When comic fans and writers talk about a character’s “status quo” they don’t just mean the existing state of affairs in that character’s book. The Status Quo is sort of like the Platonic Ideal of a comic character, the version of the character that everyone thinks of when they hear the character’s name. For example, Spider-man’s status quo is:
- Spider-man is mild-mannered Peter Parker, who gained incredible spider powers when he was bitten by a radioactive spider during a science presentation.
- He wears a red and blue spider-suit.
- He lives in Queens with his elderly Aunt May.
- His love interest is Mary Jane Watson.
- He works as a freelance photographer for the Daily Bugle, where his boss is J. Jonah Jameson.
- His life is a never ending parade of misery.
Now, you could pick up any comic featuring Spider-man since 1962 and the odds are good that at least one of those bullet points is not true for the book you’re currently reading (except the last one. That never changes). Spider-man might be dating Gwen Stacy. He might be working as a science teacher. He might not be Peter Parker at all, but instead Ben Reilly or Miles Morales or Otto Octavius or Miguel O’Hara. Aunt May might be dead again. But still, that’s the default version of the character. Whenever the comic goes off the rails, chances are they’ll return Spider-man to his roots and have him back at the Daily Bugle, back with Mary Jane, living with Aunt May. Sooner or later, he will return to status quo like he’s attached to it with a bungee cord.
The Hulk, who debuted a few months prior to Spider-man in 1962 also has a default version; When he gets angry, scientist Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk, a massive rampaging green giant with the mental capacity of a three year old who destroys everything in his path. He is a man of few words, and those words are “Hulk” and “Smash”.
This is the version of the character that everyone is familiar with, and to comic fans he’s known as “Savage Hulk”. What’s interesting about the Hulk is that I can think of very few superheroes who spend less time “at status quo” than the Hulk. And the reason for that is, there’s not really that much you can do with Savage Hulk. Savage Hulk is less a character than an event that other characters react to. He’s like Godzilla. What kind of story can you do with Godzilla? What journey can he go on? Is he going to adopt an orphaned child and raise him as his ward? No. He’s going to stomp on buildings and go “SKRONK!”. Is he going to discover a shocking secret about his past that throws everything he though he knew about himself into doubt? No. He’s going to stomp on buildings and go “SKRONK!”. Is he going to serve as an allegory for the horrors of nuclear war? Yes. While he stomps on buildings and goes “SKRONK!”
That’s basically Hulk’s problem (just swap out “SKRONK” for “HULK SMASH”) and probably why the character often had trouble maintaining a series of his own while still being a very popular guest character in the books of other superheroes. Writers have gotten around this by staying as far away from the Savage Hulk status quo as they can. Often the Hulk will be made more intelligent, or a different side of Banner’s personality will emerge as a new Hulk. Or Banner and the Hulk will merge personalities. Or they’ll swap personalities. Or the writers will huff paint and do something really stupid.
We do not speak of the time Hulk tried to bang his cousin.
Despite that, Savage Hulk retains a near total grip on the general public’s perception of the character, especially since all the non-comic depictions of the (the seventies TV Show, the two cartoon series and both movies) have been pure Savage Hulk. And the reason for that is that Savage Hulk, despite the limitations he brings from a story-telling point of view, is a fanastic concept because he is so universal. Everyone can relate to the Hulk. When we see Bruce Banner finally lose his temper and transform into a huge, rampaging monster it’s cathartic as all hell because on some level we all wish we could do that.
Following the success of Iron Man it was time for the difficult second album and Hulk seemed an obvious candidate for the studio’s sophomore effort. He was, without question, the highest profile character in Marvel’s stable that they owned the movie rights to, thanks to the success of the Bill Bixby series. But there was a problem, looming over the production like a big hulking…hulk.
In a way, it would have been easier if Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk: A Mediation on Moss has been an out and out flop. That way Marvel could have simply said “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it! The grownups are in charge now!” and completely ignore it other than to work a few sarcastic swipes at it into to the script. But here’s the thing, Lee’s Hulk might not have been popular with comic fans but it actually did fairly decently at the box office and got not a little critical love. Personally, I appreciate what Lee was going for and think that there are some beautiful moments and really good performances but yeah, the movie is kind of a snooze fest. It has its fans though, putting Marvel in a bit of a tricky position. Should they embrace Lee’s Hulk and make their version a straight up sequel, or start again with a new origin story that firmly established their Hulk as a new, separate beast? In the end, they did neither.
