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Hulk: 20 Years of Ol’ Greenskin on the Big (and Small) Screen

By | June 20th, 2023
Posted in Longform | % Comments

Last year, Spider-Man fans had the opportunity to celebrate 20 years since the first Sam Raimi film by rewatching at least several solo movies with the webhead. As someone with a stronger affection for Marvel’s Grumpy Green Giant, it’s much more awkward to mark his first big screen appearance in Ang Lee’s Hulk: since its release 20 years ago today, we’ve had another false start to the film series, and seen the character get relegated to a supporting role in the Avengers movies, as well as a couple of other MCU projects (including a TV show.)

Between the anniversary of the 2003 film, The Incredible Hulk‘s addition to Disney+, and the ensuing hopes Marvel have regained the distribution rights to new solo movies, plus the return of several major Hulk characters in next year’s Captain America: Brave New World, now’s a good time to look back on all of Bruce Banner’s computer-generated appearances so far. So brace yourselves, as we’ll definitely be smashing any reasonable word count diving into the Hulk’s design, rendering, dialogue, and more in every entry from the post-Bill Bixby era.

Hulk (2003, dir. Ang Lee):

Ang Lee’s Hulk, which is not part of the MCU, was very much the Eternals of its day: a superhero movie helmed by an Academy Award-winning filmmaker, that was expected to elevate the genre, only to wind up receiving mixed reviews, and disappointing word-of-mouth, turning a sequel from a sure thing to “maybe something we’ll try another time with a different creative team.” Like Chloé Zhao’s film, Hulk has much to admire, but it’s a still a plodding movie with an overly passive protagonist, that relies too heavily on giving him a Tragic Childhood to make him sympathetic. Another MCU film, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, wound up becoming the cathartic Frankenstein story this one wanted to be.

The world apparently demanded the Incredible Hunk in 2003

The Hulk himself is a fascinating example of great visual effects (courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic) with a terrible design: he looks like an overly handsome claymation of lead actor Eric Bana, which comes across awkwardly, especially during the sequence where he gets trapped in sticky foam by Josh Lucas’s Glenn Talbot – his anxious expressions and bulging eyes make him look like he’s a) on the toilet and b) going to explode. His size also changes depending on his anger, causing him to become as tall as 15 ft during the desert chase sequence, which makes sense if you don’t want him to be dwarfed by General Ross’s tanks and aircraft, but compounds the feeling he’s a sentient balloon.

Lee certainly lavished time on the transformations, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, since he played the Hulk on the mocap stage: the first one has a thoughtful moment where Banner’s elbow drags across a wall as it becomes larger and heavier, while the second shows Bruce processing the painful sight of his arms expanding. Likewise, when Hulk turns back into Banner in San Francisco, we see his mass being disposed of via sweat and air vaporization, a beautifully gritty touch in the otherwise goofy sight of a CG Banner with Hulk’s baby-like eyes.

At least he didn't look like this during the whole film

Characterization wise, there’s an arresting moment where Hulk recognizes a jet is about to crash into the Golden Gate Bridge, and jumps on it to prevent disaster. He only speaks twice: first, during a dream sequence, where he regains consciousness and control of his body by threatening Bruce, calling him a “puny human.” It’s the only reference to Hulk resenting his other self, as he otherwise comes across as Banner in a more childlike state. Bruce, who confesses he likes Hulk’s power to some degree, is certainly in full control during the climax, goading his father to take all of his power, which is utterly indicative of how Lee was much more interested in the childhood abuse backstory Bill Mantlo and Mike Mignola created, than the traditional Banner-Hulk conflict.

The Incredible Hulk (2008, dir. Louis Leterrier):

The second MCU film, and the first with Banner (albeit played by co-writer Edward Norton instead of Mark Ruffalo), The Incredible Hulk is a solid chase thriller, that attempts to do what The Fugitive movie did for its source material with the Bixby show. It features a much more engaging version of Banner than the one Bana was saddled with, and succeeds in giving a Hulk movie an exciting action sequence without the Hulk (the favela chase), while the cinematography and music still holds up as some of the best in the MCU. However, it still falls short, oddly enough for similar reasons to Lee’s film, like a lack of screentime for the title character (who only has two action sequences where you can actually see him.)

