CS Soapbox: What If The Incredible Hulk is a Multiverse Movie?
Of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s missteps and plot holes (for which there are very few), 2008’s The Incredible Hulk might be its biggest inconsistency. It wasn’t a bad film; however, as the second official entry in the MCU, it didn’t align itself with the tone or acclaim of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. Not even the end credits sequence where Robert Downey JR’s Tony Stark recruits General Ross to find Hulk for the “team” was enough to make it feel… right. Recently, Marvel has been hyping the exploration of a multiverse alongside upcoming films and Disney + shows. What if The Incredible Hulk, that one piece of the MCU that feels out of place, could be retconned as a multiverse movie?
The Incredible Hulk didn’t work as an entry in the Infinity Saga because of Edward Norton (sorry Jack’s misplaced sense of self). Norton was interested in making a comic book movie more in the gritty vein of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, released the same summer. The conversations he had with Kevin Feige revolved around making two very dark films (Norton was even allowed to rewrite portions of Zak Penn’s screenplay). The ending of The Incredible Hulk even seemed to suggest Bruce Banner’s alter ego having a somewhat sinister/evil streak but it was ultimately never explored. As Marvel Studios’ meticulously crafted universe began to take shape, it became clear that The Incredible Hulk didn’t “embody the creativity and collaborative spirit” of the MCU. Exit Norton and his vision. Enter the fun-loving Mark Ruffalo.
This is not to say that some things from The Incredible Hulk didn’t live on in the MCU. There’s the “I broke Harlem” line in The Avengers (apparently referring to the events of The Incredible Hulk) and William’s Hurt’s Ross appearances in Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame and the forthcoming Black Widow. Conversely, Banner is portrayed by a different actor, the Hulk design is drastically different (going from frighteningly shredded to big and bulky), Betty Ross is never referenced, and Tim Blake Nelson’s Samuel Stern AKA Leader does not appear in the MCU (something set up in The Incredible Hulk).
Feige and Marvel Studios are now in the unique position of being able to remedy all of these broken promises/narrative inconsistencies. Not unlike how Thor: Ragnarok saw Hela deem the Infinity Gauntlet in Asgard’s vault “fake,” Avengers: Endgame showed us how clever the MCU can be. In particular, that film introduced the idea of multiple timelines: An The Avengers era Loki ran off with the Tesseract (and into his own Disney+ show) and Captain America grew old in an unspecified timeline (did he jump timelines?). Very few people were upset about the problems surrounding “Old Cap” due to the tools now at the MCU’s disposal- plot armor that exists within a multiverse.
With multiple timelines comes different variations in story. Worlds can exist that feel very similar to the ones we know (minus minor details) or be entirely different. An example of this can be seen in Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, where different Spider-People from parallel universes (like Spider-Ham or Gwen Stacy’s Spider-Woman) interact due to some cosmic discombobulation. Ironically, Sony’s Venom films (which exist parallel to but definitely outside of the MCU) serve as a perfect blueprint for the MCU’s multiverse. Due to contractual obligations, any Spider-Man related characters that appear in films outside of the MCU have to be slightly different. For example, if Tom Holland’s Peter Parker cameos in Venom: Let There Be Carnage, it’ll be a Peter Parker that never knew Tony Stark (or at least never references him).
This bit of information is important because a lot of people hope we see Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield and Toby Maguire’s Spider-Men meet—there have at least been discussions in the past. Fans have speculated that some sort of cathartic crossover of past and present will occur in Spider-Verse 2 or maybe even Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (with Sony’s permission). Regardless, as the multiverse gets explored in projects like the latter, Loki and WandaVision, previous MCU-related plot holes and inconsistencies could easily be written off as happening in another timeline/parallel universe.
The Incredible Hulk‘s tone is very much a byproduct of what superhero movies were before the MCU, specifically films like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. This brings us back to the end credits scene of The Incredible Hulk. It wasn’t conceived with a lot of forethought (Favreau even told EW that the post-credits scene in Iron Man was a lark… albeit a very lucrative one). Tony Stark appears as if he is actively recruiting the Avengers, when in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers it’s clear that SHIELD has serious reservations about affiliating with his “textbook narcissism.” Not only is this inconsistent with what we end up seeing in the MCU, but supposedly Hulk was originally intended to be more an antagonist in The Avengers.
So imagine a world where The Incredible Hulk makes sense within The MCU. Norton (equipped with a more sinister Hulk design) working beside Downey instead of Ruffalo. A parallel universe where The Leader shows up as an Avengers villain. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness could explain all of this by painting The Incredible Hulk as taking place in a world where Norton is Banner instead of Ruffalo (not just a reality where creatives make mistakes).
Marvel could use deleted scenes from The Incredible Hulk (for which there are many) to show 2008 Norton interacting with current/past MCU characters like Stephen Strange, Scarlet Witch, etc (via visual effects). There is plenty of precedent for this. Marvel has proven in the past that they’re not afraid to dive back into past films that didn’t work, ala the huge Thor: The Dark World section of Avengers: Endgame. At the time, they had largely broken ties with Natalie Portman but were able to incorporate her into the plot and eventually rehire her for Thor: Love and War.
We could even be shown a whole alternate Avengers team with totally different actors in each role. This would be a fun way to get around RDJ and Chris Evans’ departure while simultaneously bringing back their respective characters. Of course, all of this would have to involve Edward Norton signing on, or at least allowing his image to be used. However, that isn’t within the realm of impossible. Norton himself has said that the people at Marvel Studios he had issues with are no longer with the company and that he loves Feige’s work in respecting the comics.
Sure, Marvel kind of threw The Incredible Hulk and Norton’s ideas to the wayside, but bringing those things back might make him feel… fulfilled? Not that Marvel Studios needs to prove anything to anyone at this point, but it’d definitely be a way to right a past “wrong.” Plus, it would just be fun for the fans.
The Incredible Hulk didn’t do fantastic at the box office but there are those that enjoyed Norton’s emo take on the character (as opposed to Ruffalo’s more comedic approach). If need be, they could always skirt around using Norton’s image by just using his Hulk design voiced by someone imitating Norton like what we saw with Red Skull in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. So maybe there’s a chance? In a Ruffalo-led Hulk movie or the She-Hulk series perhaps? Too often we fans become obsessed, infuriated even with plot holes in things like Star Wars or Game of Thrones. The MCU has risen to such heights that it now has the opportunity to achieve narrative perfection (hyperbole). To fix things they just did on a whim back when they had no real idea where things were going. It might be wise to take advantage of it.