had now, and put it in a body that I had ten years ago…” Bolsky whines before he is injected with a serum that makes his face go funny and leads to unintended side effects. Blonsky, unable to let go of his past glories, tries to regain himself, only to lose himself entirely. Interestingly enough, this is often a story that is told about women (think Sunset Boulevard or Mommie Dearest, as written about by Amanda Stone). The fear over our aging, decrepit, and most of all undesirable bodies is a fear that rarely is attributed to men. Men are allowed to have weak bodies at the beginning of a movie, but these bodies are almost always made stronger (Captain America is the prime example here).
1. Iron Man
2. The Incredible Hulk
And Now, A Conversation
Bill: Quick sidebar. Do you think your thing for Edward Norton is equal to or less than my thing for Jeff Bridges?
Erin: It is different. I would jump Norton’s bones in front of you and not apologize. You, however, would just have Jeff Bridges’ babies.
Bill: Fair enough. Also, I think this movie was the second movie we ever saw on a date. The first, I think, was American Gangster. That probably says something about us.
Bill: So, we both talked a bit about Betty Ross. I don’t really know anything about the character from the comics, but I was really disappointed with her complete lack of agency or, you know, characterization. Even Jane Foster in Thor 2 gets off some good one-liners here and there.
Erin: I think part of the reason she is so boring is that we never see her and Banner fall in love. This is really the second half of her arc, which is fairly run of the mill to begin with.
Bill: That might make sense. I know a lot of people did praise this movie for not showing an origin story (particularly since it can sort of kind of serve as a sequel to the 2003 Hulk with Eric Bana), but I suspect that’s when we could have seen Betty Ross be something other than just a placeholder.
Erin: I just wish that everyone who falls in love with the Hulk wouldn’t become a simpering, pansy caretaker.
Bill: Heh. But I liked your point about her being Mr. Blue. I know we have talked in the past about how most of the things Erik Selvig does in theThor and Avengers movies could have easily been replaced by Jane Foster. I would say I “wonder” why we’re apparently so scared of showing women as badass scientists, but it’s not actually a great mystery1. It is a shame, though.
Erin: It seems to be some sort of bad mixture of comic book faithfulness (“we’ve got to show as many comic book characters as we can!) with misogyny. But I really do think that they could take a leaf out of the “Elementary” book. Moriarty can totally be The Woman. In fact, the smaller cast is more interesting.
Bill: What’s really weird is when they invent a new scientist out of whole cloth, like they did with Selvig. At least both Ross and Sterns are in the comics.
Erin: Wait, Selvig isn’t in the comics? THAT IS EXTRA RIDICULOUS.
Bill: I think it’s hard to write someone falling in love with the Hulk without falling into tired Beauty and the Beast tropes. Solution: make him fall in love with someone who can take him in a fight, some day. That would change up the dynamic entirely.
Erin: Indeed. But there are absolutely no plans for that as far as I can see.
Bill: So, in conclusion: kind of a dumb movie?
Erin: Kind of a dumb movie.
That’s it for The Incredible Hulk! (And also it for Edward Norton’s involvement in the franchise, although William Hurt is coming back for Captain America: Civil War, apparently). Tune in tomorrow for Iron Man 2, and feel free to comment below!
- The answer is sexism. [↩]