Double Feature Duels: Hulk vs. The Incredible Hulk

Most of you probably remember the history of these two movies. In 2003, Ang Lee’s version of the Hulk hit screens. Though highly anticipated, it had a huge second-week dropoff. In short, most people viewed it as a disappointment. Common complaints were spotty visual effects, slow filmmaking, and a lame villain.

Then came the Avenger Initiative. Marvel reignited their comic-based films, including a fresh take on the big green guy. To helm it, they selected Louis Leterrier, he of of The Transporter fame. Leterrier’s involvement promised action, and lots of it.

Oddly enough, the two movies grossed almost EXACTLY the same domestically, and even their international totals were pretty close. So, two Hulk movies, released a few short years apart, with very different approaches, making almost the exact same amount of money.

But… which one’s better? Let’s dig in…


Obviously, this is the guy we all came to see. The movies aren’t called “Bruce Banner,” after all. This is actually an area where the movies are somewhat similar. I guess it’s pretty hard to miss the “huge angry green guy” target.

Ang Lee’s Hulk, though, has a very different physicality than Louis Leterrier’s. Lee’s is more bulky, more clumsy. The Hulk is a being seemingly unused to living in his own skin — makes sense; given that the movie is first and foremost an origin story. Personally, I really dig this detail in the 2003 movie; the scenes of Hulk flinging things or simply barreling at his opponents take on a really scary, visceral quality when the monster doesn’t even seem to be in control of himself.

Leterrier’s Hulk, on the other hand, has clearly gotten the hang of the jumping and fighting. This time around, Hulk is more focused; pursuing clearly defined goals throughout his combat scenes. Just watch him leap from building to building after the Abomination. This Hulk is lucid and on a mission.

He also gets to utter the classic catchphrase, “HULK SMASH!” That has to count for something.

That said, I really like how, in The Avengers, both sides of the character were used, and both felt legitimate. So why don’t I just call this category a draw? They’re both effective in their own right.


Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), Hulk has to quiet down and deal with his more human side, too. I’ll go ahead and admit upfront that there is a very clear winner of this category for me, and it’s Eric Bana.

Bana — aside from being a criminally underrated actor — brings a real sense of intelligence and conflict to the character. Part of this is the difference in storytelling (which I’ll get to in a minute), but part of it is that Bana is a bit more of a chameleon, on most days, then Edward Norton. He makes the scientist, wanderer, and beserker sides of the character come together really, really nicely.

Norton’s Banner is a more typical action hero, at least for most of the movie. He has some nice scenes here and there, but I never really feel like he’s all that well defined. Honestly, it’s a little strange to me, as Marvel’s OTHER movies have done a really nice job of sketching out their main characters. Thor’s misguided bravado, Iron Man’s cynical playboying, and Captain America’s reluctant heroism leap of the screen. By contrast, I always find that Norton’s performance doesn’t stick with me very long at all.

Point to Hulk.


Jennifer Connelly. No contest. Don’t even start.


2003’s Absorbing Man (right?) is obviously a cooler concept. Hulk has already proven himself to be the strongest thing around, but Absorbing Man adds a new wrinkle by being able to take on the form of the elements themselves. You can’t fight water or electricity just by being strong.

This villain, unfortunately, is marred slightly by being used in a more abstract, metaphorical context for much of the movie. The end battle is less of a brawl and more of an impressionistic interpretation of the concept of power. I rather like it, actually, but it took me a couple viewings to clue into what was actually going on.

The Abomination, on the other hand, is pure comic book. He’s kinda stupid looking, and it’s really not all that interesting to me to watch a big brown guy punch a big green guy for fifteen minutes, but I can’t deny that it’s got a certain appropriateness to it.

I am, however, enthralled by the performance Tim Roth gives as Blonsky BEFORE he turns into The Abomination. That’s what I call a villain! He’s driven, professional, desperate to be the guy who brings in Bruce Banner, and British to boot. Roth’s wolflike performance is the best part of the movie, bar none.

