I just got back from Avengers: Endgame, and it was pretty incredible. It took advantage of its three hour run time in a way I never expected, and formed itself into a quiet contemplation of the MCU’s past events. But, what surprised me about the film more than anything else, was the way that no single character felt short shrifted in the film. Of course the biggest complaint that I heard about the penultimate film, “Avengers: Infinity War”, was how the film moved quickly and glossed over important character moments. But somehow, in a film with perhaps more characters in the script than any other film in history, this was not the case with “Avengers: Endgame”.
You could make a case that the bulk of the characters that came back after Hulk’s snap weren’t given enough time to shine; but at least the main characters, the original six avengers, all had very complete story arcs. Whether it was Iron Man’s journey from loss, to security, to risk, and ultimately his decision to sacrifice himself; or Black Widow’s very similar journey; or Captain America’s journey to be done with the world, and go back in time to live out his days with Peggy Carter, everyone seemed to have a fully fleshed out story. But, what I found most odd about these character arcs is that, rather than rebuild a narrative arc to fit their film, Markus & McFeely instead built on what was already there in previous films, no matter how deeply it was hidden.
Of course the best example, or at least the most obvious example of this was the way that the film heavily leaned on “Thor: The Dark World”, an almost universally despised part of the MCU. There was plenty of material to work with from Thor’s past experiences, most notably in his most recent solo outing “Thor: Ragnarok”, however, the screenwriter’s seemed happy to give themselves a bigger challenge. But I don’t want to talk about that, plenty of other people already are. I want to talk about Hulk.
Almost by accident, I watched Edward Norton’s “The Incredible Hulk”, right before I saw “Avengers: Endgame”. I’ve held the opinion for while now that “The Incredible Hulk” is the MCU’s most underrated film, more on that later. But I was surprised to see that this didn’t stop the “Avengers: Endgame’s” screenwriters from dropping easter eggs for fans of “The Incredible Hulk”.
About 2/3 of the way through “Avengers: Endgame”, the team finishes their time heist and gets their hands on all six Infinity Stones. Very quickly the team starts nobly arguing over who should wield the new Infinity Gauntlet and risk dying to bring back all their old teammates. The bickering goes on for a minute, until Bruce Banner shuts everyone up and makes it clear that he will be the one performing the un-snappening. The way he does this, though, threw me off for a second; until I re-watched Joss Whedon’s original “The Avengers” film that is. Bruce Banner convinces everyone he can handle the force fo the Infinity Gauntlet by saying that the force coming from the sones “is mostly gamma anyways”.
It’s an obvious allusion to Bruce Banner/ Hulk’s well known origin story, but it’s still an odd thing to say, until you realize it’s actually a more direct allusion to Joss Whedon’s film. Early on in that film, Erik Selvig is examining the Tesseract (ie. the Space Stone), and comments to Nick Fury that there is radiation coming off of the stone, which he describes as “mostly harmless, low level gamma”, and of course Nick Fury get’s the killer line, “that can be dangerous”.
But that’s beside the point, we’re already building Hulk’s character arc. He’s a character that’s mostly ignored in the MCU, until the rest of the Avengers need a tank to deal with some big enemy in the middle of a fight. But Markus & Mcfeely went out of their way to pay attention to what little backstory Bruce Banner did have. But of course this little “easter egg” pails in comparison to the second reference we get in “Avengers: Endgame”:
At the very beginning of the film, right after the time jump, we’re introduced to our characters as they’ll exist for the rest of the film. Tony Stark the dad, Black Widow the project manager, fat Thor, and most impressively, Bruce Banner’s new persona: He’s no longer doing the whole Jekyll-Hyde thing and transforming into a green monster at increasingly less well defined times, but has rather leaned fully into the Hulk side of the, uh, personality, we’ll say — much like what we saw in “Thor: Ragnarok”. This time around however we get to see what I’m dubbing: “The Hanna Montana Hulk” (the best of both worlds). Basically Hulk’s body and Banner’s brain.
What’s interesting about this transformation isn’t so much the fact that it exists, but how Banner explains it came about. Bruce Banner explains his current existence is only possible he “stopped trying to treat The Hulk like a disease” and, rather than trying to cure it, decided to attempt a kind of coexistence. But when did we ever see Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner trying to cure The Hulk? He was tepidly comfortable with the Jekyll-Hyde set up in “The Avengers”, lost control of The Hulk completely in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, was completely consumed by The Hulk in “Thor: Ragnarok”, and spent the entirety of “Avengers: Infinity War” trying, unsuccessfully, to coax The Hulk out. Mark Ruffalo’s hulk has, at least from my reading of the films viewed The Hulk as a tool. He’s lost control of it from time to time, and certainly isn’t happy about being The Hulk, but we’ve never once seen him try to cure The Hulk.
Everyone that I talked about to about this bit of the film seemed happy to just write this off as something that happened during the five year time gap. Many seem to be going as far as demanding to see a solo film based around Hulk’s journey during that five year gap. While I’d certainly be the first to get my tickets to that movie, I actually had a different read on the scene. It certainly could be like Hawkeye & Black Widow’s throw-away reference to Budapest through-out the franchise. But I think it’s much more likely a reference to “The Incredible Hulk”. A film that pretty much focuses entirely around Bruce Banner’s effort to cure himself and get rid of The Hulk. It’s the inciting incident that causes him to head to America, it’s the reason the film’s villain comes to exist; Bruce Banner’s drive to find a cure is what makes “The Incredible Hulk” work.
