Running Time: 138 mins
Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte
Genre: Superhero, Action, Comic Book
The announcement that Ride with the Devil director Ang Lee was going to be stepping behind the camera for the 2003 title Hulk caused many hands to be rubbed together in gleeful anticipation. The comic book movie as a genre was still recovering from the nipple-clad camp fest that was Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin and desperately needed a win to stack alongside Spider-Man in the “Superhero flicks can have artistic merit” argument. As word began to trickle out from Marvel offices that Lee was putting together a visual aestethic that would give the audience as close to an interactive comic book feel as possible, the hand rubbing was almost threatening to cause fires all across the world.
The fires dampened quickly though. As a story, Hulk is an absolute mess. Looking beyond the revisionist origin narrative of Bruce Banner, the choice to follow a less Cold War creationist moment for the Hulk was a logical idea. It was even nice of Lee to tip his hat towards The Incredible Hulk #1 – The Strangest Man of All Time and the bomb testing facility that Lee's Banner has repressed in order to block out 1. the troubling aspect of his nature and 2. the history he is doomed to repeat. It’s a nice level of intellectual and philosophical depth which is clearly something that attracted the auteur to the project; but one that’s poorly constructed, or at least poorly delivered. This is the issue in general with the script. On screen it plays like a movie much longer than its running time, in that nothing really makes an sense. Nothing is really explained. Nothing is really touched on beyond a glossy surface level and though the results are a pretty looking movie with some extremely gorgeous looking set pieces. It leaves you empty, frustrated, and pondering how in the hell you could spend two plus hours watching something with less content that the 1980’s Incredible Hulk animated series.
It might be worth stating again just how good looking the film is. Lee’s use of primary colours to tell a visual, emotional story is fantastic and raises the film close to artistic mastery but it is sorely let down by the narrative.
Eric Bana (Bruce Banner) does a really excellent job as the troubled scientist with a little temper. He has some complex relationships with Betty (Connelly), her father (Sam Elliott) and even his father (Nick Nolte) and he handles each of them with a level of subtly that’s greatly needed for the part, as so much of his green side is anything but subtle. He clearly has a really strong understanding of Banner’s nature, not to mention human nature. “When I lose control, I like it.” demonstrates the addictive nature of supreme strength and power. It’s a dangerous path, one that would most definitely see him follow his father into a “darkness” (or at the very least a dark green). Connelly is a quality piece of casting. Hot off A Beautiful Mind, Requiem for a Dream, and Dark Water she came to a relatively one-dimensional role with a mission to flesh her out, make her interesting, complex, show the audience why a genius scientist like Banner would like this woman. She does some OK groundwork but like everything else in the film, isn’t helped by the fact that it’s seemingly not on the page… or if it was on the page it got lost in translation. Sam Elliott does an excellent turn as General Ross. Of all the Hulk’s antagonists throughout the Marvel universe, Ross is the one that grounds the Hulk in the real world. It’s this fact that makes him the most important adversary as though Planet Hulk and World War Hulk are extremely interesting and enjoyable, the sheer impact, power and destruction of Banner’s alter-ego is lessened outside of a real world environment. Elliott, above all other cast members, is the greatest loss in the sequel re-cast overhaul.
There’s a part of me that really wants to like Hulk. Ang Lee’s sensibilities in cinema are perfectly in line with what I want to see not just in my movies but especially in my comic book movies. They tell parables, have far reaching intellectual analogies and shouldn’t be used as a two hour commercial for toys or fast food but it’s difficult. For every thing that’s right about Hulk there are two other things wrong with it; though I’ve grown to love the Hulk Dogs.