While hiring journeyman action director Louis Letterier is about as far in the opposite direction from Ang Lee as you can get, 2008’s The Incredible Hulk acts as a very, very soft sequel to 2003’s Hulk. The latter ends with Bruce Banner in hiding in South America, his girlfriend Betty Ross pining for him and her dad General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross looking to capture the Hulk for the US military and that’s exactly where the pieces are on the board when the 2008 movie begins. Oh we get a very quick and dirty wordless origin story over the credits and as we’ll find out later 2008 contradicts 2003 on some key points but the fact remains; if you saw 2003 then you already know who these character are and what their deal is. So it’s around a year since Banner first became the Hulk and we first see him doing yoga to keep his heart-rate low enough that he won’t turn into the Hulk. Bruce is hiding out in a favela in Brazil. He splits his time between working in a bottling plant, studying martial arts to keep his anger under control and web-chatting with a mysterious scientist known only as “Mr. Blue”. This is a nice little shout out to a storyline in the comics where Banner also corresponded with a “Mr. Blue” who turned out to be none other than Reed Richards. Obviously that’s not going to be the case here because Marvel don’t own the movie rights to the Fantastic Four.
“They’re dead to us.”
Mr Blue tells Banner that he can’t help him without a sample of his precious, precious blood. Bruce really doesn’t want anyone messing around with his blood because it’s basically a bio-weapon but he’s out of options so he sends Mr Blue a test tube of his blood in the mail.
The Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department better keep their grubby mitts off this.
Bruce is so paranoid about his blood getting into the wrong hands that, when he cuts himself fixing a machine at the factory he shuts down the entire production line to clean up a single drop of blood. He also carries some medical glue with him at all times to close up any cuts which is a really nice, subtle detail. On his way home, he stops to intervene on behalf of Martina (Débora Nascimento), a female co-worker who’s getting harassed by a dude so creepy it’s like he learned pick-up tips from Gollum.
Chicks dig Sméagol. Everyone knows chicks dig Sméagol.
Gollum picks a fight with Bruce who warns him in broken Portuguese that “You wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry.”
Honestly, that line makes much more sense. I’m not pleasant to be around when I’m angry, but when I’m hungry I’m a goddamn Destroyer of Worlds.
Meanwhile, in the United States, General Ross (William Hurt) gets word that an old man has suffered gamma poisoning from a bottle of fruit juice which has been traced back to a bottling plant in Brazil. He pulls in some favours to get some tough bastards together including Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), a British soldier on loan to SOCOM because Tim Roth apparently wasn’t getting paid enough to do an American accent. En route Blonsky and the other soldiers are told that they’re to bring Banner in alive if at all possible but to be very careful. Blonsky is a little dubious as to how dangerous the scrawny pencil neck in the dossier could be but Ross tells him that Banners has killed four (possibly six) people already so he’s not to be underestimated.
Online, Mr Blue tells Bruce that he got the blood sample and that he’s found a treatment that looks promising but that he’ll need all the data from the original experiment that turned Banner into the Hulk. Banner tells him that all that information is under lock and key back in the States so they’re kinds screwed.
The commando team lead by Blonsky raids Bruce’s apartment but when they pull back the blankets of his bed they find a dummy with a wig. One thing I like about this movie is that it shows just how good Bruce has become at evading capture. He’s been able to out run the largest military on Earth because he is damn smart. Blonksy reports to Ross that Bruce has given them the slip, and takes out his frustration by shooting Banner’s dog with a tranquilizer dart.
