The Hulk, Hamilton and the birth of the cinematic universe


Published November 10, 2023 at 7:36 pm

With the impending release of The Marvels, the 33rd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), in theatres this month it’s time for a look back at the movie that started this epic, sprawling canvas.

No, not Iron Man. Though it’s the first film in the MCU, coming out in May 2008, the Robert Downey Jr.-starring Iron Man told an entirely self-contained story. This was standard at a time when superheroes did not meet on-screen outside of dedicated team films like the X-Men.

The only indication of a larger world in this first film is a one-line appearance from Samuel L. Jackson as S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury, hoping to draft Downey’s Tony Stark/Iron Man into his “Avengers Initiative.”

It took a few months before the cinematic universe was born, with The Incredible Hulk starring Edward Norton as the titular green giant. However, thanks to a long history and the bankruptcy of Marvel Comics just a few years earlier, this may not have occurred and this $30 billion-grossing cultural juggernaut may not have happened.

What is the Hulk? Who is the Hulk?

Ok, everyone knows who the Hulk is at this point but it’s backstory time anyway.

The Hulk and his puny human side Bruce Banner are the brainchild of two of the biggest titans in the comic book industry, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. In November 1961 this pair revolutionized the medium by kicking off the Marvel Universe with Fantastic Four #1.

This and the following issues shirked the shallow characterization and simple plots of earlier Golden Age, replacing them with deeply emotional heroes and thematically rich stories. This ushered in what is now known as the Silver Age. Soon Lee, Kirby and a host of other great artists needed more heroes to populate their new universe.

One of the first characters to join the Marvel Universe was Banner and his monstrous alter-ego. Finding that readers’ favourite member of the Fantastic Four was Ben Grimm/The Thing, the team’s pilot turned stone-skinned strongman, Lee decided they needed another tortured beast.

The Hulk’s first appearance was teased across Marvel’s then-burgeoning comic line like this example from Fantastic Four #4. Art by Jack Kirby.

Inspired by the Jewish Golem myth, Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein’s Monster, Lee scripted and Kirby drew The Incredible Hulk #1, published May 1962. Channelling Cold War nuclear fears, it depicts Banner, an atomic scientist caught in the blast of a gamma radiation-fueled bomb of his design. The fallout forces seemingly random changes on Banner into the crass, angry, monstrous Hulk.

The accident that created the Hulk. Art by Jack Kirby

That first issue likewise introduced the Hulk’s long-running supporting cast such as nemesis Gen. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, love interest and general’s daughter Betty Ross, and teen sidekick Rick Jones, all of whom have Hulked out at one time or another over the last 60 years.

The Hulk’s debut issue, The Incredible Hulk #1. Art by Jack Kirby.

Lee, who also served as editor for all of Marvel’s comic series at the time, wanted the Hulk’s skin tone to be neutral, indicating no ethnicity. In the first issue, the Hulk was depicted as grey for this reason. However, the colouring department could not keep the shade consistent. This led the team to switch his skin to the iconic, irradiated green.

The Hulk debuts the Ol’ Greenskin look in The Incredible Hulk #2. Art by Jack Kirby

Sadly, readers took the solitary Hulk’s advice and left him alone. His debut series was cancelled in March 1963. Lee had written all six, Kirby drew the first five and Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko drew the sixth.

Hulk became a background player in the Marvel Universe after his cancellation. He faced the Thing in Fantastic Four #12, the first of their many showdowns over the years. Next, in September 1963, he was dragged into the Avengers as a founding member alongside Ant-Man, Iron Man, Thor and the Wasp. However, his unpredictable nature proved unsuited to a team and he turned on his fellow Avengers after two issues.

The Hulk joined the Avengers, then returned to his own series in Tales to Astonish. Initially, he shared the book with Giant Man and the Wasp although they were soon replaced with Namor. Art by Jack Kirby (left and centre) and Gene Colan (right).

After these supporting appearances, the Hulk finally managed to connect with readers, especially those in the college crowd. As a result, Hulk was moved to the split book Tales to Astonish which he shared first with Ant-Man and the Wasp then Namor, the Sub-Mariner.

Lee initially handled the scripts for these stories. He was joined by a who’s who of Marvel’s best artists of the era including Kirby, Ditko, Daredevil and Namor co-creator Bill Everett, John Bucsema and Marie Severin.

As in his early adventures Cold War paranoia played a large part in this run, including Soviet spies and nuclear fears. It introduced Hulk’s biggest enemies, the Leader and the Abomination (both gamma-irradiated monsters themselves) and continued Hulk’s long-standing enmity with the United States Army.

