“Because he is unique, the world will not tolerate his existence.”
-- David Banner (Nick Nolte) describing his Gamma ray-infused son, Bruce … and Ang Lee’s “Hulk” overall.
The 2003 summer movie season arrived full of would-be sure-things, though only one of which looked incredible. There was a resounding shock that “The Matrix Reloaded” would emerge divisive and unloved, though no one was surprised that Jonathan Mostow’s “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” wouldn’t soar as high without creator James Cameron.
Not only would Pixar end up on top with its universally adored “Finding Nemo” but, seemingly against-all-odds, an epic pirate movie, starring Johnny Depp as a mangy, garrulous, alcoholic buccaneer, was also an instant-classic.
Standing vast and alone in the opposite corner was the bulkiest and most promising of all the ’03 summer flicks, the long awaited arrival of Marvel’s “The Incredible Hulk” to the big screen.
Director Ang Lee’s eagerly anticipated, much-discussed and downright prestigious film was supposed to paint the summer green.
Instead, after a massive opening, the controversy that plagued the film in the early months finally squashed it during its second week in theaters.
To this day, Lee’s “Hulk” remains the most reviled film in the Marvel Studios catalog. It’s a cinematic black sheep that, while genuinely a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (more on that later), its often referenced as fondly as Crystal Pepsi, the film career of Howie Long and other things that once sounded like a great idea.
Fifteen years later, Lee’s genuinely daring, defiant and consistently innovative comic book art movie reveals itself to be horribly misunderstood and a vital work.
An ideally cast Eric Bana stars as the nerdy, withdrawn scientist Bruce Banner, whose experiments involving gamma rays have caught the attention of the US military. Banner’s lab partner, Betty Ross (admirably played by Jennifer Connelly) is in love with Banner but can’t get past the emotional distance and secretive barrier he maintains from her and others.
Betty’s father, General Ross (Sam Elliot, excellent), is entirely aware of Bruce’s horrific upbringing by his abusive, deranged and believed-to-be-dead father, David (an unsettling, feral-looking Nick Nolte).
FAST FACT: “Hulk” earned $132 million during its U.S. theatrical run, good for 14th place that year.
The arrival of the snarky, sadistic Glenn Talbot (a never-better Josh Lucas), who wants to exploit Bruce’s scientific progress and is Betty’s former lover, enrages Bruce. So does the sudden reappearance of his father, who is conducting bizarre experiments of his own.
A lab accident causes Bruce to save a colleague’s life by absorbing life-threatening amounts of gamma rays, which somehow make him feel more alive. The one, big, incredible caveat: don’t make him angry … you won’t like him when he’s angry.
Lee’s film is defiantly out of step with summer blockbuster/comic book movie expectations, then and now. Even Richard Donner’s 1978 “Superman -- The Movie” had more audience accessibility and immediate razzle-dazzle. Here, the approach is character-driven and Freudian, with Lee’s auteur take on the material and the genre itself.
The humor is light and droll. If anything, the early Stan Lee/Lou Ferrigno cameo evokes the seriousness of the 1978-82 TV series, not the zippy fun of the previous year’s “Spider-Man.”
The opening credits, with the recognizable Stan Lee fonts, are just right. They establish a feature-length motif that Lee fashions in a unique manner: this is a living comic book. The scene transitions often mimic how the eye follows the panel-to-panel storytelling of a graphic novel. The canvassing of the cinematic panels rivals anything from Peter Greenaway and makes for a playfully stylish movie.
There’s also split screens that offer multiple perspectives on varying moments and even a great bit near the end where the actions gets so intense, the camera seems to pull back, revealing a sea of panels, as though we needed to put this living comic book down for a moment.
The editing by Tim Squyres (who has shaped all of Lee’s films) and cinematography by Frederick Elmes (a frequent David Lynch collaborator) are brilliant. While the ’03 CGI by Industrial light & Magic have been surpassed, there’s still a soulfulness to Hulk’s close-ups and a rawness to his outbursts.
The ample hallucinatory imagery is right out of “Altered States;” unlike the cool F/X in “Doctor Strange,” the surreal bits are truly jarring. Danny Elfman’s score, with its brooding, “Vertigo” throwback, is as essential to this film as his triumphant score to “Batman” was for that film.
The screenplay, by James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman, adds heaps of melodrama to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s 1962 creation, is fully in synch with Lee’s risk-taking approach and the intensity of the subject matter.
This is a visionary comic book movie, akin to George A. Romero’s “Creepshow” or Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” as a celebration of the art and form of the medium. There’s a richness to the filmmaking and story that eludes the current MCU. While Lee’s creative interpretation of comic book motion picture dominates the visual approach, it never dilutes the story’s dramatic power.
“Hulk” provides a metaphor for acting out our childhood demons and becoming what we fear -- namely, our parents. David refers to the Hulk as his “real son,” as the Hulk is the result of Bruce’s horrible id unleashed. Contrastly, David refers to Bruce as “the child of my mind,” whose unsettling memories are physically blocked by doorways that led to death.
The protagonists carry traumatic memories and share a bitter detachments form their fathers (Ross’ neglectful father contrasted with Banner’s abusive dad, both of whom worked together when Bruce and Betty were children). A key scene depicts Bruce and Betty revisiting a ghost town on a military base -- it’s an eerie moment in which they literally face their anguished pasts together.
FAST FACT: Eric Bana is glad, in retrospect, “Hulk” underperformed at the box office, freeing him to avoid the franchise trap.
The ample flashbacks to Bruce and Betty’s childhoods are disturbing. David Banner’s scientific breakthroughs are never celebrated or glossed over but treated at face value -- they amounted to willfully harming a child and self inflicted madness. David tells Bruce during the grand finale, “the more you fight, the more of you I take.”
