I’ll put this up front: I’m much more of a Marvel person, I think, than a DC person. Not quite sure why that is. Maybe the “iconic” image DC cloaks itself with chaffs me too much. Yeah, 70+ years of history is impressive, but you still don’t really have anything on a monthly basis I’d care to read. There’s just something a little more compelling about the “real world” type of flavor Marvel has, which I admit is a strange thing to say about a universe where a giant man wants to munch on your planet and one of the most powerful superheroes communicates with squirrels. But that’s how I feel. It also has characters I feel have incredibly compelling stories to them. One of my absolute favorites as far back as I can remember has been The Incredible Hulk.
I can’t tell you why I like the Hulk so much. I’ve never really been taken in by his comic books. The biggest exposure I’ve really had to him was his syndicated mid-90s cartoon. Something about the duality of an intelligent, weak science geek and an unstoppable, baby-minded giant is appealing. LOL WISH FULFILLMENT. So imagine my interest when Marvel and Universal Studios began working on Hulk, the live action picture. Not only had they gone an intriguing route in hustling Ang Lee to direct it, but one of my biggest celebrity crushes, Jennifer Connelly, was tapped to play the tragic love interest. The only way they could’ve stopped me from rushing into the theater and ordering the ticket seller, mouth frothing, to give me a pass to see Hulk would have been to have the movie be two hours of Stan Lee shitting on the camera lens. As it turned out, it took considerably less to dampen my enthusiasm.
The movie premiered to bewildered and frustrated disappointment. I was crushed. This should’ve been awesome! Incredible, even! What went wrong? I wanted to know, but the backlash against the film kept me wary until late into its theatrical run. I took a deep breath, bought a ticket and waited patiently in the darkness of the theater for my medicine. As soon as the film started, my expectations rose again. Danny Elfman’s aural ministrations pleased my ears while experimental, cloudy, twirling imagery acted out the psychological struggle of Bruce Banner. Those guys didn’t know what they were talking about! This was really cool and artsy! Then we were informed that the projector had been malfunctioning and we were all given free vouchers to come back again. [insert wacky sound effect] It was a setback for morale, that was for sure. But this time, I was absolutely determined to see it for myself. I went again at the earliest convenience and strapped myself in for Hulk. Little did I know just what Ang Lee had planned for me. This can only mean another edition of…
Do you know anything about the Hulk’s origins? You do? Well then you’re actually at a disadvantage because the story’s fairly different this time around. The movie starts with a scientist performing experiments that are vaguely menacing and look like he’s extracting the semen out of a starfish or something like that. We find out that this scientist is Dr. David Banner, and his “crazy and stupid” experiments shan’t be tolerated by the U.S. Army any longer! Then… why did he get so far in the first place?! Anyway, David experiments on himself and knocks up his lovely wife, giving him a son. Can you guess who he is? A dog treat if you guessed Bruce. After some scenes of dear old Dad being a hilarious and creepy jerk to his son, the army finds out how many ethical violations David’s been committing and things (literally!) explode.
Fast forward to the future where we find out that not only has Bruce been adopted, but he’s forgotten entirely about what his childhood was like. I should mention that it takes TEN MINUTES for the movie to progress to the point where he’s even a teenager. Fast forward again. Bruce (Munich‘s Eric Bana) is a talented, if not extremely geeky (ironic, since anyone who saw Troy knows Bana’s a fucking Trojan god), genetic scientist working at a vague institution for higher learning. “You look like a massive nerd, even around other scientists,” Bruce KRENZLER is told. I can’t tell you how much the name change is a personal grief of mine. But anyways, we’re introduced to his research partner, the beautiful (absurdly so, for a scientist) Betty Ross (Phenomena‘s Jennifer Connelly). Tension between Bruce and her signals us right off the bat that something’s passed between them. Indeed, they were erstwhile lovers, although it seems that title is more appropriate for Betty than Bruce. Seems they broke up because Bruce is always in an emotional straitjacket, and Bana’s strained attempts at conveying emotion seem to signal she’s right.
Their experiments seem to be centered on making frogs explode, although they’re really trying to make some sort of “nano-meds” that can instantly repair organic tissue or some shit like that. Of course, defense contractors smell money, which is where Talbot (Poseidon‘s Josh Lucas) comes in. He starts working the Betty angle, and he instantly comes off as untrustworthy. Especially since he can’t stop eye-fucking her with every ounce of strength he has. Betty, being surprisingly moral and ethical for a Marvel scientist, turns him down. Later on, he tries to convince Bruce to let him in on it to similar success. It doesn’t take the snide comments and general oozing prickishness of Talbot to signal to Bruce he’s an uber-jerk. Talbot quips to Bruce that he’ll write a book titled, “When stupid ideals happen to smart, penniless scientists.”
