“Keep moving” is a chat-room phrase toward which the camera purposefully zooms in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, a green-giant tale too often regarded as the redheaded stepchild of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“Keep moving” is a prime directive of chase cinema by which the MCU’s second-shortest outing swiftly and thoughtfully abides. Several years after an experiment with super serum and gamma rays caused him to become the destructive Hulk when angry, Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is hiding in Brazil. Bruce’s initial outburst injured fellow scientist and girlfriend Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) and inadvertently killed two others. So yes, keeping the big guy at bay is indeed a full-time job — evidenced by an onscreen counter like a break-room sign, 158 days without a lost-time incident. To help, Bruce employs breathing techniques. Whenever he tries to avoid capture on foot, Bruce’s purposeful gulps of air pepper the sound design’s periphery. It’s both his attempt at calm amid cacophony and a cue to us that Bruce can only keep up this pace, and this ruse, for so long — palpable momentum paired with poetic minutiae.
“Keep moving” is the promise delivered by director Louis Leterrier, writer Zak Penn and Norton (uncredited as a writer here) that their film will forgo bitten cables, pretentious psychobabble, Hulk dogs or screens fragmented into 18 panels in favor of loose, lean and thrilling pulpy propulsion that still has a point. Also, even at his most buff, Norton is a far more persuasive Bruce than Eric Bana — small, puny, appropriately minimized in the frame with a choirboy haircut ported from Primal Fear.
“Keep moving” is Bruce’s chat-window realization that he must vamoose. He has unexpectedly dripped his blood into soda at a bottling plant where he works, revealed his whereabouts to his pursuers, and inspired perhaps the best-ever Stan Lee MCU cameo. Hot on his heels are Betty’s dad, Gen. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt, the only non-cameo cast member here to as yet return to the MCU), and a group of commandos led by the ruthless Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth).
“Keep moving” is something Blonsky, a thuggish Dorian Gray, would do well to remember himself rather than indulging his self-serving preoccupation with maintaining the might of his youth. Why is it that genetic science often falls back on a carnival-barker’s call of promised returns to past glories? In real life, fallen weekend-sports warriors pay to bank a nephew’s cord-blood stem cells in hopes they’ll someday be used to heal a throwing arm. The promise of a cure-all serum similarly beckons Blonsky with a return to his prime … and then some. Roth embodies Blonsky with a masochistic machismo, the cracking of bone marrow as he takes injections like a boundary that he never knew could exist let alone be so easily erased. Such is the folly of genetic science looking back rather than forward. Such is the vivid symbolism of Blonsky clinging tightly to days gone by rendered by his devolution into the scaly Abomination. Such is one character from The Incredible Hulk I’d love to see return to the MCU.
“Keep moving,” like a steamroller if possible, is Thunderbolt’s approach to acquiring militaristic tech that excites him. The Incredible Hulk brings this idea to a fever pitch in the first of two unforgettably outstanding action sequences, a college-quad battle between Hulk and the commandos. As the lightning rod was to Frankenstein’s monster, so is Thunderbolt’s tear-gas assault to Bruce. Composer Craig Armstrong’s gothic organ underlines both the comparison to a Universal monster of old and Thunderbolt’s lack of compassion — summoning violence as a vicissitude to tranquil academic pursuits, with 50-cal guns and sonic cannons the tools with which to smash-and-grab Banner’s DNA toward hellish ends. Iron Man 2 pales beside The Incredible Hulk as a pointed swipe at the military-industrial complex … and with Tony Stark’s weapons at that.
“Keep moving,” most of all, represents the reason why this Bruce Banner became the Hulk. Even if Bruce was falsely led to believe it was harmless, his exposure to gamma rays and super serum is an accident the way someone purposefully driving a car into a wall is an accident — theoretically survivable but a conscious choice. Intentionally reckless decisions with unforeseen consequences are infinitely more compelling than the previous film’s genetically predestined sins of the father. That Bruce was a pawn, a tool, a patsy. This Bruce is a closer cousin to Blonsky than he would care to acknowledge. Unlike Blonsky, Bruce legitimately cares about people. But he also willfully subjects himself to the unknown of experimentation. His love is not romance, it’s science. His motivation is not solace, it’s knowledge. His passion is not Betty, it’s curiosity.
