06 May 2012


Nine years is not, geologically or even in the context of a human life, a terribly long time; but it has still been a very long nine years since the Ang Lee-directed Hulk came along and was the first really noteworthy disappointment of the contemporary superhero boom. That said, it felt even in 2003 that Hulk was destined to be one of those movies that was befuddling and weird at the time, and would garner more and more respect and more of a passionate cult following as time went by, and at some point it would be due for a re-evaluation and we'd all figure out that it was actually good all along. So the question is, was nine years long enough for it turn out to be actually good?

And to that I can answer, boldly and proudly, "no, well, sort of." This much is absolutely true: nothing better could have happened for the reputation of Hulk than the release of a 2008 sequel-reboot, The Incredible Hulk, which proved a) that Lee's ambition, whether misguided or no, was at least brave and unconventional and b) that stripped of that ambition, the temptation to turn Marvel's radiation-soaked variant on Jekyll and Hyde into two dull-as-dishwater hours of watching a CGI blob break things was impossible to resist. For that matter, the simple passage of time helped Lee's film out quite a lot, for even though the 12-years-and-counting superhero boom has one continuous history that makes it feel somewhat like a single moment (2000's X-Men, which kicked off the whole trend, feels "contemporary", in a way that 1997's Batman & Robin very much does not, n'est-ce pas?), the state of the comic book movie in 2003 is not even a little bit like the state of the comic book movie in 2012. There are at least two candidates for the dividing line, the first of those being 2005, the year that comic movies grew up in a major way with Sin City, Batman Begins, and A History of Violence, if by "grew up" we mean "became really dark and angry". But the better year is 2008, because that was the bottleneck moment: from that point forward, your comic book movie could be either The Dark Knight or it could be Iron Man, but those are pretty much your only choices, and that is why there are those of us who were hugely enthusiastic about superhero movies in the mid-'00s, who just want them all to go away now, because the more money and technology and talented people on both sides of the camera who get involved in making the damn things, perversely, the less actual variety and imagination the genre demonstrates.

All of which is to say: as much as Hulk was unexpected and different in 2003, when the modern comic book movie was still new enough that there weren't "rules" as such, it is altogether dumbfounding and shocking in 2012, especially since we can stand it right next to its bland little sibling and be amazed at the harsh difference between a film made by a for-real artist who has for-real ideas even if he can't make them stick, and a film that is studio product made as part of a cunning, years-long experiment in branding and franchise-building.

But, here's the tricky part, does that make Hulk good? Or better than it was in 2003, anyway? And as much as I'd like to say that it does, the reasons that it didn't work nine years ago are by and large the same reasons it doesn't work now, and the foremost of these, then as always is this: it is a comic book film made by a man who clearly does not appreciate or even respect comic books as a form, and is hell-bent on converting them into cinema despite fundamentally not understanding how they work. If I recall correctly, Lee was very open about this being the case.

Now, if you are tasked with adapting a famous and beloved superhero (in these Iron Man-loving days it can be hard to recall that there was a time, very recently, when the Incredible Hulk was, with Spider-Man and the X-Men as a group, among the very best-known of all Marvel characters), and yet you do not really "get" superheroes, you can do a couple of things. If you are Tim Burton and Sam Hamm and it is 1989 and you have been given the reigns to the surpassing prestigious and expensive Batman, you say, basically, "screw it", and make a helluva good action-adventure that really doesn't have all that much to do with the iconic character you're been tasked with bringing to life. If you are Ang Lee and long-time collaborator James Schamus, you try to make something that is exactly like the comic books that you simply do not understand how to read, and that is where we come to Hulk's famous, notorious, fascinating, and infuriating split screens. If you have not seen the film, or have forgotten, what happened is that Lee assembled it using frames within frames that recall the layout of a comic book page, with close-ups of eyes and multiple views of a single object and the like all occupying the same film frame. It's not a gimmick used constantly, but it's used quite a lot.