During a routine experiment, Bruce’s other, other assistant (why couldn’t he be Rick Jones?) fucks up and gets caught in front of their gamma… sphere… thing… right before it’s about to go off. Bruce bravely throws the assistant aside and takes the brunt of the radiation. And thus the Hulk is born! Well, no, not yet. Bruce wakes up in a hospital feeling better than ever. The new janitor, played by the croaking, hobo-looking Nick Nolte (48 Hours), approaches him and reveals he’s Bruce’s real father. This introduction comes off more like Dad’s trying to come on to him, and Bruce is suitably creeped out and sends him away. Dad manages to steal a hair off of him, though and takes it back to the lab he has in his crack shack (he has a fucking GAMMA LAB THERE?) and does some sort of SCIENCE hoodoo to it. Meanwhile, Bruce’s repressed memories are surfacing and during a particularly nettling sequence of events, Bruce gets angry and the Hulk is unleashed! Forty minutes into the movie. Forty minutes into a two hour movie. Smashing, psychobabble and way too many flashbacks ensue.
Hulk, as a movie, is completely uneven and strange. The vision Ang Lee must’ve had for a Hulk movie must’ve been completely baffling and frustrating, because on the surface that’s exactly what Hulk is. It simply cannot make up its mind on what it wants to be. For the first act of the movie, it’s a drama about a man’s repressed past and his inability to form close emotional bonds and reconcile with his father. Then it introduces the Hulk, who is so much more simple than all that. Hulk just smashes! The movie picks up whenever he’s on screen and he lends an energy, almost a presence (I hesitate to use that term for a completely CG character) to his parts of the movie. It’s a shame that after his introduction the movie pulls him back again, only giving us glimpses of the character. Was it to simulate the Hulk’s subconscious presence in Bruce’s mind? Was it simply to cocktease the audience? Apparently it was to give audiences time to adjust to seeing a CG Hulk. It just makes all the parts afterwards where he’s not on screen feel so dull. Maybe it just goes to show that the story itself is dull. The original origin story of the Hulk was punchy and to the point. Bruce Banner is conducting a desert experiment and runs out into the testing field to save the life of a wayward motorcyclist, sacrificing himself instead and immediately transforming into the Hulk. Here it takes a third of the runtime to even get to him. Was that really necessary? The entire setup is torturous and needlessly convoluted. It ends up being explained later on that Betty and Bruce were raised in the same town growing up, bringing back all the negative aspects of the orphanage scene from Final Fantasy VIII. The movie seems to be in love with its own mythos, constantly exploring it ad nauseam in flashbacks that increasingly wear on the nerves. The movie was written by James Schamus, Ang Lee’s personal lap dog. I think they maybe should’ve picked someone who was a little closer to the source material.
During the interviews and commentary on the DVD, Ang Lee keeps talking about not wanting to do a typical comic book movie and wanting to get at the meat of what makes the Hulk the Hulk. He seems to think this means a bunch of psychobabble and a quick romp through Freudian theory and vague metaphors. Repression and emotional damage are constantly brought up. Ang Lee seems to positively salivate at the possibility of Oedipal imagery, including some almost right at the start of the movie. Baby Bruce looks fawningly at his beautiful mother who lavishes love and attention upon him. The camera cuts to an uprising, phallic plant. Blind people in the audience got the drift. Not even Betty is safe from the onslaught of Dr. Freud’s cigar. The musical theme of Bruce’s mother gets reprised during a romantic scene with Betty. She has her own flashback/dream (groan, the only thing more annoying than an actual flashback) where she’s in an ice cream parlor enjoying the company of her father, who is leering at her like a fucking predator. Electra much? To top it all off, her father runs off and leaves her in the ice cream guy’s (who turns out to be Bruce) care, who begins to throttle her. Talk about complexes. Betty bemoans at the start of the movie how she always falls for emotionally unavailable men, like her father. On top of all that, Lee chooses to see the Hulk as a Bruce who was mentally arrested as a child, a toddler given infinite strength and stamina with which to throw tantrums. An interesting and potentially valid choice. Also, upon this last viewing of the movie I also discovered a possible castration element between Bruce and his father at the end of the movie that I had never caught before. At least I can say that this movie can still surprise me four years later. There’s also some sort of metaphor going on between the cosmos and the human body. Various shots occur linking the two. Is Lee trying to say we’re all made of stars?
