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Who’s The Hulk? Eric Bana vs. Edward Norton vs. Mark Ruffalo

on April 28, 2015, 4:00pm

Marvel Week continues to assemble on Consequence of Sound. Today, Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman, Film Editor Justin Gerber, and contributing writer Patrick Gill rage over who’s the greatest Hulk to ever smash through the theaters. As with many superhero roles — we’re looking at you Batman and Spider-Man — a number of actors have been painted green for the silver screen. Our candidates? Eric Bana, Edward Norton, and Mark Ruffalo. Not even Betty Ross could stop this edition of Vs.

Justin Gerber (JG): The best Bruce Banner/Hulk of all time is actually Bill Bixby from the old television series, but that’s neither nor there (and he went by “David Banner” so he’s automatically excluded).

On the big screen, we’ve seen the doctor and his big, green galoot of an alter ego three times over the past 15 years (not counting an amusing Iron Man 3 cameo). While you can count me as a fan of both Ang Lee and Eric Bana, I was bored to tears by Hulk (2003). I’m all for changing origin stories if it works, but letting Nick Nolte go full-Nick Nolte had much more of a humorous effect than an intense one. The movie’s faults had nothing to do with Bana, who rages out with the best of them, but the reason I can’t back him will be made clear a couple paragraphs from now.

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I actually enjoy The Incredible Hulk (2008), as chopped up as it may be. Edward Norton plays Banner closer to his comic roots and much more “nerdy” than Hunk Hulk Bana. Yes, Liv Tyler slows things down to a grinding halt with her delivery, but when The Hulk fights The Abomination during the film’s climax, I’m all in (also love the tease of the TV series score near the beginning). I was initially bummed out when I found out Norton was leaving the role, but not surprised. He’s had conflicts with producers and directors in the past (ahem American History X) so it felt more like “Of course he is!” than anything else.

The horse I’m backing is Ruffalo’s Hulk. Is he the best Banner? No, and I’d argue for Norton in that case. However, there are more memorable Hulk moments in The Avengers (2012) than in his two previous installments combined. Hell, his finest moments in all three films come in the final 20 minutes of Joss Whedon’s all-star film: saving Iron Man as he falls back to Earth and, of course, smashing Loki around like the “puny God” he really is.

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I discovered that for me The Hulk works best in bursts, and therefore Ruffalo’s Hulk wins the day. I’m more interested in the interplay between Ruffalo’s Banner and Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark than I ever was with Banner and Betty in the previous films, and when he does become The Hulk I’m happy for the few minutes we get him. The Incredible Hulk is the Mariano Rivera of The Avengers’ line-up in his ability to close out a big action sequence and earn audience applause. I hate the Yankees, but I think that analogy’s pretty good.

Gentlemen? Your thoughts?

Patrick Gill (PG): The Incredible Hulk, or Edward Norton Hulk, is truly middle child Hulk. It doesn’t have the weight and sentimentality (not used pejoratively) of the first, or the dazzle of The Avengers. Instead, The Incredible Hulk delivers solid action, palatable grit, and strong performances out of most of the cast: the wiry Norton trying to stay true to his moral compass, William Hurt being perfectly dastardly, Tim Roth as a slick and driven mercenary, and Tyler doing enough with what she was given. All this seems to thrive in the exaggerated aesthetic, but this outing is generally swept under the rug.

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You’re right that Hulk is best utilized in short bursts. After all, it’s hard placing too much narrative on a character who’s constantly trying to control their power. Louis Leterrier’s film finds the character wallowing in amplified color and sound. It was highly stylized, but not exactly to Tim Burton’s level, which only made me want to see what else Leterrier could do. And while it wasn’t a smash, it wasn’t a flop by any means, either. Sure, Iron Man was the catalyst for the flurry of Marvel films, but The Incredible Hulk — released a month after — proved that the studio had sustainable source material.

Michael Roffman (MR): I’ll start off rather blunt and say that Ang Lee’s vision of Hulk is the only time out of the three incarnations that I felt there was any staying power. Granted, the film has its flaws — many, many flaws — but Lee seems to be the only director that actually understood the character. That is, he wasn’t really invested in the destruction, the chaos, and the smashing. No, he embraced the tortured hero’s poetic mysticism, zeroing in on the strengths and faults of the character by indulging in the larger-than-life elements whilst commenting on his more tangible traits like his own mental health and personal demons.

