Boy, this is a weird one.
On the surface, this seems easy. There are almost no overt references to dates in this film, so you should just be able to rely on other films (namely Iron Man 2) to place its location on the timeline. But then there are three scenes where this movie just vomits numbers at you. It’s information that no sane human being was ever meant to see, let alone process, but… well, here I am.
Just a quick recap of the rules here.
Rule #1: Only the movies are canon.
Rule #2: Title cards are always true.
Rule #3: References to dates in spoken dialogue are always true unless they conflict with rule #2.
Rule #4: Written dates that are prominently displayed in the world are usually true, unless they disagree with rules 2, 3, or each other.
Rule #5: Props and background objects that can be tied to a specific date almost never count.
Right off the bat, beneath the opening credits, we get a ton of information thrown at us. None of it is definitive enough to firm up a real timeline, but it gives us a broad window for how long Banner has been on the run between the accident that created the Hulk and the start of the film. The earliest date is a night-vision photo reading April 18, 2004, and the most recent is a photo of a smashed car dated January 22, 2007, so we can assume that Banner has been dodging the United States army for at least three years. The two most significant pieces of information are the date Bruce last tried to contact Betty and the highlighted text saying there have been no sightings for five months. The five months number will come up again in just a minute.
A title card informs us that it’s been 158 days, or just over five months since Bruce last Hulked out. So far this matches the information presented in the opening credits, except for the picture of the smashed car dated 2007. It’d be pretty easy to dismiss the date on the picture because it’s only shown on screen for a few frames in teeny-tiny text, but let’s hold our No-Prizes for now because this is going to get worse before it gets better.
Again, reiterating the five months figure. Whatever date this is meant to take place, it’s super clear that Bruce’s trail has been cold for five months.
The day after Bruce Hulks out in the Brazilian bottling plant, the “Days without incident” count resets from 190 down to one. The initial number being 190 means an addition month has passed since the beginning of the film, and if we take the “last seen” date as gospel, that would place this in late April 2007.
We learn that Emil Blonsky is 39. If we’re assuming (so far) that this is taking place in early 2007, that would put his birthday sometime in early 1968/late 1967. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves…
Another “Days without incident” count. This time letting us know it took Bruce about two weeks to make it back to the States.
Here’s another one of those information dumps that I mentioned up front, and there’s not really much useful information in it. The most recent project in the database search results is dated 2006 which only reaffirms that the film takes place no earlier than 2006, but in the span of a few seconds we get dozens of dates that don’t really firm up the timeline at all. I’m not including all of them here because it would be absolutely obnoxious to do so, but I did say I’d catalog every date in these dumb movies, so I’ve collected them all in an Imgur post. Go knock yourself out.
It’s a Friday night when Betty and Bruce reunite, but as we’ve already established, that doesn’t really tell us anything. Moving on.
There’s no dates mentioned or shown in this news broadcast, but I’m cataloging it here because it will matter next week. Moving on.
And here’s the last of those scenes where the movie just overwhelms you with numbers no one was ever meant to actually read (but you can right here!). The hits in the S.H.I.E.L.D. surveillance database all list messages sent on June 12, 2008 (the day before the film opened in the U.S.). On the one hand, this conflicts with the timeline seemingly presented by the rest of the film, and how much weight should you really put on text that’s only on screen for a few frames? On the other hand, this brings the setting of the film into the (then) present day and makes the timeline of the final scene make more sense. So that means it’s time for our first…
No-Prize: The document from the opening credits was accurate, but not up-to-date. Banner Hulked out at some point after that document was filed and then fled to Brazil at the end of 2007 where he just so happened to stay hidden for about six months.
After testing Samuel Stern’s experimental cure, Stern hypothesizes why Banner hasn’t died of radiation sickness from his gamma exposure. Once again we establish that it’s been years since Bruce’s initial transformation.
The film ends with with one final instance of the “days without incident motif” establishing that it’s been at least a month since the battle between Hulk and Abomination in Harlem, which means we just about have our timeline, but there’s one more scene worth mentioning…
So, this is complicated because the idea that this scene is teasing ended up being fully abandoned and this scene was almost immediately retconned by a One-Shot short and basically the entirety of Iron Man 2. Supposedly the original Zak Penn draft of The Avengers had the impetus for the team’s formation being a mission to stop the Hulk, so at one point it would have made sense for the (at the time) founding member of the Avengers to reach out to the world’s foremost expert in Hulk hunting.
But that’s not the movie they made, so this scene (and, to a certain extent, this entire movie) is just a weird vestigial tail of a version of the MCU that never got made. The most important takeaway here for now is that at least the ending of The Incredible Hulk happened sometime after the events of Iron Man, which reinforces the date given in the S.H.I.E.L.D. database.
So let’s start from that number and work backwards. This one’s not nearly as neat and tidy as Iron Man, but we can try to make some sense of it. If Banner reached out to Stern on June 12, 2008 we can assume that the climax of the film happens within a day or two and the ending one month after that. It’s also safe to assume that Bruce probably spent at least a week in Virginia and on the run with Betty before connecting with Stern. So early June, Bruce arrives in Virginia; two weeks before that, he Hulks out in Brazil; and a month before that the film starts. So, for now, let’s settle on The Incredible Hulk taking place between April and July of 2008.
I’m pretty sure Iron Man 2 is gonna mess all of that up.