Marvel Studios reacquired the rights to the character after the mixed reception to Hulk, and writer Zak Penn began work on a loose sequel that would be much closer to the comics and the television series. Norton rewrote the script after he signed on to star, which clarified the film's new back-story. Leterrier aimed to make the film realistic, giving a more frightening direction for the look of the monsters, while redesigning the Abomination from the comics' reptilian humanoid into a mutated man with bony protrusions. Filming mostly took place in Toronto, Canada in 2007, where the production attempted to be environmentally friendly.
As the film opens, Banner works at a soda bottling factory in Brazil while searching for a cure for his condition (through extracting of certain properties from rare plants and herbs) with the help of a colleague on the Internet, known only as "Mr. Blue". He is also learning meditative breathing techniques from a martial arts expert (Rickson Gracie) to help regulate his pulse rate and keep his anger under control, and has not transformed in 158 days. After Banner cuts his finger, a drop of his blood ends up in one of the bottles, and is eventually ingested by an ill-fated consumer (Stan Lee) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This accident points Ross to Banner's location and he sends a team, led by Russian-born British special ops expert Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), to capture him. Banner escapes Blonsky by transforming into the Hulk and fighting off his team inside the bottle factory. After Ross explains how Banner first became the Hulk, a vengeful Blonsky agrees to be injected with the super soldier serum, which gives him increased strength, speed, agility, reflexes, endurance and healing.
Meanwhile, Banner returns to Culver University in the United States and reunites with Betty, who is dating psychiatrist Leonard Samson (Ty Burrell). On the day he decides to leave, Ross and Blonsky's forces attack Banner at Culver University to draw out the Hulk. The Hulk wins the battle and flees with Betty. After he calms down, Banner and Betty go on the run. After several stops, Banner again makes contact with "Mr. Blue", who urges them to travel to New York City to meet him. He turns out to be cellular biologist Dr. Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), a university professor. They learn that Sterns has developed a possible antidote that may cure Banner's condition, or merely reverse each individual transformation. After a successful test, Sterns reveals that he has synthesized Banner's blood sample (which he sent from Brazil) into a large supply with the intention of using it to enhance the human condition to the next evolutionary level. Appalled by what Sterns had done and fearful of the Hulk's power falling into the wrong hands, Banner attempts to convince Sterns to destroy the blood supply, but he is attacked by Ross' forces and he and Betty are taken into custody.
As Sterns goes with an interrogation with a female soldier about his work, Blonsky strikes her down and demands Sterns to inject him with Banner's blood sample. Sterns warns that the combination of the supersoldier formula (which Blonsky has overdosed on, mutating his skeleton) and a gamma treatment would be an unpredictable combination that could turn him into an "abomination". Unconcerned, Blonsky forces Sterns to administer the gamma charge, and he mutates into a powerful monster. He knocks Sterns aside and escapes, rampaging through Harlem to draw the Hulk out. At the lab, an irradiated sample of Banner's blood-derivative drips into an open wound on Sterns' temple, causing his cranium to mutate and expand.
Banner, realizing that he is the only one who can stop the monster, convinces General Ross to release him. He falls from Ross' helicopter as it hovers over the city, hoping the fall will trigger a transformation. Banner's plan succeeds, and after a brutal battle, the Hulk defeats Blonsky by nearly strangling him to death with a huge chain, relenting his grip only after Betty's plea. The Hulk then flees the scene with the army in pursuit.
Thirty-one days later, Banner is in Bella Coola, British Columbia. Instead of trying to suppress his transformations, he is attempting to initiate them in a controlled manner. As his eyes turn green, a grin appears on his face. Meanwhile, General Ross is drinking in a bar when he is approached by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who reveals that a "team" is being put together.
Norton was a Hulk fan, citing the first comic appearances, the Bixby TV show and Bruce Jones' run on the comic as his favorite depictions of the character. He had expressed interest in the role for the first film. He initially turned down the part for this film, recalling "there [was] the wince factor or the defensive part of you that recoils at what the bad version of what that would be," as he felt the previous film "strayed far afield from a story that was familiar to people, [...] which is a fugitive story". When he met Letterier and Marvel, however, he liked their vision, and believed they were looking to him to guide the project. Thus, Norton rewrote the script. "Norton's script has given Bruce's story real gravitas," Letterier said. "Admittedly I'm not the most adult director, but just because we're making a superhero movie it doesn't have to just appeal to 13-year old boys. Ed and I both see superheroes as the new Greek gods."
