Hulk (2003)

You know, straining too hard can cause a brain embolism.For various and sundry reasons, the Incredible Hulk casts a long shadow over my pantheon of superheroes…and what better time than now to examine each and every one in agonizing detail? It’s all because of that damned TV show. See, a long time ago, on a farm far, far away, my parents had a brief flirtation with mid-eighties middle-class status symbols. They got the VCR. They got the VHS. They got the satellite dish. One of those unwieldy, forty-foot fuckers that typified success for millions. Sure, go plant a ten foot tall metal tree in my back yard. Boy, that’ll really add value to the house.

By the time I came around, we got exactly two channels on the damn thing. Everything else was snow, bandwidth to bandwidth. Until the Sci-Fi Channel. One day, there it was: twenty-four hours of good ol’ fashioned science fiction programming. The Visitor, The Prisoner, The Twilight Zone, Planet of the Apes, Battlestar Galactica…and The Incredible Hulk, every day at four, staring Bill Bixby. I’d get off school and bam, there it was,  Lou Ferrigno large and in charge. I developed quite the ritual around it, as I did with all the good shows. And like all the good shows, eventually, Hulk disappeared without a trace.

Let's look at that industrial accident again, with split-screen!Yes, the Sci-fi channel sold out on us. To USA, of all bloody things. Up All Night, Le Feme Nikita, Burried Alive 2, US-fucking-A. No more Swamp Thing. No more The Flash. No more M.A.N.T.I.S. reruns. What do we get instead? Tremors: The Series. And goddmanit, I’m pissed. I’m always pissed when good entertainment gets tossed aside in favor of vapid, lowest-common-denominator crap. Hell, even Bad cinema is fine by me. Do you know how many Bad Movies the old Sci-Fi Channel used to broadcast? Does anyone else remember “Top Turtle Tuesdays”? Radiation Theater? Gigantor cartoons and Saturday mornings, followed by original Transformers? I can’t have dreamed all of this.

A few years later, I was pacing around the house at six o’clock on a Sunday morning and discovered The Marvel Action Hour on my local Fox affiliate. So every Sunday thereafter I dragged my ass out of bed and followed the adventures of Iron Man and The Fantastic Four. The shows themselves were fair to maudlin (neither matched the esoteric darkness of Batman’s Animated Series), but the best episodes always guest starred another hero from the Marvelverse, usually a heavy hitter like Silver Surfer, Ghost Rider, Thor…or the Hulk.

Then…what should happen…The Incredible Hulk: The Animated Series…with Lou Ferrigno once again large and in charge.

Okay...this is a little weird...Then some stuff happened, and I honestly forgot about the rumors I’d heard of a live-action Hulk, filming somewhere scenic in the California desert. Rumors of a completely CGI Hulk, hyped as the most believable special effect since…whatever the last one was…[that will inevitably be surpassed within five years – Future Dave]

We open with Dr. David Banner; physician, scientist. Trying to enhance the natural healing powers that all humans have. Then an accidental run-in with his military superiors sends him over the edge, causing him to commit horrible (off screen) things.

Thirty-five years later, we catch up with Dr. Banner’s son, Bruce (Eric Bana). Despite (or, it’s hinted, perhaps because of) his Super Scientist lineage, Bruce has done quite well for himself. He’s got the string of letters after his name, a cushy project at the “Berkeley Nuclear Biotechnical Institute,” and Dr. Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly!). Or, he had Dr. Betty Ross. Bruce is a bit reserved, you see. A nice guy, yes…but there’s no real passion in him. Or, if there is, he hides it very well, for reasons that he keeps very secret. Especially from himself.

There’s a whole lot of psychological subtext flowing through all of this; some of it subtle, some of it not. Expect plenty of double-entendres alluding to Bruce’s duel nature, especially early on. It’s a bit annoying…and maybe a little fun. After all, you and I know this story, and on one level we’re just waiting around for the good stuff. But don’t discount this film’s forty-five minutes of set up. It’s well handled, and flows smoothly thanks in no small part to Ang Lee’s inspiring direction. While Sam Raimi seems to have mellowed considerably in his old age (directing Spider-Man with an almost pedestrian hand, except when CGI stunt-doubles were concerned), Mr. Lee is all over the ball park on this. Multiple split screens, kinetic pans, non-traditional transitions, and ungodly wide angles combine to make this the most visually interesting super hero movie I’ve ever seen.

