Revisiting the Reviled — Ang Lee Tried to Make a More Sophisticated Superhero Film with ‘Hulk’

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Every week with Revisiting the Reviled, Sean looks at a film that was meant to appeal to geeks and failed, often miserably.

The cinematic ups and downs of the Hulk have been discussed numerous places before. Nobody seems to care much about either solo Hulk film, yet the character is still a fan favorite for his moments in both ensemble Avengers movies. As much as there’s not a lot of love for 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, most of the derision is placed solely on Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk, which saw the art house director attempt to make a superhero blockbuster. Ang Lee was coming off the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The director’s previous forays into American cinema had yielded films like The Ice Storm and Ride with the Devil, not exactly films you’d associate with the director of a blockbuster about a giant green rage monster. While Lee is an undeniable cinematic talent, as evidenced by his two Oscar wins, his foray into the superhero genre with Hulk is both a triumph and failure, a work incapable of balancing the smarts with spectacle.

Placing Hulk in the context of its era, you can’t fault Ang Lee for wanting to make a more sophisticated superhero film. When Hulk was released in 2003, the genre was still going through its growing pains. The pinnacle of the burgeoning genre were films like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Bryan Singer’s X-Men. Raimi’s wonderful Spider-Man 2 was a year away, Christopher Nolan was years away from his work on Batman, and the idea of a Marvel Cinematic Universe was just a fanboy fantasy. But Lee lets his ambitions get the best of him, leading to a wildly uneven film that accidentally betrays the roots of its character.

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Let me be clear, I don’t believe that any comic character is sacrosanct. If a change can be made to make a better movie, I have no problem with it. In the comics, the Hulk’s origins occur when Bruce Banner saves an innocent teen who wandered in the blast range when testing a gamma bomb. The gamma radiation leaves Banner relatively alright until he loses control and becomes a raging beast of power and destruction. Like Jekyll and Hyde, Bruce Banner turns into a monster of his own making. In this film, Bruce Banner’s father David experiments on himself and passes on his altered genetics to his newborn son. When Bruce is older and experimenting with gamma rays and an unexpected malfunction happens, Bruce shields his coworker from the harmful radiation. This unleashes the genetic alterations that he underwent in childhood. In simpler terms, the Hulk is no longer the creation of Bruce Banner, it’s the creation of his father. And the rage of Bruce Banner comes from repressed memories about his father. And the climactic fight with his father is the character overcoming his daddy issues. More importantly, it takes much of the burden of being the Hulk, knowing that you’re responsible, away from Bruce Banner. This isn’t a transformation that could happen to anyone. It’s a transformation that could only happen to him. A similar issue can be found in The Amazing Spider-Man films.

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Hulk ends up being much more complicated than necessary. After becoming the Hulk, Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) must deal with his own psychological issues while ensuring that Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), his ex-girlfriend, is unharmed by his moments of destruction. But Bruce’s father, played by an especially gruff Nick Nolte, has found a way to alter his own genetics and become a formidable foe to his monstrous green son. That’s not all! The sleazy weapons manufacturer Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) wants his hands on the Hulk so he can use Banner’s DNA for weapons development, and Betty’s father General Ross (Sam Elliot) wants the Hulk destroyed. What the film ends up being is Bruce Banner/the Hulk vs. his father, his daddy issues, and the military industrial complex. The flashbacks and dream sequences diminish any urgency in the film’s narrative. During one of the Hulk’s major rampages, the green behemoth looks longingly at his childhood home before going into a flashback. This isn’t Bruce Banner, mind you, but the big green Hulk. This is also a very anti-climactic film because the final battle has the Hulk fighting a cloud, a rock formation, and a lake before unloading all his repressed guilt and daddy issues on his father at which point a bomb comes in and ends the fight.

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For all the faults of Hulk, it has to be said just what a fantastic stylist Ang Lee turns out to be here. His use of split screen to recreate comic book panels is inventive and lively. I can’t figure out why this stylish tick hasn’t been recreated in other comic book movies. Again, Lee does overdo it and the split screen panels don’t always flow so easily in quieter moments of dialogue. Even as an action director, Lee crafts some genuinely great action sequences. The only reason these moments have detractors is because the technological limitations at the time – I mean, the Hulk does look really, really goofy – but the action is striking in how well it’s composed and edited. And the soundtrack by Danny Elfman, with its obvious allusions to Bernard Herrmann’s score from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, adds an echo of unease and duality to the film’s proceedings. It is also hard to fault a film that features an unhinged Nick Nolte with Sam Elliot as his arch-nemesis.

In many regards, Ang Lee’s Hulk should be viewed by every filmmaker about to embark on a superhero film. Within the frames of the film, you can see unparalleled style that is undermined by a story that is trying to do too much. Like its titular hero, Hulk can’t control itself and winds up nothing more than a collection of emotional outbursts and physical destruction. But within its triumphs and failures lies a more interesting film than is typically credited. Where last week’s entry was the absolute nadir of Revisiting the Reviled, this week’s entry is the apex. Therein lies the ultimate legacy of Hulk, it stands triumphantly on a mountain of shit.

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