Liv Tyler as Dr. Elizabeth "Betty" Ross: Bruce's girlfriend, whom he is separated from due to his condition, and a cellular biologist. Tyler replaced actress Jennifer Connelly, who portrayed Betty Ross in the 2003 film Hulk. Tyler was attracted to the love story in the script, and was a fan of the TV show, because of the "humanity and what [Banner] is going through". She was called about the role while driving to her home, and she accepted the part after a day without reading the script. Tyler and Norton spent hours discussing Bruce and Betty's life before he became the Hulk. She said filming the part "was very physical, which was fun", and compared her performance to "a deer caught in the headlights", because of Betty's shock as Bruce's unexpected return into her life.
Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky / Abomination: A Russian-born officer from the United Kingdom Special Forces loaned to General Ross. Recognizing he is past his prime, he lusts after the Hulk's power. Roth said he took the part to please his sons, who are comic-book superhero fans. As a teenager, Roth was a fan of the 1970s TV series, and he also found Leterrier's ideas "very dark and very interesting". Roth started watching the 2003 film to prepare for the part, but stopped as he did not want to be caught up in the controversy over its quality, and to compare himself to it.
Leterrier is a fan of Roth's work, and felt "it's great watching a normal Cockney boy become a superhero!", but Marvel and Norton were initially reluctant to cast him. Before he was cast in Punisher: War Zone, Ray Stevenson was in discussions for the role. Roth prepared for the part by learning to fire guns and break into rooms with two experts. Roth found it tough shooting the chases, because he could not work out to show Blonsky's aging. Cyril Raffaelli performed some of Roth's stunts. Roth enjoyed the motion capture, which reminded him of fringe theatre, and he hired his trainer from Planet of the Apes to aid him in portraying the monster's movement.
William Hurt as General Ross: Betty's father, who has dedicated himself to capturing the Hulk. Letterier cast Hurt because "Ross is more physical, more explosive in this movie, and no actor goes from zero to 100 as well as William." He compared Ross to Captain Ahab. The Hulk is Hurt's favorite superhero, and his son is also a big fan of the character. Hurt found production very different from the typical "pure anxiety" of a studio movie, finding it more akin to an independent movie. He described Ross as "humiliated by Hulk's conscience: he actually sees and recognizes that it's more developed than his own, even though he's a patriot and a warrior for his country. He's sacrificed [much] for that purpose, but at the expense at times of his humanity — which he occasionally recovers. Sam Elliott, who played Ross in the first film, would have liked to reprise the role, noting it was odd seeing someone take his part, "but I'll be looking forward to seeing this one".
Additional cast members include Tim Blake Nelson as the scientist Samuel Sterns, and Ty Burrell as psychiatrist Leonard Samson. Robert Downey Jr. cameos as Tony Stark at the end of the film, reprising his role from Iron Man. He did it as a favor to Marvel Studios, which he acknowledged as a smart move, because when he was promoting his film he would also have to mention their other production. Hulk co-creator Stan Lee cameos as a man who becomes ill when drinking the soda poisoned by the Hulk's blood. Michael K. Williams appears in the film, in a role that was written for him by Norton, who is a fan of The Wire. Paul Soles, who voiced Banner in the 1966 The Marvel Superheroes cartoon, cameos as Stanley, a kindly pizza restaurant owner who helps Banner. Additionally, the late Bill Bixby appears, when a scene featuring Bixby on his TV comedy-drama The Courtship of Eddie's Father plays on a television Banner is watching at the beginning of the film. Rickson Gracie has a small role as Bruce Banner's martial arts instructor, despite his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu background, he is credited as an Aikido instructor.
At the time of the release of Ang Lee's Hulk, screenwriter James Schamus was planning a sequel, featuring the Gray Hulk. He was also considering the Leader and the Abomination as villains. During the filming of Hulk, producer Avi Arad had a target May 2005 theatrical release date. On January 18, 2006 Arad confirmed Marvel Studios would be providing the money for The Incredible Hulk's production budget, with Universal distributing, because Universal did not meet the deadline for filming a sequel. Marvel felt it would be better to deviate from Ang Lee's style to continue the franchise, arguing his film was like a parallel universe one-shot comic book, and their next film needed to be, in Kevin Feige's words, "really starting the Marvel Hulk franchise". Producer Gale Anne Hurd also felt the film had to meet what "everyone expects to see from having read the comics and seen the TV series".