Too bad all the high-concept ideals Ang Lee supposedly values seem to be in conflict with other parts of the movie. For abhoring the idea of a traditional “comic book movie,” Ang Lee sure makes some shitty creative decisions in this. For example, the first real fight scene in the movie occurs when David Banner harvests Bruce’s mutation and spreads it to his terrible, mangy dogs, growing them into terrible, horrifying, goofy proportions. Then he sics his new Hulk-dogs on Betty in an attempt to get Bruce to turn into the Hulk. Yes. Hulk-dogs. This is just the start of Lee’s bizarre decisions. The Hulk-dogs are so silly, so artificial, so STUPID in design that it’s impossible to take that sequence seriously. It appears that the makers of the film didn’t, either, since Lee pawned their design off on his son and the sequence is smattered lightly with slapstick and the Hulk-dogs expire in puffs of green smoke (?!). Yet it’s also undeniably brutal, with Hulk laying a smackdown on the pooches that would make ASPCA cry foul. It’s one of those signature Hulk moments where it is undeniably silly, yet completely dedicated to taking itself seriously. It’s a central disconnect the movie has, and it doesn’t stop there. Talbot meets his fate in a completely egregious moment of cheesy CG and poor decision-making that can only come off as fake and laughable. I cannot BELIEVE it got left in the final cut of the movie. And the final showdown of the movie involves a big floating jellyfish with (you guessed it!) flashbacks playing within it. Buh? I literally did not understand what was going on when I first saw that. I’m still not sure I do.
There’s also a small bit of American political commentary (groan) when David Banner criticizes the American government for meddling in world affairs during his insane tirade at the end. What does Ang Lee or James Schamus mean by this? Does this mean they’re pro-Bush, since the diatribe’s delivered by someone we know to be 100% crazy? There’s even hilarious doppelgangers of Bush and Condoleezza Rice that pop up during the movie.
Ang Lee’s commentary on the DVD does nothing to shed light on his motivations. It’s easily the most obtuse and vague commentary I’ve heard. I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about half the time. Traditionally, even though logic dictates otherwise, Hulk would always keep Bruce’s trademark purple pants after he transformed, no matter how large he got. An example of Lee’s insane train of thought is the admission that in his original vision of the film, he wanted Hulk to be nude after he transforms. How did he ever expect to get away with that? You don’t even see male nudity in R-rated American movies most of the time! Hilariously, Hulk’s nipple even got censored out of the promotional image of the movie. If America isn’t ready for Hulk titties, a gigantic green dong wasn’t gonna cut it, either. Ang Lee sort of gets his way in the end, with the Hulk-dogs’ savagery ripping off his pants by the end of the fight. Luckily, it’s dark and we can barely even see the outline of his butt. Still: why? The big problems with this movie could’ve been solved if Lee had only asked himself “Why?” “Why should I make this army base look like a candy-colored monstrosity?”
Part of the reason the movie’s flawed may stem from the fact that Hulk has no good rogue’s gallery, so trying to fabricate one out of his father rings rather hollow. Hulk has always been more suited to causing his own destruction and fighting the military or fellow superheroes. David Banner’s references to Absorbing Man and Zzzax only show that Hulk’s villains are too lame to even mention by name, let alone only have one featured.
Still, the movie isn’t without its pluses. By far the best aspect of this movie is its romantic story. It’s refreshing to see a relationship at the start of a superhero franchise that isn’t in its nascence. All that silly, awkward budding of romance is skipped over in Hulk and instead we’re given a relationship that’s already broken, more of a Spider-Man 2 angle than one typically sees at a beginning of a story. It makes for a much more interesting, complex repartee right off the bat. It’s clear that feelings still exist between Betty and Bruce, and that the relationship was abandoned only out of frustration, not out of any real cessation of love. You can tell Bruce wants to give Betty what she’s asking for, emotionally, but all he can muster are his usual weak platitudes. When Bruce finally rages into the Hulk, you can tell Betty’s frightened by the sudden discovery that Bruce has a darker, hidden side. But in the end, she’s the only one that can see past his exterior and give the Hulk the chance he needs to prove he’s not a monster. It may be an archetypal “Beauty tames the Beast” story, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t well-done. The movie should’ve just ended after their reunion, because it’s the real emotional conclusion to the story.
The sequences where the Hulk actually appears are good, too. The movie that seemed lethargic when it was just people talking back and forth about genetics and psychology and blah blah blah. It only becomes exciting when Hulk is leaping around, causing mayhem. Really, the experience of the Hulk leaping is almost as successfully conveyed in this as Spider-Man’s web-swinging is in the Spider-Man franchise. And it isn’t as sinfully overused, either. The visceral feel of Hulk smashing is done well, too. The Hulk even bites the warhead off a fucking missile and spits it back at a chopper. How AWESOME is that? There’s also an exhilirating sequence where the Hulk runs along a wall and also takes a trip into the upper atmosphere on a fighter jet. SOOOO COOOOOOOL.
