The Legacy of The Incredible Hulk in the MCU

Ahead of She-Hulk’s debut, Quinn takes a look back at the forgotten MCU entry, and its lasting legacy.

In the Spring of 2008, the biggest entertainment franchise of all time was born with the release of Iron Man. The first installment in what would become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a surprise success, both critically and commercially, especially considering that Iron Man wasn’t exactly a household name at the time like Spider-Man or Wolverine. The vast majority of moviegoers were introduced to Tony Stark for the first time through this initial film, and Iron Man’s mix of humor, action, and heart, along with the undeniable chemistry of its cast, allowed audiences to connect with a character that they’d never heard of before. It’s difficult to imagine now, but Marvel Studios was the underdog at the time. Marvel didn’t yet have Disney to back them and spend ludicrous amounts of money to reacquire the film rights to their most beloved characters. For the most part, all they had to work with were characters obscure to people who had never picked up a comic book. But there was one character Marvel Studios was allowed to use that actually did already have a notable presence in popular culture: the Incredible Hulk.

Incredible Hulk
Screenshot from The Incredible Hulk

In the Summer of 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe really became an actual “cinematic universe” with the release of The Incredible HulkIron Man was a standalone movie with a post-credits sequence vaguely hinting at something bigger coming in the future. The Incredible Hulk started to build upon the world that Iron Man had set up without being a sequel or spinoff to it, something rarely done in movies up to that point. Before every studio wanted their own interconnected mega-franchise, The Incredible Hulk featured numerous references to Stark Industries and S.H.I.E.L.D. and alluded to a “super-soldier program” that wouldn’t be elaborated on until three movies later. And then there was the final scene with Tony Stark himself walking into a bar to chat with General Ross. 

Incredible Hulk
Product placement from The Incredible Hulk

While these sorts of crossovers were common in superhero comics, they had never been explored before in superhero movies. The Incredible Hulk was the testing ground for an experiment that would eventually rake in billions of dollars. And, for better or worse, change the way studios approached filmmaking. The MCU only grew bigger and bigger, like a man filled with rage and gamma radiation, but as it did, something odd happened: the hit franchise’s second installment became more and more forgotten. People only ever really talked about The Incredible Hulk when putting it at the bottom of their MCU ranking lists; and the moderate reception that met it upon release was misremembered as a widespread dislike. Occasionally, certain fans would even insist that The Incredible Hulk wasn’t even canon to the MCU, making it about as relevant as something like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Of course, this wasn’t true, but it begs the question: why was a movie about such a popular character allowed to fall so hard into obscurity?

Incredible Hulk
Screenshot from The Incredible Hulk

There are two obvious factors, the first being that Edward Norton plays Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk, but then, from The Avengers onwards, Banner is played by Mark Ruffalo. Edward Norton reportedly tried to be very involved in the film’s creative process, even rewriting the script while it was being shot. This likely irritated the higher-ups at Marvel Studios, and it became apparent that they couldn’t rely on Norton to cooperate on another film, let alone playing the character for over a decade. Like a messy breakup, both parties insisted that they were the ones who decided to split things off, with Norton saying he chose not to reprise his role because he didn’t want to be associated with a single character. Regardless of what went down, Norton was out of the role, and Ruffalo was in, which is interesting because The Incredible Hulk’s director, Louis Leterrier, originally wanted Ruffalo to play Banner in the first place.

Incredible Hulk
Promotional image for The Incredible Hulk

Recastings aren’t incredibly common in the MCU, but they do happen. However, I think what causes Norton’s recasting to stand out is that the other primary Avengers of Phase One; Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, have been played by the same actors; Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, and Chris Evans, since their debut solo films. There’s a heavy association between these characters and the actors that play them that Norton lacks with Banner, which likely makes it easy for people to disassociate The Incredible Hulk from the rest of the MCU. Still, an attempt is made in The Avengers to reassure audiences that Norton and Ruffalo’s depictions of the Hulk are one and the same. When Stark offers Banner a tour of his tower, Banner notes that the last time he was in New York he “broke Harlem”, referencing the climax of The Incredible Hulk where he fights Tim Roth’s Abomination.

Incredible Hulk
Screenshot from The Incredible Hulk

The second thing that sets The Incredible Hulk apart from most other MCU films is that Marvel Studios doesn’t own the distribution rights to it. They own the film rights to the Hulk as a character, but Universal Studios specifically has the distribution rights to any solo Hulk films. This is the reason that The Incredible Hulk is the only non-Spider-Man (his rights are tied up with Sony Pictures) MCU movie that you can’t watch on Disney+. The movie is currently on HBO Max in the United States, and will likely drift between whatever streaming services pay Universal for it at any given time. As a film from over a decade ago that isn’t as accessible as the rest of the franchise, The Incredible Hulk isn’t a film that people seek out as much as Thor or Captain America: The First Avenger.

