It is mainly understood or thought that Iron Man (2008) was the first ever movie that was set in the current Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline. However, this is debatable. Although it might not be considered a mainstream production, Ang Lee’s Hulk from 2003 may be the actual first movie instalment of the MCU, and here’s why.
2003’s Hulk was our first canon introduction to the giant green monster with anger issues, the gamma-radiated genetics researcher Bruce Banner. Starring Eric Bana as Banner, Jennifer Connelly as Betty Ross, and Sam Elliot as General Ross, the Ang Lee film is more than a little controversial – especially amongst Marvel fans. However, while Marvel Studios didn’t make it, it does little to contradict the events of what many know to be the first Marvel Cinematic Universe Hulk movie, The Incredible Hulk (2008).
Despite having different actors and a different director, Hulk is set within the prime MCU timeline. If Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness taught us anything, there are many timelines and multiverses where the same characters exist but can differ in minor or major ways.
This does mean that even Blade (1998) could have been considered the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. Blade, however, has no interaction with any other MCU characters, unlike Hulk and other characters from The Incredible Hulk, like the Abomination. Eric Bana’s Hulk, however, isn’t a variant but is more likely just the younger version of Edward Norton’s Hulk.
The only significant difference between the two movies is the presence of Bruce Banner’s father, David Banner. In the 2003 Hulk, he was the reason Bruce had powers in the first place, after experimenting on himself and his son while working for General Ross. As a result, he became the Absorbing Man, a villain in his own right.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
In The Incredible Hulk, Edward Norton plays Bruce Banner, Liv Tyler plays Betty Ross, and William Hurt plays General Ross. Here Bruce Banner is on the run from General Ross and looking for a cure for his bad-tempered friend.
The superhero film is considered the second MCU film after Iron Man. It is also usually seen as more of a reboot of the earlier film and not a sequel. However, it was always intended to be a “requel”, part reboot and part sequel. It was even revealed that the script was initially written as a sequel and not as a reboot.
The Incredible Hulk differs from most reboots because it has no direct link to Bruce Banner’s origins in how he became Hulk. The conceptualised reason for this could be that it begins where the original film leaves off, with Banner having been on the run for the last 5 years. Therefore, it does not need to recap the original film’s events if it isn’t a reboot.
One of the first arguments that Marvel fans use to separate the two Hulk titles from being an original and a sequel is that a different actor played Bruce Banner in each film. But this doesn’t matter. The Hulk switched actors again when Mark Ruffalo took on the role for 2012’s The Avengers.
As mentioned, one of the only significant differences between the two films is the existence of Bruce Banner’s father. There is no mention of him in The Incredible Hulk or The Avengers, which might be his way of repressing the horrible experiences he went through in the first film.
There are more arguments for the reality that The Incredible Hulk is a sequel to Hulk. This would make Ang Lee’s film the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie in our current timeline.