I’m not a Hulk apologist. I unreservedly consider it one of the superior superhero adaptations. Admittedly, more for the visual acumen Ang Lee brings to the material than James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman’s screenplay. But even then, if the movie gets bogged down in unnecessarily overwrought father-son origins and dynamic, overlaid on a perfectly good and straightforward core story (one might suggest it was change for the sake of change), once those alterations are in place, much of the follow through, and the paralleling of wayward parents and upright children, or vice versa, translates effectively to the screen… even if the realisation of the big green fella is somewhat variable.
Lee’s eventual movie was relatively quickly – and unjustly – rebooted by Marvel, who wanted something a little more homogenous (and less tinged by the smell of failure, albeit it wasn’t a flop and The Incredible Hulk failed to do appreciably better at the box office). It was the distillation of thirteen years of development hell, numerous writers and several attached directors (a first-timer bullet was dodged when Jonathan Hensleigh exited; studios still aren’t getting wise to this, hence the past year’s The Mummy and Geostorm). The crediting of France and Turman with Hulk’s regular writer Schamus reflects the extent of their contributions (including Turman’s focus on Hulk vs General Ross, dad Brian – here David – Banner deriving from the comics, and France’s attention to the father-son theme, including David’s self-experimentation).
Bruce Banner: The gamma just unleashed what was already there. Me.
Arguably, Bruce gets short shrift in Hulk, but it’s both a symptom of intent (overshadowed by his alter-ego and his dad, and his girlfriend’s dad, the nerd must turn) and failing to give Eric Bana enough to work with within those restrictions. To the extent that the Bruce-Betty (Jennifer Connelly) relationship travels, it’s down to Connelly’s performance, with Bruce made into a passive, cycle-helmet-wearing geek; he’s like Beaker, but less ginger, and there needs to be more revealing of just what Betty sees in him, rather than our having to assume it.
I think Bana’s actually pretty good in the role, but he’s put on a back foot by what he described as Lee’s “morbid” approach (the director saw the movie as a Greek tragedy). The result is that, after several hours of wresting with his demons, we can’t help but concur. when dad yells “Stop your bawling!” during the final act. There are glimmers of a more engaging inner/outer struggle (“When I totally lose control, I like it”), but it isn’t remotely approaching the level of Jeff Goldblum in The Fly (knowing something terrible has happened, but find its lure irresistible, both for protagonist and audience).
But that’s a drawback, not a deal-breaker. Likewise, the sedate pacing. I have no problem with the relative shortfall in action, as Hulk only ever feels like a drama first to me (which is what Lee clearly intended), “punched up” visually and with the occasional set piece.
The CGI creation of the over-sized, irate fellow himself has its problems – the one-shot transformation(s) just plain doesn’t work, he’s surely a touch too big, and Hulk clenching fists and raging on the spot, his lack of neck bulging, is unintentionally funny rather than impressive – but in key sequences, which I’ll come to, it still works like gangbusters today. Danny Elfman’s score is pretty distinctive and appropriately different too, evidently a consequence of being brought into replace Mychael Danna but liking what he heard and incorporating it accordingly.
I could quite see the David Banner plotline floundering completely. Certainly, if they had continued in the vein of his younger self, as per flashbacks. This element doesn’t fully compute to my mind; certainly, his decision to kill his son, drawn as it is from Brian in the 1980s comics, comes across as a plot contingency rather than fully thought out and integrated.
Once Banner Sr has become old man Nolte, though, the actor is able to carry Brian’s inconsistencies by sheer dint of his shambling, dishevelled wreck of a man. It’s a great performance, and the actor more than delivers, be it exulting in the potential of science unbound (“To improve on nature. To go beyond limitations, give men the power to go beyond God’s boundaries”) or describing the fateful moment of his wife’s death. Here, he expounds a kind of queasy poetry (“It was as if she and the knife merged”) that foretells his own mutated form, and peaks in wracked acknowledgement of the irreversibility of his act (“You cannot imagine the unbearable finality of it”).
David Banner: I didn’t come here to see my you. I came here to see my son. My real son. The one inside of you. You’re only but a superficial shell, a husk of flimsy consciousness ready to be torn off at a moment’s notice.
Mostly, though, Nolte is fantastically unhinged, assuming he has more knowledge, more insight, more awareness of the bigger picture than anyone else, and he kind of does (“My son is unique. That’s why you can’t relate to him” he says, mocking Betty with kindness, as a prelude to unleashing his hulk hounds on her). His dismissal of his son’s angst-ridden state even seemingly pre-empts, in meta-fashion, the criticisms of Bana’s Bruce. This sequence, in which he reveals the mind of one who sees life, and people generally, as disposable stepping stones on the path of his greater quest, is as cold and brutal as they come, provocatively stating that the Hulk is his real offspring and Bruce is a mere vessel.
David’s willingness to self-medicate may, in this version, be the seed of Bruce’s metamorphosis – or perhaps it was the ignominy of having to grow up with prominently protruding ears – but it’s also the most compelling change of form here. You can feel it, tangibly, whereas the green pixels of the virtual Hulk are only ever pixels. When David doses himself with gamma radiation in an attempt to replicate the effect it had on his son, the result is deliriously trippy and has just that right air of “What has gone wrong/happened to me?” absent from 99 percent of superhero material, where mutation only has positive, strengthening results.
