The Incredible Hulk is a misfire, but an informative one.
The Incredible Hulk is the second film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, following the release of Iron Man just six weeks earlier. While Iron Man would become the bedrock of the sprawling shared universe to follow, The Incredible Hulk was a dead end. It was the only film in the MCU distributed by Universal. It was the only appearance of Edward Norton in the title role. The film’s various sequel teases — including Tim Blake Nelson’s small role as future villain Samuel Sterns — were left unfulfilled.
It is somewhat ironic that The Incredible Hulk remains the Green Goliath’s only solo entry in the MCU, reportedly in part due to that distribution deal with Universal. It is also strange that the movie ended up such a disappointment. The MCU was largely built around what were (at the time) second stringers because their big names like Spider-Man and the X-Men had been licensed to other studios. At the time of release, Hulk wasn’t just “the strongest one there is,” but also the most famous.
The Hulk had been subject to a couple of high-profile live-action adaptations before he was folded into the MCU. The most beloved was the classic television series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno that ran on CBS from 1978 until 1982. The Incredible Hulk pays homage to this both by casting Ferrigno as the Hulk and by affording him a small cameo as a security guard. “You are the man,” Norton’s Banner assures the security guard, speaking for all fans of the series.
The other high-profile live-action adaptation had been Ang Lee’s Hulk, a 2003 film from the director of The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. History has been kind to Hulk, with many retroactive assessments praising the film’s interiority and psychology — along with its distinctive visual style that consciously emulated comic book paneling. However, it did not garner an especially enthusiastic response on release: It was dismissed as “too intellectual” and “ponderous.”
The production team on The Incredible Hulk did not want to make another Hulk. Producer Gale Anne Hurd used the word “re-quel” to describe the intended approach. They wanted a film that could serve as a sequel to Hulk while also effectively rebooting the franchise. The biggest bridge between Hulk and The Incredible Hulk is that Eric Bana’s Bruce Banner ends up in South America, while Edward Norton’s iteration of the character starts there.
However, while the studio was clear on what it didn’t want The Incredible Hulk to be, it cast a leading actor who did have a strong and definite vision for the film. Edward Norton was one of the most respected actors of the era, coming off a string of generation-defining hits like American History X, Fight Club, and 25th Hour. He was also, by all accounts, not an easy actor for a studio to work with. The difficulties involving Norton on The Italian Job and The Score were well-known.
Norton was an actor very possessive of his screen image and brand, and very invested in the work that he chose to do. Norton was prone to rewrite and rework his projects and the projects of those close to him — Norton allegedly rewrote Frida for his then-girlfriend Salma Hayek. Norton famously “jockeyed for control” of American History X, with director Tony Kaye describing Norton as “a narcissistic dilettante” who locked Kaye out of the editing booth to finish the cut on the film.
To give Norton credit, his work generally tended to improve the finished product. The early test screenings of Tony Kaye’s cut of American History X were “surprisingly” positive, but the version released in theaters earned Norton an Oscar nomination and has become “a minor masterpiece.” Norton reportedly only accepted the role in The Incredible Hulk on the understanding that he would rewrite the script. He did so under a tight schedule and with an understanding pre-production had begun.
Screenwriter Zak Penn has objected to Norton’s efforts to take credit on the script. However, the cast and crew acknowledge Norton’s hand in rewriting the film during production. Tim Roth explained, “That was part of his deal, wasn’t it? There were rewrites every single day.” It’s possible to argue over how much work Norton did on the script – the WGA determined that Norton could not claim authorship of the finished screenplay – but there is no denying his efforts to shape the movie.
So, what exactly did Edward Norton want from The Incredible Hulk? Norton has been candid in interviews after the fact. “It’s literally the Promethean myth,” he explained late last year. “I laid out a two-film thing: The origin and then the idea of Hulk as the conscious dreamer, the guy who can handle the trip. And they were like, ‘That’s what we want!’ As it turned out, that wasn’t what they wanted.”
However, when Louis Leterrier was offered the role of director, he wasn’t offered a clear vision of what the film should be. Only what it shouldn’t be. When he suggested he could not match Ang Lee’s vision, Marvel responded, “No, no, no! We want to start over with a new direction!” Kevin Feige would later treat the film as a branding exercise to get the character “into the MCU canon.”