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Where's his tongue?

The Hulk’s more Mary Shelley look, with bulging muscles, longer hair and glowing eyes, was an interesting attempt to avoid what was offputting about Lee’s design, as well as to look somewhat like Norton, but it was also an overcorrection, lacking the stocky frame that gives the character his name. The effects by Rhythm and Hues Studios were weaker than ILM’s work, although it was good Hulk had a consistent (9 ft) height, and a more realistic skin tone, which changes depending on lighting. Thanks to the VFX, we’re never really convinced this is Norton in Hulk’s body: tellingly, Norton provided references for his alter-ego, but never performed on a mocap stage like his co-star Tim Roth.

Hulk (voiced by Lou Ferrigno) is craftier than his ’03 equivalent, improvising weapons like boxing gloves from cars (ala the video game Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction.) He gets to say a little more this time, namely “Leave me alone,” “HULK SMASH” (which earned much euphoria from yours truly), and “Betty,” so he’s still pretty much a mute creature, who (as Banner puts it) is basically Bruce in a drug-induced state. Given this remains his last solo film, and takes place five years after Banner’s first transformation, it’s a shame Hulk was still depicted as merely a shape Banner could “aim” towards his enemies. There are less transformation effects, with the lion’s share saved for the scene where Samuel Sterns tests his cure on Banner by inducing a change, which also happens to have the most realistic CG in the film.

The Avengers (2012, dir. Joss Whedon):

Third time proved the charm in the culmination of Marvel’s first phase, with Mark Ruffalo donning Banner’s purple pants shirt, and the mocap suit for the first time. Ruffalo succeeded in creating a truly sweet, sympathetic Banner who’s also “always angry,” and a savage, gorilla-like Hulk. Like Hawkeye, Hulk basically serves as someone Loki uses against the other Avengers, which makes it all the more satisfying that they’re the ones who finally take him down. Similarly, Hulk doesn’t talk at all until their confrontation, making his comeback against the god who thinks he’s a “dull creature” even more devastating.

It is unreal how real Hulk looks

ILM doubled down on making Bruce’s alter-ego resemble his actor, which, coupled with the advances in CGI since 2003, truly gave us a Hulk who feels like he’s stormed out of a comic book and into the real world for the first time. It struck a fine line without straying into the uncanny valley, with the Hulk possessing Ruffalo’s hair (all of it) and slight gut, while giving him a cartoonish brow. Most importantly, the Hulk felt BIG, which made his speed, and the weight of his blows truly terrifying.

He certainly felt actually scary this time: you felt afraid for Black Widow as he pursued her, and it’s striking just how vicious he is – everyone remembers how violently funny it is that he punches Thor and slaps Loki against the floor, but at one point he even grabs a fighter pilot’s ejector seat. Have you ever wondered why exactly Hulk’s moments with Thor and Loki are so funny by the way? It’s because frames were removed from those shots, giving them as much impact as a sequence of comic book panels.

We only get a couple more transformation sequences too, namely the dark, frightening one in the helicarrier seen through Black Widow’s eyes, and the heroic morph that ensues when Bruce turns to strike a Chitauri leviathan in New York. Astonishingly, it is the last time we’ve ever seen Bruce turn into the Hulk onscreen, with subsequent films only ever showing him turn back into a human, or failing to turn; it’s an appropriately heroic swan song for that visual at least.

Iron Man 3 (2013, dir. Shane Black):

Bruce doesn’t turn into the Hulk into Iron Man 3‘s post-credits scene, which reveals he’s the one Tony Stark has been narrating the whole film to, but it’s worth mentioning because of how different Ruffalo looks in it: usually, Marvel tries to make him look somewhat like his comics counterpart — clean-shaven with longer hair — but here he’s sporting a five o’clock shadow. Why hasn’t Hulk sported similar stubble yet?