In fairness, Nick Nolte does a pretty solid job in the Lee version as Bruce’s father before he loses himself to The Abomination, but he’s simply not as involved in the plot as Blonsky is, so I have to give the point to Tim Roth — and The Incredible Hulk.


And here’s where we get to the core of the issue. The character of the Hulk always has the potential for really fascinating stuff. It’s essentially a werewolf story, only with the added “anger management” angle. Lee’s take reallly explored that note, delivering a story that delved deep into the “why” of the Hulk. The not-so-jolly green giant isn’t just a monster, he’s the monster inside of Banner.

This is leagues more compelling than the blase take of the Leterrier flick. In that, “Hulk mode” can be triggered by a simple increase in pulse. I guess it’s easier to wring “suspense” out of that device, as Screenwriting 101 often encourages the use of a ticking clock to amp up the pace. But the result is a much less complex monster for Banner to deal with.

See? He’s just sitting there!

Basically, The Incredible Hulk neuters the potential for any real, compelling character beats by removing one of the most interesting layers of Banner’s internal conflict. Which, is quite a sentence to write about a movie featuring a big green ape smashing things. No wonder I keep siding with Lee’s Hulk.



I mean —


Truth be told, I never understood the disdain for this movie. I mean, I get it, but I don’t get it — you get me? It’s a different slant on the superhero model, and a fairly intelligent one at that. It’s really more like a good movie that happens to be about the Hulk than anything else.

And maybe that’s just it. Also, the Lee version allegedly doesn’t hew very close to the comics, but I’ve only read a scant few Hulk books, so I can’t comment about that (and frankly don’t care just a whole lot). Anybody in the comments want to enlighten me as to the problem there? No promises that it’ll change my opinion, but I’d be curious to know where the friction is.

(I also just realized that I went this entire article without bringing up the Hulk dog fight in the 2003 movie. I know some people don’t like that scene, but I think it’s just great, and I wanted to make sure you all knew it.)

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  1. 2003 doesn’t have spotty CGI, it has broken CGI. Look at the last picture in your post. Those purple shorts look like they were cut and pasted on by a 5 year old using 1998 microsoft paint.

  2. You were one sided to begin with this comparison. Lee’s version is so “deep” that it loses any essence or fun. A movie is meant to be entertaining … that’s why we shell out the “big bucks” for these films.

    Point in case, Lee’s was boring as hell to sit through just to get to the parts where the Hulk actually makes an appearance. Once he does – we have to hold back our laughter because he looked horrible. Not to mention that Bana over-acts everything he ever does. Then we have the next one by Leterrier and it’s not much better except that the CG was improved. The story had tons of plot holes and it might’ve actually had TOO much action.

    So who really wins? I’d actually give it to the 2nd film. I was more ENTERTAINED by the 2nd one – which in essence is what should win. I think the acting was also better in the 2nd film. (you must have some sort of crush on Connelly because her acting is just ridiculous)

    The Avengers version of the Hulk was the best CG version by far. The Banner character was also portrayed the best by the actor. The only flaw in that hulk was how everyone was so scarred about him “coming out” and then when he does – he is un-controllable to no end, but then for whatever reason, he is totally in control and able to do whatever he needs to – even save Iron Man from becoming a pancake on the ground below.

  3. I have always defended 2003 Hulk as a story of the emotions that drive the Hulk. As an origins story, it got the emotions of Banner/Hulk down pretty good. Unfortunately, people didn’t want emotions, they wanted “Hulk Smash”, which they got with Incredible Hulk.

  4. Lucas, I always chalked that “Avengers” good Hulk/bad Hulk plot device up to this:

    When he goes berserk on the Helicarrier, his transformation is triggered by a) Loki’s anger magic and b) by being surprised attacked. He didn’t control it, so the Hulk was uncontrollable.