Predictably, Norton and Marvel Studios would clash over the final cut of The Incredible Hulk, with Leterrier stuck “in the center.” Reportedly, Norton and Leterrier lobbied for a two-hour-and-15-minute cut, a version about 25 minutes longer than the theatrical release. Leterrier teased that the Blu-ray would contain 70 minutes of deleted scenes – it eventually contained 44 minutes, which is still a lot for a major theatrical release.
Marvel famously cut Norton’s planned opening scene, which featured Bruce Banner hitchhiking into the frozen wilderness where he would attempt suicide. This is an interesting scene on multiple levels. It establishes the psychological stakes of the story, grounding it in Banner’s trauma and despair. It also demonstrates Norton’s bona fides as “a closet comic book geek,” referencing both Richard Donner’s Superman II and Brian Azzarello and Richard Corben’s Startling Stories: Banner. It is no small irony that Joss Whedon would have Mark Ruffalo’s version of the character reference the scene in The Avengers.
The theatrical version of The Incredible Hulk opens with two somewhat ironic images. Flashbacks during the opening credits feature Edward Norton trapped inside a giant monstrous machine, and he is introduced working what amounts to an assembly line – two potent visual metaphors for the film itself. Still, the opening act of The Incredible Hulk demonstrates the potential of Norton’s vision. It’s smart, fun, and energetic – often playing on the audience’s familiarity with the character.
Norton’s effectively tasked with carrying the movie’s opening half hour by himself, focusing on Banner on the run in South America. This segment operates on the tension around Banner’s inevitable transformation, cleverly treating a heart rate monitor as a timer on a bomb. It is a nice allusion to the “wandering hero” aesthetic of the ‘70s television show and provides a backdrop that is markedly different from those of a lot of superhero films.
However, the interesting part of The Incredible Hulk is Norton himself. Norton is an actor who has spent most of his career playing intensity – from Primal Fear to Red Dragon, Norton’s characters are defined by how tightly they are wound. Norton is entirely believable as a scrawny and unassuming man with a giant green rage monster trapped inside; that is close to the central dynamics of American History X and Fight Club.
Watching Norton in action, it is possible to believe that the audience might not like him when he is angry. It is a different sort of energy to the rugged handsomeness of Eric Bana or the affable charm of Mark Ruffalo. Indeed, The Incredible Hulk treats the creature as a monster. It is introduced striking from darkness. Its rampages appear genuinely horrific, leaving mangled bodies in their wake. This is not power to be fetishized, as it will be in Infinity War and Endgame; this is power to be feared.
If Iron Man gets a pass because most of its problems are in the third act, The Incredible Hulk suffers because its problems are most obvious in its second act. Even without the deleted scenes, it is apparent that the movie has been trimmed in the editing room. Characters are vaguely defined and underdeveloped, as the movie chugs along from one action scene to the next. Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) is introduced half an hour in but never given any meaningful characterization.
What is missing from the film becomes clear in the deleted scenes. A lot of what Marvel trimmed from the middle section of the movie added shading and complexity to the supporting cast. General Ross (William Hurt) makes a lot more sense when he gets a chance to explain what he sees in the Hulk. Leonard Samson’s (Ty Burrell) inclusion makes more sense when he gets to articulate the complexities of Bruce and Betty’s relationship.
The studio cut all that out, perhaps fearing a slower and more ponderous movie that might evoke comparisons to Ang Lee’s Hulk. However, they never added anything to replace it. The result is a movie that New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott wryly summarized as “The Adequate Hulk,” a film “content to aim for the generic mean.” Indeed, The Incredible Hulk has generally managed to avoid effusive praise or damning criticism, failing to garner as vocal a hatedom as the superior Iron Man 3.
Still, The Incredible Hulk was useful as a negative case. It clarified the kind of films that Marvel did not want to make – and the kind of talent it didn’t want to employ. Norton would be unceremoniously dropped as Banner, with Feige suggesting the studio wanted “an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members.” Norton’s agent called out the statement as “offensive.” Norton himself would later describe it as “cheap.”
It is, of course, impossible to know if Norton’s cut of The Incredible Hulk would have been a great movie – or even a better movie. It will never exist and so can’t be compared. However, the deleted scenes suggest a much richer and moodier film than the version released in cinemas, one more interested in character and psychology than simple propulsive action. It doesn’t look or feel like a standard MCU movie — and that is not necessarily a criticism.
Barring William Hurt’s return to the fold in Civil War, The Incredible Hulk proved to be an evolutionary cul-de-sac for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is a messy and fractured film, perhaps befitting its protagonist. In fact, much like the eponymous monster, it is a reminder that even failed experiments can be fascinating.