2003’s Hulk had been a disaster for Marvel, with a big opening gross that quickly shrank away to nothing in the face of auteur director Ang Lee’s cerebral and often bizarre style, script, and changes to the comic’s mythos. A sequel lingered in development hell for 5 years and eventually recast all the major roles with Edward Norton replacing Eric Bana as the titular jolly green giant. Norton’s involvement proved to be a headache for the studio, as he demanded rewrites and also severed continuity between the two films, leaving the new The Incredible Hulk as a mishmash that at times resembles a sequel to a film that was never made and at others a direct sequel to Hulk with the serial numbers crudely filed off. Still, the film was more straightforward and delivered the monster-on-monster smackdown that the first had lacked, so it was met with slightly kinder reviews and slightly greater rewards at the box office. Still, the muddled nature of the character and his franchise has meant that references to it in the other Marvel cinematic universe films are few and far between, and Norton would refuse to reprise his role in The Avengers.
Lee’s film had a complicated scoring situation, with his favored composer Mychael Danna booted off the project at a late date and replaced by Danny Elfman in an attempt to add some Spider-Man type superhero style. Lee had promptly browbeat Elfman into essentially rewriting Danna’s score, resulting in one of the most curious misfires in all of superhero scoring. New director Louis Leterrier, like Lee, brought in an old collaborator from the start: Craig Armstrong, who had worked as an arranger for the band Massive Attack in their work delivering a score for Leterrier’s Unleashed in 2005. For a time it seemed that Armstrong would suffer the same fate as Danna; Marvel was reportedly surprised by the choice, and Armstrong had no comparable blockbuster scores to his credit. Nevertheless, Armstrong was able to deliver a score that the producers accepted, and his music accompanied the film’s final print.
The most talked-about feature of Armstrong’s score was his incorporation of the “Lonely Man” theme, written by Joe Harnell for the 1978-1982 TV series, in the cue “”Bruce Goes Home.” Armstrong was a fan of the show, and the brief homage to Harnell’s simple piano melody is a tip of the hat no often seen in modern blockbuster scores. Armstrong’s own themes aren’t as easily memorable; the primary motif in the film is a pounding string and percussion piece (first appearing in “Main Titles” and the unused “The Arctic”) that resembles a standard ostinato from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio in many of its characteristics (Armstrong actually used Remote Control’s studio space for his recording, though none of its major personnel are credited). It’s an effective theme in a basic sense, conveying the Hulk’s bulky brutality much more effectively than the bizarre themes from Hulk, but no more than that. It’s the sort of thing that works accompanying a smashing spree on screen but disappoints on album, a theme that fulfills the basic requirements without exceeding any of them.
One of the primary complaints about Hulk was its lack of an effective villain and the expected hero-vs.-villain smackdown; The Incredible Hulk provides both, but Armstrong doesn’t do much in the way of a theme for the villainous Abomination. The lengthy sequences of action material (“Abomination Alley,” “Harlem Brawl,” “Hulk Smash”) primarily rely on Armstrong’s Hulk motif instead, with results that are more crowdpleasing than Elfman’s but which suffer from the same sense of restraint, the notion that Armstrong is holding back when he ought to be cutting loose. The recast Betty Ross gets a piano-based motif of her own (“Hulk and Betty,” “Bruce and Betty”); though clearly inspired by Harnell’s “Lonely Man” theme and quite pretty at times, it’s a bit disappointing that Armstrong wasn’t able to make more use of the latter throughout his score.
Oddly, The Incredible Hulk holds the record for the longest album release for any Marvel film at 111 minutes; Leterrier insisted that Armstrong’s work was strong enough to merit a deluxe 2-CD treatment and Marvel agreed. To cut costs, though, the score was released as one of Amazon’s “CD-R on demand” products rather than as a pressed CD, and copies were manufactured as orders came in. This was a sore point for many collectors, as CD-Rs are not as resilient a medium as pressed CDs and the only other option was a digital release. This incredible length can make listening to the double-CD album a bit of a slog; there’s a lot of music that would have been left on the cutting room floor for a normal album (and, indeed, some of the music is for scenes cut late in production!) which serves to exacerbate the music’s weaknesses and dilute its strengths. There are some scores that can sustain 111 minutes on album; The Incredible Hulk simply isn’t one of them.
Regardless, one has to give Armstrong credit for navigating such a difficult assignment, his reference to Joe Harnell’s “The Lonely Man” are welcome, and the score is overall more coherent than Elfman’s effort. But Armstrong’s music is still oddly restrained, oddly conservative, and has many dead spots as presented on album. It’s the pick of the two Hulk scores, but still not anywhere near the upper tier of great superhero music. Armstrong himself would take a short hiatus from film music afterwards, with no feature scores until 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.