Louis Leterrier, who enjoyed the TV series as a child and liked the first film, had expressed interest in directing the Iron Man film adaptation. Jon Favreau had taken that project, so Marvel offered him the Hulk. Leterrier was reluctant as he was unsure if he could replicate Lee's style, but Marvel explained that was not their intent. Leterrier's primary inspiration was Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Hulk: Gray (a retelling of his first appearance). He replicated every comic book panel that he pinned-up during pre-production, from the many comics he browsed, in the final film. Leterrier said that he planned to show Bruce Banner's struggle with the monster within him, while Feige added the film would explore "that element of wish fulfillment, of overcoming an injustice or a bully and tapping into a strength that you didn't quite realize you had in yourself". Arad also said the film would be "a lot more of a love story between Bruce Banner and Betty Ross".
Zak Penn, who wrote a draft of the first film in 1996, said the film would follow up Hulk, but stressed it would be more tonally similar to the TV show and Bruce Jones' run on the comic. He compared his script to Aliens, which was a very different film to Alien, but still in the same continuity. He included two scenes from his 1996 script: Banner jumping from a helicopter to trigger a transformation, and realizing he is unable to have sex with Betty. Penn wrote three drafts, before departing in early 2007 to direct The Grand. Norton, who had rewritten previous films he starred in, wrote a new draft, which pleased the director and the studio in establishing the film as a reboot. Leterrier acknowledged the only remaining similarity between the two films was Bruce hiding in South America, and that the film was a unique reboot, as generally audiences would have expected another forty minute origin story. There were previously discussions to set the first act in Thailand. Leterrier felt audiences were left restless waiting for the character to arrive in Ang Lee's film. Gale Anne Hurd noted fans dubbed the film a "requel", a portmanteau of reboot and sequel.
Norton explained of his decision to ignore Lee's origin story, "I don't even like the phrase origin story, and I don't think in great literature and great films that explaining the roots of the story doesn't mean it comes in the beginning." "Audiences know this story," he added, "[so] deal with it artfully." He wanted to "have revelations even in the third act about what set this whole thing in motion". The new origin story references Ultimate Marvel's take on the Hulk, which also had him created in an attempt to create supersoldiers. Norton's rewrite also added the character of Doc Samson and made references to other Marvel characters, while writing out Rick Jones and toning down S.H.I.E.L.D.'s presence. He also added the scene where Banner attempts to extract a cure from a flower and his e-mailing with Samuel Sterns, which references Bruce Jones' story. Norton rewrote scenes every day. Ultimately, the Writers Guild of America decided to credit the script solely to Penn, who argued Norton had not dramatically changed his script. Journalist Anne Thompson explained "The Guild tends to favor plot, structure and pre-existing characters over dialogue." Before either Penn and Norton joined the project, an anonymous screenwriter wrote a draft and lobbied for credit.
Marvel chose the Abomination as the villain because he was the most famous enemy, and because he would be an actual threat to the Hulk, unlike General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross. Letterier updated Blonsky's KGB background from the comics, making him a soldier. The character acts as Banner's foil: "a fighter, he’s a machine, he’s a very effective, cool-as-a-cucumber soldier that is over the hill – 38, 39 years old – has finished his life as a soldier, should be a Colonel by now and has never accepted that failure. He loves being a fighter, loves being on the field." It was Roth who suggested Blonsky be a special forces soldier, whom his superiors would "drop in the jungle and go away and then come back a month later and pick him up. You don't really want to know what he's done!"
The Incredible Hulk joined Toronto's Green-Screen initiative, to help cut carbon emissions and waste created during filming. Producer Gale Anne Hurd acknowledged the Hulk, being green, was a popular environmental analogy, and Norton himself was an environmentalist. Hybrid and fuel efficient vehicles were used, with low sulfur diesel as their energy source. The construction department used a sustainably harvested, locally sourced yellow pine instead of lauan for the sets, and also used zero-or low-VOC paint. The wood was generally recycled or given to environmental organizations, and paint cans were handed to waste management. In addition, they used; cloth bags; biodegradable food containers; china and silverware food utensils; a stainless steel mug for each production crew member; a contractor who removed bins; recycled paper; biodegradable soap and cleaners in the trailers and production offices; and the sound department used rechargeable batteries. The Incredible Hulk became the first blockbuster film to receive the Environmental Media Association's Green Seal, which is displayed during the end credits.