Bruce’s grueling journey isn’t merely to overcome military might or keep himself from becoming angered but to overcome the dreadful assault his father has plagued on his innocent soul. Somehow, “Hulk” is even darker than the previous Marvel movie, “Blade” (!), which sported a fiendish glee to its anarchy.
At one point, the military code for the Hulk is revealed to be “Angry Man,” a fine alternate title for this film.
It’s all strikingly similar to David Cronenberg’s “The Fly.” Connelly’s Betty isn’t the standard “girlfriend” role but a haunted witness, not unlike Geena Davis’ Ronnie in the Cronenberg film. Betty even warns Bruce that “emotional damage can manifest physically,” not unlike Davis’ Ronnie informing Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle that his carefree experiments should make him “Be afraid, be very afraid.”
Ronnie and Betty are both unable to sooth the savage impulses and self destructive tendencies of their lovers, leaving them helpless to watch good men become monsters. Both “Hulk” and “The Fly” center on an uneasy love triangle (whoever the female lead ends up with, it’s a losing choice) and the Atheon corporation isn’t unlike Bartok Industries.
The theme of duality is explored with a complexity the film earns. A key, recurring image is of Bruce shaving, wiping off the dew from a fogged up mirror. Late in the film, as he wipes the mirror, the reflection is of the Hulk’s fingers, and it’s the Hulk’s face that glares back at Bruce.
In a brilliant touch, the perspective changes and suddenly, we’re on the Hulk’s side of the mirror, looking at Bruce.
Despite being Lee’s first film post-“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” Oscar glory and Connelly’s first since her celebrated turn in “A Beautiful Mind,” the resistance against Lee’s film began well before the release date. A premature Super Bowl ad infamously cooled expectations, with unfinished F/X and the accompaniment of Grand Theft Auto’s insanely caffeinated “We Luv U” undermining the film’s allure.
Suddenly, the subtle, show-nothing teaser trailer from the year before (which played in front of “Spider-Man”) became preferable. Then came a slew of mini-controversies: Lee intended for Banner not to don his trademark purple stretchy pants during his Hulk-outs and, instead, bounce around the desert and the rest of San Francisco in the buff.Any comic book movie that evokes both Ingmar Bergman and Ken Russell is doing something right.Click To Tweet
The outcry of fans threatening a boycott led to Banner wearing his improbably durable Hammer pants after all. Then some nitwit put a pirated copy of the film online and served years of jail time (providing a unfortunate retort to the cellmate question, “Whaddya in for?” “Um… The Hulk”).
On opening weekend, “Hulk” boasted the mightiest June opening of all time, followed by one of the largest drops ever in the box office top ten. Word of mouth sunk the film, which barely managed to pass the $100 million mark.
Among the chief complaints were the largely action-free first act, which focused on building Banner’s tortured character arc. Once the action gets going in the second and third act, there’s so much of it, the outcry of “not enough Hulk-Smash” seemed absurd.
Likewise, Lee’s odd but misunderstood monster movie throwback, in which Hulk tussles with David Banner’s three gigantic, mutated canine companions; the entire sequence is an elaborate ode to the 1933 “King Kong.”
Then there’s the strange climax, presented with blatant theatricality, followed by a swirl of CGI. On top of seeming like the movie doesn’t know how to wrap up following a perfect end to the sad, moving reunion in the S.F. climax, it pushes the daddy issues thrust of the screenplay into truly wacko territory. The bold, icky final confrontation is, if nothing else, a proper response to the establishing scenes of David Banner’s reckless approach to parenting and the scientific method.
Lee’s wild interpretation of the material is totally at-odds with the safe, individuality-free filmmaking of the current MCU. The same goes for Bana’s wounded, introverted take on Banner, evoking the damaged child within and the grown-up trying to maintain his hard-won humanity.
Mark Ruffalo, a wonderful actor, is currently carrying the role, offering the masses a neutered take on a rich creation; neither Ruffalo nor the character have ever been less interesting.
Viewed with measured expectations and a willingness to accept Lee’s novel approach to the comic book form (which, to be fair, wouldn’t work for most other films in this genre), “Hulk” can be experienced as the radical work that it is. The film’s detractors are many, but any comic book movie that evokes both Ingmar Bergman and Ken Russell is doing something right.
Lee’s “Hulk” came five years before the carefully mapped out MCU that began with “Iron Man” and is likely considered an outcast, an also-ran that has been retroactively remade and is no longer a part of any cinematic universe. Yet, it certainly is a MCU member by default, as the 2008 “The Incredible Hulk” (with its new cast, filmmaker and less challenging approach to the material) is a direct sequel to “Hulk.”
While Edward Norton’s Banner offers a new face to Banner, “The Incredible Hulk picks off where “Hulk” left off and even shoehorns a cameo appearance by Tony Stark in the end credits to (just barely) solidify its MCU significance.
FAST FACT: Ang Lee said he wanted to tackle a blockbuster-style movie like ‘Hulk’ to show the format could offer more complicated stories than some might suggest.
While Lee’s structure in unconventional and most fanboys would angrily declare that the film exists outside of the MCU, this still fits in with recent MCU installments: the tropes are intact, including an origin story, a much-interrupted romance, frequent (if not always faithful) nods to the source material and even the Marvel logo are intact.
Sorry fanboys, but you were wrong about “Hulk” in 2003. Give it another try and offer it the proper respect it deserves, both as a singular achievement and as a part of the ubiquitous MCU. Here is a comic book movie that matters, both for its celebration of the material and the seriosuness it offers its title character. There is much here that is dark and gloomy but the movie earns it.
Indeed, you should like him when he’s angry.