There’s also a metaphor that’s far more successful than any Freudian bullshit Lee tries to pull at any other time in the movie. At the beginning we see Bruce shaving in front of the mirror, which has fogged up from all of the water vapor in the air. Near the end of the movie, while Hulk is knocked out cold, it is revisited, this time with Bruce wiping away the condensation only to see the Hulk staring back at him through the mirror. It’s a nice moment of imagery, wordlessly conveying the subconscious struggle and duality of Bruce and the Hulk. Why did they need to struggle so hard to get the message across through the rest of the movie?
Another aspect I thought was interesting from a perspective of other Marvel movies is the battle between the science of Bruce and Betty and the SCIENCE of David Banner. Bruce and Betty must be just about the most moral and ethical scientists in the Marvel universe. They don’t want to make super soldiers. They don’t do dangerous electromagnetic experiments in a downtown loft. They also don’t assume there’s a fucking bird in their sand thingamajig and seem actually concerned when someone is put into the path of danger thanks to their experiment. You’d never see that in Spider-Man, that’s for sure. Yet David Banner is the typical mad scientist, demanding scientific progress at the cost of everything else. The man somehow keeps A FULL GAMMA LAB IN HIS SHITTY APARTMENT, AND TRANSFORMS HIS RATTY DOGS INTO WEAPONS OF WAR. That’s some SCIENCE if I ever saw it.
At this point, I think I should mention the performances. Eric Bana does a decent job as Bruce Banner/Krenzler (fuck). Bruce is an extremely restrained, boring, dull guy. I mean, he keeps lichen as a pet, for Christ’s sake. Bana’s performance is suitably muted and level, giving Bruce the monotone drone and wooden emotions that probably drove Betty crazy. Yet there’s another side to the performance. This was Bana’s first major film role, with his previous starring role being a serial killer. It’s easy to see why he was chosen, because underneath Bruce’s vanilla exterior lies a creepy intensity. There are traces of Jeff Goldblum’s character from The Fly present, which makes sense since Jeff Goldblum was also considered for the role (along with everyone from Steve Buscemi to Tom Cruise). Bana could probably be accused of going too over-the-top. His tantrum-like huffs and puffs and sputters seem a bit much. Apparently, he put so much into his “hulk-outs” that after four takes, he was ready to pass out.
The term “a bit much” could also be applied to Nick Nolte’s performance. He certainly chews into the role of David Banner, consuming scenery (no, really, he actually eats the set at one point) every chance he can, launching into tyrannical, insane monologues. His Banner is as loony as he looks, concerned only with his own SCIENCE and valuing Bruce only because he represents the fruit of his life’s research. And if Nolte was a bit much, Josh Lucas is about seven helpings too much. His Talbot first comes off as a generic slimy, capitalist jerk, but there comes a point in the movie where his acting switches from just vaguely prickish to full-blown, insane-smiling villainy. Lucas goes beyond the top in a way that even outclasses most of Nolte’s scene-hogging performance. If he had a mustache, I guarantee he would be twirling it while tying Bruce down on a train track. Lucas plays Talbot like every horrible, mean-spirited bully that ever picked on you times ten. He gleefully punches Bruce in the face. He torments Bruce with a cattle prod with a wink and a grin. He prances up to Hulk with a fucking power drill to get at his gooey Hulk goodness. It’s like Lucas is acting in a different movie from everyone else. I really have to blame Ang Lee for not reining these three guys back when he should have.
Jennifer Connelly does a lovely job as Betty Ross, clearly taking the role seriously and putting everything she can into it. The problem is, Betty’s written as the world’s biggest emotional victim. There’s a brief moment where she gets tipsy and shows a charming, disarming side, but for most of the movie she’s grieving over the most recent emotional ball of turd life’s handed her. It’s the sort of typical role that Connelly’s been pegged into ever since, uh, Dark City, really. “Women on the verge” as she calls them. At least she brings enough soul to this one to really sell the romance, even though the movie seems to have a phobia of showing both her and Bana’s faces in the same shot, using way too many “behind the head” type of shots in lieu of one where you can see both of their acting at the same time. It could’ve helped a whole lot to see them both at once. In case you were wondering, Connelly shows up twelve and a half minutes into the movie. There should be a site that keeps track of these sorts of things. :3
I feel I should also include Hulk as an actor, too, considering how several scenes rely on him to act, either alone or in the presence of live actors. The Hulk model is pretty darn good, if not a little bulky and undefined for the Hulk. The face really does look like a roided-up Eric Bana. And the face gets a workout since Hulk has several scenes where he must show complex emotions in response to situations. He does well, convincing me that there’s a real person with real emotions behind all the jade muscles. He also, of course, does well with action scenes. The only moments where you’re taken out of the film is when Hulk sometimes moves faster than someone of his bulk should. It’s just difficult to accept something that big moving so rapidly, even though it’s in character for him. I think this was one of the best performances by a CG actor that wasn’t handled by WETA. The only significant minus is when he says a line later on in the movie. It’s pretty dumb.