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Banner reminding Tony he's not that kind of doctor

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, dir. Joss Whedon):

The MCU’s difficult second album squanders Hulk’s appearance with the ill-advised decision to turn the tension between Bruce and Natasha into a sexual one, that along with his Scarlet Witch-induced rampage in Johannesburg, prompts him to leave the group at the end of the film. Now there’s something to be said about how Hulk, a monster, and Black Widow, an assassin, would similarly not be heroes in a non-superhero universe, but a poorly conceived and inadvertently offensive emphasis on these characters’ inability to conceive children led to many of us wishing we could grow Hulk-sized palms to cover our faces in embarrassment.

'I got nothing'

There’s still some fun to be had, like the Hulkbuster battle, where Hulk smugly spits out a tooth to Iron Man’s chagrin, and the moment he sends the disfigured Ultron flying after his feeble attempt to negotiate is arguably as funny as his moments with Thor and Loki in the previous film. Ruffalo also gets some great zingers during the birth of Vision sequence, namely arguing with Tony that they’re making the same mistake again, and warning Wanda Maximoff he “could choke the life out of [her] without changing a shade.” But ultimately, Hulk’s more of a passenger than he was last time; he doesn’t even talk at all this time round.

At least Ultron has another father figure he can rail against if he ever returns. On a similar note, the film introduces Claudia Kim as Helen Cho, the scientist behind the technology used to create Vision. In the comics, she is the mother of longtime Hulk sidekick (and eventual Hulk himself) Amadeus Cho, and she hasn’t appeared in the MCU since; perhaps she went on maternity leave?

Thor: Ragnarok (2017, dir. Taika Waititi):

As anyone who’s seen his film Boy might attest, Taika Waititi probably has a stronger affection for Hulk than Thor, but it’s still amazing the irreverent director’s MCU debut was the first to actually depict the big guy with his child-like personality from the comics, and as a truly distinct person from Banner. He is an absolute delight, a giant, petulant teen who, try as he might to hide it, loves having Thor (and Valkyrie) around to spar and banter with, to bare his soul (and butt) to, and whose fights with Fenris and Surtur provide some of the MCU’s biggest laughs. (Banner’s broken body on the Bifrost is already hilarious, but even better knowing it’s an Incredible Hulk callback.)

'But Hulk like real fire. Like raging fire. Thor like smoldering fire.'

Hulk was redesigned to look noticeably more human than in the first two Avengers films, with a significantly less simian brow. Ryan Meinerding, Marvel’s head of visual development, explained the change was a result of Hulk having significantly more dialogue, which required incorporating more of Ruffalo’s face, but in-universe, it was perhaps the first sign that the more intelligent he became, the more like Banner he would appear. It’s a little uncanny, but fits better with the significantly more comedic vibe Waititi brought to the film; Hulk may be a monster (especially in the arena), but he’s also “a friend from work.”

It should be acknowledged the film is a loose adaptation of ‘Planet Hulk,’ a wonderful storyline with a considerably more downbeat ending, but it’s OK it got toned down like this, the movies don’t need more superheroes with dead girlfriends. Likewise, there’s a deleted scene, set during the return flight to Asgard, where Banner mentions his father, who he states he wasn’t with when he died, because he was too busy working. This scene comes from an earlier version of the film where Hela kills Odin, so its canonicity is even more dubious, but it implies everyone at Marvel Studios has been working under the assumption that the MCU Banner had a more wholesome relationship with his father than his comics (and 2003 film) counterpart.

Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame (2018-19, dir. Joe and Anthony Russo):

The first part of the Russo brothers’ conclusion to the Infinity Saga gives Hulk and Bruce an intriguing set-up, with no pay off. In the second film, we get a surprising development that further sells the film’s five-year time skip in the first act, but causes the resolution to their arc to take place entirely offscreen. As a result, the Hulk’s refusal to appear in Infinity War after his brutal beating by Thanos came across as because he was scared, instead of the Russos’ intention, which was that he had grown bitter over being constantly used by Banner to fight his battles.

