The Incredible Hulk finds itself in a strangely odd place. It’s the only Marvel Cinematic Universe movie that had its lead actor recast in future MCU installments. The film is consequently a lot more known for this stunt than for its content. Its characters barely exist in the MCU, save for General Thaddeus Ross who returns with a tweaked characterization in future movies. But even more strangely, it’s been kept so distant from all other Marvel properties that some people refuse to acknowledge it as a part of the MCU at all.
If you’re one of those people that has similar doubts, let’s clear that up right here. The Incredible Hulk is very much a part of the MCU or Marvel Cinematic Universe slate of movies. The Hulk is carried over directly from this film, referencing its events in future installments. General Ross reprises his role in future movies. Footage from the movie is seen in Iron Man 2. Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. are seen in the opening montage for a split second or two. And finally, Tony Stark himself makes an appearance in the movie, so there’s that. Even Captain America himself can be seen frozen in ice in one of the movie’s deleted alternate openings (which by the way, is itself referenced in The Avengers).
The Incredible Hulk may have floundered a bit in its storytelling with more emphasis on action than character, but it still did a lot of impactful things for the MCU, things that we were seeing for the first time. The biggest of all of course, is its post-credits (really before-credits) stinger which is responsible for truly giving audiences a taste of what this shared universe world looks like. Back in the day, the concept of watching one movie to understand the next was only associated with sequels. And yet, here we were, having Tony Stark appear and confront General Ross at the movie’s end in what was essentially not a direct sequel to Iron Man in any way. Ignore or diminish the film how much you will, but that was the first time anyone got any sense of what a shared universe is going to feel like. In fact, it remains the only cross-actor appearance to-date in Phase One of the MCU.
The Incredible Hulk is also notable for being too many things. It is simultaneouls a reboot to one movie and a sequel to two. Ang Lee’s Hulk released in 2003 didn’t sit well with audiences and bored them with its more cerebral take on the character, delaying the appearance of the monster-smashing until the movie’s third act. This new Hulk doesn’t acknowledge the events of that movie directly, but does plant subtle hints to establish some connection. The opening montage takes place 5 years before the events of the main movie, which is pretty much the difference between the two movies’ release dates. Moreover, the movie takes off with Banner on the run, and quotes the “you won’t like me when I’m angry” line often. It connects nicely to Ang Lee’s Hulk where Banner banishes himself in the jungles of South America after Hulking out.
Then again, this also makes it a quasi-sequel to Hulk in that it continues the story but doesn’t really rely upon events of that film, spinning out a whole new narrative of its own. We thus have General Ross wanting to get his hands on the monster trapped inside Banner and tame it to control an army of super-soldiers. Russian born British soldier Emil Blonsky wants in on the action, and even gets injected with a dose of the serum himself leading to his transformation into The Abomination. All of this has nothing to do with the 2003 film, thereby distancing itself appropriately. And yet, amidst all this, the presence of Tony Stark makes it the second movie in the MCU and consequently, a quasi-sequel to Iron Man as well. That’s a lot of things to pull off for one movie but The Incredible Hulk does it.
There’s been a recent trend of leaving certain plot points open, or deliberately setting those off to play out in future installments. At least in the context of the MCU, The Incredible Hulk left open a lot more teases than Iron Man did. The transformation of Samuel Sterns into The Leader is both hinted at and acknowledged in the behind the scenes documentaries, making this the first MCU movie to actually setup a future installment. Where Iron Man was complete in itself, hinting only at the Avenger initiative, Incredible Hulk had plans for its sequel’s villains laid out. It’s a shame it didn’t pan out due to the complicated licensing of Hulk as a character; Universal Pictures owns the distribution rights to any Hulk movie with Marvel having creative control, implying the two studios will need to work together on a Hulk movie all the time.
I also think it’s worth addressing the common complaint about The Incredible Hulk which I myself have with it more often, which is its preference for action over thoughtfulness. I can totally see it as a decision made in part by the Marvel Creative Committee of the time (these are days when Kevin Feige wasn’t the sole in-charge). Watching its rich repository of deleted scenes, one realizes that the movie was every bit as thoughtful as some of the better ones that the MCU had to offer later on. And Edward Norton helped rewriting parts of the script as well, making it more than just a smash-flick. Unfortunately, a lot of that material was cut out of the final film for pacing issues, otherwise we’d have gotten an action movie with character, and even a strong explanation for why General Ross is in relentless pursuit of the untamed power that The Hulk carries.
All that is in the past though. The fact remains that The Incredible Hulk made around $264 million against a $150 million production budget. Far from a huge success, the audience still cheered considering it was expected to bore but ended up entertaining. And it would get the wheels rolling, giving Marvel the necessary moviegoing public’s approval they needed to move full steam ahead with their plans of ambitious crossovers. For that, The Incredible Hulk will be incredibly important.
In this Appocalypse weekly series titled The Road to Avengers: Endgame, we take a look at all the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies leading up to the release of Avengers: Endgame with a specific focus on the importance of the movies in the MCU pantheon. These pieces may be laden with spoilers so read carefully.