Hulk completely took over Tales to Astonish in 1968 with #102, then written by Ghost Rider co-creator Gary Friedrich. Herb Trimpe soon joined the book as penciller beginning an iconic seven-year run. In 1969, the Hulk joined with fellow loners Dr. Strange, Namor and Silver Surfer to form the “non-team” The Defenders

Hulk took over his own full book with the Incredible Hulk #102. He later joined the “non-team” the Defenders in Marvel Feature #1. Art by Marie Severin (left) and Neal Adams (right).

Trimpe’s early run first featured a pairing with Lee’s former protege Roy Thomas. During this period, Hulk attracted the eye of science fiction author and Star Trek scribe Harlan Ellison, who plotted an iconic and influential two-parter.

Trimpe was later joined by Len Wein. The pair introduced future X-Men break-out star Wolverine in 1974, with a creation and design assist from Thomas and Marvel’s art director John Romita Sr. Trimpe was then replaced by Sal Buscema, who would stay on Hulk for a decade

Hulk got his first double-sized annual just before Herb Trimpe started a legendary, lengthy run which introduced future X-Men breakout Wolverine. Art by Jim Steranko (left) and Herb Trimpe (centre and right.)

The Strange Case of Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno


By the late 1970s, some 15 years after the Hulk’s creation, ol’ Jade Jaws had become one of Marvel Comics’ most iconic and renowned creations. In 1977 he became the second Marvel character to get a live-action TV series (after Spider-Man, natch).

In 1977, Universal Television licensed several characters from Marvel Comics, including the Hulk, to adapt into TV. Universal hired Kenneth Johnson, then best known as the creator of The Bionic Woman, to develop the Hulk series. However, Johnson hated comic books and initially declined the job. Johnson eventually reconsidered when he decided to almost completely reinvent the Hulk and Banner characters to better suit TV.

Instead of a physicist, Banner became a medical doctor who subjected himself to an experimental radiation treatment. The Hulk’s personality was likewise altered. While comic Hulk was most often depicted as a sympathetic, albeit short-tempered simpleton, Johnson’s reinvention turned the Hulk into a mute, nearly mindless engine of destruction. Ironically while this take on the Hulk was somewhat more monstrous, his strength was scaled way down for believability.

The show cast Bill Bixby as Banner, re-christened David, and Lou Ferrigno was cast as the Hulk. (Arnold Schwarzenegger auditioned for the part, but was considered too short.) All of the Hulk Comics supporting cast was ejected from the show and replaced with Jack Colvin as reporter Jack McGee, who pursued an on-the-lam Banner across the United States.

The show premiered with a pair of made-for-TV movies in 1977, followed by a full-blown 80-episode series from 1978-1982. The series was a critically acclaimed hit searing the Hulk into the minds of a far larger audience than comics alone ever could have. Though abruptly cancelled in 1982, the series was followed by three TV movies which finally introduced other comic characters Thor, Daredevil and the Kingpin (the latter played by Jonathan Rhys Davies of Indiana Jones and The Lord of the Rings fame.)

The show brought an additional change to the Hulk mythos. Aware of Johnson’s involvement with The Bionic Woman, a spin-off of the Six-Million Dollar Man, Lee rushed to publish the She-Hulk before the show used a similar female counterpart so Marvel would have the rights to such a character. Much later she got her show on Disney+ starring Canadian Tatiana Maslany in the title role.

Stan Lee introduced She-Hulk to make sure Marvel kept the rights. Art by John Buscema (left) and John Byrne (centre). Calgary’s Tatiana Maslany would embody the character in the Disney+ series (right).

Meanwhile…back on the page

Unlike in our current landscape of corporate synergy between comics in their adaptations, where the former changes to suit the latter, the Hulk comics remained their own thing while Bixby and Ferrigno did theirs.

Comics great Roger Stern, renowned for stints on Spider-Man and the Avengers, took over writing the title from Wein. He in turn was succeeded by Steven Grant. Throughout these changes, Sal Buscema continued his marathon run. Finally, in 1980, Buscema was joined by the great Bill Mantlo, creator of Rocket Raccoon, as writer.

Harlan Ellison’s “World at the Heart of the Atom” continued appearances while the Absorbing Man would be key to later adaptation. Rocket Raccoon creator Bill Mantlo was about to take a wild swing with the Hulk. Art by Sal Buscema and Al Milgrom (right).

By the time Mantlo took over the character, the comic industry was well into the more mature Bronze Age and well on the way toward the dark, deconstructionist Iron Age. As the industry continued to mature, Mantlo likewise deepened the characters of Banner and the Hulk.