    At the climax, he consciously turns himself into the Hulk. So, controllable.

  5. i agree with the part about Tim Roth, but then again, i’m a huge fan of anything he does (please, somebody, bring back Lie to Me!). can’t say that i agree on much else here. don’t get me wrong; they’re valid arguments, and i don’t fault you for making them, but i personally feel otherwise.

    Ang Lee’s version had so many faults it feels like getting into a debate about the prequel trilogy all over again, but since Plinkett hasn’t reviewed Hulk yet, i can’t point to any single analysis of the movie’s problems and say, “there. there is the reason i was pissed.”

    so instead, i’ll just say that i think Lee should stick to movies about flying zen sword masters or closeted gay men in arranged marriages and leave it at that.

  6. I’ve always liked Lee’s version and been chastised for it. It’s just an all around better movie. I don’t care if it’s “too slow” for you who have the attention span of a three year old and I have ADD.

    Also that dude Lucas is smoking crack if he thinks that Liv Tyler is better than Jennifer Connelly. Liv Tyler as a scientist, come on man.

    Honestly I think that the CGI was the biggest turn off for people and not because of the shorts. But because people wanted to see the Hulk as a real person just like he was portrayed in the TV show. As if a guy in green paint is less ridiculous than a CGI Hulk.

  7. Well, it depends on what you’re looking for in a movie. I would prefer Incredible Hulk simply because it is more of an action film, which is why I go to see comic book movies. As far as a “film” in the artistic sense, Hulk is definitely a lot deeper. That, is part of its problem though. I liked Hulk but was iffy on it when I first saw it. On seeing it a second or third time, you start to tease out things you missed the first time and you realize, “Man, this movie is really deep!”, and you start to appreciate it more. Problem is, that’s great when you’re Inception, not so hot when you’re a movie about a giant green rage machine. I’m surprised they both made similar totals as far as the box office.

  8. @DocDoom … wow, I honestly didn’t think about that in the slightest – and now that you make mention of it, it pretty much makes complete sense.

    Ok so Avengers Hulk wins by a long shot! 🙂

  9. Oh, I have to say about the Incredible Hulk, I might be wrong but I thought they were just using pulse as a way to track his anger. Not that pulse rate was more important then anger. Once again, maybe wrong on that count, but that was my thought. They seemed to continue the theme in Avengers. At the end of Incredible Hulk you see him trying to make himself angry and/or raise his pulse. Then in the Avengers he talks about how he’s always angry. So, I thought that was a direct nod to The Incredible Hulk.

  10. I’m sorry, but “To helm it, they selected Louis Leterrier, he of of The Transporter fame,” would be awful grammar even if you didn’t repeat the word “of.” Seriously, proofreading is your friend when you publish something for thousands of people to see.

  11. I completely agree with you David R! 100%!

    I’ve never understood the disdain for this movie either. I remember coming out of the cinema with my dad and sister nearly ten years ago (wow, was it really that long ago) and being pretty heavily impressed. Maybe it made such an impact as I assumed it was just going to be some mindless narrative, but turned out to be a quite intensive.

    The new one on the other hand, really left no impact either way to be honest.

  12. As a huge hulk fan I’m going with the 08′ version. The character in itself has evolved in the comics, they need to evolve the character on screen as well. Give him banner intelligence while in hulk form like he is in the comics and there you have one of the greatest superhero films of all time.

  13. Ang’s Hulk has this one hands down. I can hardly remember the other version. This is not to say it was bad, just not memorable.

    As for evolution of character. That is a character arc. Ang had to make an origin tale. Having the Hulk being able to integrate his two distinct personalities from the beginning simply lacks any conflict.

    Another element I liked about the 2003 version was the editing. Fun and engaging

    Perhaps this is a conflict of styles. Perhaps, Ang would have been better off taking Concrete or Metropol from comic to the big screen. But as a story goes, this one captured the pathos. The other was popcorn, all fluff and not much substance, but tasted great while it was there.