“Keep moving” is the mantra of a man who would strap himself in that chair as Bruce does in an opening-credits prologue. It’s an emotionally single-minded monstrousness that must have manifested, even in stony silence, before the mutated arrival of a mammoth, destructive brute. We don’t need a belabored redux to understand that; the steam-pipe subterfuge and flash-grenade silhouettes through which we first see this film’s Hulk suffice just fine.
“Keep moving” is, if Bruce and Betty are being honest, the only truth at which they can arrive. A “cure” promised if Bruce can produce his full genetic data would represent a return to … what, exactly? Betty has moved on. Her comfort with new beau, psychiatrist Leonard Sampson (Ty Burrell), is clear. She cares for Bruce. Bruce cares for her. But they mutually recognize the uselessness of emotional intimacy even as they dance around its resumption. The only keepsake Betty carries of their time together? Bruce’s genetic workup. She’s kept it safe from Thunderbolt, but she knows that if Bruce were to come back, it would be for the data and not her. At first glance, Tyler and Norton seem to blubber and bumble their way through a reunion. Then you see they are applying scientific method to how Bruce and Betty would assess the entirety of their time together and, by film’s end, letting these characters fully embrace why they are better apart. After bringing hell to Harlem with the Abomination in a Luke Cage-style brawl with humanoid combatants, Bruce’s final MCU encounter with Betty is her salty tears in his open wounds. Perfect.
“Keep moving” is also what Bruce must do once he meets Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), another eventual villain with whom Bruce has a kinship. As Sterns says, “I’ve always been more curious than cautious, and that’s served me pretty well.” Bruce could easily say the same thing. What The Incredible Hulk may lack in visual ambition, it compensates for by asking us to embrace a profoundly less noble Bruce as this story’s hero. The true destination of Penn, Leterrier and Norton’s whiplash chase is a need for him to arrive at acknowledging this isn’t what he has become. It’s who he has chosen to be.
“Keep moving” is what the MCU has done with this idea, evidenced by “I’m always angry” in The Avengers, his flirtation with new intimacy alongside Black Widow and an eventual retreat from it in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and his fear that “Bruce” will fade away altogether in Thor: Ragnarok. Those who find The Incredible Hulk an outlier within the MCU may want to revisit and rediscover the economic way with which it conveys personal failings that make its hero interesting and establishes the length of the journey for Bruce to become “a friend from work.”
“Keep moving” suggests relative meaninglessness in 45 minutes’ worth of deleted scenes whose omission is often cited as a cause for Norton’s MCU departure. Who needs extended conversation between two lovers who knew they were doomed? Who needs Leonard’s psychoanalysis of Bruce? Who needs Bruce telling sorority girls they won’t like him when he’s angry? The most prominent cut, Bruce’s suicide attempt, became canon only after Norton left and his friend Mark Ruffalo inherited the part. For that reason alone, it’s the sole snip of any interest.
“Keep moving” is admittedly sage advice the film doesn’t always heed, occasionally losing itself in a cheap nostalgia dopamine rush. Yes, Lou Ferrigno was a flesh-and-blood Hulk before the advent of computer effects. Do we need to see him as a security guard for the second Hulk film in a row or for Norton to say he’s the man? Plus, Norton and Tyler play that sex joke like the Mad TV skit to which it’s better suited.
“Keep moving” is what the Hulk had to do after a film whose famous faces fell by the wayside, but The Incredible Hulk remains an uncommonly solid foundation for all the character has become in the larger MCU.
Midwest Film Journal will post new, weekly entries of “The Marvel Decade” until the release of Avengers: Infinity War on May 4, 2018. Each entry is written by a different writer – some familiar to readers of the site and some fresh faces handpicked by members of the group. Each writer chose a Marvel movie that inspires insights or personal connections that they will highlight in their piece.
The MCU is a franchise that’s popular largely because of what it means to so many people, and that’s something we aim to capture with “The Marvel Decade.”
Join us again next week when guest writer Joe Shearer looks at the MCU’s first sequel, Iron Man 2.