Leterrier had planned to use prosthetic makeup and animatronics to complement the computer-generated imagery that was solely used in the previous film. Norton and Roth provided motion capture for their characters, and filmed their fights on a stage with 37 digital cameras. Leterrier cited the motion capture portrayals of Gollum and King Kong by Andy Serkis (from The Lord of the Rings and King Kong) as the standard he was aiming for. The two actors filmed 2500 takes of different movements the monsters would make (such as the Hulk's "thunder claps"). Phosphorescent face paint applied to the actors' faces and strobe lighting would help record the most subtle mannerisms into the computer. Others including Cyril Raffaelli provided motion capture when either actor was unavailable. Leterrier hired Rhythm and Hues to provide the CGI, while Image Engine spent over a year working on a shot where Banner's gamma-iradiated blood falls through three factory floors into a bottle.
Dale Keown's comic book artwork of the Hulk was an inspiration for his design. Leterrier felt the first Hulk had "too much fat [and] the proportions were a little off". He explained, "The Hulk is beyond perfect so there is zero grams of fat, all chiseled, and his muscle and strength defines this creature so he’s like a tank." Visual effects supervisor Kurt Williams envisioned the Hulk's physique as a linebacker rather than a bodybuilder. A height of nine feet was chosen for the character as they did not want him to be too inhuman. To make him more expressive, computer programs controlling the inflation of his muscles and saturation of skin color were created. Williams cited flushing as an example of humans' skin color being influenced by their emotions. The animators felt green blood would make his skin become darker rather than lighter, and his skin tones, depending on lighting, either resemble an olive or even gray slate. Leterrier cited An American Werewolf in London as the inspiration for Banner's transformation, wanting to show how painful it was for him to change. As a nod to the live action TV series, Banner's eyes change color first when he transforms.
Leterrier changed the Abomination's design from the comics because he felt the audience would question why he resembled a fish or a reptile, instead of "an über-human" like the Hulk. Instead, his hideousness is derived from being injected multiple times into his skin, muscles and bones; creating a creature with a protruding spine and sharp bones that he can use to stab. His green skin is pale, and reflects light, so it appears orange because of surrounding fire during the climactic battle. The character also shares Roth's tattoos. A height of eleven feet was chosen for the character. Leterrier tried to work in the character's pointed ears, but realized the Hulk would bite them off (using the example of Mike Tyson when he fought Evander Holyfield), and felt ignoring that would make the Hulk come across as stupid.
The make-up artists who worked on X-Men: The Last Stand created Blonsky's gradual transformation. Zak Penn said they approached his mutation as "not [being] used to having these properties. Like he's much heavier, and we talked about how when he walks down the sidewalk, his weight destroys the sidewalk and he's tripping. [It's all about] the humanization of these kinds of superhero characters, showing the effects physics may actually have on [them].
Armstrong began composing in his home in Glasgow, Scotland with three sequences; the Hulk and Betty in the cave; the Abomination and the Hulk's alley fight; and Bruce and Betty's reunion. The majority was composed in a few weeks in Los Angeles, California, which was very intense for the director and composer. The score was recorded over four days during late April 2008 in a chapel in Bastyr University, located in Kenmore, Washington. Pete Lockett played ethnic instruments in the score, which were recorded in London and mixed together with the orchestra and electronics.
The Hulk and the Abomination both have two themes, representing their human and monstrous forms. The Hulk's theme was meant to be iconic and simple, like Jaws (1975), with string glissandos on a base C note. Banner's theme is tragic and includes parts of Joe Harnell's "The Lonely Man" theme from the television series. Armstrong played the piano for one scene featuring that piece. Blonsky has a dark theme, which becomes aggressive when he transforms. Armstrong interplayed the Hulk and the Abomination's themes during their battle, and found scoring the action sequences similar to a dance. There is also a suspenseful theme, and a love theme.
Leterrier suggested the score be released on two discs, which Armstrong believed to be a joke. Only when he compiled the album and Marvel asked why they were only given one disc, did he realize they were serious.