In the seminal “Crossroads of Eternity” storyline, readers learn Banner was a survivor of child abuse and had created the Hulk persona as a child to protect him from his father, Brian Banner’s, violent outbursts. The revelation is foreshadowed throughout the storyline, coming to a head in issue #312 “Monster,” featuring art by future Hellboy creator Mike Mignola.

In time this issue would radically alter the character, presenting him as a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder (DID).

The “Crossroads of Eternity’ story line reinvented the character. Art by Bill Sienkiewicz (left) and Mike Mignola.

(Mantlo later left Marvel to go to law school and become a public defender. Tragically, he was struck by a car while rollerskating in 1992. He suffered a severe brain injury and has required around-the-clock care ever since. He lived in a nursing home from 1995 until 2014 when Marvel Studios negotiated a compensation agreement for the use of Rocket Raccoon in the Guardians of the Galaxy films. He now lives near his brother and caregiver Mike Mantlo.)

Following the Crossroads story, seminal X-Men, Fantastic Four and Superman writer-artist and Canadian John Byrne swapped titles with Mantlo in 1985. Like Mantlo, he wanted to shake up the series formula and separate Hulk and Banner into two separate entities.

This was almost immediately reversed under the editorial mandate. Byrne left the series after six issues ending with the long-delayed marriage of Banner and Betty Ross. Byrne, furious at this and other editorial scuttlings of his books, soon left Marvel to relaunch Superman at DC Comics. Editor Al Milgrom took over to wrap up the storyline.

Following this debacle, no writers wanted to touch the now-struggling series. However, Marvel offered the title to Peter David, who had just joined the writing side of the business. David would go on to write Hulk for 12 years, the longest run of any creative on the title, from 1987 to 1998.

Peter David took wild swings. reintroducing the Grey Hulk as a new alter, merging the Banner and the Hulk into one personality and puttting him in charge of a team of immortals. Art by Todd McFarlane (left) and Dale Keown.

David continued Mantlo’s exploration of Banner’s shattered consciousness, introducing several other Hulk alters such as the streetsmart Las Vegas bouncer Grey Hulk (otherwise known as Joe Fixit) and the Guilt Hulk, a psychological representation of Banner’s father. Eventually, David had these multiple Hulk personalities coalesce into a unified Hulk with all the Hulk’s strength and all of Banner’s brains. 

David and legendary artist George Perez introduced yet another alter for Banner in the  Future Imperfect miniseries, the dictatorial Hulk-of-the-future, the Maestro.

Toward the end of his run, David wrote the death of Betty Banner which Marvel insisted should launch the return of the simple, bestial Savage Hulk persona. However, David was not happy to lose the psychological complexity he had developed into the character and left the title.

Mortgaging the ‘House of Ideas’

Shortly after David took over the Hulk, Marvel was rolling in cash thanks to an early 1990s boom in the comics industry. Variant covers, speculation purchases based on expected growth in single-issue value and a torrent of merchandise made gangbusters money for the company.

In the early to mid 1990s Marvel was everywhere. Animated series of X-Men, Spider-Man and the Hulk (complete with Lou Ferrigno returning to voice the Hulk) topped Saturday morning cartoons and trading card and action figures raked in dough. However, the bubble soon popped, the industry crashed and the Marvel Entertainment Group, as it was then known, filed for bankruptcy in 1996.

To bail out the struggling company, Marvel sold the film rights to its biggest characters. The Fantastic Four and X-Men went to Fox. Spider-Man wound up at Sony and the Hulk went to Universal among other deals.

The first major film success of these sales was 2000’s X-Men, which launched a long-running series in its own right. It led studios to check their vaults to see what Marvel characters they had the rights to. (X-Men was predated by 1998’s Blade, adapting Marvel’s Vampire Hunter, but this was not quite the massive success X-Men would be.)

Numerous Marvel film adaptations followed including more Blade and more X-Men, but also a Spider-Man series, a Fantastic Four duology, a pair of Ghost Rider films, a Daredevil picture and a couple of Punisher movies.

Bana goes Banner

Among this deluge of Marvel adaptations in the early 2000s was Hulk directed by Ang Lee, fresh off his acclaimed, Oscar-winning martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Pre-production on this film began in 1990, the same year as the final Bill Bixby-Lou Ferrigno Hulk TV movie. However, it suffered in development hell for more than a decade.

Finally, in 2000 after countless rewrites, Universal accepted a script draft they liked. They quickly hired Lee, but he did not like the screenplay. Lee commissioned a rewrite to return to Mantlo’s story of a survivor of child abuse. Banner’s father, Brian, eventually became the main villain of the film.

