In this instalment of Three Brothers Film’s, Thursday Rethink, we welcome friend of the site, Ryan Holt (@_SeenThatMovie) as a guest contributor. Ryan writes about film at I’ve Seen That Movie Too and recently contributed a chapter on Brian DePalma to the third volume of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema. In the wake of the Hulk’s most recent appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ryan offers an thoughtful and provocative defence of Ang Lee’s much derided 2003 take on the character.
No superhero film may be more unfairly maligned and misunderstood than Ang Lee’s Hulk, which arrived shortly after the start of Hollywood’s superhero film obsession (which, by my estimation, was sparked by the success of Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000 and was in full force with the arrival of Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002). Hulk came out in 2003, a good five years before 2008, the year the confirmed the superhero film’s place as an unstoppable juggernaut by giving us both The Dark Knight and Iron Man. In those early days when Ang Lee’s Hulk was in development, superheroes were still somewhat unproven properties (even the much-beloved Batman was seen as something of a liability at this time, caught in limbo after 1997’s disastrous Batman and Robin).
The Hulk has always been one of the oddest characters in the Marvel pantheon, in part because he is less of a true superhero than he is a monster. Scientist Bruce Banner accidentally gives birth to the Hulk during an ill-fated science experiment wherein gamma radiation unleashes the inner demon inside, a creature of unstoppable power and rage. The Hulk’s power can, and often is, turned against the forces of evil, but the essence of the character is tragic, rooted in the classic character bifurcation most iconically embodied by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
At the time of Hulk’s release, the character was probably better-known among the public for the 70s television series, The Incredible Hulk, than his comic book history, which actually made the character ripe for reinvention: he was both known, but his major prior incarnation was a distant relic, allowing room for the public to accept a fresh take (much as Burton’s Batman film had altered the popular perception of a character that had been defined by the 1960s television series). The possibility for spectacular effects was built right in to the character, who has always been defined by his scale.
Director Ang Lee, fresh off of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, approached the project not simply as an opportunity to play in the superhero sandbox, but as an attempt to make a contemporary myth. His Hulk is surprising in that it is the only contemporary superhero film to seem entirely coherent in design, with all of its features and themes extending from a singular conflict. In Lee’s hands, the Hulk became a metaphor for the anger and pain associated with repressed childhood trauma, and the story’s villain would be none other than the source of that trauma: Bruce Banner’s father.
So Lee’s Hulk ended up as a pervasively melancholy film, intense and dramatically muted, which resulted in a rather confused response: how could a film about an enormous green angry giant be so dour? The reviews were mixed, and the box office returns were below expectations. As a result, the character was effectively mothballed until Marvel Studios returned to the character with 2008’s forgettable The Incredible Hulk, one of the foundational films in Marvel Studio’s attempt to create a cinematic “shared universe” between superhero characters, which situated the character in a more conventional “action film” formula.
Hulk’s detractors are not completely off the mark. Hulk is by no means as fluid and vivid as Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which is deeply tragic but more emotionally textured. Unlike Crouching Tiger, Lee’s Hulk has little room for humor. Additionally, the pacing in Hulk never feels quite right, so the long stretches of muted, almost whispery conversations wear things down at times, and the film’s severity is amplified by its length. But this complaint is not damning. Hulk’s intensity remains startling, even when compared against Christopher Nolan’s brooding Batman films. There’s genuine pain at the heart of Lee’s Hulk, which makes it stand out against a sea of films in which death and agony are mere plot points.
Lee embeds and expresses that pain with the colorful and wild textures of its pulpy source material. Comic book adaptations have been playing around with the visual features of comics for quite some time (look at the panel-by-panel translations delivered in films like Sin City, 300, and Watchmen, or even the exaggerated production design and style of the earlier Batman or Dick Tracy), but so few have truly tried to explore it as a potentially expressive vocabulary. In Lee’s hands, comic book language is just another way to express psychological realities, and in pursuit of those realities, he attempts to preserve both comic book imagery at its loveliest (the Hulk breathtakingly leaping across the vast desert) and at its most preposterous (mutant hulk-dogs).