Universal owning the distribution rights to the Hulk is also the reason why there probably won’t be another Hulk solo film. Disney and Marvel Studios can easily bypass making a movie that Universal will profit off by having the Hulk’s story play out in films that aren’t strictly about him. This is why Thor: Ragnarok has a loose adaptation of Planet Hulk in the middle of it or why the first big Hulk project in years is a streaming series about Jennifer Walters, Banner’s cousin.

Screenshot from Thor: Ragnarok

With all of these issues concerning rights and recasting, one might assume that Marvel Studios would’ve tried to do their best to pretend that The Incredible Hulk didn’t happen, but that’s not the case. In 2011, Marvel released the first of their MCU shorts, dubbed “One-Shots”, as part of the Blu-Ray special features for Thor (you can now stream all of the One-Shots separately on Disney+). Titled “The Consultant”, the short film combines clips of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Phil Coulson and Jasper Sitwell talking with footage from The Incredible Hulk, resulting in the MCU’s first real retcon. At around this point, it became clear that the final scene in The Incredible Hulk where Tony Stark approaches General Ross about “a team” didn’t match with what was going to happen in The Avengers, where Ross doesn’t seem to have any involvement in the Avengers Initiative. The Consultant reveals that all of the destruction in Harlem was pinned on the Hulk; and Emil Blonsky was publicly hailed a hero. The World Security Council wanted S.H.I.E.L.D. to ask General Ross to release the Abomination from his custody so that he could join the Avengers. Recognizing this was a bad idea, Agents Coulson and Sitwell planned to sabotage the negotiations by sending someone so arrogant and annoying that Ross would call everything off: Tony Stark.

Screenshot from The Consultant

The Incredible Hulk was fleshed out further in “The Avengers Prelude: Fury’s Big Week”, a four-issue tie-in comic that follows Nick Fury, Agent Coulson, and Black Widow during the events of Iron Man 2The Incredible HulkThor, and the prologue to Captain America: The First Avenger. “Fury’s Big Week” not only covers scenes from these films but also delves into moments that take place off-screen, including the follow-up to one of the MCU’s most prominent dangling plot threads: the transformation of Tim Blake Nelson’s Samuel Sterns into the Leader. The last time we saw Sterns in The Incredible Hulk, a sample of Banner’s blood dripped into a cut on his forehead, causing his brain to swell; while his skin turned green-ish (interestingly, promotional material for the She-Hulk: Attorney at Law series hints that this version of Jennifer Walters may get her powers from accidentally getting Hulk blood in her wounds, like Sterns). Presumably, this was to set Sterns up so that he could make later appearances with the colossal cranium that he has in the comics. “Fury’s Big Week” reveals that immediately after Stern’s transformation, Black Widow arrived to apprehend him. Stern tried to persuade her to work for him using his newfound super-intellect, but she shot him in the leg. At the end of the comic, various S.H.I.E.L.D. secret projects are shown, including a naked Sterns suspended in a tank of fluid as part of “Project: Mr. Blue”.

Panel from “Marvel’s Avengers Prelude: Fury’s Big Week” #4, written by Christopher Yost and Eric Pearson, pencils by Wellinitin Aves, inks by Don Ho and Rick Ketchem, colors by Rick Sotomayor

While “Fury’s Big Week” provides a little bit of closure for the Leader plot that we’ll never see wrapped up in a future Hulk movie, it would be neat to see Nelson reprise his role as the eccentric mad scientist. Perhaps he could pop up in an Avengers film, or maybe even a Disney+ show like She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. The same goes for Ty Burrel’s Leonard Samson, Betty Ross’ psychiatrist boyfriend, who is the long-haired, gamma-powered “Doc Samson” in the comics. Sampson is probably the character from The Incredible Hulk that has received the least amount of love, and if She-Hulk is going to take a comedic look at the life of a superhero lawyer, then a superhero psychiatrist would be an interesting addition.

Incredible Hulk
Screenshot from The Incredible Hulk

Speaking of actors reprising their roles from The Incredible Hulk, an obvious indication that this film is part of the MCU is the late William Hurt returning to play General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross in four more movies: Captain America: Civil WarAvengers: Infinity WarAvengers: Endgame, and Black Widow. While never explicitly portrayed as an outright villain in these later appearances (the MCU will never fully condemn the military-industrial complex), Ross does continue to serve as an antagonistic force who distrusts any superhero who isn’t under his direct control. Interestingly, Ross only shares one scene with Bruce Banner/the Hulk following The Incredible Hulk: Tony Stark’s funeral in Endgame. In Infinity War, Banner walks into a room just after James Rhodey ends a hologram call with Ross, which isn’t something you think about the first time you watch the film but when you do catch it, it becomes a bit annoying how close the two got to interacting after years apart.

Screenshot from Captain America: Civil War

Fans often speculated that Ross would be part of a rumored Thunderbolts project, though with Hurt’s passing earlier this year, it remains unclear whether or not the character will be recast for the recently announced Thunderbolts film or if he will have died off-screen.

