Full disclosure: I never liked this film. I felt like a massive amount of what Iron Man did to make comic book movies not be a bit of a joke was undone by this movie. But I feel like maybe it gets a bad rap and maybe, just maybe, I've been slowly influenced by the anti-hype that this movie has always gotten. It's not perfect, my god, it's not perfect. But it's also not bad.
Edward Norton's Bruce Banner starts out okay, and really kind of caps out there at okay for the entirety of the film. Liv Tyler's Betty is less than okay, with moments of truly horrific acting (generally any time she screams, really). The one and only outing of Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky and the first for William Hurt as General Ross are what really steal the show. Even the Hulk doesn't look as bad as I remembered, although clearly not a patch on the later iteration.
The plot was more or less ripped from the 90's cartoon; Bruce tries to cure himself, gets found, Hulks out, rinse and repeat. The addition of Abomination and the sequel seed in the Leader are good choices, as both (besides Ross himself) are the most well-known Hulk villains. Honestly I was almost a little sad that they didn't hint at Jennifer at all for a little She-Hulk, although I'm sure we'll get it one day.
Blonsky/Abomination doesn't get much more character development outside of simply wanting to be better than Hulk, driving the majority of his B-plot. His controlled, more intelligent rage is a little more chilling than the Hulk's. This does leave his anger towards Ross to feel a bit misplaced though, because while he set Emil down the path, he was on-board every step of the way, and more than happy to go further than planned of his own accord. It's also the only time until Thanos that we really see Hulk get a good old fashioned asskicking for a bit.
General Ross is exactly the grade-A douchebag that we all remember from the cartoon. He wants to capture the Hulk at any cost, and Banner himself is of no consequence. His feelings for Betty are completely overshadowed by his lust for power and control. He's willing to use Blonsky's loyalty and love of a challenge to get exactly what he wants. The only thing I will say is that he starts to show a bit of humanity near the end that's skipped out on in later showings.
The idea of Banner keeping track of his heart rate is neat, although quite how worked up you would have to get to reach 180 beats per minute would make most of the Hulk-outs we see non-starters. Plus, what kind of asshat do you have to be to know that you could turn into a big green rage monster at (apparently) the drop of a hat, but choose to live in a significant population centre in Brazil rather than, say, in the middle of nowhere in the countryside? I'll admit the control he finds at the very end is a nice touch, especially with how it eventually becomes Mark Ruffalo being "always angry".
Something that goes almost unnoticed is that Emil's version of the super soldier serum works for all intents and purposes. He gets strength, speed, and durability somewhere near enough to what we would expect from Cap, although his healing and metabolism clearly aren't on par. In fact, if it weren't for Mr Blue's shenanigans, Emil's blood would almost certainly have been the key to recreating the serum. It definitely struck me at the time that the stinger wasn't Tony asking Ross about Banner joining the Avengers, but about Emil.
The film is definitely not as bad as I remember (although the floor cracking bit during the final fight looks awful), and was a decent second showing for the MCU. We do get to look forward to a better Banner in the near future, but for now this one is passable. Not as funny as Iron Man for sure, but not everything needs to be a laugh a minute.
1 - Iron Man
2 - The Incredible Hulk