Bruce runs into Martina’s apartment because…they’re next door neighbours, apparently? And she shows him a way out. Blonsky and the rest of the hard bastards chase him through the streets until Banner runs into Gollum and his buddies from the bottling plant because apparently this massive sprawling favela is around the size of a high school cafeteria. They chase Bruce into the bottling plant and Blonsky’s team watch from a distance as Gollum and his crew kick the ever living snot out of him. And then Bruce gets mad…
This is not a particularly subtle movie (hell, Leterrier has hired precisely because of how unsubtle his movies are) but there is a moment in this scene that I really like. Ross is listening to the mission over the radio and when he hears the Hulk’s roar the poor guy visibly flinches. It’s a really telling little touch. He might be a tough as nails military man but when he hears that noise he can’t supress a shudder of pure terror. It’s a very effective way of setting up just how terrifying the Hulk is.
Because Marvel hasn’t been bought by Disney yet, the Hulk straight up murders Gollum and his cronies.
“Dammit, I left Bahia to escape weird shit like this!”
Blonksy and the hard bastards open fire but the Hulk just shrugs it off like 50 cent and smashes through the factory wall and vanishes into the jungle before you can say “Ho! Ho! Ho! GREEN GIANT!”.
Later, while looking through Banner’s stuff Blonsky says that things were going great until they were attacked by a big green muscle monster and oh yeah WHAT THE FUCK THEY WERE JUST ATTACKED BY A BIG GREEN MUSCLE MONSTER WHAT THE HELL HUH, WHAT EVEN THE HELL? Ross says that the monster was Banner and Blonsky’s all “Explain please” and Ross is all “I don’t explain jack shit, boy” because he’s the Mary Poppins of the US armed forces.
Ross tells Blonsky that he did a good job (because special ops missions are like kid’s hockey, it doesn’t matter how badly you got crushed, the important thing is you tried) and they fly back to the States.
Meanwhile, Bruce wakes up in the rainforest, naked and with no idea how he got there (takes me back to my stag night). He flags down a passing jeep only to find that the driver doesn’t speak Portuguese because, get this, he’s in frickin’ GUATEMALA. We now get to the part of the movie that really stretches my suspension of disbelief to breaking point, even more than the idea of a green irradiated giant or William Hurt displaying emotion. Bruce Banner, without any money, fuck without any CLOTHES manages to get from Guatemala to Virginia (3000 Miles) in 17 days. I mean, I could sort of buy it in Dark Knight Rises when Bruce Wayne has to somehow get back to Gotham from Bane’s prison because it’s Batman, his secret bank accounts have secret bank accounts. But how the heck did Banner manage that? How the heck did he get across two borders so easily?
“This is why we need to build the wall!”
Sure, that’ll work.
Blonksy tells Ross that he wants another crack at the Hulk so Ross takes him under his wing and explains that he re-started the Super Soldier programme from the Second World War and that Banner was one of the scientists working on it. Ross explains that Banner thought he was conducting medical research and didn’t realise that the programme was for military use. Alright, so this is a change that they kept from the 2003 movie and I don’t like it. In both movies (and the TV show actually), Banner’s working on some kind of medical research when the accident happens that turns him into the Hulk. But in the comics that’s not what he’s working on. He’s working on this:
Bruce Banner creates a nuclear weapon without consideration of the devastating effects it will unleash and then gets cursed to become a walking, unstoppable, uncontrollable force of destruction, a walking metaphor for the A-bomb. It’s a classic, almost mythic, tale of a an arrogant man being punished for his hubris. But this to the origin completely undermines that. Now he’s just a poor sap who tried to do make the world a better place and just got really unlucky. What’s the moral of the story here? Don’t go into medicine? Trying to help people is for suckers? Well anyway Ross explains that they now have a super soldier serum, or something very like it and offers it to Blonsky who gladly accepts.
Meanwhile in Virginia, Bruce is able to crash with his friend Stanley (Stanley. Stan Lee. Geddit?), who runs a pizza parlour near Culver University Campus where Bruce used to work. Bruce asks about Betty Ross, his girlfriend who was injured in the first Hulk incident. Stanley says she’s dating someone new and Bruce is obviously cut up about it but is still glad that she’s happy. He asks Stanley to let him impersonate a pizza delivery guy and bribes the security guard at the university (Lou Frickin’ Ferrigno) to let him in. When the guard does, Bruce says “you are the man” and gives him a hug. This, incidentally, was a scene written in by Norton himself (he actually wrote a lot of the script). Norton wanted the part of Bruce Banner because he was a huge fan of the original TV show. Letterier wanted Mark Ruffalo to play the part (what?! That’d never work!) but it was Ferrigno, who played the Hulk in the TV series and voices him in this movie, who said that Norton reminded him of Bill Bixby and persuaded the producers to go with Norton. This scene is essentially Norton’s way of saying “thank you” to a personal hero.