Musically, the film actually succeeds with Danny Elfman’s award-winning score, featuring the best non-Batman, non-Superman superhero theme. The Hulk’s theme consists of a veil of strings, constantly fluttering in the same scale over and over again, giving the impression of sinking deep into the subconscious. It’s very evocative of the Hulk as a character, and a perfect fit. Oddly enough, the score is supposed to be an homage to Bernard Herrmann’s work with Hitchcock. Elfman also goes to a surprising place and uses Middle Eastern-ish vocals to describe the Hulk’s freedom as he leaps about, drums pounding. It’s actually a bit reminiscent of the score for the new Battlestar Galactica. Too bad the film’s saddled with an utterly forgettable rock song during the credits. At least it’s not Chad Kroeger.
The cinematography is fairly plain for most of the movie. Nothing seems to have been done during principal photography to capture people’s attention, except for a few key spots. A portion of the movie takes place in the deserts and canyons of the American Southwest, and they are indeed lovingly shot. The dunes look gorgeous and the canyons have a nice palette of hues to contrast to the Hulk’s green skin tones. The only goofy thing is that with all the foreign yodeling in the score, when they set up the desert, you’d think they were filming in fucking Tunisia or something. It’s a little melodramatic, although I have to admit I didn’t think there were landscapes that impressively foreign-looking in the country.
The biggest and strangest technical decision I’ve been saving for last, however. It seems that to spice up the rather dull principal photography, Ang Lee and his editors went fucking nuts in the editing room. Hulk features some of the most unique editing techniques I’ve seen used in a movie. The screen splits up to convey multiple (usually redundant) screens. Separate shots are transposed on one another to create a sense of closeness that doesn’t exist. Bubbles of scenes suddenly erupt into the middle of the screen. Fragments of landscapes are placed next to one another to form the background. Transitions become morphs that lead from one texture to another. It’s all very experimental and interesting, even though the rationale behind their use sometimes seems random. Probably the best effect is when the movie pans between scenes as if the movie were a comic book and each scene was a panel. I find this ironic, considering Lee’s reluctance to lump Hulk in with comic books.
Probably the most basic example of Hulk‘s baffling, unnecessary nature comes in the form of its on-screen text. It describes the place and time early on in the movie, and is the sort of typical comic book typeface you’d expect to see in any character’s speech bubble. Cute, I thought. Then a little later on when it’s setting up the present day university/lab/whatever setting, it’s arbitrarily normal, elegant text. Whaa? What was wrong with the comic book text? Did it not have enough gravitas for them?! Why the inconsistency? Then at the end of the movie it presents us with another set of text, and it’s again back to the comic book style. I doubt Ang Lee has an explanation for this. I doubt he thought about it at all, really. It seems like he took the opportunity to work on this film to experiment however he pleased with a huge budget. Universal seemed to care more about having a big, “legitimate” director attached to the project than making sure he was making a bankable movie. It’s funny to hear in the DVD features how they all “know what the fans look for in the Hulk” or nonsense like that. I guess they were wrong; fans just wanted Hulk smashing.
Speaking of the DVD briefly, it has a feature that I think all superhero DVDs would be wise to include. It has a section where comic book artists take turns illustrating a scene in the movie. I think it’s interesting to see the wild range of artistic styles and interpretations of the same event. It’s easily the most fun extra on there. For the record, my pick for favorite Hulkification was Ohtsuka’s.
It’s funny how in the end, Hulk resembles its big, green protagonist more than you think it would. Both are huge, bloated monsters, one composed of muscle and sinew, the other of self-indulgent backstory and intellectual masturbation. Both are misunderstood. Hulk isn’t really a bad guy, people just harass him. Hulk isn’t really a terrible movie. It’s got good qualities if you look for them. But no one can seem to see past its unbalanced exterior, Hulk-dogs and Oedipal jellyfish to find the little gem inside.
For shits and giggles (and because I worked so hard on them), if you’d like to see my running commentary on the movie, I’ve scanned my hand-written notes for your perusal. Have fun!