When Hulk is pummeling through the desert by himself, it’s about the most beautiful portrait that’s ever surfaced in a Marvel film. It’s here we see his inner turmoil without being so overstated (e.g. The Avengers) or so exploitative (e.g. The Incredible Hulk). Lee allows his reactions with the natural landscapes to speak for themselves and they’re very loud and they’re very emotive. But, you can’t expect such patience in a blockbuster, which is one reason why moments like this went unnoticed by the general population. Though, to be fair, they had plenty of other reasons to abandon their half-empty buckets of popcorn.

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The film itself is a mess. The whole final act becomes a little too steeped in Greek mythology for the source material — what the hell was even going on in that fight between David and Bruce Banner? — and the additions of the Hulk dogs felt awkwardly shoehorned in given the surrounding drama and the film’s more rigid tones. Had these been excised, tightened, what have you, the film might have worked a whole lot better. But, probably not — Lee’s idea for a more “meditative” Hulk was the No. 1 complaint back in 2003, despite the effects being top-notch and the acting at an unwieldy premium. Jennifer Connelly, anyone?

With regards to Bana, he’s admittedly not the ideal Banner. He’s way too handsome, he’s ruthlessly stoic, and he often pockets the character’s crucial moments of pathos by staring eerily into imaginary black holes. Whereas Norton has the look and the wit and the mannerisms down pat. Then again, he’s about the only good thing out of that 2008 followup, especially given the heavy reliance on effects that sometimes looked as if they were stripped straight out of a PS2 FMV sequence.

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Now, it’s rare that any film should ever prioritize effects over any other element, but given that the Hulk is an incredible beast, and that incredibility depends solely on how said beast comes across as real, the effects should be paramount to everything else. And nothing — not even his meddling rampage across the Helicarrier in The Avengers — registers as real to me as when he was all alone in Lee’s silent desert landscapes. But hey, who knows, maybe a few more knocked down buildings or that interaction with the Black Widow will change my mind.

JG: Mike, you raise a good point about Lee capturing the psychological toll of what Hulk does to Banner as opposed to what other films’ Hulks do to SMASH!!!! However, I’m personally not as interested in Banner’s inner psyche taking up a lot of screen time for a limited feature film. Were we to get another TV series a la Daredevil (which is crushing it right now over on Netflix), I’d be inclined to settle down and settle in. For big-screen entertainment, Nolan’s Batman films are the exception to the rule when it comes to dark sagas based on colorful comic book characters. Give me more smash ‘em ups, color, and fewer tortured souls. Save it for Oscar season.

I say all this not knowing exactly what we’re going to get from Ruffalo in Avengers: Age of Ultron. In the trailers, we see that at some point Scarlet Witch plays mind tricks on the Hulk, and it looks as though a romantic relationship has developed between Banner and Black Widow (goodbye, Betty!). In addition to plotlines, Ruffalo enlisted the aid of mo-cap vet Andy Serkis for help with Hulking out. In a way we’re going to get a brand new take on the Hulk yet again.

Do you guys have any ideas where the Hulk story would have gone if it carried on with one of your favorite actors playing Banner?

PG: I would have liked to see how Leterrier’s saturated style could’ve played out further. I’m a sucker of camp, sometimes liking visual styles that are a potentially overwrought. Judging by the decreasing quality of his other highly stylized action series, The Transporter, the results would have been poor. I’d like to think Joss Whedon would have come in to turn the ship around though. Had it continued, the series would have needed someone who could inject something more genuine. Someone who could accurately blend just the right amount of smash and substance.

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We now know that Norton’s Hulk job was to retcon Lee’s and prepare audiences for The Avengers. If that storyline was to be built in to a franchise, we likely would have seen more villains — after all, Dr. Sam Sterns/Mr. Blue was quietly set up as an arch-nemesis leader in The Incredible Hulk — and there could have been more room to flesh out Hulk’s conflicts with more powerful heroes like Thor. Of course, we’d also see more Betty Ross, which probably would have disappointed more fans. Personally, I hold out hope that she’ll still come around, though I know I’m in the minority.

