Second Chance Reviews: HULK (2003)
What are Second Chance Reviews? Well, the idea is that all of us have films we love that slipped through the cracks, were swept under the rug, or were just outright rejected when they first came out. These reviews are meant less as a defense of those films, because we all like what we like and dislike what we dislike. Instead, this is more a championing of a film that we feel deserves another look, informed by what we love about it. In other words, the hope is that if the film didn’t work for you the first time, maybe you’ll give it a second-chance after reading our thoughts.
Title: Hulk (2003)
Rotten Tomatoes Critics Score: 62%
Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score: 29%
Director: Ang Lee
Stars (primary actors): Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliot, Josh Lucas
The Initial Reception: The modern superhero film Renaissance has been traced back to a number of points. Arguments have been made (though not commonly accepted) for Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, and more credibly for 1998’s Blade and 2000’s X-Men. Regardless of which film we go with, 2002’s Spider-Man established the genre’s 21st century blockbuster credibility. The next year saw a series of films that hoped to follow up on that success – Daredevil, X2, and Hulk. This last was acclaimed director Ang Lee’s follow-up to his Best Picture-nominated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Both critically and commercially, Hulk was a disappointment for Universal, earning a quarter of what Spider-Man did the previous year. Complaints ranged from the CGI used to realize the title character, the slow burn pace, and an overly-complicated origin story building to a difficult to see/understand climax. When the burgeoning Marvel Cinematic Universe slated a reboot as its second film there were few complaints.
The Bad: Ang Lee’s Hulk absolutely has some problems. Let’s start with the elephant (or, rather, the gamma-irradiated poodle) in the room. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of the Hulk fighting off a pack of Hulk-dogs. And the sequence itself largely works. Where it’s undercut is the choice to make one of those dogs a poodle, and one that only seems to have been included as a quick and campy gag – when Banner is working late at the lab one night he hears a noise, investigates, and as the tension build he walks down the hall only to find a harmless-looking poodle (the secondary gag is that when he reaches out to pet it, the dog bares its teeth and growls menacingly). That’s it. That was a choice that was made, a choice that doesn’t work at all, and one that will invariably come up in every conversation about the film, so there it is.
Aside from that, the villainous form taken by Banner’s father is introduced too late, is not well-realized visually, and contributes to a final battle that even in 1080 HD is nearly impossible to follow. I get that Lee was likely going for a largely psychological confrontation between Banner and the man who lay at the root of all of his trauma, and that the conventions of the genre also dictated that battle taking some physical form, but the execution left a lot to be desired. The stakes of the battle are also unclear (beyond the possible death of the hero) as it’s barely established what his father wants to do with the power he spends his life seeking.
Why I Like It Anyway (aka the Case for the Film):
In many ways this is a hugely ambitious film. While there had been previous “serious” superhero movies, they generally were balanced with some elements of camp and/or lampshading (“Maybe you’d prefer bright yellow spandex?”) to make it clear that the films weren’t taking themselves too seriously. Ang Lee, however, dove fully into the psychological trauma at the heart of the Banner/Hulk character, presenting us first with Bruce Banner as a young child alternatingly neglected and examined by his father, then orphaned when his father murders his mother and attempts to murder him. For readers of the Hulk comics at the time, this wasn’t really anything new, but the translation from four-color comic to living, breathing characters intensifies the experience. There are moments of fun (more on that later) but for the most part this is a dark ride.
Much of the intensity also stems from the performances, which are outstanding throughout (though I could, admittedly, do with about 50% less of Josh Lucas’s Glen Talbot, who is pitched just a bit too far into mustache-twirling for my taste). The two other antagonists – Nick Nolte as David Banner and Sam Elliot as General Ross – bring interesting layers to their performances. We genuinely don’t know how much of David Banner’s remorse or attempts to reconnect with his son are honest, and even when Ross is coldly giving orders to open fire on the Hulk, there’s a feeling of regret he conveys – both for the pain he knows Banner’s death will cause his daughter, Betty, and that this is the end Bruce Banner, the small child he comforted as his father was led away by the police, has come to.
Connelly, too, is excellent, able to play Betty Ross as more than just the damsel-in-distress or broken-hearted love. She makes the post-breakup relationship with Bruce believable when their playful joking strikes too close to home, sells the desire for her father to value her as much as he does his career, and conveys a genuine strength when defending her scientific work. The female love interest in a superhero film can often be an underserved role, but Connelly really stands out here.
Finally, there’s Bruce Banner, played by Eric Bana. There are times his performance can come across as a bit flat. But in re-watching the film this time around, I found that he was able to work in moments of darkness and pain beneath the surface that build as the movie goes on and his transformations into the Hulk begin to break his façade. He’s damaged and guarded, and the growing strain of holding back the now-physical manifestation of all of his repressed rage slowly shakes his ability to keep up his mask. When he says to Betty, “You know what scares me the most? When it happens, when it comes over me... and I totally lose control, I like it,” he’s not talking about the destruction he causes as the Hulk, he’s talking about the ability to let go, to, frankly, unclench for once in his life.
For the most part, I’ll let the following clip speak for itself. I would argue that this is as perfect an execution of the Hulk as Raimi’s Spider-Man swinging through New York city is, in his three films. This is also where some of the fun I mentioned before comes in, such as the moment when the Hulk bends a tank turret back so that it's pointing directly at the face of one of the drivers, or when he rips the barrel off and smacks it against his hand like a baseball bat as he approaches another tank.
On first viewing it’s impossible to ignore the way Ang Lee attempts to replicate comic book page, from the bright, almost campy, use of purple and green in the costumes and production design and his use of multiple split-screens throughout the film. But even beyond that, there are more subtle and interesting ways he’s evoking the experience of reading a comic. Throughout the film Lee varies the shots, transitioning and pushing in quickly to close-ups within the frame, sweeping the camera across the shots, and alternating those with wide-shots both to establish locations and in the action scenes.
It’s not just that he’s splitting up the screen, it’s what the camera is doing in each of those shots, and how he’s using it to capture the density of visual information, the kineticism of the action, and the simultaneity of the images that so effectively and ambitiously translates from one medium to another that is so impressive. Few films before or since (300, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and the two Sin City films are the only ones that come to mind) have attempted it or executed it as well.
While I don't know that I'd go as far as saying Hulk was ahead of its time, I do think it's a film that plays better now, especially as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gotten a bit more adventurous with its stories, tone, and form with films like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and especially Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok, and films like Logan, Watchmen, and the Nolan Batman trilogy have successfully taken a more serious approach to the superhero genre. And, as a side note, I have an easier time connecting Mark Ruffalo's Banner and Hulk to the version here than I do the 2008 film with Edward Norton. While Hulk isn't necessarily a reappraisal for me, as I've always liked it more than most, I was struck watching it this time through by just how much more I like it now.