The Second Look Series takes a look back at some of the underrated, overlooked, or just plain old films in the Superhero Film Genre. Today we take a look back at Hulk.
Superhero movies are a difficult beast to direct. Some filmmakers, for example, stray wildly from the source material and incur the wrath of fan boys (like me, I’m afraid). Just look at the travesty that was Catwoman from 2004 starring Halle Berry. The character, and her non-superhero alias, shared nothing in common with her D.C. Comics’ counterpart. This would’ve been all well and good had the movie actually been, well, y’know, good. Conversely, some stick too rigidly to the hallowed comic book basis. Zack Snyder was widely criticised for his film Watchmen (2009). Many critics felt that it suffered from being far too long as Snyder was too unwilling to jettison any plot lines or scenes from the well know graphic novel. I actually think Watchmen is actually a really good, although flawed, movie but am firmly in the minority.
Comic book films are at their most successful when the director has a firm understanding of the comic book protagonist. What makes them tick? What drives them? What do they wish to achieve? Moreover, they have to grasp the tone, feel and mood of the comic itself. Ang Lee, in my opinion, had a tight understanding of the Marvel Comics’ character and his movie Hulk was all the better for it. The film, on its release wasn’t received well, but I’ve always felt that it was a perfect representation of the character. Furthermore, it is beautifully stylised making the screen mimic the panels of the comic that resulted in the book seemingly coming to life.
The Hulk, like a lot of Marvels best characters, is a reluctant hero. It is safe to say though that the Hulk is their MOST reluctant as unlike Daredevil and Spider-Man who both feel that they have little choice, Hulk has no choice whatsoever. To those who don’t know, the Hulk is the huge, green, uber-powerful alter ego of nuclear scientist Bruce Banner created in 1962 by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee for Marvel Comics.
In the comics his ‘birth’ occurred due to being bombarded with gamma radiation while conducting an experiment in the American desert. Banner noticed a teenager, Rick Jones, in the blast radius of the prototype gamma bomb and while getting him to safety was himself bathed in gamma rays. This toxic barrage leads him, usually when angry or distressed, to transform into the ‘Jade Giant’. It’s the story of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the atomic age.
Ang Lee understood these characters intimately. His movie was most critiqued at the time for being a film about Bruce Banner and not the Hulk. Well, that’s kind of the point! The Hulk, though fun while jumping about and smashing, is not the most interesting person in the duo, Bruce is. Bruce Banner, due to his affliction, feels dangerous to those he loves. He leaves his job in science and those he cares to instead become a nomad. He walks from town to town wanting to be left alone, trying to find a place he will do the least damage if his ‘other self’ makes an appearance.
The solitary nature of this deeply sad character was one that Lee managed to bring to the screen perfectly. The Hulk himself doesn’t appear on screen for a large amount of time. Also, the first time he appears he is shrouded almost fully in shadow. That just leaves the audience wanting more. Instead, he spends a good length of the films running with the true protagonist Bruce Banner, portrayed to superb effect by Eric Bana. This lets the viewer get an understanding of the deeply troubled and neurotic Banner. He is a flawed man full of anxiety and feelings of inferiority both physically and professionally. We, as an audience, get to comprehend why the Hulk side of his psyche manifests the way it does, as it is ultimately a part of him.
Casting helps to make Lee’s movie soar. Bana, as mentioned earlier, encapsulates Banner’s feelings of inadequacy and his constant unease and nervousness. Jennifer Connelly underplays his girlfriend and confidant, Betty Ross, to great effect. You are led to appreciate the nature of their relationship, Betty as the strong one, Bruce always seeking validation, through short exchanges and nuanced performances. Theirs is a relationship you believe in.
Sam Elliot is Betty’s father General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross. General Ross is tasked to bring in Hulk and end the potential threat that he poses. His part could easily become caricature; all bluster and table thumping. Elliot plays Ross as very real, however; imperfect, but feeling as if he is always acting in the best interests of his country and his daughter. General Ross’ actions are never black or white, but cloaked in shades of grey.
The villain of the piece is Nick Nolte’s character, the father of Bruce Banner (referred to only as ‘Father’). His is the only character that is largely created for the movie, but it still works on many levels. Firstly, Nolte, though over-the-top, gives an excellent performance. He is menacing and threatening, but also tender and gentle where his boy is concerned. Secondly, the character serves to show the viewer the reason for the deep-rooted emotional issues that Bruce suffers. His character serves as both antagonist and plot device, which is very clever writing by scriptwriters John Turman, Michael France and James Schamus, and is successful on both levels.
Besides the casting, Ang Lee’s movie is served most productively by its very distinct approach. Lee has tried to effectively bring the comic book literally to the screen. The screen is frequently split up to imitate the panels of a comic book. Additionally, action is often frozen mid-movement to create a static image, again copying a comic’s aesthetic. These tricks are very interesting and clever and aid in making the film exceptionally enjoyable on a visual level. Comic books and graphic novels are principally a visual medium as is film so Ang Lee’s method of skillfully melding the two is ingenious.
Hulk is quite low on action set pieces for a superhero movie, but the few that exist are exciting and rattle along at a great pace. The main scene involving the Hulk sees him battling tanks and gunship helicopters in the desert. This section bristles with energy and is the first time as a viewer you see the true power and ferocity of the Hulk. It’s choreographed brilliantly and is a real joy to watch. Another sees the Hulk battle gamma irradiated dogs. It’s fast paced and brutal and demonstrates how vicious the Hulk can be when provoked.
Hulk is a much more of a character study than your usual popcorn film. Marketed as a summer blockbuster for family, teen and child audiences, the film was mis-sold. It is intelligent, thought provoking and stimulating, while also containing fantastic action scenes. It’s enjoyable and fun, but also smart. One of the reasons for its box office failure is that people had different expectations of what they felt they would receive, but this is largely a marketing failure. I advise going into Hulk with no preconceptions and just expect an excellent film and you won’t be disappointed!