  14. I agree with you, David on every point (especially Jennifer Connelly yummm) except the last one. The 2008 hulk was better, despite being worse in nearly every way.

    Both Hulk movies were sold as action movies, and the 2003 hulk didn’t really deliver. The chase in the desert was cool, the dog fight was cool, but nothing else stands out. The 2008 flick delivered, even though I was pretty upset about the abomination bad guy (another marvel movie where the villain is a larger version of the hero? really?) Tim Roth getting punted across the field will stick with me for a really long time.

  15. HAHAHA i so totally get you, actually you are one of the few that say that prefer the first version, the sound and expresions of the Hulk was so convincing and dramatic, Bana, Connely, Nolte come on? so great, but its true that has its bad things but i feel the incredible hulk wasn’t better, norton is ok if you like sequels, same with the beautiful arwen ;D and the great reservour dog, but together wasn’t really a hulk. still like the first one 😀

  16. Hulk (2003) was a REAL movie. The Incredible version is an excuse to see two poor CGI monsters fight and hear Hulk smash! Wich in the comics may works, but in a movie… Looked like hulk was a retard.

  17. I agree with The Avengers being the true winner. Mark Ruffalo, no holds barred, played a better hulk/Bruce. “Hulk” sets up the Bruce Banner origin. “Incredible” sets up the monster origin. But the Avengers puts them together flawlessly.

  18. Considering how I’ve said many times on this site before how much I love 80’s action movies (and Rocky 4 being my favorite movie ever), I think it’s clear which Hulk I prefer lol.

    Also, TIH is in my top 5 comic book movies now.

    5. The Incredible Hulk
    4. Batman (1989)
    3. Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles
    2. Superman 2 (my own fan edit that I made. NOT the theatrical nor the Donner Cut)
    1. Superman: The Movie

    you are gonna dog on “Hulk Smash”.. Why not dog on how the first hulk was portraid as a freaking comic book, oh and how Banna looked like he was getting butt raped by an elephant everytime talbot was “MAKING ME ANGRY!!”?? First Hulk 10x’s more corny and cartoony than the Second. Villian in first was LAME, Actor was great. Liv Tyler is awesome, not as a scientist, or betty. banna was to fit and in shape for the part. that is why i liked norton as banner better. Avenger’s hulk was hand’s down best hulk of all, although his refference of “the other guy” got soooo annoying. I think after this hulk people are gonna warm up 2 the character’s films a lot better… thats if this actor doesn’t quit on america like the previous 2.

  20. The best Hulk and Banner in my opinion is the Avengers buuuut I was on the fence about Ruffalo playing this role but he nailed it and now I can’t even picture Norton being Bruce Banner again.

    I remember the Hulk back in 03′ and even in the theater I thought it was over acted and cheesy. The Hulk soaring across the desert was actually really cool but him battling huge mutant dogs was laughable. At that time the CGI didn’t stand out as bad it was only as the years progressed that I and most people realized how bad that actually was.

    I think phase one setting up the Avengers was a bit sloppy on the Hulks side of the deal even though we all knew what they were going for. For instance at the end of the Incredible Hulk Tony Stark is the one that makes a comment saying he’s putting together a team….after seeing Iron Man 2 and Avengers that scene makes absolutely no sense at all. I am still convince that we didn’t need Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury even though he is a talented actor I just don’t see it and never will.

    I want to see another stand alone Hulk movie but I want him in space and not just on earth. We have already seen that and he has so many more story lines on other planets just like Thor.

