While this is usually the lowest on everyone’s list, this is still a very solid film. The locales are exciting and fresh, from the cramped alleys of Rio to the campus of Culver University to the streets of Harlem. Edward Norton’s meek, thin frame is the perfect juxtaposition to his alter ego, and the change to the character having to control his heart rate rather than his anger adds a whole new level of tension and suspense. Bruce Banner’s escape through Rio is expertly shot and gets to show just how capable and resourceful Banner is even without going green. The film builds up to and takes its time before revealing the entirety of The Hulk. We don’t receive our first full look of him until halfway through the film, and the choice to do it in broad daylight shows their confidence in the visual effects and motion capture used to achieve The Hulk’s look. It’s the first time the character has ever looked truly impressive onscreen, and every action scene is explosive and has real power behind it, with every blow feeling strong enough to crack the earth wide open.
While The Incredible Hulk is a fun summer blockbuster, that’s about all that it is. None of the characters are particularly memorable and Marvel seems to have realized that, with absolutely none of them returning to the MCU in any capacity minus General Ross, but even he doesn’t return until Civil War which is a whole eight years later. Speaking of Ross, the whole “evil military general” character was already very overdone by the time this film came out. Tim Roth’s Emil Blonsky / Abomination is a fine foil for Bruce Banner (Banner wants to be rid of his power, Blonsky can’t get enough), and having Blonsky’s transformation be like that of a drug addict is interesting, but we ultimately just don’t get to really know the man himself and why he is the way he is. It doesn’t help that he has no personal connection to Banner either, leaving their confrontations to be all show with no real emotional undercurrent. Liv Tyler does her best but Betty Ross isn’t given much to do besides be emotional support for Bruce, and Bruce himself (in this film, at least) proves to be the least compelling hero out of all the Avengers in this first batch of films. He’s certainly sympathetic, but not much fun or charismatic. He also doesn’t really go through an arc. It would appear that it was meant to be that Bruce has been running away from the power inside him all this time and at the end learns to embrace and use it for good, but in this film he isn’t exactly given a choice in the matter. Marvel would have Bruce go through this exact same arc in The Avengers, and that time around (thanks not only to Mark Ruffalo but Joss Whedon as well), it works perfectly.
Despite its flaws, this film is able to sell Bruce Banner’s plight and his longing for the life he lost. It’s a sympathetic monster tale that’s told mostly through visuals and music as opposed to dialogue, which sets this film apart from the rest of the MCU. Standing on its own, The Incredible Hulk is a good, and honestly, underrated, film. But in the grand scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, despite having the largest character of them all at its center, it leaves the smallest impact out of all the films in the shared universe.
Connections to the MCU: There’s a good amount here, which is great with this being only the second entry in the universe. It shows that Marvel was already fully dedicated to going full speed ahead with their master plan. Bruce Banner’s accident and subsequent powers, as well as the creation of Abomination, are the result of trying to recreate the super soldier serum that made Captain America. The S.H.I.E.L.D. logo pops up on several computers throughout the film, and the sonic cannons the military attempts to use to subdue The Hulk are from Stark Industries. The Leader is set up and Abomination is left alive, meaning that either or both could return as future villains, though I doubt Marvel has any plans for them. General Ross, as previously mentioned, makes a triumphant return to the MCU almost a decade later in Civil War, and the post-credit stinger this time around has him running into Tony Stark himself at a bar. Tony informs Ross that he’s “putting a team together”. It was the first true instance of a character crossing over into another film in the MCU, and it only fanned the flames of excitement that an Avengers movie might actually be a thing that could happen.