(I felt an uncontrollable swarm of giggles come over me during the first fifteen minutes of the show. The imagery was just so kinetic, just so trippy. Almost revolutionary. Something to change the whole paradigm of superhero movie direction. Like discovering parenthetical asides for the first time.)

"You could've at least tried to be a boy, you know?"Which is perfect, because it forces you the audience to sit up and pay attention in the middle of the most brainless summer in history. If you’re waiting for Lee’s next directorial trick, you might stick around to catch all the chemistry between our two leads…which is odd, considering both actors play their characters with an uncomfortable reserve…kinda like a couple of exes who continued working together out of mutual respect for each other, and their project.

To twist the knife a bit more, Betty’s other ex, the smarmy Glen Talbot (Josh Lucus) starts sniffing around, looking to buy out their entire Project: something about nano-bots designed to boost the human immune system and, if they can ever be made to work, repair grievous injuries without the need for long, medical treatment. When Bruce and Betty reject Glen in turn, Talbot gets on the horn and calls up Betty’s father, General “Thunderbolt” Ross (Sam Elliot)…who, it just so happens, gave Bruce’s father the shaft all those years ago, back at Gamma Base.

Luckily, Lee and his three screenwriters know we’re just twiddling our thumbs until Bruce gets on the wrong side of some gamma rays…which he does in short order. Bruce miraculously survives (of course), for reasons his big, squishy brain just can’t comprehend. A visit from a disheveled man claiming to be his long-lost father (Nick Nolte) does nothing to improve Bruce’s mood…and before you know it, things take a turn for the green. And get smashed.

Because now, whenever Bruce Banner becomes angry, or outraged, a startling metamorphosis occurs, turning Banner into a green-skinned, multi-ton, inarticulate engine of destruction. Good God, it’s a marvelous thing to see (no pun intended). In the Hulk’s first, five minute rampage through Bruce’s lab, all my fears were put to rest. Because I realized that–finally–someone had the money and the time to do things right. This isn’t Lou Ferrigno smashing through candy glass doors and balsa wood bricks…this is a creature, driven by rage, lashing out at anything and everything unlucky enough to cross his path. It’s a hell of a thing to watch, a cathartic experience, especially with my ample ass crammed into a squeaky theater seat…almost physically tiring. I can only imagine the suffering of those poor ADD brats in the midday show. They probably shook the theater with their fidgeting.

A"Thank God for Reed Richard's patented super-shorts."s one could imagine, the Hulk’s anti-social tendencies soon make Bruce the center of everyone’s attention. And what kind of monster movie would this be without a climactic battle with the United States Military?

There’s been a fair amount of bitching and moaning among the Usual Gang of Idiots. “Too campy,” they say. “Too slow.” “Too high minded for today’s short-attention span.” As if they haven’t spent the entire summer bitching about all the “mindless spectacles.” Here, Leonard, have some cake and eat it, too. I’m confused. When a “popcorn movie” tries to transcend it boundaries…to reach for something…to say something beyond, “Look, we got ILM to do this shot!”…isn’t that a good thing?

No one’s called The Hulk “pretentious”, yet, but you can feel it coming. Like a thunderstorm or a really good drug. People straddle the fence and call it “arty,” but it’s as if the mainstream is terrified to call a good thing when they see it. As if they’ve been so inundated with crap that they don’t know a good movie on sight. Though a refreshing slice of big names have embraced this film. Some (like me) go so far as to call it “the summer’s best.” (Which really says more about The Matrix Reloaded than Hulk. Damn Wachowskis and their damn half-movie goddamn teasing us until damn November. Damn.) What else do we have to work with? 2 Fast 2 Furious? Bruce Almighty? How about I release of movie of a film critic blowing his brains out, titled Summer: 2003?

God I get cynical in the summer. What were we talking about? Oh yeah….

Nope...nothing Christ-like here...Hulk is a rare treat for we fan boy malcontents. A superhero movie with a brain in its head. A monster movie that doesn’t club you with some half-assed “message”. A movie about fathers and the scars they inflict on their children…scars that sometimes fester and turn green…Pleasant surprise: the acting here is much better than I imagined. The days when Nick Cage could get a job playing Superman seem to be over. Rather than using the movie as a firing pin for his career, Eric Banna does his job with an unknown’s professionalism. His Banner comes across as a downright Nice Guy, a workaholic with some personal problems and the occasional fucked up dream. It’s no surprise when he transforms, but after forty-five minutes of his mild mannered scientist act it’s just jarring enough to work.

