The Hulk has had a storied life over the past few years. Most fans look to the most recent incarnation as the best, but I’m not so sure.
Now, Mark Ruffalo is by no means a shabby Hulk. His portrayal of the “smashing” character in The Avengers is incredibly well done. Contracts and rumors followed the films release in regards to a bright solo future for the Hulk. But I don’t think it can happen.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is saturated. If Hulk were to appear in any movie outside of The Avengers, it would have to be in the realm of another member. Hulk vs Thor, for example. The MCU already has its origin story movie, The Incredible Hulk (2008). That movie unfairly removes the previous Hulk (2003) from the record. Marvel’s justification is to have a Hulk that is a cleaner fit to the MCU.
Re-watching the Hulk (2003) today and you can see there isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with the film. Sure, character development seems weak at points and Eric Bana and Jennifer Conley have a wet rag romance. Edward Norton and Liv Tyler were no better. In fact, Conley and Tyler both are masters of deadpan acting. Hulk (2003) was directed by Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi) and included groundbreaking visual work from Industrial Light in Magic.
The problem comes from timing. In 2003 we were just starting the super hero movie revolution. We had Spider-man in 2002 directed by Sam Raimi, and it was widely regarded as a success. But it was a super hero movie. There was a certain amount of cheese expected with this type of film and it carries over from the 90’s into the Hulk. The obvious sign is always in the art style of the intro credits. These might be good movies, but one could never take this genre seriously.
The Paradigm shift came in the form of Batman Begins. In 2005, Christopher Nolan took every super hero movie and dated them. Nolan took Batman at his roots and using Frank Miller’s gritty story telling created a universe based in dark realism. This was a serious movie with serious actors and a director who took it seriously and it shows immensely. Every super hero movie that has followed Batman Begins has followed this tone.
Hulk (2003) then stands out more as a comic than an epic. It becomes clear why the MCU Hulk needed a reboot, although I can’t say it did a better job. And that comes from part two of the gritty/dark paradigm: the realism. Hulk suffers from being a fantastic character created by fantastic circumstances. Superman also falls into this trap, as a character that cant get hurt and can basically do anything. Spider-man manages to squeak by as an angsty teen, but his villains do not. X-Men have tried to bridge the paradigm by using the First Class series. Ultimately the MCU has shied away from using any characters that follow this extraordinary or mutant or magical background. Even going so far as to rewrite histories for some of its characters. No longer mutants, they are just experiments of man. In that vein, Hulk fits. Besides, he’s not Hulk all the time.
As a classic comic movie, Hulk (2003) follows all the rules. Comic title screen and credits? Check. Deep backstory? Super check. Hero is misunderstood yet never kills anyone? Triple check. I particularly love the comic style way they portray scenes. By splitting up the shot into frames, you can see action and reverse shots all at once and it plays beautifully. This type filming style would be recreated and expanded by the Wachowski’s in their greatest film Speed Racer.
This film is worth a revisit. You wont cringe at the effects and you just might change your mind about the story. Hulk (2003) only suffers from being at the wrong place and the wrong time.