Brian Banner was given the power of the comic book villain Absorbing Man, who could change his body into any substance he touched, be it steel, water or even air. The Absorbing Man had been created back in the 60s by Stan Lee and Kirby, initially as a Thor villain. He soon plagued most Marvel heroes at one time or another and became a recurring Hulk foe.

Eric Bana was soon cast as Bruce Banner, joined by Jennifer Connelly as Betty Ross, Sam Elliot as Thaddeus Ross, and Nick Nolte as Banner’s father (renamed, in 1977, to David Banner.) Bana was immediately attracted to the role as a fan of the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno TV series. Like the previous series, the accident that causes the Hulk to manifest is changed into a medical experiment.

Ang Lee described the film as a deathly serious Greek tragedy, an experience Bana was not fond of. Unlike later productions, the Hulk in the 2003 film is entirely computer generated and Bana contributed no motion capture to the role, though Lee did provide some.

Uniquely, Lee used a split-screen editing technique in an attempt to represent comic book panels on screen. The film also stood out for its mature analysis of trauma and repressed mental illness. However, the film premiered to mixed reviews with most considering it a flawed, ambitious work. Over the 20 years since its release, the film built up a loyal cult following as an artistic standout.

Thanks to the lukewarm reception of the film, a follow-up was put on ice.

The Birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Seeing the successes its properties were bringing other studios, Marvel itself decided to get in on the movie business itself. They formed Marvel Studios to develop their projects but found they only had some Avengers left at the bottom of the toy box.

While many of these characters, such as Thor, Iron Man, and others, had been around since the early 1960s and had acclaimed comic runs in their rights, they had never connected with a wider audience. In 2005, Marvel Studios announced they were going to launch their movies. Shortly thereafter, Universal lost the rights to produce a Hulk movie on their own, but retained distribution.

While the resulting The Incredible Hulk was a reboot with a new cast, it also managed to function as a sort of pseudo-sequel to the Lee Hulk, picking up where the latter film ends with Banner on the run in South America. However, the film utterly rejected Lee’s dour tone, crafting a more traditional actioner. 

Marvel offered the director’s chair to Louis Letterier, then a little-known French filmmaker. Letterier was a fan of both the 7os TV series and the comics and pulled specific panels to recreate in the film. The script was particularly inspired by the then-ongoing run by writer Bruce Jones. The comic series had gone through several creative teams by this point. Ben 10 creator Joe Casey, a returned Byrne, and Paul Jenkins had all written the character in the interim.

Actor Edward Norton, also a huge fan of the TV series and the comics, soon joined as both Bruce Banner and a writer. Lou Ferrigno also returned once more to voice the title character. More Hulk fans joined the production with William Hurt as Gen. Ross and Tim Roth as special operations soldier Emil Blonsky/The Abomination. 

Filming began in the GTA in November 2007. The factory we find Banner working as he lays low, trying to blend into a Brazillian favela, was in fact the Hamilton Consumer’s Glass Factory. According to Ominous Abandoned Places, the factory was first built in 1864 but completely destroyed in a 1912 fire.

Hamilton’s abandoned Consumer’s Glass Factory. via Lost Toronto.

However, by then a sister plant had opened which operated for many years. Several major incidents befell the plant in the 1960s and 70s, including arson by a disgruntled employee, and the accidental spillage of 450 tons of molten glass in 1982 and a similar smaller spill in 1985. The plant closed in 1997 and sat empty until it was used as a set.

The factory hosted two of the most pivotal scenes of the film. First, Banner cuts himself on a broken bottle, contaminating one of the plant’s drinks. This bottle is downed by Stan Lee in his requisite cameo alerting Ross of Banner’s location.

Blonsky’s spec ops team then tracks Banner to the factory. Not knowing Banner is the Hulk, they attempt to violently capture him and unleash the monster within. What follows is a dark, horror-influenced fight scene which slowly reveals the Hulk and his power for the first time in the film. The factory proved a character in itself as Hulk tosses equipment and machinery around.

Hulk and Abomination battle it out on Yonge St. in Toronto right in front of the iconic Zanzibar sign and Play de Record shop. via Colin Cunningham.

Other cities were instrumental in creating the film. Toronto in particular is heavily featured with later showdowns filmed at the University of Toronto and on Yonge St. For the first time motion capture tech was used to film Norton as the Hulk and Roth as Abomination, though it was still not a full mo-cap performance as later ones were.