But Lee goes even further than just recreating images; the complex (and technically astonishing) editing reproduces the way comic book pages align and layer images to create transitions and emphasize images, finding a correlation between comic book panels and split-screen. These effects provide both the film’s most playful moments and some of its most emotionally potent images, underlining character relationships and narrative sequence.
The film’s title sequence establishes this formal approach in a dizzying sea of cosmic imagery as David Banner, father to Bruce, attempts to discover a way to regenerate human tissue. The images link the scientific with the spiritual as David Banner frantically attempts to unlock the secrets of nature in the hopes that he can use those secrets to create a new, more powerful humanity. But the quest doesn’t end somewhere beyond the infinite, it instead leads to ordinary domesticity, albeit a domesticity suffused with dread. After having recklessly experimented on himself, David Banner impregnates his wife, Edith (the transition from Edith Banner telling her husband that she’s pregnant to her giving birth is one of the best uses of the “comic book panel” effect in the film, as the screams of childbirth overwhelm the soundtrack as well as the film image). The son, Bruce, may have inherited something terrifying.
That childhood episode climaxes in tragedy, the facts of which are withheld until later in the film: David Banner, believing his son to be a monster, attempts to murder him, but accidentally kills his wife Edith instead. This trauma will, along with a radiation experiment gone awry, give birth to the Hulk, who, in Lee’s film, is a dangerous man-child of unstoppable power (the Hulk’s face here has a boyish quality with emotionally confused eyes). The Hulk’s irresistible power makes him a target of the government, and, also, a target of his father, who sees in his son a door to ascension.
The more mythic tensions of David and Bruce’s uneasy relationship—a complex web of tangled emotions, regrets, and desires—are mirrored in the more ordinary difficulties between Bruce’s love interest Betsy Ross and her own father, General Ross, expanding the story into a more general portrait of the wounds wrought on children by their parents. It is to the cast’s credit that these character histories, which have such bearing on the proceedings, register as genuine rather than flimsy. Take, for instance, the scene where Betsy and her father reunite for the first time; what would easily be a throwaway scene in another film becomes a showcase for some exceptional performances.
But it’s not all drama; this is a film about an enormous monster, after all, and while Lee’s Hulk does not utilize action sequences as the film’s driving force, he doesn’t skimp on the spectacle, either. The main set-piece of the film is an enormous chase across the desert as the Hulk is pursued by tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets, a set-piece that Lee handles with astonishing grace. Lee often keeps the camera at a distance, reveling in the scale of this enormous creature and his unbelievable abilities, and finds a kind of joy in the freedom experienced by this unchained being.
The film’s climax serves as the wild merger between the dramatic and the spectacular. Father and son confront each other on a military base, eventually shedding their human forms and battling to the death as the strange monsters that they are. Bana’s Bruce may be the model of repression, straining to hold himself together, but Nolte’s David is wild, unhinged, and desperate, like an alcoholic father desperate to convince his son to bail him out of a gambling debt.
When the fireworks begin, the film returns to the cosmic images of its opening title sequence. A battle between father and son takes on a mythic dimension as the Hulk battles the elements (his father is essentially an energy being, absorbing all the matter and energy he comes into contact with). It’s pleasingly surreal in the way that folklore often is, and Lee invests it all with awesome power. Nothing in the superhero films to follow after Hulk quite matches the breathtaking sequence where lightning catches the Hulk in a series of freeze-frames as he tumbles throughout the clouds (played alongside Danny Elfman’s score, it almost feels like the kind of moment one might find in Disney’s Fantasia).
The son only wins by unleashing his grief, which is too much for his father to handle. Having destroyed his father, the monster goes off to the ends of the earth to hide. Thus the story resolves, allowing for the Hulk to be set up as a much more conventional superhero character, a wandering monster attempting to do good.
Maybe it’s ultimately for the best that we never saw Bana reprise the role of Banner, since his performance is so uniquely tied to this origin story, an origin story that would have overshadowed any subsequence appearance by the character (on the other hand, a Bruce Banner who feels like a genuine source of danger and pain might actually have provided an interesting counterweight to the flippancy of characters like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in The Avengers). But sequel lead-in or no, Lee’s Hulk is a complete experience, an ambitious and soulful experiment that is so much more than mere corporate product.