The rest of the cast follows Banna’s star, all the way to the top. The only one who seems to chafe at this is Nick Noltie, who injects a liberal bit of ham into his role. Ham that’s not necessarily out of place…though it is a little odd after two hours of what is essentially an understated melodrama. Like a Western. And speaking of Westerns, there’s Sam Elliot as “Thunderbold” Ross. Any fan of the Western Channel will know that mustache on sight. I would’ve picked R. Lee Ermey myself, but he’s getting older, and Elliot doesn’t disappoint. He’s a hard target, nail chewin’, son of a gun, and he does Gen. Ross justice. But he’s also Betty’s father, and would you want you’re daughter bumping uglies with the Hulk? Lesser actors might’ve dropped the ball, but Elliot is an old pro, and he manages to show both sides of the Good General, turning him from an antagonist into a conflicted human being, trying to do right by his daughter and his nation.

Odds are the "fans" will end up hating these visual tricks, and we'll be right back to the same action movie crap that ruined X-men.Jennifer Connelly…is the Love Interest. You might remember this act from The Rocketeer, right? Right. Well, everything old is new again, but the twelve years between have definitely given her time to polish her act, so to speak. She’s certainly more of a plot mover than Mary Jane Watson, and a lot easier to look at then Margot Kidder. As far as I’m concerned, her turn here more than makes up for Requiem for a Dream, and she plays Betty as an amazed, empathetic, but above all, pro-active person, a tragic casualty of the Banner’s family drama. If I have a beef with anyone on screen, it’s Lucus. Glen Talbot is recast here as an ex-military, private-sector head hunter, and for that, if nothing else, you’d think Glen would get a bigger part in things. Especially after all the trouble the Talbots have given the Banners over the years. Instead, we have Glen Talbot by way of Boris Badenov–a one-dimensional little turd who exists for the express purpose of pissing Bruce off.

Not that this is a bad thing. God knows the TV-series created a legion of such characters. But, then, you gotta expect more from your movies. Otherwise they’ll just keep getting dumber and dumber as time goes buy and interest fades. Let’s all hope the Hulk franchise dodges that little bullet, shall we? [Note from the future – it didn’t.] Because it’s been a long time since I saw a theatrical release that I honest-to-God enjoyed. And since this is a happy time, let me close on a happy note, and leave you all to hunker down and await the DVD.


5 thoughts on “Hulk (2003)”

  1. You, thankfully, are not alone.

    I, too, liked Ang Lee’s Hulk movie. Is it the best Hulk movie you could make? No. I don’t think so. I’d argue, in fact that both it and its rebootequal fail to understand a very simple fact. Still, I give this movie a lot of slack. If, for no other reason, than I think the Incredible Hulk has a central characterization issue that has dogged it since the 1960s and that the Hulk is a metaphor for the atomic bomb.

    Making the Hulk a product of mad science and military research is necessary, I think, for the full-effect. Since above-ground (and underground too now that I think about it) nuclear testing is outlawed, he’s kind of hard to keep the origin of as an explicit incarnation of mankind’s most destructive weapon.
    Ang Lee’s Hulk may more be the product of an abusive father, but the trappings of the Trinity Test-feel for the Hulk’s creation are present. Sadly, I feel his Hulk is too much victim than villain yet not the victim when it counts.

    I’ll explain.

    Much like Tony Stark, I always felt Bruce Banner should feel a twinge of guilt for creating the Hulk. The result of him, literally, designing a nuclear bomb. David Bruce Banner, a very different character from Ed Norton’s one, didn’t have the SAME guilt as Bruce in the comics–a guy inventing a bomb–but his creation of the Hulk was due to being unable to save his wife and later accidentally killing his maybe-girlfriend (actually caused by Jack McGee). Bruce’s tireless quest to destroy the Hulk makes more sense when you make him the embodiment of the man’s mistakes given life.