After filming Norton, Letterier and the studios got into a dispute over the final cut of the film. Angered that more than 20 minutes were pulled from the movie Norton engaged in minimal marketing for the film. The dispute eventually burned all bridges between Norton and Marvel Studios and the actor was replaced in future projects.

On Norton’s recasting Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, who was preparing to launch The Avengers, said the studio’s decision”is definitely not one based on monetary factors, but instead rooted in the need for an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members.

Conversely, Norton said, he “didn’t want to have an association with one thing in any way degrade [his] effectiveness as an actor in characters.”

As a result, The Incredible Hulk became in many ways the odd-film-out in the MCU. There have been no further stand-alone Hulk films since and plot threads established in the film were dropped other cast members returned in other projects until Hurt came back in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and Roth in 2019’s She-Hulk.

However, the film left one indelible mark. In a post-credit tease, Downey Jr. reprised his role as Tony Stark to tell a dejected Ross, “We’re putting a team together.” This single line cemented the birth, not only of the MCU, but of the cinematic universe concept as a whole.

A Hulk-sized impact

After introductory films for Thor and Captain America, the Banner and the Hulk next appeared in Joss Whedon’s 2012 The Avengers, now played by Mark Ruffalo. Ironically, Ruffalo was Letterier’s first choice for Banner before Norton won the part.

Ruffalo was a bit leery of taking the role as a friend of Norton’s but felt he’d been “bequeathed” the Hulk. For the first time, the Hulk was performed fully via motion capture, with Ruffalo wearing a large muscle suit to portray the Hulk’s rampages. Ruffalo also voiced the Hulk with several other actors’ voices mixed in, including a returning Ferrigno. Like Bana and Norton before him, Ruffalo said he “grew up on” the 70s TV series.

This film was a massive success. It became the highest-grossing picture of the year and the third-highest-grossing movie of all time, reaching $1 billion within the then record of 19 days. It was also a critical smash, with particular praise for Ruffalo’s nuanced performance.

The massive success of the film sparked countless imitators in the years since. While large franchises had existed for decades they tended to focus largely on successive films on the same characters like James Bond, for example, with occasional “novelty” crossovers.

Warner Bros’. DC Comics and Harry Potter, Universal’s Monsters, Fox’s X-Men and Sony’s Spider-Man all attempted to launch connected “universes” of their own. While some succeeded in ways, most soon crumbled. Disney, which bought Marvel Comics and Studios after The Avengers’ success also applied the concept to their Star Wars franchise to more success.

The MCU likewise continued to expand seeing much more success than other attempts. Two more “phases” of movies followed, culminating in the fourth Avengers film Avengers: Endgame in 2018 wrapping up the storyline that started ten years earlier.

The series somewhat reset after this scaling back to a less connected and climactic environment similar to the early phases, while quickly stepping up the amount of projects. The added TV series to the mix in 2021, with similarly mixed results. With the Nov. 10 release of The Marvels, there will have been 33 films and eight TV series released, with another half-dozen of each on the horizon.

Ruffalo continued to make regular appearances in six films and one of these series so far, eventually fusing Banner and the Hulk into one entity. However, as a supporting player, he has little chance to dig into the rich psychology of the characters as his comic counterpart has.


Luckily that richness of character has not left the page. In the lead-up to the Norton film, Greg Pak wrote Planet Hulk and World War Hulk, seeing the Earth’s other heroes exile Banner and return with a vengeance. This introduces a further alter for the DID-stricken character in the Worldbreaker. Banner was imprisoned after this with Hercules taking over the title for a bit.

After some time on ice after taking over the world, Hulk returned to the world with several imitators such as Rick Jones’ A-Bomb, Betty Ross’ Red She-Hulk and Gen. Ross’ Red Hulk running around.

The 2000s say major changes for the Hulk. Art by Carlo Pagulayan, David Finch and Ed McGuiness.

The changes to the Hulk come to a head in The Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing, in which Banner can be killed but is resurrected as the Hulk come sunset. This acclaimed run delved deep into Banner’s DID through a horror-influenced lens, taking the character back to the psychological depths of the works of Mantlo and David.

The acclaimed Immortal Hulk run reinvented the character yet again. Art by Alex Ross.

There is always room for these elements to turn up in the ever-expanding MCU. Long forgotten, The Incredible Hulk film has returned to the fore. After the recent death of William Hurt, Harrison Ford has been cast to take over the role of Gen. Ross in the upcoming Captain America: Brave New World. Joining him for the first time since 2008 is Liv Tyler as Betty Ross and Tim Blake Nelson as Samuel Sterns/The Leader.

And this universe all began with a fight in a Hamilton factory.

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