This is one in a series of posts discussing the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including their narrative strengths and weaknesses.
Coming off of the success of Iron Man, Marvel Studios had high hopes for The Incredible Hulk. The creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe took years to build, and The Incredible Hulk premiered just two months after Iron Man. Marvel hoped that the film would have similar success, but to this day, there have been no sequels. Even starring lead, Edward Norton, was replaced in later reprisals of the Hulk for the Avengers series of movies.
So why the difference? Why do so few people look fondly back on the film? Part of it involves the circumstances in which the film was released. In 2003, Hulk was released by Universal Pictures as an attempt to capitalize on the titular hero’s popularity. That film was met with a mixed response, and its follow up, The Incredbile Hulk, was meant to reboot the franchise under the Marvel Films banner. As such, it needed to be a smash hit with audiences and in earnings.
It wasn’t, and the reason may be found when comparing the film’s writing to that found in Iron Man. The writing in Iron Man focused on the character of Tony Stark and took a long route before unleashing the hero on audiences. That film put Tony, the character, at the forefront of the film. People came to love Iron Man because they loved the man inside the suit, even with his many issues and character flaws.
The Incredible Hulk seemed committed to getting the Hulk onto the screen as quick as possible. Even though there’s no way to know what happened with the writing behind the scenes, it seems possible that the writers wanted to make up for the failures of the previous Hulk film by fast tracking the heroics. This put the Hulk on screen 12 minutes faster than it took to get Iron Man on screen. That might have been fine if the character development had been effective, but the portrayal of Bruce Banner, the Hulk’s human side, lacked all the interesting character quirks that made Tony Stark so appealing.
Of course, Bruce Banner and Tony Stark are not the same characters and come from distinctly different backgrounds. However, skilled writing involves portraying characters in complex, interesting ways. For proof, look no further than the portrayal of Bruce Banner in The Avengers film. As written for replacement actor, Mark Ruffalo, the character of Bruce Banner becomes a quirk y genius with a genuine sense that he’s suppressing extreme rage. As written for Edward Norton, Bruce seems comes across as sullen and depressed. While those are certainly two qualities that come with the burden of being the Hulk, characterizing Bruce so heavily along those lines simply made him unappealing in many respects.
There were also incredible problems with the pacing of the writing. Norton is written as isolated white man working in a Latin American country. As a result, he has no other characters to bounce off of. The audience receives an introverted, depressed character with no friends to talk to. In contrast, Tony Stark had both Pepper Potts and Rhodey that he could talk with. This provided for plenty of opportunities to showcase Tony’s charm but also his flaws in a way that remained interesting.Banner is simply portrayed through multiple scenes as pursuing a cure to being the Hulk. In other words, while Iron Man was invested in building up the character of Tony Stark first and letting the film’s plot unfold after that, The Incredible Hulk moved quickly into plot lines without giving us a character that could anchor those plots.
There’s also a problem with the tone that the writers set for the film. Both movies deal with the United States military. In Iron Man, the movie manages to maintain its comic book sensibilities while tackling the timely theme of unfettered weapons development. In Captain America: Winter Soldier, there’s just as much of a focus on the U.S. military and espionage as anything you’ll find in The Incredible Hulk. So why is the tone for The Incredible Hulk so off putting? Because the writing put the U.S. military first and not the Hulk. The first hour is a constant barrage of U.S. military efforts to stop the Hulk, turning the film into an almost Frankenstein-esque pursuit of a monster.
Unlike Frankenstein, The Incredible Hulk doesn’t have anything deeper to say. Frankenstein discusses what really makes men monsters. Winter Soldier discusses the implications of a deep state and the negative consequences for the U.S. citizenry. Both keep their characters anchored firmly at the heart of those stories. In The Incredible Hulk, the U.S. military is used just as a tool to get at the Hulk. Worse, the character of the Hulk is continuously acted upon, always hunted. He’s rarely an active agent in his own story.
However, the greatest writing crime in the movie comes back down to character. The Hulk isn’t a quippy, Spider-Man type character, he’s not an insulting Iron Man type, and he’s not a leader like Captain America. He’s a rage fueled monster, so he’s already difficult to write in such a way as to make him compelling. However, that would be alright if Bruce Banner was written in such a way that it made him engaging and worth rooting for. However, the character is so flat that it’s hard to stay engaged with his struggles. The characters he’s surrounded by aren’t much more fleshed out.
Writers can learn from the mistakes of the film by remembering the importance of creating an engaging central protagonist. This is especially true if, as with the Hulk, your protagonist spends half of his or her time being essentially mute. Those conditions make it that much more important to create an engaging protagonist from the start. A strong central character is the vehicle through which deeper themes are introduced. It’s also important for writers to use elements so that they have greater meaning and purpose.
Both Winter Soldier and The Incredible Hulk use the roles of the military, but Winter Soldier takes its time to explore what it means to have secret funding and operations that fuel covert military projects. The Incredible Hulk seemed to be content to simply portray the U.S. military as ‘bad.’ The Incredible Hulk was written with lots of interesting scenes, but they lacked the characters and consistent themes to connect them together into one interesting package.
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