    Ang Lee’s Bruce Banner is hard to relate to because he’s a shell of a man because of repressed memories and all other horrible things done to him. Passionless because, like a certain Dark Knight, his childhood was ripped violently from him. I think that’s the first problem which dogged this movie–in short Ang Lee’s Bruce Banner isn’t particularly likeable. The success of David Banner in serial format is, much like The Fugitive, he was a saintly man wrongly being hounded (albeit by a man who no authority to pursue him).

    Worse, the Hulk itself in both movies is unlikable. Maybe this is just the inner 8 year old in me with his Hulk underoos speaking but the Hulk shouldn’t ever not have the audience’s sympathies. King Kong and Frankenstein (the Universal version) are simple but gentle sorts horribly wronged by the forces around them. Hulk acts in self-defense but I feel this movie was doomed from the start given the wave of military fetishism riding the time. Seeing Hulk pound “our troops” during the height of the War on Terror’s misguided sense of jingoism needed context we never got.

    Hulk is a misunderstood monster but he’s not terribly misunderstood in this movie. He **is** a rampaging beast, albeit one who isn’t dangerous unless poked. Like a rattlesnake.

    We need a moment where Hulk comes to the rescue of the puny humans and we never get that. While I admire Ang Lee’s production, at the end, it’s a revenge picture on his dear-old-dad who Bruce barely understands ruined his life. We need to remember that Hulk is a hero, albeit one who is reluctant and never gets attention for it. The X-men before the X-men.

    1. Eh gods – I didn’t even think about the unhinged, rampaging jingoism. Shows how far up my ass my head was back in ’03. Despite the fact I’ve never seen that particular criticism articulated against this film, you’re probably right. Even if said jingoism only operated on a subconscious level, that would make it even worse, indicating a jingoism that much more deeply ingrained and that much less rational. I can say from experience that the need for safely-fictional schadenfreude certainly heightened my enjoyment of the proceedings (still does), and I’m entirely conscious of that particular mental process. After months of watching cops beat people up on the 10 o’clock news in between night visions shots of war-ravaged cities, I was ready for someone to smash them. Smash them ALL!

      But, then again, I’m a life long Peter David fan. I didn’t think I could identify with Hulk any more than I already did…and then they cast Jennifer Connelly, adding peanut butter icing to an already awesome chocolate cake.

      The nuclear testing, though…you totally have a point. Me, I appreciate the film’s attempt to insert all this into the modern equivalent of Nuclear Science: biotech. But, then again, I’m the kind of nerd who liked Jurassic Park better as a novel. The problem, as someone should’ve told Michael Crichton back when he was killing himself trying to sound a warning, is that nanotech medical robots aren’t nearly as dramatic (never mind cinematic) as a great big fuckin’ bomb.

  2. In my area, unfortunately, I heard plenty of complaints about the Hulk doing it. Especially from people not too familiar with the character. Girlfriends, parents, and so on. Why is the Hulk beating up the USA? In retrospect, a lot of the themes of the Hulk (which were born out of the “Day the Earth Stood Still”-style opposition to militarization–at least visually) just came out at a bad time. Now, we can look back and see illegal internment, hair trigger military attacks, and so on a little clearer–but too late for Ang Lee I fear. I also think this may be why they made General Ross more obviously evil and Blonsky British. If so? Pooh-pooh on them. Embrace your anti-establishment nature! Get Rick Jones and his hippie van, filled with Scoobies!

    1. One of my favorite reviews of this Hulk advanced the theory that, had it be released in a post-Dark Knight, post-Iron Man world, after those two acclimated the general public to superhero movies that were actually about…ya know…stuff, it would’ve received much better notices and be much more highly regarded in general. Also, it would’ve benefited greatly from 2008 special effects.

  3. Having recently re-watched the movie, as in ten minutes ago, I think the film would have done much better as well. Certainly, the military bashing would have been taken as more acceptable. However, I think I figured out where the movie lost its audience as well. The first twenty minutes are completely unnecessary. It occurs to me nothing shown couldn’t have been handled in dialogue.

    Hell, it **was** handled in dialogue.

    “Why aren’t you interested in seeking out your birthparents?”
    “Why would I be?”

    “You’re not Trevor, you’re Banner. I’m your dad.”

    The start of the movie is unnecessary. A visual case of “too much showing, not enough moving forward.” Nothing Ang Lee did couldn’t have been left to the imagination.

    I agree, though, special effects just weren’t ready for the Hulk CGI. Which is sad.

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