  21. I also think that “The Incredible” should be the winner here.. I will give “The Hulk” one over “The Incredible Hulk” do to the fact that it was original. But as a “Hulk” or “Marvel” movie we are expecting action and lots of it… Why? because its a movie about the mighty “Hulk” for crying out loud. In “The Hulk” all the Hulk did was jump from mountain to mountain, crying and feeling sad. Yes I see how this is a key to his character with his emotional side to deal with things but I want to see Hulk Smash sorry. Ed Norton did a fantastic job as Bruce Banner. He had the right emotion for feeling sad, lonely ect. and the right amount of anger expressed before turning into my favorite big smashing green guy. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about the 2 films but you David do not know your films as I would hope and Jennifer Connelly was good in Requiem for a Dream but Liv Tyler was a much BETTER Betty Ross xD

  22. I’ll be honest I don’t remember much of the 2003 film, but I remember I wasn’t that pleased with it (high school senior, anyone?). That said I do prefer TIH because I think that it has some of the stronger action scenes of any comic book movie.

    Also one thing that I really like about TIH is that the villian, while a bigger/stronger version of Hulk, is defeated because the Hulk gets mad and becomes just a huge badass. A lot of other hero movies seem to rely on the hero using some “trick” to beat the bad guy. (e.g. overload the arc reactor).

    PS also I agree with the guy who hates “the other guy” comments. They couldn’t have just gone with “him”, or something.

  23. I too love the 2003 version and will defend it to anyone! But I also liked the Ed Norton version too… But the best Hulk adaptation(sorry Bill) but it goes to the Avengers, not because Mark Ruffalo’s great performance as Banner, but because the Hulk rage was SCARY! I mean wow, talk about how a director can make or break a scene!

    It’s a comic book movie guys: take it like a graphic novel, would you read it if you love this character? If it’s the Hulk, the answer is always yes!

  24. i barely remember the first one, as it made very little impression on me. i remember the woods. they were in the woods alot. and a big energy monster. and, weird editing. like, “hey look, its a comic book” type editing. groan inducing bad comic-elements.

    oh, and Hulk Dogs.

    it has effing Hulk Dogs.

  25. Thank you. It’s so rare to find any reviews online that positively comments on Lee’s HULK but also breaks down the very same elements of the film I find compelling and far more interesting than the reboot. The Hulk is a character whose power comes from emotions. Why shouldn’t his movie be rooted in the same manner? I’m just glad there is someone else out there who saw the same things I did in this compelling film.

    1. I would have to disagree with that. They’re not great, but they’re certainly not terrible, especially for the time, I mean, it’s no Lord of the Rings, but the effects in my opinion look better than the ones from the first X-Men film, and the movie doesn’t feature a lot of Hulk, it’s more about Bruce Banner so it doesn’t really matter. To be honest tho, as good as the effects from The Incredible Hulk are, the CGI is really obvious, while with The Hulk, they may not look great but they look just as real, if not more.

  26. Too bad that this awesome article only gets one comment per year. You are totally right and I would even say that the 2003 film works better in the Avengers storyline than the 2008 one.

    1) The biggest problem: General Ross becomes Secretary of State in later movies. In 2008 he is a bad, bad man; all of the problems in the film are created by him. But 2003’s Ross is actually the one character in the film that thinks and acts objectively, even though he has flaws.
    2) The heart rate/Hulk connection in 2008 is dumb and never heard about again.
    3) Edward Norton is nothing like the Banner played with great success by Mark Ruffalo, in looks or behavior. Bana to Ruffalo is a much more believable progression.
    4) By substituting the 2003 film for the 2008 one, you get an origin story for all 4 main Avengers.
    5) 2003’s “accident” story is way better, with Banner jumping in front of the gamma rays to save a colleague instead of testing new technology on himself. The slight backstory differences don’t matter once you get to Avengers.
    6) The 2003 story better sets you up for a Banner that has moved on from Betty Ross.

    I understand the response to the 2003 film – it is a SLOW cerebral superhero movie. I don’t get the approval of the 2008 film. How can anyone be satisfied with a Hulk movie where Hulk’s goal is to stop being Hulk? How are you excited by a battle between a green Hulk and a brown Hulk? How, HOW can you support Jennifer Connelly being replaced by Liv Tyler???

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