Hey, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts became a significant significant other in Iron Man 3, while Johansson was given more than bullets and one-liners in last year’s Captain America sequel, showcasing what actresses can do in a comic film other than standing there as plot devices. I’d like to think that Betty could also expand her role — and there’s enough proof in the 2008 film. When Tyler screams at the cab driver or calms Banner during their experiment with Dr. Sterns, there were glimpses of a strong female lead. The problem, then, was that there were just too many scenes played breathy and listlessly to convince others that she should stick around.

As you mentioned, Justin, we’re set to see a deepening relationship between Hulk and Black Widow in Ultron. If they do bring back Betty, which seems a tad far-fetched at this point but not all unlikely, it would be nice to give Tyler a chance to defend her past performance with an expanded role.

MR: What would be really great is if they made another standalone Hulk film, only now they brought back Norton, re-hired Connelly, and then recast William Hurt’s General Ross with Iron Man‘s Jeff Bridges who would then try to sound more like his former Lebowski co-star Sam Elliott. To top it off, they could have Bana do all the mo-cap sequences as “Green Hulk” and bring in Ruffalo when he turns into “Grey Hulk.” That wouldn’t be confusing, right? That would be something the kids wanted, eh?

Joking aside, the followup to Lee’s Hulk appeared to be more in the vein of the original, tackling themes much bigger than popcorn destruction. Screenwriter James Schamus, credited for the story of the 2003 film, admitted last year that he had a “really cool idea” for Lee’s sequel, stating: “It was on like a Native American reservation, and it was all about radioactivity, and it was really political and like, that would have been awesome.”

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Given that we last saw Banner in South America — about the only story motif lifted for Leterrier’s film — it would have been interesting to see Banner as a political rebel, assisting the disenfranchised as this mythical beast or urban legend. It could have been like Predator if only Schwarzenegger’s Dutch was a misunderstood hired gun by the army, perhaps a commentary on the sharpshooters we’ve sent overseas. Who knows.

Fans are wont to avoid the more political mumbo jumbo for more standard comic fare, and that’s fine, but also not very enlightening. Many might point to Planet Hulk, a slightly obscene arc that finds our green meanie banished to a planet of which he soon reigns over. Whedon recently called the idea “mad expensive” and he’s probably right, which might be one reason we’ll never see a standalone Hulk film again — especially as a TV series. The rent’s too damn high.

And that’s fine. The Hulk story is already a flawed mythos that feels wedged into the MCU at this point. I think it’s funny that the recent Daredevil series references the 2008 film, specifically the battle at the end in Harlem. (Look around in Ben Urich’s office and you’ll see the headline. He was there!) That little nod, coupled with the random footage on the screens at the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, feels like shameful, crinkly white flags on Marvel’s behalf, all but admitting it’s the bastard franchise.

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JG: I wonder if Marvel could pull of the “Grey Hulk” storyline. It would definitely be a change up to a character with nothing to lose. The Hulk isn’t coming off of The Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s coming off a supporting role in Avengers movies, so if Marvel wanted to take another risk on giving Hulk a shot as an independent, this could be an interesting left-field choice. Personally, every time I think of “Grey Hulk” (who speaks good English, but is a little weaker than “Green Hulk”), I can’t help but think of Peter Boyle’s monster at the end of Young Frankenstein– a bored husband reading a newspaper in bed with glasses perched on the edge of his nose. If Planet Hulk ain’t happening, I think we may have reached the full potential of both Banner and his aggressive alter ego. (cue piano theme from TV’s The Incredible Hulk)

MR: So, now what? Do we even have an answer in this? Should we search for eBay, find those Hulk-endorsed Mountain Dew cans from 2003, and see if soda-less Justin can fight the beast within? Maybe you could play Hulk. Or maybe I could. I’ve often raged and turned into a Jekyll-like villain. I’m doing it right now. Try and stop me. Just try … and …

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You were saying, Justin?

JG: Don’t make Mike angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

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