He may be The Man, but let’s be clear. He’s a terrible security guard.
Bruce searches for the information on the university’s database but it’s all been wiped from the mainframe. Back at Stanley’s place Bruce runs into Betty (Liv Tyler) who chases after him and convinces him to come home with her where she gives him all the data from the experiment that she saved.
So, let’s talk about love interests in the early Marvel universe. All the original Avengers had their special gal pals and for the most part they were all pretty…um…what’s the word I’m looking for? Awful. There it is.
Except for Peggy Carter. She started awesome. She remained awesome. She is awesome.*
Now, the three love interests of Iron Man, Thor and Hulk; Pepper Potts, Jane Foster and Betty Ross respectively, have all had decades of comics history to become complex, fleshed out characters and are, at the time of writing, all superheroes in their own right (I think, God, please don’t expect me to keep up on all this month to month). But in the early days they were practically interchangeable.
Pepper and Betty are both pretty frustrated, but Jane needs the D so bad she’s manifesting psychic powers and creating little smoke-Thors out of sheer horniness.
The gals were basically there to get kidnapped and because (to quote MovieBob), if all these jacked dudes who hung out with each other didn’t have at least one woman in their lives people would talk. Although, now that I think of it, the fact that all three of them spent so much time wondering when Iron Man/Thor/Hulk would stop seeing them as a friend and “finally…see me as…a woman?!” I’m not entirely sure if Marvel weren’t muddying their message.
My point is, to make Betty Ross into more than a token love interest requires some pretty heavy lifting on both the writing and performance side and neither the script nor Liv Tyler are really up to it. Kind of incredibly, Betty Ross is not really that much more active or assertive in this movie made in 2008 than she was in the original comics in 1962. She’s just kinda…there. There to be sad when Banner’s sad. There to be scared when the Hulk appears. There to get rescued by Hulk. There to say “no you can’t do this!” right before Banner does that. I mean, Pepper Potts in Iron Man wasn’t exactly Furiosa but she at least had scenes where she was the primary focus. Betty is almost entirely surplus to requirements and that’s a damn shame because in the right hands she can be a very compelling character. Hell, in Peter David’s hands she can break your damn heart.
Onions. Shut up.
The next day, Bruce says goodbye to Betty at Culver University but then the army guys roll up and Bruce has to run. Betty pleads with her father, General Ross, to let him go and Ross is all “……..no?”. The soldiers chase Bruce into the campus and trap him in a walkway. This makes him angry, which of course is when he becomes notoriously unlikable.
Nobody likes you, Hulk. NOBODY.
Ross throws everything he’s got at him, bullets, bombs, sound cannons, interpretative dance, you name it. None of it works. Then Blonsky goes toe to toe with Hulk which goes about as well as you’d expect, namely that they have to scrape him off a tree and stick him in a jam jar. Betty runs to the Hulk just as a helicopter opens fire on him. Hulk downs the helicopter which explodes around him and Betty but he shields her with his body so she’s completely okay.
Shell be fine. As long as she doesn’t need to breathe or have skin.
After Betty wakes up in a cave in the mountains with a now de-Hulked Banner, she gets him to a Motel and they plan their next move. Bruce and Betty are, if I’m honest, my least favourite couple in the MCU (I’m a Banner/Natasha fan and I don’t care who knows it) but I will admit the scene where Betty cuts Bruce’s hair is very sweet. Then they take it to the bedroom and Bruce’s heart monitor starts beeping because apparently kissing Liv Tyler is enough to send his heart-rate to 200 beats per minute.
So apparently a side effect of being the Hulk is never being able to have sex.
Well no wonder.
