Hulk (2003) – Directed by Ang Lee – Starring Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas, Nick Nolte, Daniel Dae Kim, Stan Lee, and Lou Ferrigno.
Ang Lee’s HULK occupies a curious place in the annals of superhero movies. Lots of people seem to hate it, a few of us adore it, and most people seem to have either forgotten about it or see no reason to go back to it. It seems to have come to occupy the antithetical position to Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Most people love The Dark Knight, but those who hate it, HATE IT. Similarly, those of us who still defend HULK, seem to go a bit overboard in our praise of it.
I will not be arguing that HULK is the greatest superhero movie ever made. There are problems with HULK, and some of them are quite serious, but I love this film for the uniqueness of its vision and the performances of its leads. Of all the superhero movies, HULK is one of the few whose look is completely its own, and even when the narrative gets a bit clunky, the visuals make HULK an engaging film.
The most curious aspect of watching HULK is that Ang Lee doesn’t seem all that interested in the Hulk; instead, he’s much more interested in the relationships between parents and children and how the sins of the former forever effect the latter. The narrative in HULK is thus rather tidy, as David Banner (Nick Nolte) and Thunderbolt Ross (Sam Elliott) battle professionally in the 1960s, watch their children Bruce (Eric Bana) and Betty (Jennifer Connelly) battle personally in the 2000s, and then interfere in their children’s lives as they seek to confront their past sins.
The fault of this narrative strategy is Lee and Eric Bana’s conception of Bruce Banner. Of all the four leads, Bruce is the least interesting and Bana gives the weakest performance – though it’s also clearly the performance that Lee wants, so its perhaps unfair to lay too much blame at Bana’s feet. The fault with Bruce’s character is that he is the Eternal Victim in this film; even at the end, after this entire journey of learning his real identity and gaining the Hulk’s identity, Bruce is still a bit of a whiner in the film’s final act. Captured by the army and strapped to a chair, Bruce’s dad is brought in and he mocks Bruce’s constant complaining.
Bruce as the milquetoast at the center of the film works for the most part because the other personalities are so strong. Lee doesn’t seem all that interested in making a superhero film with all the bells and whistles and popcorn that we’ve come to expect, and the film envisions the Hulk as the ultimate result of what happens to someone who’s been put upon his whole life and internalized all that anguish instead of fighting back.
The film’s best moment is simple and almost lost amid in the noise of the action-heavy back-half. General Ross and his daughter are talking after they’ve captured Bruce and the entire weight of Ross’ decision back in the ’60s hits home. Contrary to his “Thunderbolt” nickname, Ross’ realization seeps out of him in a low growl as he acknowledges in short, terse words that when he put David Banner in jail and consigned Bruce to foster care that he was doing his duty but failing his humanity.
Back in the 1960s, the lives of Ross and David Banner became intertwined while they were working on an army base. David wanted to push his genetic research on to human testing, but that request is denied and David begins testing on himself. Shortly thereafter, David’s wife becomes pregnant and when the child is born, David realizes that he’s passed on his mutated DNA to Bruce. Ross eventually discovers what David has been doing and shuts the scientist down, and in anger, David sets off some kind of self-destruct procedure and rushes home to argue with his wife, which eventually leads to her death.
Bruce represses most of this, and he grows up accessing these memories only as nightmares.
Lee skips us quickly past Bruce’s childhood and college years, jumping ahead to his post-collegiate career where he and Betty work in a lab together. They’ve been romantically involved, but have recently broken up. Bruce is continuing his father’s work without realizing it, as he’s always been told that his father died in that explosion on the army base when he was a kid. Their research shows promise but hasn’t been fully realized (they use their nanomeds to heal a frog and then it blows up), and this leads to the one really big mistake of the film – the inclusion and conception of Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) as a completely over-the-top, cartoonish bad guy.