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Dr. Banner patiently listening to your constructive criticism

Professor Hulk (as he’s known in the comics)’s introduction in Endgame is a wonderful twist, anchored by Paul Rudd’s portrayal of the baffled Scott Lang, who’s just as stunned as we are to see the Hulk has become a big, bespectacled, cardigan-loving Banner. It’s such a great moment, which Infinity War could’ve set up better if it had reestablished the two are technically the same person: as amusing as Bruce finally losing his temper at the Hulk was, perhaps their storyline there would’ve ended on a stronger note if he had realized Hulk was afraid because he was afraid, causing them to hulk out of the Hulkbuster – together.

As for Professor Hulk himself, he’s a sweet, cuddly contrast to his past self as well as some of the other Avengers after Thanos’s victory. It would’ve been interesting to see more of his gruffer side, especially after he damages himself resurrecting everyone, but it would’ve left the character on less of a happy note. What came as a surprise was that the Russos planned a Soul Dimension moment between Tony and his daughter (ala Thanos and Gamora), but not for Bruce and Natasha; it would’ve been a better conclusion for their relationship than Hulk throwing a bench in frustration over her death. Still, it was a very long movie, and it was great that, while Iron Man ended Thanos, it was Hulk who destroyed his legacy first.

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (2022, dir. Kat Coiro):

Following a post-credits cameo in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Bruce made his most recent appearance in his cousin’s live-action debut, which brought the flesh-and-blood Hulk back to TV for the first time in 32 years. Ironically, Bruce receives some of the best CG on Jennifer Walters’s show, something likely stemming from how men are easier to render than woman because of their wrinkles and body hair, but also possibly because the majority of his scenes were originally intended for the penultimate episode.

Hulk and son

Surprisingly, the show showed a more paternalistic side to Banner with his decision to keep his cousin under house arrest, despite her not having his psychological issues. It’s reminiscent of runs like those by ‘Planet Hulk’ writer Greg Pak, which emphasized that Banner is not necessarily the “good” side of the Hulk, but an aloof scientist who would’ve remained an amoral weapons developer without his accident. (Bruce’s MCU backstory is much more innocent, but I digress.) Like Pak’s run, the show also introduced his son Skaar (Wil Deusner), whose existence factors into the plot surprisingly early on, as the sudden appearance of a Sakaaran messenger ship turns out to be responsible for Jennifer’s fateful accident. Like his father and cousin, Skaar has a surprisingly human face, which is personally weirder than his Qinq dynastyesque haircut.

Looking back, it’s funny how the Hulk’s unstable onscreen history has led to one of the more well-adjusted and happy incarnations of the character. As most fans will remind you, happiness often eludes Banner and the Hulk, and if Marvel are indeed free to release their own movies without Universal biting into their profits, it’ll be interesting to see if his story goes in a darker direction (the ball is always in their court, but the sillier Hulk comics are generally the weaker source material; comedy is his cousin’s forte.)

At the very least, it would be great to not have to constantly compromise or cannibalize the character and his stories because he has to play second banana to other leading Marvel characters. Ruffalo deserves to take center stage, and to stretch his acting muscles as other incarnations of the Hulk, as well as to fight his rogues’ gallery outside of a misunderstanding She-Hulk erased from history; we’re also well overdue for a reunion between him and Betty Ross.

Here’s to the next 20 years: long may Hulk continue to smash.

Christopher Chiu-Tabet

Chris was the news manager of Multiversity Comics. A writer from London on the autistic spectrum, he enjoys talking about his favourite films, TV shows, books, music, and games, plus history and religion. He is Lebanese/Chinese, although he can't speak Cantonese or Arabic. Give him a visit (and a tip if you like) on Ko-fi.