May I make an aside? I will anyway. Supposedly, when Roman Polanski was adapting Rosemary's Baby, he got to a scene in the book where a character is reading an issue of Life magazine. He then spent some time trying to figure out which exact issue it was, so that he could be certain to put it in the movie; eventually, stymied, he asked author Ira Levin to tell him which issue was in the book; Levin informed the director that it was made up for the needs of the story, and that any issue would be fine. According to the anecdote, Polanski hadn't realised until this incident that he wasn't obligated to copy the source material exactly, and that he in fact had whatever right he wanted to exercise to re-shape things as necessary, and without that awakening, he'd have never been able to make The Ninth Gate.

I use this story to illustrate the fundamental truth of Hulk (I do not know whether to call it a "problem" or a "charm"): Lee seemed to be stuck in that stage when he didn't realise that he could make a comic book movie that looked more like a movie than a comic book. And this again speaks to his misunderstanding of the form: reading a comic book is actually very much like watching a film: each panel is a shot, and they are pieced together with entirely cinematic tricks like shot-reverse shot, and graphic matches, and cuts on action; splash pages are essentially like tracking shots, as you move your eye over the details. This is why Sin City works so well: it's simply adding to movement to something that was already, in essence, "edited" (hence Frank Miller's directing credit). Hell, it's why 300 "works" "so well"; Zack Snyder and I will never be on good terms, but he made a film that is more legibly cinematic than Ang Lee's Hulk, despite being hardly a hair on a mole on Lee's ass as far as directorial talent goes.

But still, it's hard not to give Lee credit for trying: whatever problems it has as a story... oh my lord, here I blasted right past 1000 words without so much as mentioning it, and there's nowhere to fit in. So here goes, quickly: Bruce Banner (Eric Bana), a scientist with daddy issues, loves Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), another scientist with daddy issues, and one day he gets massively irradiated with gamma rays that interact badly with the mutated DNA his father gave to him, and whenever he is angry or threatened, Banner turns into a massive green humanoid with no sense of anything but violence. Betty's dad, General "Thunderbolt" Ross (Sam Elliott), wants to capture Banner and perform experiments on him; Banner's dad, David (Nick Nolte) wants to do the same, but for even more evil reasons. "That's just the Hulk's origin story, that's not the plot of a 138-minute movie", you say. No, no it is, actually, the plot of a 138-minute movie. I cut off the end battle, so as to avoid spoilers. This is, of course, the reason that fans have groused about the movie since it premiered, and why some particularly odd people genuinely think The Incredible Hulk is better: more incident and more action. Lee, not much caring for comics, is more concerned with the tortured characters of Bruce and Betty. He undoubtedly got the job on account of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - a scene of the Hulk bounding across the desert (and through multiple panes, yes) recalls that film's action choreography - and it's worth recalling that CT,HD is much more of a character drama with fighting scenes than an action movie with character moments. Hulk is exactly the film that Ang Lee, in 2003, was apt to deliver when told to make a comic book movie, and the problem with it is not that it spends too much time focusing on the human cost of the narrative, but that Bana and Connelly do a dreadful job of selling their characters (Bana seems to have been cast specifically because of his blank face and lack of any sort of affect, frankly), and also that something as broad and trite as "daddy issues" might work in the heightened world of the comics page, but it's hard to keep it from being somewhat insipid in the more emotionally piercing mode Lee and Schamus work in.

SO, THEN, whatever problems it has as a story, at least Hulk tried, honestly and desperately, to push the comic book move into new places emotionally and stylistically - of all the many superhero movies made since 2000, this is undoubtedly the most formally unique, if not the only one that is formally unique in anyway other than the point it occupies on the "urban grit vs. shiny colors" spectrum of cinematography. That it fails in almost every regard it possibly could have failed is, of course, a shame: but better to attempt something really bold and end up a strange and compelling failure than e.g. wind up a cartoon version of Ed Norton and fling it at a cartoon version of Tim Roth.