Norton and Leterrier disputed with the producers over the final running time: they wanted it to be near 135 minutes, while the producers wanted the film to be under two hours. This was made public, and rumors spread that Norton "made it clear he won't cooperate with publicity plans if he's not happy with the final product". Norton dismissed this, "Our healthy process [of collaboration], which is and should be a private matter, was misrepresented publicly as a 'dispute', seized on by people looking for a good story, and has been distorted to such a degree that it risks distracting from the film itself, which Marvel, Universal and I refuse to let happen. It has always been my firm conviction that films should speak for themselves and that knowing too much about how they are made diminishes the magic of watching them.
Following the edit dispute, Universal's Adam Fogleson and Norton planned a promotional tour which would avoid constant media interviews and therefore uncomfortable questions. He attended the premiere, took part in a Jimmy Kimmel Live! sketch and would also promote the film in Japan. However, during the film's release he chose to do charity work in Africa.
Rene Rodriguez of The Miami Herald applauded that the film "does a lot of things [Ang] Lee's Hulk didn't: It's lighter and faster-paced, it's funnier and it embraces (instead of ignoring) the 1970s TV series that furthered the character's popularity". Mark Rahner of The Seattle Times wrote that, "The relaunch of Marvel's green goliath is an improvement over director Ang Lee's ponderous 2003 Hulk in nearly every way — except that the actual Hulk still looks scarcely better than something from a video game, and he still barely talks". Lou Lumenick of The New York Post said, "What lingers in my memory ... is the lengthy, essentially animated climactic battle between the Hulk and the Abomination on the streets and rooftops of Harlem, and an earlier showdown between the title creature and the U.S. Army, which is deploying high-tech weapons including sound-wave cannons. These are expertly staged by director Louis Leterrier, who disposes of the backstory under the opening credits and wraps up the whole thing in twenty-four minutes less than [Ang] Lee took".
Conversely, Christy Lemire of the Associated Press found that "the inevitable comparisons to Iron Man, Marvel Studios' first blockbuster this summer, serve as a glaring reminder of what this Hulk lacks: wit and heart. Despite the presence of Edward Norton, an actor capable of going just as deep as Robert Downey Jr., we don't feel a strong sense of Bruce Banner's inner conflict". A.O. Scott of The New York Times opined, "'The Adequate Hulk' would have been a more suitable title. There are some big, thumping fights and a few bright shards of pop-cultural wit, but for the most part this movie seems content to aim for the generic mean". David Ansen of Newsweek wrote, "Leterrier has style, he's good with action and he's eager to give the audience its money's worth of bone-crunching battles. Still, once the movie leaves the atmospheric Brazilian settings, nothing in this "Hulk" sinks in deeply: its familiar genre pleasures are all on the surface. ... The movie's scene stealer is Tim Blake Nelson, making a comically welcome third act appearance as the unethical but madly enthusiastic scientist Samuel Stern".
The film was nominated for best superhero film at the 2008 National Movie Awards.
In its opening weekend, the film grossed $55.4 million in 3,505 theaters in the United States and Canada, ranking #1 at the box office. The previous film earned $62.1 million in its opening weekend, but dropped 70% in its second weekend. The second film by comparison, dropped 60% in its second weekend. Behind Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, it was the second-highest gross for a film released over a Father's Day weekend. This surpassed the Los Angeles Times's report of expectations of a $45 million opening, following the disappointing response to the 2003 film. Universal believed word of mouth will contribute to the film eventually breaking even. A CinemaScore poll indicated the majority of viewers were male and graded the film an A-, and 82% of them had seen the 2003 film.
It also opened in thirty-eight other countries, which added $31 million to the total opening. The film outgrossed the 2003 film in South Korea, while its openings in Mexico and Russia created records for Universal. The film grossed 24 million yuan (roughly $3.4 million) in its Chinese opening on August 26, outgrossing the previous film's overall gross of ten million yuan. As of September 7, 2008, The Incredible Hulk has grossed $134,533,885 in the United States,as well as $124,730,197 internationally, bringing its worldwide gross to $259,264,082. The film, even though it barely passed its predecessor, is still considered successful. Entertainment analyst David Davis told The Hollywood Reporter, "The first Hulk had such high expectations after the NBC Universal merger and was supposed to be critical favorite Ang Lee's breakout commercial blockbuster. Then with the new Hulk film, Marvel was able to underplay the importance of the success after the great success of Iron Man this summer. So the new one overdelivered, relative to its underpromise.