Talbot is such an anomaly in the film that every time he comes on the screen and does his slick, greedy routine it knocks the film off its tracks. He’s such a buffoonish dick that in a film where everyone struggles with their own emotions, fears, desires, and duties, Talbot’s full-on embrace of his own goofy evilness seems completely out of place. In his final moments, he’s going after the Hulk while using a crutch and hobbling thanks to a leg cast and just looking like a kid’s cartoon come to life. A character that loves who he is should work as wonderful offset to everyone else’s struggles, but it goes too far and Lucas comes off as hammy instead of driven.
Bruce gets his trigger dose of gamma radiation in his lab as he rushes in to save a co-worker not named Rick Jones. There’s no instant transformation into the Hulk; instead, we quickly cut to Bruce in a hospital bed where he happily announces he’s never felt better. His dad decides to re-enter his life at this point, and then decides that Betty needs to die, and this leads to the infamous Hulk vs. Poodle sequence. It’s a weird sequence and if the film was going to cut one part of itself out, this is the part it should dump. Bruce’s transformation into the Hulk is a bit understated and instead of getting a monster, Ang Lee’s Hulk is sort of … confused, at first, and then driven to save Betty from David’s gamma dogs.
Like I said, I could have done without the gamma dogs – the idea of the Hulk battling a gamma poodle sounds better as an idea than in actuality, and the film keeps this entire sequence in the dark, making it a bit hard to see and follow along. As sketchy as this sequence is, however, it does lead to Betty’s monumental decision to turn Bruce in to her father. I love how Lee plays most of these big decisions quiet and doesn’t oversell them. He lets his actors act and deliver these important moments in a truthful way that I really admire.
Beyond Lucas’ campiness and Bana’s reserved nature, the acting here is very strong. Connelly, Elliott, and Nolte are all fantastic and hit the perfect notes throughout the film.
After Betty has delivered Bruce to her father and Talbot goes above Ross’ head to take control of testing the Hulk, the Hulk busts free, kills Talbot, and then bounds off for the desert, where we get lots of totally satisfying action for nearly an hour. We get the Hulk vs. tanks and helicopters and fighter jets and it works just fine. The CGI certainly isn’t perfect. At times, it looks like the Hulk has been laid onto this world instead of being a part of it, but by the end of this extended chase/fight sequence, when the Hulk has hit San Francisco and repelled all of the army’s weapons but is brought to his knees by the presence of Betty, the connection between Bruce and the Hulk feels seamless.
In truth, the film should have ended right there, with an exhausted Hulk transforming back into Bruce and collapsing in a tearful Betty’s arms. That ending was perfect. Even the look from Ross in the background as the weight of a life given completely to duty, a life that cost him his relationship with his daughter and caused him to treat a 4-year old kid like a problem instead of a kid.
The film doesn’t end there because we have to wrap up the plot between Bruce and his crazy dad. David Banner plays such a small role in the film after Bruce is captured that when he gets brought back for the final act, it takes me out of the narrative a bit. I would have rather seen this plot resolved before the Hulk vs. army battle because ending with Bruce in Betty’s arms feels more satisfying than Bruce fighting Daddy the Absorbing Man and then running away to the jungle to help sick kids. Ending on Bruce and Betty shows the damage that parents inflict on their children, and shows that children can overcome whatever burden has been placed on them to find comfort in each other.
Even with the multiple missteps, however, I really like HULK. I think Ang Lee’s visual style is completely engaging; he uses all sorts of wipes and crossfades, and he segments the screen so we feel like we’re in a live-action comic book. Danny Elfman’s score is phenomenal, and the whole look and feel of HULK is a pleasure to watch. As we get nearer to the release of AVENGERS, it’s important, I think, to take a minute and think about the superhero films that don’t look and feel like the AVENGERS franchise. One of the reasons why the superhero genre hasn’t gone away, yet, is that we can see that inside of a familiar genre there’s lots of room for filmmakers to be unique. Nolan’s Batman films don’t look or feel like Burton or Schumacher’s Batman films let alone the AVENGERS films or X-Men films or Blade films.
HULK has a bold and unique look and feel, and it’s a heck of a story, too.