And there are littler failures, as well: Bana's performance is one, the godawful CGI Hulk is another (it looked bad in 2003, it looks straight-up mortifying now), the idle running time is a third. These are not the reasons the film is interesting, only the reasons that it is bad.

Except it's not a bad film. It is worth grappling with; far more worthy of contemplation that several "better" comic book movies I could name. It feels uniquely like a movie made by men and not board rooms; and perhaps in 2003, when Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi were making distinctive superhero movies and Christopher Nolan was about to join them, that alone is not of merit. It is, however, of considerable merit now. And if Hulk has redeemed itself at all in nine years, that is the reason: it is a failure of execution, but decidedly not a failure of nerve, and it is exactly a lack of nerve that has sapped the modern superhero film of much of its charm and energy. Here's to Ang Lee and his big, burly monster: we could do with more of your private brand of unfocused smashing.


Stefan Vlahov said...

IMO, Hulk is a masterpiece. And Incredible Hulk is pure trash. So we mostly agree on this. Mostly.

Benjamin said...

Is Bana that bad? I thought I read somewhere that it was because of Hulk that Stephen Spielberg picked picked him as the lead in Munich. Maybe he was able to see some hidden potential.

Sssonic said...

I didn't need to wait nine years to know I loved this movie. I saw it when I was just barely starting High School and could not have been happier with it; all these years later, and while I'm more keenly aware of its failings today than I was back then, most notably its inexcusably limp final twenty minutes and the many times where Lee's "paneling" style simply does not work, I remain firmly in its camp, and indeed consider it a minor point of pride that The Hulk as portrayed here seems to have provided more of a baseline for the Hulk who appears in "The Avengers" than the one "The Avengers" acts as a Sequel for.

The two fundamental areas I most disagree with this movie's many critics are the Hulk effects and the acting. I sincerely love how very much the Hulk of this movie is geared more toward expressiveness than necessarily physical integrity; the stumbling, guileless way it moves, the remarkably effective facial expressions...this Hulk has a lot of character, and for that I happily forgive it any and all other failings. I also think the sequence where we see the Hulk revert to Banner and it is portrayed by showing Bruce literally sweating off the excess mass is just brilliant in the best way.

As for the acting, I actually think Bana's stiff, discomforted style is exactly what the role as written in this movie asks for. The big theme with Bruce, after all, is that he is a man uncomfortable with his own inner self, and I rather think Bana conveys that element better than a traditionally-geared performance might have. I actually think Connelly, meanwhile, does a really good job with a magnificently difficult part. We need to see Betty simultaneously as someone in over her head struggling to make sense of an insane problem, and at the same time we sympathize with the fact that she is the only person willing to understand and respect Bruce's humanity and history rather than dismiss or manipulate him as just about everyone else does. Connelly sells it, at least for me, and does so very convincingly. Sam Elliot's General Ross, meanwhile, is just about perfect, and while it does go a little off the rails toward the end, Nick Nolte's David Banner works equally well as Tortured and Misguided, and Hammy and Evil.

To top it all off, I sincerely adore Danny Elfman's score to this film. The main theme he composes may not be as iconic as John Williams' "Superman" or as gripping as his own "Batman" theme, but its simple melody and rising emotional tenor fits the character so perfectly, especially when it's used during his Transformation sequences, that I can't imagine any other theme fitting the Hulk quite so well.

So yes, I'm kind of a fan of this film. More so than it objectively deserves? Eh, probably; but I know what I like, and there's a lot of it for me in this film.

Tim said...

For some reason, I'm very happy that this post has so far collected more comments than my Avengers review. And though I am no lover of the movie, I think it takes a certain maturity and intelligence to appreciate it more than the cartoon, explosion heavy films that replaced it, so I'm glad that I apparently have a unexpected population of Hulk fans here.