If the transformation he undergoes includes elements of the comics’ Absorbing Man – taking on the properties of the material he comes into contact with; although, why then doesn’t he also turn into air, in that case? – and Zzzax – becoming an electricity being – the effects have the grim inevitability of Cronenberg; David changes form, merging and coalescing (blood from a cut in his hand balloons forth and is reabsorbed), with a hint of the T-1000. Much of what we see in Hulk is more Altered States than classic Marvel (complete with flotation tank).
Betty: He also saved my life.
Colonel Ross: Yeah, from a mutant French poodle.
Another thing Nolte has going for him here, besides chops, is that he’s very funny. In an antic fashion, sure, but funny nonetheless. Entertainment Weekly’s review at the time called Hulk “humourless and intellectually defensive about its own pulpy roots” (the critic must have loved Nolan’s Batman). And sure, at its core, this is an undeniably serious telling of the comic book, but it’s clearly not without a sense of humour. Look at the sequence where Bruce and Betty contemplatively revisit his childhood haunt and Lee pulls back to reveal a whole squad of military goons keeping pace with them, and tell me he doesn’t have a firmly installed funny bone; admittedly, one he’s calling on rarely and judiciously.
Bruce: Talbot, you’re making me angry.
Josh Lucas’ Talbot is so gleefully rotten, he makes Nolte’s mad rants look positively restrained. Lee clearly relishes getting right in there on every malignant contortion of Lucas’ face as Talbot revels in torturing poor Bruce. Indeed, so comic book is his villainy that Lee steps up to provide a patently ridiculous freeze frame death that turns into a comic-book centre piece.
In contrast, Sam Elliott’s Ross initially seems like a blustering blowhard, and to some extent he is, but there’s enough protracted, dissenting point-of-view conversations with Betty that, eventually, his reasoning come across (“I’m sorry Betty. I am so sorry”; “I know you are” she replies, conciliatorily).
Military personage: Angry Man is unsecure.
The tour de force of Hulk, though, the main reason it deserves to be revisited and reappraised, is the third act. Essentially from the point where Bruce (or rather, Hulk) escapes the desert base and goes on an onwards rampage. Indeed, this might be my favourite finale of any superhero adaptation. Not only does Lee’s split screen, De Palma-esque but with comic book presentation in mind, come into its own, but he also creates moments of true visual awe and splendour, the like of which are so rarely given head of steam in the comic book adaptation world. The recent Dr Strange went all out with the trippy factor as Stephen encountered hidden realms, and I really rated that movie, but its rendition of such points was essential very functional, very grounded.
Here, as a giant green man races across the desert floor like an express train, leaping far into the air and eventually coming back down to earth before leaping once again, the imagery carries a wonderfully woozy, dream logic and sense of euphoria, of uncontained release.
The “action” of this section is no slouch either, with Hulk throwing tanks about (and, in the humour stakes, bending barrels back to the surprise of a crewman, and biting off and spitting out the explosive nose cones of missiles). The far-out culmination of this sequence finds Hulk on a jet ride to top of the world where, finally rendered insensible, he plummets. It’s a magnificent moment.
David Banner: The more you fight the more of you I take.
Hulk’s subsequent fight with his father, who has chowed down on a cable in a moment strangely reminiscent of Joe Don Baker striking together two sticks of plutonium at the end of Edge of Darkness, can’t equal this for dazzle. But it is still appropriately abstract, as Hulk leaps through clouds, his imprint left on each successively as his father fights/illuminates him before coming to land, where the latter mutates into first a rock man and then raging waters. The difficulty Marvel has encountered with their finales is that they feel the need to up the ante in spectacle while generally failing to realise emotional stakes and payoffs are more powerful. Perhaps Hulk put them off, but you just have to compare the mass destruction of The Incredible Hulk’s finale to the more personal struggle here to identify which is streets ahead.
Hulk doesn’t speak in Lee’s movie, except in a dream sequence before Banner is sentenced to execution. Looking in a mirror, Bruce finds his alter ego staring back at him, before the latter reaches a huge mitt through and grabs the scientist, uttering the immortal “Puny human”. As visual metaphors go, it isn’t subtle, but it’s one of the effects sequences here that entirely succeeds, and it neatly sums up the picture to boot.
Lee leaves Bruce in the jungles of South America, tossing off lines from the TV show (with a frog on his hat; presumably symbolising he has made some kind of peace with himself; an exploding frog featuring in one of his failed experiments, and we should remember that Bruce the scientist is no friend to the animals). It’s in the jungle that the Ed Norton semi-reboot begins.
James Schamus’ had an idea for a sequel set on a Native American reservation that was “all about radioactivity and it was really political and like, that would have been awesome”. Yeaaassss…. I think we’re probably best with just the one offering from Lee and Schamus, but it’s a shame the deemed lead balloon of experimentation with form here has discouraged further such forays subsequently. I don’t doubt there’ll be more off-kilter superhero movies going forward, but they seem much more likely to come from the DC stable’s throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks free for all than Marvel’s rigorously conservative approach. For now, then, appreciate Ang Lee’s Hulk for what we got, as we might not see it’s like again for some time.