There’s a pretty good chance that I’m wrong, but even I am, the connection is there. “Avengers: Endgame” is a film that rewards long time viewers of the MCU. Most of the films in the MCU tend to pretend like inconvenient, or less revered films just don’t exist. Tony Stark blew up all of his suits in “Iron Man 3” only to build more than ever by the time “Avengers: Age of Ultron” started rolling. Jane Foster has been almost completely erased from the MCU, because Natalie Portman refused to come back. But of course “The Incredible Hulk” is probably the best example of this. Bruce Banner travels to Canada at the end of “The Incredible Hulk”, only to be picked up by Black Widow in Calcutta at the start of “The Avengers”, Bruce Banner was re-cast, Abomination is never mentioned again, and Liv Tyler went the way of Jane Foster. But then, whether intentional or not, Markus and McFeely acknowledged “The Incredible Hulk”. I think that’s pretty awesome.
This next bit is pretty off topic, so just quit reading if you’re not interested.
I’m not one of those “The Incredible Hulk” fans that pretends like the movie is perfect or anything. It’s not even close to my favorite film in the MCU. There are 22 films to chose from there, and 4 of them are directed by Joe & Anthony Russo, so, there’s really not much of a contest.
However, I think the biggest issue with “The Incredible Hulk”, at least in terms of audience reception, is the timing. I’d posit that if “The Incredible Hulk” were released today, rather than back in 2008, it would be recieved by the audience with open arms.
“The Incredible Hulk” came out in 2008, a few short months after “Iron Man”. Compare a fun, sarcastic super-hero who announces his secret identity at the end of the film just so that he can bask in the glory of being Iron Man; to the much more deliberate, at points just straight-up morose, film focused on contemplating the tragedy that being a super-hero is… I mean… is it any surprise that “Iron Man” tripled “The Incredible Hulk’s” box office numbers?
Of course following “The Incredible Hulk” we get “Iron Man 2” in 2010, another film about the same cocky, fun, super-hero who’s having a blast getting to save the world. Then like a one-two-punch, we get “Thor” in 2011, and are introduced to another hero who loves being a hero. Of course later that year we get “Captain America: The First Avenger”, and with that a hero who’s a bit more stoic, and doesn’t love 100% of his time as Captain America. But I’d still argue he’s living out his dreams for at least 70% of the film.
But even if “Captain America: The First Avenger” was half as morose and brooding as “The Incredible Hulk”, it’s only a year later that we get Joss Weadon’s “Avengers”. A film that’s so fun, and groundbreaking (at the time) that we forget forever that super-hero’s are allowed be self-aware.
But then something odd happens. Shane Black takes over the reigns of the Iron Man franchise and starts to steer the story in a kind of “The Incredible Hulk” like direction. Tony Stark spends the biggest chunk of “Iron Man 3” fighting PTSD that he’s developed as a result of the last film, “Avengers”. He loses all interest in being a hero anymore, and blows up all of his suits at the end of the film.
Then Joe & Anthony Russo get brought in to direct “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, and they start to steer things in the same direction again. Captain America spends that whole movie fighting against S.H.I.E.L.D., the organization that tracked him down, and gave him a reason to be alive in-between “Captain America: The First Avenger” & “Avengers”. It’s starting to feel like maybe the filmmaker’s behind the movies, are having more fun getting to write, and direct super-heroes that are, at least somewhat, self-aware.
But then all that work is erased in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”. Blame Marvel, or Disney, or Joss Weadon, or whoever you want; but Iron Man’s got his suits back, and S.H.I.E.L.D is gone, but it has made no difference whatsoever on the universe. I’m not bashing the film for this reason specifically, I really like the concept behind the film (part of the reason why I was so disappointed with the end result); the point is, all that work is kind of erased.
But then something odd happens again. Joe & Anthony Russo turn Captain America 3 into Avengers 2.5 and have Captain America & Iron Man fight, or at least that’s how it was sold. What’s more interesting, is how we actually get to that point in the film. Our heroes are once again self-aware: Aware that they are more powerful than the rest of the world, aware of what that means for the world, and only disagree when it comes to deciding what to do about that. Half of the team are in favor of reasonable legislation to reign the heroes in, and half would rather operate as lawless vigilantes.
Then a light bulb is suddenly flicked on, the whole studio shifts gears. There are a few outliers like “Ant-Man”, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, or “Dr. Strange”, but buying large it’s just accepted that the MCU’s super-heroes now have to deal with the fact that they are in fact, super-heroes. All of the studios biggest hits, since Civil War, have been, at least on some level, contemplations of the heroe’s actions, from past movies, or past lives, or something that’s happened off screen. “Black Panther”, “Captain Marvel”, and “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, all three of the studios most recent origin stories have been less about introducing our characters, and more about introducing the world they live in. “Thor: Ragnarok” also fits in this new style of filmmaking pretty nicely; but, my point is: It’s no longer interesting to see a film about a super-hero, that’s been done an infinite amount of times, and frankly Christopher Nolan made a better super-hero film than the MCU ever will, two months after “Iron Man”. What’s interesting, and what keeps me coming back to the MCU is the exploration of the world around our heroes. No one cares that the Avengers saved the world for the fourth time at the end of Endgame, they cared about what happened to the team as a result of it.
So, 11 years after the release of “The Incredible Hulk”, almost every movie is dancing around the same concepts that this film was playing with all the way back in the beginning. No one has dived in quite as deeply as that film did. There hasn’t been another film about a super-hero who would do anything to not have to be a super-hero anymore; but there have certainly been scenes like that, entire acts of a film that revolve around that same idea.
I’m not saying that dropping “The Incredible Hulk” right in-between “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Captain Marvel” would magically make it some kind of well regarded, beloved, masterpiece; but I also can’t imagine that it would be the most underrated film in the MCU either.