Ten years later, Bri Lafond still isn’t sure if Ang Lee’s Hulk is a comic book movie that takes itself too seriously or a drama that doesn’t take itself seriously enough.
by Bri Lafond
Ten years ago this week, a group of friends and I endured an hour-long car ride to a mall cineplex not unlike our much closer local mall cineplex so that we could watch a movie with a friend of ours who had moved away with his parents a few months before. We usually only made the drive for special occasions: trips to the beach, parties, etc., and this drive was for a special occasion of sorts, too. For months we’d been hearing the hype surrounding Ang Lee’s follow-up to his big crossover hit, 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Lee was taking on a big comic book property and the buzz was that he had capitalized upon the unique narrative features of comic book storytelling, such as incorporating multiple split screens to mimic graphic panels. My comic geek friends were definitely excited to see a new take on the superhero movie, so we piled into the car on a Friday evening and headed out to what was surely going to be the movie event of the summer.
My reaction to the movie, repeated several times on the long drive home, can be summed up in two words:
Ang Lee’s Hulk is a mess of a film and despite the massive missteps it makes, the film is not even a particularly interesting trainwreck, which is, perhaps, its gravest sin. While Lee’s comic book visual style works in some places, it often comes across as gimmicky or just plain silly. Take, for example, the death of Talbot (Josh Lucas): he is thrown into the air in a fiery explosion illustrated by a freeze frame of his body superimposed over a wall of fire. I don’t specifically recall laughing at this ridiculous image the first time I saw this movie on the big screen, but it certainly elicited a guffaw upon this second viewing.
One of the biggest problems with the movie is the clash in tone between the over-the-top comic book visuals and the super serious melodrama of the plot. Eric Bana’s Bruce Banner manages to be one of the least interesting aspects of the movie: Bana lacks the gravitas of a leading man (and I don’t have a problem with Bana in other roles; he was great as Nero in Star Trek (2009), for example) and Banner lacks any real motivation. During the first scene in which Banner transforms into the Hulk, there doesn’t seem to be any real reason for it. We all know that it’s anger that transforms Banner into the Hulk, but the initial transformation seems to take place because the plot calls for it: Banner is working in his lab, he starts thinking about the past, he fails to answer a ringing phone, and then he Hulks out.
Jennifer Connelly, as Betty Ross, seems to think she is in a far more serious film than the one she’s in and, frankly, gives too good a performance for such a nothing movie. I did a bit of research into this and, indeed, Connelly did think she was in a far more serious film: she was drawn to the project because of Ang Lee’s vision of transforming the comic book property into a serious character drama. That Lee wanted to so revolutionize the superhero genre is laudable and ambitious, but if that was his vision, he should’ve completely devoted himself to that treatment and not gone with a Frankenstein hybrid that tries to marry the dramatic and the absurd.
Speaking of the absurd, for me, there are two elements of this movie that are so stupid as to push it beyond redemption (there are far more instances of stupidity, but two that are particularly egregious): the first is the aforementioned mutant poodle. The film’s main antagonist, Bruce’s father David Banner (Nick Nolte, whom they were apparently still letting make movies in 2003), inexplicably has three dogs—including a French poodle—that follow him around for the first third of the movie. David Banner ends up mutating the trio of dogs into three poorly computer-generated monster dogs that go after Betty and have to be fought off by Bruce. The fact that the first real action set piece is the Hulk fighting off three dogs is bad enough, but given that one of them is a mutant French poodle, and that he brutally kills each of them in an explosion of green blood makes this whole scenario both ludicrous and disturbing.
The second instance of terrible stupidity for me are the jumping Hulk scenes. I’ve had comic books aficionados both then and now try to explain to me that this is canon, but I just don’t care: it looks stupid as sin. The Hulk resembles nothing more than a little green flea hopping across the desert, fairly flying from one rock formation to the next, the wind flowing through his poorly-rendered CGI hair. It’s not the fact of the jumping that makes this stupid for me–again, I understand that this is canon from the books—but the look of it is all wrong, particularly given the attempts at seriousness throughout most of the movie.
Ultimately, the big problem with Hulk is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s either a comic book movie that takes itself too seriously or a drama that doesn’t take itself seriously enough. I can’t say I’d even recommend watching this for the trainwreck value because, again, it doesn’t even succeed at being a proper trainwreck.
The movie opens with SCIENCE! Lots and lots of science!
Sometimes the split screens show the same scene from two different angles, which seems to me a misunderstanding of the use of comic book panels: the panels in comics move the story along, sequentially, but when the film merely shows the same scene from different angles, it’s not really communicating anything.