The most surprising return of a character from The Incredible Hulk is Emil Blonsky, aka the Abomination. In June of 2021, hardcore members of the #AbominationNation were shocked when a trailer for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings ended with what appeared to be Wong from Doctor Strange fighting Abomination, who had somehow mutated into a slightly more comics-accurate appearance with fins. When the film came out, Wong indeed fought Abomination in an underground cage fight before opening a portal and leading Emil back to his prison cell (Roth returned to do Abomination’s vocals but was absent from Shang-Chi’s credits). Later, it was announced that Roth would play Blonsky/Abomination in the She-Hulk: Attorney at Law Disney+ series, with trailers showing him changing between human and monster forms in the cell from Shang-Chi.

Screenshot from She-Hulk: Attorney at Law

Another character from The Incredible Hulk brought back in a Disney+ series was Betty Ross. The What If…? episode “What If the Earth Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?” revisits “Fury’s Big Week” with the twist that someone is killing would-be Avengers. Seeking to find out more about a piece of evidence, Black Widow goes to Culver University (as seen in The Incredible Hulk) to get Dr. Ross’ help. There, she finds a Mark Ruffalo-looking Banner hiding in Dr. Ross’ closet, giving us a sort-of alternate universe look at what it would’ve been like if he portrayed the Hulk from the start. The military arrives on the campus lawn just like they do in the film, and it seems like things are going to play out familiarly, with the exception of Black Widow’s presence (funnily enough, “Fury’s Big Week” reveals that Black Widow was undercover at Culver University when the Hulk clashed with the military). However, before the Hulk can wreck some armored vehicles, he abruptly explodes when the mysterious killer… kills him, mysteriously. In the episode, Betty Ross is played by voice actress Stephanie Panisello instead of Liv Tyler and her father, General Ross, is played by actor Mike McGill instead of William Hurt.

Screenshot from What If…? (S1, E3 “What If the Earth Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?”)

Betty feels like the character that would benefit the most from being brought back in the main continuity, as the way she doesn’t show up again after the events of The Incredible Hulk makes it feel like the MCU regards her as nothing more than a disposable love interest. She was swept aside so that Banner could have an awkward romance with Black Widow for one movie, and she deserves better than that.

The most obscure instance of a character from The Incredible Hulk returning is actually one that’s the result of a retcon. Actor Martin Starr plays a student at Culver University who gives Banner access to the school’s computers in exchange for pizza. While the film’s credits simply refer to this student as “Computer Nerd”, the movie’s novelization identifies him as “Amadeus Cho”, a young genius from the comics who, unlike Starr, is not a white guy. Years later, Starr would play Peter Parker’s teacher, Roger Harrington, in all three installments of the MCU Spider-Man trilogy: Spider-Man: HomecomingSpider-Man: Far From Home, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. In a 2019 Reddit AMA, Kevin Feige confirmed fan speculation that the Culver University student and Harrington were the same character. Interestingly, this means that Harrington is the only character to appear in all the MCU films Marvel does not have the distribution rights for.

Incredible Hulk
Screenshot from The Incredible Hulk

And then, there’s Pingo Doce. Early in The Incredible Hulk, Banner works at a bottling plant for a Brazilian soda brand called “Pingo Doce”. Some of Banner’s irradiated blood accidentally contaminates a bottle, and when it gives a man (played by Stan Lee) radiation poisoning, General Ross traces Banner’s location back to Rio de Janeiro. Posters advertising Pingo Doce later appeared in 2015’s Ant-Man, but the fictional drink’s most unexpected comeback was in 2020 when it was revealed as one of many MCU-inspired food and beverage offerings at the soon-to-open Avengers Campus land in the Disneyland Resort’s California Adventure park. You can get Pingo Doce at the Pym Test kitchen in either a regular cup or a souvenir one styled to look like a massive soda can enlarged by Pym Particles. Unfortunately, Disney’s penchant for realism only goes so far, as no one has reported getting radiation sickness from the gamma green drink.

Image from WDW News Today

Over the last few years, it feels as though The Incredible Hulk has been finally getting more recognition, not just from fans but from Disney and Marvel too. I don’t know if I’d go as far as to call it a “hidden masterpiece”, but it’s been too easily dismissed for too long, and it’s neat to see Marvel brush the cobwebs off of this movie so that its characters and concepts can have a future. Even little things, like the Hulk using his signature “thunderclap” attack for the first time since 2008 in a She-Hulk: Attorney at Law trailer, are really welcomed.

Screenshot from She-Hulk: Attorney at Law

With a new Hulk taking the spotlight, hopefully, Marvel Studios plans to continue pulling from the abandoned stories set up by their second film. Those gamma mutates need all the attention they can get because if there’s one thing The Incredible Hulk has proved, it’s that it’s not easy being green.

By Quinn Hesters

Quinn is a vat-grown living advertisement created by the LEGO Company to promote their products. When he's not being the flesh-and-blood equivalent of a billboard, he's raving about the X-Men on Twitter.

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