A double feature of Hulk and The Incredible Hulk sounds like a terrible idea. It’s common knowledge neither film is a shining example of the superhero genre, and while The Incredible Hulk is considered one of the worst films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ang Lee's Hulk is known as one of the worst superhero films ever. But together, they expose the two extremes of MCU movies, and how the Marvel learned from its mistakes to find the perfect balance.
In Hulk, Eric Bana plays Bruce Banner, the son of a disgruntled scientist who inherits his powers through his father’s self-experimentation — but also encounters a massive gamma radiation blast later in life. These two origin stories basically set the tone for the rest of the film. If there can be more, there will be more: more split screens, more insert shots, more emotion, more everything.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Hulk is the closest a superhero movie has ever gotten to replicating the comic book experience. How this experience translates to a motion picture is debatable, but from a purely objective point of view, watching Hulk feels like reading a comic, complete with panels and over the top stylistic choices. (Joss Whedon's take on the comic book splash page looks basic compared to whatever Lee was going for.)
Ang Lee poured every film school trick into Hulk, but it becomes too much all at once. The response speaks for itself. The director's previous movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the film directly after, Brokeback Mountain, were both Oscar-nominated. Hulk, meanwhile, was nominated for the Stinker Award for "Most Annoying Non-Human Character."
However, the plot of Hulk is nowhere near as lighthearted as its stylistic choices. The story is less about some great villain attempting to take over the earth, focusing instead on Bruce's family and his personal struggle with his big, green alter ego. Hulk is unsure of what it wants to be, a stylized smash-em-up or a touching family melodrama about a man confronted with his own anger issues. Yes, he obliterates armored cars, but he also has to literally wrestle with his own relationship with his father. It's not the most nuanced symbolism.
In The Incredible Hulk, the seeds of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are just starting to sprout. Five years after Ang Lee's botched origin story, this reboot seems to learn from the mistakes of the past, slimming the origin story down to a brief prologue so the plot can cut straight into “hiding from the government” angst.
Director Louis Leterrier nails the proto-Marvel tone, with a dramatic script balanced by moments of levity. When Bruce holds up stretchy purple shorts, baffled, it's not exactly a he's a friend from work-caliber joke, but it's a snapshot of humor in a film pumped full of bureaucratic intrigue. It's no surprise Leterrier went on the direct the equally maligned comedy-heist-thriller Now You See Me.
The Incredible Hulk takes a totally different angle, focusing not on Bruce Banner coping with his new identity, but the search for a cure. The movie borrows heavily from X-Men as Bruce struggles with finding a cure for his "superpower" and wonders if the Hulk is really part of him.
That said, it also features Abomination, the epitome of an MCU villain played with a delicious Cockey sneer by Tim Roth. Abomination (aka, Emil Blonsky) is cartoonishly brute. Even out of his Abomination form, he's not above knocking a female Army major out cold just for being annoying, prompting Samuel Sterns, and the audience, to exclaim, "Why are you always hitting people?!"
While the main enemy may be the government at large, Abomination is a villain gritty enough to match the Hulk. He makes the movie's conflict less internal, providing the much-needed action that evolved the MCU into the slugfest it's become by adding a dose of PG-13 violence without negating the need for internal conflict.
Eric Bana and Edward Norton both add their mark to the role, with Bana giving 110% to a part that already goes overboard, and Norton showing paranoid reluctance with every move his Banner makes. While neither has the bright-eyed charm of Mark Ruffalo or the brute force of Lou Ferrigno, they are each perfectly cast in their own ways. With Tatiana Maslany next up to take on the role of She-Hulk, it will be interesting which iteration she models her alter ego after.
In both of these Hulks, the beginnings of Marvel's movie empire is visible, but each reflects an extreme on the tonal spectrum all 23 interconnected films explore. Hulk shows all the heart and visual humor seen in later MCU movies like Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok. The Incredible Hulk shows how the MCU can take the spy thriller genre and add a superhero bend to it, like in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the upcoming Black Widow.
In between, we find the platonic ideal of the Marvel movie, something that plays off existing genres while still maintaining a distinct comic book quality and humor. The Avengers and the following team-up movies fell smack in the middle of these two Hulk movies, turning the Marvel franchise into a movie genre in its own right.
Without both of these Hulk movies, the MCU wouldn't be what it is today. Cinema is often built on risks, and it's difficult to think of a bigger cinematic risk than a multi-phase, interweaving franchise with the potential to last decades. It's understandable the first tries wouldn't be Oscar-worthy.
Just as we wouldn't have jumbo jets without the first initial failures by the Wright Brothers, we wouldn't have the MCU without these first Hulks. Watching both back-to-back may not be the same as The Godfather Parts One and Two, but an argument could be made they represent the beginning of the greatest movie saga in history.