Stan Lee makes his obligatory cameo as a security guard talking to fellow guard Lou Ferrigno.
Eric Bana looks for all the world like an extra that was given too many lines. He’s so bland throughout this whole film that the CGI Hulk is perhaps even more expressive than him.
As my friend and fellow re-watcher James pointed out, the Hulk’s origin is needlessly complicated in this treatment: David Banner was experimenting on himself, passed his mutated genes onto his son, and when Bruce becomes a scientist he exposes himself to radiation while trying to save a colleague. It’s this radiation that activates his mutated genes.
Talbot shows up and I couldn’t place him as Josh Lucas at first: he looks for all the world like a blond Bradley Cooper.
Oy, the flashbacks in this movie… while looking at a snapshot of Betty, Bruce sees himself run into the shot and we’re suddenly in a flashback of a vacation the two took together. Then Betty tells Bruce about a nightmare she had and then the audience is in a dream-flashback of Betty’s within Bruce’s flashback.
These dogs, I swear: the film tries to make them look menacing—including a shot in which David and the three dogs stand in the dark outside Banner’s house in what James referred to as “an Exorcist cover shot”—but they’re dogs, for goodness sake. And one of them is a poodle. I don’t care if you’ve been nipped at by a high-strung poodle named Fifi and it really traumatized you: it’s a fucking poodle. I refuse to be intimidated.
General Ross, Betty’s father, is played by Sam Elliott channeling J. Jonah Jameson. I don’t know much about the character in the comics, but the film version has no real motivation for pursuing Bruce the way he does. The reason he gives is that he is his father’s son and that because he was four—four years old, mind you—when he was given up for adoption, he must remember his father and be just like him. Stupid says what?
Talbot is so one-note, he might very well be my nomination for third stupidest thing about this movie (behind the mutant poodle and the Hulk jumping bean). He is a cartoon villain—not even a comic book villain, but a cartoon one—who antagonizes Bruce because of corporate greed. And apparently, a corporate yahoo can just walk into a house that is under military guard and beat up on a milquetoast scientist for “cutting him out of a deal.”
One of the other silly things about the movie is that making Banner angry can turn him into the Hulk, but making him really angry can turn him into an even bigger Hulk. But only sometimes, like when the plot calls for it.
Oh, the poodle fight. James pointed out that many of the shots in Hulk’s fight scene with the three dogs are lifted from the original King Kong (1933). I looked into this and, indeed, Lee lists King Kong as one of his influences for the visuals in this movie.
As Banner is transported to a secret desert military facility, the soundtrack suddenly starts including Arabic singing. Danny Elfman did the soundtrack for this movie and while some pieces of the music sound like they were lifted directly from Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), other sections are tinged with Middle Eastern influences. Apparently these latter sections are vestiges of an earlier composer’s score as Elfman was brought in as a replacement composer after the score from Lee’s first choice, Mychael Danna, was rejected by the studio.
The transition into the desert also highlights one of the thematic threads of militarism that run throughout the movie. While there’s no reason within the movie to have Natacha Atlas ululating over the score, when the sparse Southwest desert suddenly morphs into large, flowing sand dunes as military helicopters chase down the Hulk, the not-so-subtle visual references to the contemporary war in Iraq become clearer. Couple this with an odd rant about the horrors of the military from Nolte’s David near the movie’s end and you’ve got a tacked on quasi-political message that goes nowhere and does nothing.
There are a couple of other political jabs here, as well. When the Hulk escapes, General Ross has to inform the president who happens to be on a fly fishing vacation. I was really expecting the president to hang up on Ross and then turn to his companions and say, “Now, watch this cast!” Ross also has to speak to a presidential security adviser: an African-American woman with a short haircut in a power suit. Shades of Condi, anyone?
The final showdown between Bruce and David is just… it’s so stupid. David bites into an electrical cord and turns into the Lightning Gremlin from Gremlins 2 (1990). He and Bruce magically float through the clouds to some remote lake where they wrestle for a while before turning into a green mushroom cloud that projects earlier scenes from the movie onto its sides. Then the military nukes the site from orbit with their green gamma-whatever missiles.
I remember this from watching the movie the first time: the whole time, everyone was waiting for the line. You know: the line. We finally get that line at the very end of the film: one year later, Bruce is working as a doctor in the Amazon rain forest. A group of guerillas bust into the village he is visiting and start stealing medicine from the people. Bruce says to the leader of the guerillas, in Spanish: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” End scene.