Hulk’s cinematic journey: A look at the Hulk through his many movies

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By all outward appearances Hulk shouldn’t be that hard of a superhero to make interesting. The classic Jekyll-Hyde story of scientist Bruce Bammer whose gamma radiation experiment goes wrong and turns him into a giant raging green monster whenever he gets angry has both the physical and psychological elements of great storytelling that could work well within Marvel’s formula. However, despite having his fair share of highlights when it comes to team-ups there are no solo movies planned for him…ever really. Also, the ones we have had are nothing short of disappointing. This article takes a look at Hulk’s overall movie journey.  

Hulk (2003)

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Now back when the MCU was all but a dream, there was a Hulk movie directed by Ang Lee starring Eric Bana as Bruce Banner, Jennifer Connelly as his ex-girlfriend Betty Ross, Nick Nolte as Banner’s father David, and Sam Elliot as Betty’s father General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross. The story involved Bruce Banner being in a lab accident involving gamma radiation giving him the ability to turn into the titular character and finding himself up against his father and the United States military. Not only did the CGI on Hulk look terrible but its style and story was too abstract, too dramatic, too slow-paced, and just somehow made the idea of a green guy who smashes things boring. The truth about what Bruce repressed as child is something so predictable from the start yet the movie focuses so much time on it. The movie also had this weird editing style of trying to recreate comic book panels all throughout the movie and it’s a wacky thing that doesn’t match up well at all with the tranquil and dramatic tone of the movie. If anything, it just distracts you. On top of that both Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly turned in rather bland performances with little attempt at chemistry. Nick Nolte was also hamming it up as David Banner/Absorbing Man by comparison. Now there are a couple of upsides: Sam Elliot really did well to capture the brutal demeanor of Thunderbolt Ross I pictured in the comics growing up. There’s an action sequence of the Hulk rampaging through the desert that’s really incredible. But most of the rest of the time when we see the Hulk it’s very unfocused (don’t even get me started on David Banner’s team trio of dogs Hulk ends up fighting) and we see him far more as Bruce Banner who (in this version anyway) really does not make for all that compelling of a character (and the same can be said for just about everyone else). Overall while this Hulk movie definitely has some ideas for a good movie, it doesn’t work into the narrative of a character like the Hulk. At least not in Ang Lee’s style of directing. 

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

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After Iron Man came an attempt to reboot the Hulk with this movie. The story involved Bruce Banner in the Amazon trying to find a cure for his condition but when General Ross and the rest of the army find him again Bruce has to go on the run with the help of Betty. One soldier named Emil Blonsky offers to take a serum that slowly begins to turn him into his own giant green monster and thus the two are pitted against each other. The movie has a brilliant opening credits sequence detailing the origin story of the Hulk in a manner that’s set up the same as the Ang Lee Hulk movie but it’s changed around enough for it to be its own thing. If you hadn’t seen the Ang Lee Hulk before this you could still understand that this is the backstory and it’s a method, I wish could be used in more superhero movies. And while Edward Norton was a good choice to portray Bruce Banner and I could see the potential of him not only portraying the struggle of having a literal monster inside of him but also working off his fellow Avengers in the future. At first when we get the Hulk it is very well built up but the amazement factor really decreases as the movie continues and by the climax it’s very run of the mill. And once again most of that emotional struggle most of that pain is seen through Banner and not much is seen through Hulk. To top it off most of the secondary characters don’t have much going for them either. Liv Tyler as Betty Ross even though she’s easy to stomach doesn’t have much to do. Tim Blake Nelson as Dr. Samuel Sterns plays a mysterious scientist whose portrayal definitely could amount to a great villain but he’s never seen again after this movie. Tim Roth is just a man who wants to take down Bruce because well…he’s a soldier and anything to do with his character just fades into the background once he becomes the Abomination. The only one who does pull through is William Hurt as General Ross who does give the character his own spin. So while I can definitely say this is a step up from the Ang Lee Hulk, it’s definitely not “The Incredible Hulk.” 

Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron

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I decided to lump these movies together when it comes to the Hulk since both follow through in portraying him the same way. The first Avengers introduced Mark Ruffalo as Banner this time around and while at times he sounds half asleep it feels done in a way that’s intentional. That is to say he comes across this weary man who has come to terms with having the Hulk inside of him and has been spending years trying to suppress so many of his other stronger emotions to obtain inner tranquility and keep himself in check. This is something that flies high through the first two acts and culminates when he does unleash the rage of the Hulk on New York in the climax through all the major damage he causes. This is something that continued in Avengers Age of Ultron when Banner is hit with a vision by Wanda (no pun intended) and causes mass destruction leading to the world having major backlash. But the movie tries to forge a romance between Bruce and Black Widow which is pointless within the concept of the movie on its own, for both their characters, and really serves one purpose (which I’ll get to in a bit).  

Thor Ragnarok

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After two years we got to meet the Hulk again on a planet Thor and Loki crash land on known as Sakaar. However, he has not become Bruce Banner since the events of the Age of Ultron. THIS is probably the closest thing we will ever get to a Hulk movie. It’s very interesting in how it portrays Banner being the Hulk for a long time and has amusement in his brainless, brutish, monster like demeanor but also his legitimate fear in the scene on the jet when Natasha’s last message to him in Age of Ultron replays (that only purpose I mentioned earlier) causing Bruce for the first time to break through as Hulk struggles to remain in control thrashing about and hurting himself to do so. But it doesn’t stop there: Once he becomes Bruce again we see his fear of never going back to normal if he becomes Hulk again when Thor asks him for help only to find himself surrounded by people who glorify the monster. It makes for very interesting meta commentary about how most of the last two solo movies were spent with him trying to escape this beast when everyone wants the beast and how Banner/Hulk’s rage is not very personified in those movies.  

Avengers: Infinity War

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This movie picks up right where the end of Thor Ragnarok left off. Hulk, Thor, Loki and the other Asgardians come across Thanos and despite Hulk’s attempt to fight him, Thanos beats him quite easily. Despite Banner’s attempts to bring him out he doesn’t come out for the rest of the movie and according to the Russo brothers the reasoning for this was he was intimidated by this defeat. And while this is a legitimate reason, sadly, though he refuses to come out even during the final battle in Wakanda. It’s too bad really because I’ve read apparently that Hulk is one of the few things Thanos actually fears and the battle of Wakanda would be the perfect place to portray that even in wake of Thanos winning as he still carries the scars of his defeat.  

Avengers: Endgame

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Okay let’s get to this right out of the gate: People hate Professor Hulk. I know I get it but let me offer my take on it. Professor Hulk does actually become a thing in the comics and here it happens after the five-year time skip. In all honesty I’m not opposed to the idea of melding Hulk’s body with Banner’s mind. It could potentially be hilarious and perhaps tie into the physical/psychological elements of the Hulk. But mostly the idea is just played for laughs which it does somewhat succeed in that regard. But I honestly would like to see a Hulk movie detailing these past five years of how it got to this point: How Banner and Hulk got this way, how they dealt with things after the defeat in Infinity War and his refusal to emerge, and how he’s existed for years. Or heck even do it as a Disney+ series. Come on Marvel make it happen!  

To be frank I do enjoy Mark Ruffalo’s take on the Hulk (yeah screw your remarks Lou Ferrigno your take wasn’t much better). The team-up movies do have elements of what could make for great Hulk story-telling. And from what the MCU has shown us there are quite a few possibilities for better or for worse.