Betty and Bruce head to New York to give the data to Mr Blue, who it turns out is a scientist named Doctor Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson). Sterns is delighted to see Bruce and Nelson’s performance is probably my favourite in this whole film. Sterns tells Bruce that he has a treatment but there’s no way of knowing whether it will cure him or just temporarily transform him back from being the Hulk or just kill him outright.
Meanwhile, Blonsky, who was last seen looking like a fine Bolognese sauce has magically healed all his broken bones and is back and fit and ready to kick some arse (ass, for my American readers). Ross, with the help of the FBI and SHIELD, has tracked Bruce and Betty to Stern’s lab so they fly out to nab him.
In the lab, Sterns causes Bruce to Hulk out and then administers the antidote and it works. Huh. Okay then. Movie’s over, I guess.
Yeah. I don’t buy it either.
Sterns says they’ll have to do more tests to see if Banner’s been fully cured but it’s hard to know because none of his previous test subjects ever survived and Bruce is all “wait, wait, back up test subjects?”
Sterns than takes them into a back room where he has bags and bags and bags of Bruce’s blood that he apparently was able to synthesise from that one little test tube that Bruce sent him and I’m pretty sure you cannot do that otherwise hospitals are just doing blood drives out of some kind of sick fetish. Anyway, Sterns is talking about using the blood for all kinds of applications, like curing diseases and making human beings impervious to injury. And if in the process they create an army of gamma irradiated monsters to serve Sterns and crush all opposition to him, well, hasn’t he earned that? Hasn’t he earned his little army of gamma irradiated supermen? Cut the guy some slack.
Anyway, Blonsky bursts in and starts yelling at Bruce to show him the Hulk until he knocks him unconscious. The soldiers take Bruce and Betty away in a helicopter and Blonsky is left behind with Sterns. Blonsky tells Sterns at gunpoint that he wants what Banner has and Sterns is all “Sure, why not, sounds fun” but the dosage of Banner’s blood reacts badly to what Blonsky’s already got in his system and, see kids? This is why we don’t mix drugs.
“I thought…you was…a TOAD…”
Blonsky, now a hulking green monstrosity known as the Abomination, knocks Sterns to the ground where he cuts his head and some of Banner’s blood gets mixed in the wound so that he can turn into this guy.
The Leader is good.
The Leader is great.
We surrender our will.
As of this date.
So in the chopper Ross gets word on the radio that a big green monster is tearing up Harlem which is weird, right? So the Abomination is cutting a bloody swathe through Harlem and the cops can’t stop it, the police can’t stop it, hell Omar can’t stop it.
No, for real. That’s Michael K. Williams as “Harlem Bystander”. Six years after The Wire. They cast frickin’ OMAR LITTLE as an extra. What even the fuck Marvel? No, no, you’re right. That’s definitely the best use you could have found for that actor. I mean, there’s no character in the Marvel Universe he would have been better suited for than Harlem Bystander, I cannot think of a single character oh wait…
For God’s sake Marvel GIVE ME A JOB.
So there’s a big green monster tearing up Harlem and another big green monster in Banner waiting to be unleashed. Everyone is genre savvy enough to know that there’s only one way to resolve this.
But they can’t just land the chopper and call Bruce names until he changes. Oh no. They have to let him jump out of the helicopter on the off chance that he changes before he hits the ground. They don’t even bother explaining this. It’s literally:
“You can’t do this!”
“I have to try.”
That’s it. That’s the only explanation we get. Oh well, maybe Iron Man isn’t the only suicidal Avenger. So anyway, Bruce jumps out of the chopper.
“LAZY BASTARD KOOKABURRAS!”
Bruce lands with an earth-shattering kaboom and the Hulk emerges from the hole ready to rumble.
The special effects for this movie came in for quite a bit of criticism but honestly? I think they’re pretty awesome. Both the Hulk and the Abomination have a real sense of solidity and weight to them and you actually forget that you’re just watching to different groups of ones and zeroes beating the pixellated tar out of each other. The fight ends up on a rooftop where Hulk chokes Abomination out with a chain.
