Comedy Saved The Hulk -- Will It Destroy Him Next?
Since the turn of the century, Marvel hasn’t had many misses on the big screen. Home runs flew off Marvel’s bat from the start of the game, from Iron Man to Captain America: The First Avenger to Thor. Somehow the first MCU movies concocted the perfect mix of action, comedy, casting, and mythmaking that made audiences throw big, green dollars at the screen. There was only one problem. And he was also big and green.
For a good decade, Marvel just couldn’t get the Hulk right. Sure, early CGI wasn’t what it is today, but that wasn’t the (entire) problem. The bigger issue? The movies just weren’t any dang fun. Let’s figure out why Hulk stumbled out of the cinematic gate, how Marvel unlocked Hulk's comedy potential to turn him into a fan favorite, and how that yuk-yuk solution might just doom him once again.
The Hulk was already well-known from his hokey 1970s TV show, so Marvel chose the property for one of its first stabs at cinematic glory. 2003’s Hulk was five years ahead of other superhero flicks we associate with the MCU, starring moody Eric Bana as Bruce Bana … er, Banner. Ang Lee, fresh off an Oscar nomination for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and about to win for Brokeback Mountain, was a high-profile choice as director. What could possibly go wrong? Besides the main character, we mean.
“The Hulk lacks personality,” complained Common Sense Media’s Nell Minow. Time Out called Hulk flat-out dull. Worst of all, the movie was “serious—deadly serious,” according to Slate. Somehow, Lee had transformed “a fun comic” into “a Sam Shepard rewrite of an old Japanese giant monster picture.”
So it was back to the drawing board. In 2008, the same year Iron Man essentially launched the MCU as we know it, the film gods tried again with The Incredible Hulk, this time with the even moodier Edward Norton as Banner. In fact, Norton took over the whole production, rewriting the script without fixing the core problem: “The Hulk is a dull beast,” griped the New Yorker. “He’s just a big angry guy; he has no soul, no oddities, no vulnerable or tender spots.”
To sum it up: Hulk get angry. Hulk smash. Hulk boring as hell.
Shut up, Loki
That was it for Hulk solo movies -- heck, Kevin Feige still hasn’t tried again. But that doesn’t mean Marvel was giving up on the green goliath. He’d return in 2012’s The Avengers but this time with a different spin. The previous Hulks were tragic Frankenstein’s monsters. This one was glorious Id personified.
With one soliloquy-interrupting temper tantrum, everything changed for the Hulk. The Loony Tunes-inspired god smashing was the movie’s biggest laugh, a cathartic “shut up, Loki!” punctuated by third Banner Mark Ruffalo’s wry facial expressions. Hulk even gets a punchline, muttering “Puny god” as he struts away victorious.
"For about two years after that, I couldn't go through airports anywhere in the world without somebody going, 'Hey, Mr. Loki, I love it when you get Hulk smashed,'” confessed Tom Hiddleston. “It became a bit of a thing in a fun way."
Playing the Hulk for laughs did indeed become a “bit of a thing.” Taika Watiti certainly recognized what was up, secretly casting the Hulk in his Thor: Ragnorak, knowing that the character could literally and figuratively bring the house down.
Watiti turned the comedy dial on the Hulk’s character even further, giving him the voice “of a petulant teenager, and like every other one found in Thor: Ragnarok, it’s employed for constant witty back-and-forths,” noted The Daily Beast.
Somehow, the character whose fault was being “deadly serious” had become the MCU’s secret comedy weapon. Now if a superhero movie verged on being too solemn? Throw a Hulk at it. Problem solved.
Mr. Miyagi smash!
Aaaaaaand you can probably see where this is going. In the past few days, Marvel dropped the first episode of She-Hulk: Attorney At Law. While the MCU has had a lot of success employing templates from other genres -- political thriller, horror, romantic comedy, heist flick, buddy movie -- to liven up its superhero stories, this is the first one that has tried to pull off “sitcom.”
Based on She-Hulk’s first episode, it ain’t working. From the awkward breaking of the fourth wall a la The Office to the punchless punchlines about spandex, watching the show is like supporting a nervous friend at open mic night. You want them to be funny but the laughs are forced and you can’t wait to go home.
The uneven comic tone and TV-budget CGI aside, the bigger problem is what the show is doing to the Hulk. Or actually, Smart Hulk -- a name he didn’t choose for himself, but hey, what are you going to do?
Ruffalo is charming as always, but on She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, he’s reduced to an emerald Mr. Miyagi, teaching his cousin Jennifer-san how to wax on and wax off with her new powers. It’s all played for laughs -- Hulk get mad when cousin better at yoga! Hulk get hit in head with coconut just like Gilligan Island! Hulk get drunk and win belching contest! (Apparently, being a Hulk lets you get really hammered without yakking all over the carpet. Who knew?)
Doesn’t our gamma-ray guy deserve better than this? Marvel’s playing a dangerous game here with one of its cornerstone characters. It’s one thing to find lighter moments with what is essentially a tragic character. It’s another to turn the Hulk into a punchline, a big green goof who smashes himself into (less than) hilarious situations.
There’s no going back to the Ed Norton version, and doing so would be an equally terrible idea. But Marvel needs to find that balance between comic and clown. For future episodes, we recommend more “Hulk smash!” and less “Hulk smashed!”
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Top image: Marvel