Experimentation isn’t an obvious descriptor for Marvel movies in the MCU. Superhero movies and Marvel series nowadays can often feel cookie cutter, following particular standards in aesthetic and production to not disrupt the franchise conveyor belt.
Some instalments have managed to break the mold, like the Guardians of the Galaxy science fiction movies, and the comedy movie stylings of Ant-Man. But, back in the halcyon days of MCU Phase 1, the Marvel Studios style guide was but a Google Doc in Kevin Feige’s imagination.
Most films in that period are still fairly by the books, but The Incredible Hulk demonstrated Marvel could indulge in genre filmmaking beyond just action while building MCU characters. For a moment, Bruce Banner’s theatrical re-introduction becomes a full on monster movie, and it’s a sequence that doesn’t get enough credit.
Allow me to set the scene: Bruce (Edward Norton) is on the run from a special ops team sent by Thaddeus Ross. He’d been living incognito in Rio Di Janeiro, trying to fix his transformations, but a chemical leak gave away his location.
Marvel villain Emil Blomsky chases Bruce through the city in a frenzied pursuit across multiple rooftops and alleyways, until they reach a factory. Once inside, that’s where the real fun happens. We all knew it was coming – the mean green machine was about to show up and throw these goons around.
Perspective shifts to the soldiers, who’re suddenly tip-toeing around this facility trying to find their target. One by one, they’re dragged into the shadows to be brutally maimed by some unseen predator. Bruce Banner is gone, and he’s been replaced by something much more dangerous and sinister, and if Thaddeus had any sense, he’d have let sleeping Hulks lie.
He didn’t, and eventually the bulky behemoth steps out in all his glory, his bulbous muscles almost forcing back the darkness. It’s the perfect introduction for one of Marvel’s most distinctive and fascinating heroes, a Jekyll-and-Hyde who fundamentally alters the paradigm of any situation he’s in.
For someone who doesn’t know what’s coming, it could be quite frightening. Norton’s a familiar face, trusted from a number of hit drama movies, and then he disappears into this gigantic, bizarre thing that can benchpress a bus and talks entirely in grunts. The Hulk is pure anger, a constantly erupting manmade weapon who bulldozes through anything in front of him.
Logic and reason are on different wavelengths for the Hulk, for whom both usually boil down to “smash”. He’s unstoppable and volatile, and when you’re stuck in close proximity, you might as well start imagining your epitaph.
The Incredible Hulk is directed by Louis Leterrier, and it’s some of his finest work tonally. He’s mostly worked on thriller movies and fantasy movies, doing Transporter 2 and that Clash of the Titans remake you barely remember. Besides Fast and Furious 10, where he stepped in for Justin Lin, he handled every episode of the 2019 Netflix series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.
I believe there’s a through-line from Hulk’s MCU reboot and The Dark Crystal, in that Leterrier is missing a trick not being a horror movie director. The way he handles Bruce’s transformation is almost the scariest and most ferocious the angry green giant has been in the franchise, just behind when the Hulk goes off on the helicarrier in 2012’s The Avengers.
The Dark Crystal demonstrates how well he can harness striking environments, and make already creepy looking creatures like the Skekis feel even more so. This scene in The Incredible Hulk could easily be part of a werewolf movie – just sayin’.
This film is often swept under the rug now, because Mark Ruffalo took over the role and Marvel Studios and Kevin Feige reshaped the Hulk to be more comedic. But a lot of it has become part of the canon again, most recently Emil Blomsky returning for She-Hulk.
If I’d my way, the franchise would revisit this Hulk and do a mid-budget scary movie where it’s just people trying to avoid getting battered. Studio politics make that unlikely – in the end, Thunderbolt Ross has gotten his way more than he’ll ever realise.
Check out our guide to Marvel’s Phase 5 to see what’s coming in the franchise, as well as our articles on The Marvels release date and Avengers 5 release date. Our new movies list will keep you informed on what’s coming out, too.