My impression remains that, although the film is officially part of MCU canon, it stands a bit apart from the rest. The recasting of Bruce Banner contributes to that, of course, as does Banner's lack of involvement in most of the other movies. But I also suspect that it wasn't really written with the rest of the series in mind -- it came out just over a month after Iron Man, and the MCU wasn't really a thing at that point, so I suspect those two movies were developed independently. And the later films don't treat TIH as a bedrock of MCU canon in the same way they do Iron Man. Consider The Avengers, and how it brings together elements from so many of the other films. The primary antagonist comes from the Thor mythos, and the MacGuffin is out of Cap's canon. Iron Man 2 introduces Black Widow, provides our first real interaction with Nick Fury, and gives us a glimpse of the inner workings of SHIELD. From TIH, we get the Hulk himself, but none of his context: no friends, no enemies, only the briefest glimpses of what happened to him in that space of time, and the ending seems to be wiped almost clean away.
The big question, of course, is Edward Norton versus Mark Ruffalo. I like Edward Norton, and I think he does a good job here, but in my mind his performance suffers in comparison to Ruffalo's, because Ruffalo is so very good (I'm sure having seen Ruffalo's version first is also a contributing factor). And, unlike with Don Cheadle and Terrance Howard as Rhodey, the performances are different enough that I have a more difficult time seeing them as the same person. When Ruffalo plays Bruce, you can see his anger bubbling under the surface, feel his resignation to having to control it. Norton is both more and less emotional -- his triggering emotions read as excitement or fear rather than anger, and I find it more difficult to connect with him.
How it would have been to see Edward Norton in the Avengers, or how Ruffalo would have done in this film? Would Bruce Banner have become a surprise fan favorite in Norton's hands? Would this movie have been better with Ruffalo in the title role, or would his performance not have meshed well with this script? We'll never know, but I'll always wonder.
Other scattered thoughts:
I find it interesting that they relegated the Hulk's origin story to background images during the opening credits. (I've heard that the sequence of events depicted follows the basic outline of the Ang Lee/Eric Bana Hulk movie, which I've never seen.) It certainly saves a lot of time, and allows them to avoid having to retell the origin of a character with whom most of the audience is already at least somewhat familiar (more so, I think, than the other pivot characters of the MCU). But reducing Bruce's early story to a handful of images serves to further distance us from him. We know what happened, but we don't know how anyone really felt about it. For example, although we find out later that Bruce didn't know he was working on a super-soldier serum, we learn it second-hand from General Ross. It also wasn't clear until the moment it happened that Betty didn't know Bruce was the Hulk until she saw him transform at the university. We get all the information eventually, but the distance blunts the emotional impact. Maybe it works better for those who've seen the Ang Lee film, although I understand this isn't a direct sequel.
You'd think they would've figured out that conventional weaponry is essentially useless against the Hulk way before this. Your only shot is to knock him out before it happens -- and that might only have worked because the change was temporarily blunted by Mr. Blue's treatment. After that, the best you can do is distract him and hope that he can get away before anyone gets hurt. Aiming it, as Banner says in the gunship.
Why isn't the serum that Ross developed seen as a success? At the doses he received, Blonsky is faster and more agile, and maybe stronger. The healing factor aspect is clearly successful. Why do we never hear of this again? In Blonsky's case, it ultimately failed because he wasn't satisfied with a small upgrade, but it only goes wrong once Stearns introduces Bruce's blood into the equation. But surely a more controlled application would be effective. And yet, as far as I know, we never hear of it again.
Is it ever made clear whether General Ross is with SHIELD? He seems to be much more of a straight-up military man, and the gunship has USAF painted on the tail. I only caught one mention SHIELD: when Betty and Bruce go on the run to look for Mr. Blue, Ross mentions that the "SHIELD database" will catch any use of their names or aliases, and we do see the SHIELD logo in the "through the wires" sequence. I tend to think that he's not a member of SHIELD, just working with them on this, but who knows? As always, I have to ask myself if Ross is connected to HYDRA, but my first instinct says no. The worst of the gung-ho, grasping for power, shoot first U.S. military, sure, but HYDRA? Probably not. Not every unsavory element within SHIELD has to be connected to HYDRA -- and I think that's part of the point, that SHIELD's problems provided the perfect environment for HYDRA to thrive.
Everything that Stearns says about Bruce's blood reminds me of Howard Stark's plan for Steve's blood in Agent Carter. But it turns out that Bruce's blood is most useful as a weapon. I wonder if the same could be said for Steve?
And now, the end, which might be the place where this film fits the least with everything that comes after. (As an aside, is the cabin where Bruce goes at the end the same cabin where Coulson takes Skye? The landscape looks quite similar at first glance.) The implication of his last scene is that Bruce can control the monster now, move in and out of the Hulk state at will, but that doesn't carry through into the Avengers very well. And then there's the Tony Stark cameo, which is fun, but his little nod to the Avengers initiative doesn't match what comes next at all. That's two major beats of the ending that are essentially removed from the canon, and that as much as anything makes TIH feel like an aside rather than a key component of the series.
I do wonder if anything from Bruce's backstory as it's told here will ever find its way back into the MCU. General Ross, Betty, Blonsky/the Abomination, and Stearns are all characters who could return and add to both the canon and Bruce's place within it. I'm okay with Bruce having a story that's only told within the big team pieces, but it would be interesting to see the people connected with him being a part of the larger scheme of things, too.
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