“BAH GAWD ALMIGHTY HE’S KILLED HIM! “
Betty and Hulk have a tender moment and then he leaps away into the night. And our movie ends with Bruce in an isolated cabin in British Columbia practicing the same yoga techniques we saw him do at the beginning. Only now, he’s not trying to get rid of the Hulk.
He’s trying to control it.
“Shit. I really should have waited until I was outside to do this. There goes my deposit.”
The Incredible Hulk is the perfect example of a three star movie. It’s the film equivalent of a plumber who shows up at your house at roughly the time he said he would, fixes your pipes in a reasonable amount of time, charges you a fair price and then leaves. “Workmanlike” is the term. In its various elements, writing, acting and directing it’s solid, unshowey, and ultimately not all that memorable.
I think this movie has a problem that the other Marvel movies manage to avoid, it takes itself a little too seriously and ends up quite dour and joyless. The premise of the Hulk is admittedly a lot grimmer than most of Marvel’s other characters but it was also one of the impressively nuttier titles on the stands. A Hulk story can just as easily be about the big green doof fighting TYRANNUS, EMPEROR OF THE MOLE PEOPLE as just another story of Bruce Banner trying to contain the terrible spirit that dwells within him.
Our Heroic Hero 18/25
Of the three actors who’s played Bruce Banner onscreen since 2003, Ed Norton is probably the most faithful interpretation. Bana was too handsome, Ruffalo is too physically imposing in his own right. With Norton, we get the traditional thin, weedy, mild-mannered Bruce Banner from the comics. That said, I’m not sure he’s my favourite Banner. Ruffalo’s Science-bro, Black-Widow loving Teddy bear may be a fairly big departure from the comic chracter but dammit if he isn’t more fun. The Hulk himself is damn impressive looking, certainly the nastiest and most intimidating of the three movie Hulks.
Our Nefarious Villains 11/25
Sam Elliot’s turn as General Ross was, for my money, the best thing about 2003’s Hulk. Elliot was all ready to reprise the role but bafflingly, Marvel chose William Hurt, an actor so low-power he reduces the carbon footprint of any movie he appears in. Hurt’s not terrible, but Elliot is awesome and why would you settle for the former when you can have the latter? Tim Roth’s brings a certain dry wit to Blonsky, but the Abomination has frankly never been the most interesting character and the movie does nothing to change that.
Our Plucky Sidekicks 09/25
Little tip. If you want someone to breathe life into a one-note, bland love interest…don’t hire Liv Tyler. She’s back doing that breathy delivery from The Lord of the Rings and she simply does not have any chemistry with Norton (although that’s not specifically a criticism of her, I get the impression Leterrier is just not good with romance scenes). Tim Blake Nelson as Samuel Sterns stops the supporting characters score from being a complete washout.
Ross drowns his sorrows in a bar and is approached by a man in a really nice suit; Tony Stark (Robert Downey Junior) who tells him that the Super Soldier programme was “put on ice” for a reason and that he’s always “found hardware more reliable”. He tells Ross that “we” are putting a team together and Ross asks “Who’s “we”?”
And the audience went
It was cool at the time when this interconnected universe thing was still fresh and exciting, but honestly this stinger has not aged well. Firstly, it’s just a rehash of the Fury/Stark scene at the end of Iron Man, and secondly, we now know that nothing of consequence will come from this conversation. Also, the dialogue is just fan servicey mush: “Super Soldiers! Put on Ice! I like hardware! Because I’m Iron Man! Get it? Get it?”
Infinity Gem Count: 0
Wait a minute, was that Stan Lee?!
That was Stan Lee, getting a bigger jolt from his morning juice than he probably expected.
Any names of comic book characters clunkily worked into dialogue that no one would ever say in real life?
“It was like a huge…big…HULK!”
“I don’t know what you’ve got inside you already. The mix could be…an abomination.”
Hey, what’s Thanos doing?
Thanos is sitting on his chair.
FINAL SCORE: 53%
NEXT UPDATE: 04 February 2016
NEXT TIME: Mouse tackles the red-headed step-child of Phase 1; Iron Man 2. There will be burds.
*And Janet Pym obviously doesn’t count because she was an Avenger in her own right.