Universal twice tried to turn the not-so-jolly green giant into a movie star. Both times they failed. What went wrong with these movies? Is the Hulk just not cut out for starring roles? Let's take a look...
The first attempt, produced by Universal, had a lot of promise: It co-starred Jennifer Connelly, right after her Oscar-winning turn in A Beautiful Mind. The director was Ang Lee, who had won an Oscar for the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which featured stunning visuals and balletic fight sequences. The star was Eric Bana, an Australian actor relatively unknown to Americans, which I think is fine; sometimes you don't want a major star outshining a character (Ben Affleck as Batman comes to mind). And instead of green makeup, we would have a fully CGI Hulk that could smash up San Francisco and hurl Army tanks like an Olympic hammer-thrower.
Maybe director Lee was too wrapped in the issues of anger that the film addressed; the movie is just so deadly serious. Lee seems to forget that the Hulk isn't The Dark Knight; he's a brute who loves to smash things. The plot doesn't make a lot of sense, either. When Bruce Banner was a child, his father killed his mother after a gamma radiation experiment went wrong. As an adult, his father sends mutated dogs to kill Bruce's girlfriend because... I forget. Just so the Hulk can fight giant dogs? In the end, Bruce-as-Hulk battles his father-as-Absorbing-Man, who gains the power of electricity and eventually grows into a mushroom-like creature. The whole thing is just too silly to be serious and too serious to be fun.
Critics thought the Hulk looked like Shrek and said the film was too long (only 12 minutes longer than Iron Man, but you really feel it). The movie has a 61% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which pretty much means "Meh."
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
2008 saw the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Iron Man. One month later, Universal released this new version of the Hulk, which completely ignored the first attempt. Bruce Banner is played by Edward Norton, certainly a fine actor, and his super-adversary is played by Tim Roth, a performer you love to hate. The film was directed by Louis Leterrier, who had just made the first two Transporter movies.
The plot makes more sense. There's no father figure or childhood trauma. The film pays tribute to the 70s TV series, even having Lou Ferrigno provide dialogue for the Hulk (the 2003 version never spoke). Tim Roth becomes Abomination, a better match for the Hulk than his electricity-powered father. But there's nothing dazzling about the movie. It's not particularly thrilling or cool. Taking out the pathos from the Ang Lee version helps the pacing—the film is 24 minutes shorter than its predecessor—but also removes some dramatic power. The New York Times called it "The Adequate Hulk."
Compared to the wit and charm of Iron Man a month before it and the darkness and complexity of The Dark Knight later that summer, The Incredible Hulk just can't compete. It made only a little more money than it did in 2003 and has just a 67% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Most telling, while the film is MCU canon, Norton was replaced by Mark Ruffalo for all future Hulk appearances—the only time Marvel has done that for a character.
What's the problem?
Why do talented writers, directors, and actors have trouble making a good Hulk movie? One reason may be the character itself. None of the other Marvel or DC heroes transform into anything; they're always their super-powered selves, even if they hide their identities. So whether they're battling aliens or drinking at a party, their personality shows through. The Hulk has two very different personalities; the raging beast and Bruce Banner, who's calm and quiet, and haunted by guilt. Thus, any Hulk movie is going to contain at least 50% mild-mannered Bruce Banner, and any fans of thoughtful character studies will have to endure lots of mindless smashing. It's a tough dichotomy to pull off.
Think of the verbal wit of Tony Stark or Spider-Man. Bruce Banner isn't cocky or clever, and the Hulk is... terse, to say the least. He doesn't have the innocence of 1940s nice guy Steve Rogers, and he's not a badass like Black Widow or Black Panther. Banner's a pretty ordinary scientist, and the Hulk doesn't have a complex personality. So there's not much to really love about the character.
Don't get me wrong—he's great as a supporting character, and Mark Ruffalo is doing all he can with the role of a tortured, destructive man of science. But it's possible the Hulk just isn't meant to be a leading man. Once he transforms into a giant beast, it's hard to see or relate to his humanity. The filmmakers of Universal's upcoming Wolfman film should take note.