The Bana thing: I will confess that I've never out and out loved him, not even in Munich (I actually think that Funny People is his best work, personally), so maybe it's just a hang-up of mine. Certainly, his blankness is part of the film's strategy, just not a part of which I especially approve. I do like him more than Ed Norton.

Brian said...

I fell deeply in love with this movie the first time I saw it, in theaters, back in 2003. Nothing has changed (although the always dodgy CGI looks completely awful now)

In my mind, it's still probably a top 5 comic book superhero* movie ever (definitely behind Spider-man 2, which is so clearly the best I see no point in discussing it, and definitely behind Captain America and The Avengers. Probably neck and neck wtih The Dark Knight for 4th.)

*Ghost World is the best movie based on a comic book ever, and one of the 10 greatest films ever made, hence the qualifier of "superhero" up there.

Johnzilla 2179 said...

I have to agree with this review, though I'm more inclined to take a similar stance as Sssonic. I, personally, received this film on DVD as a birthday present back in 2003 (in fullscreen, which is bad enough on its own but with this film's visual aesthetic it was mind-numbing). I watched the film once with my sister and once with my father, neither time really caring much for it. While there were certainly scenes that stuck out, the whole thing just felt a bit leaden. However, as often happens, I acquired a desire to revisit the film years later, and having just finished my most recent screening just a few minutes ago I have to say that it's aged marvelously.

Ever since seeing Watchmen and it's utterly boring straight page-to-screen "adaptation" of its source, I've maintained that comic book films are best when an artist infuses their own creativity in to the material. The newer comic book films (specifically the MCU) aren't just poorer on the whole than the initial run because they're mass produced, they're also poorer because they're so basic and driven by an aesthetic that is 110% of the source material. Those that fancy themselves conservative when it comes to art may balk at the idea that adaptations are better when things are actually changed, but it really comes down to this: the filmmaker is usually not the original author, therefore they can never put the same spin on the material. Might as well make it their own. Ever since the MCU hit it big I've seen a disturbing backlash against the older guard of comic book movies like Tim Burton's Batman and X-Men, chiefly because they changed things that weren't broken. But I'd argue that they left more of a lasting impression. X-Men: Days of Future Past is probably my favorite comic book movie of the last decade, only superseded by X2. These two films aren't just great action movies, they make you FEEL something. The same can be said of Hulk, and the reasoning is that Ang Lee and Bryan Singer choose to actively engage the material (and with that comes interpretation, which is different per individual) instead of vomit it onto the screen.

Though I had trouble understanding his ultimate point, I appreciated Lee's take on the character of Hulk as legacy: Bruce's father's legacy for him, science's legacy for man, emotional legacy in terms of interpersonal relationship and also oneself, etc., and how those legacies are planted (hence the visual fixation on shrubbery and Bruce's mother tending her garden). And it may just be years of Syfy Channel nonsense rotting my brain, but I didn't really have an issue with the special effects in this movie. Sure, some shots are a tad unconvincing, but this Hulk still looked pretty good to my eyes (and again, I readily admit that my standards have been grossly lowered by z-movies). His actual design I didn't really care for (his face just looks... odd) but he emotes so convincingly and sympathetically that I was always intrigued and affected. I also liked the central trio of performances from Bana, Connelly and especially Elliott, who has always been an under-appreciated actor. Bana may seem dull in other movies (I haven't seen enough of him to really comment), but here his emotional constipation really suits the role. Connelly pulls off her character's wounded but strong streak well, even if she's not given much to do. Elliott makes a great hard-as-nails career military man. Honestly, I enjoyed the film so much this go-round that I really wish a more traditional sequel had been attempted. It could have even improved this initial film's reputation if it were good enough.

Johnzilla 2179 said...

My Lord, not sure how but I completely forgot to even mention Nick Nolte: he is by far the highlight of the cast, selling his character within an inch of his life. Fatalistic, idealistic, regretful, ambitious -- he does it all, just with ticks and inflection. Masterful work.