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Given how much fun I had writing my last feature, I decided to give it another try with defending another comic book film that so many cast aside without stopping to really see if there’s anything to appreciate about it. The one we will be talking about is especially baffling, given the current “character focused” climate that recent movies and shows try to work themselves into. It is, in fact, a movie that still holds up at this task better than most – and that is Ang Lee’s Hulk.
This 2003 comic book adaptation, one of the first overseen by the now recognized movie guru Kevin Feige, is something of an oddity. For all the bad things that comic book movies have done with the source material, the only real complaints that occur time and time again are the ones that are excruciatingly nit-picky. Even our last subject, The Spirit, has some detractors with merit. We’ll get to those in a minute, however, as we delve into why this film sticks out. Perhaps also why it shouldn’t be forgotten or misremembered.
While nominally the character of the Hulk is seen as one suited for bruising and large, destructive fights, Ang Lee’s version takes a more interesting route and focuses on the inner turmoil that must fuel the rage-induced-transformation. This is not an altogether novel concept, in fact there are shades of it in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s work, but most notably Ang Lee draws from Peter David’s run. A run that really solidified the background of Bruce Banner as a fully fleshed out being that is worthy of digging into.
So, in doing so, the audience is treated to a Hulk movie where the first chunk of the movie is solely about Bruce and his supporting cast. Far from “standard origin structure”, this section is vital because we get to understand how enclosed and awkward Bruce is in relation to pretty much everything else. It makes the revelations about his past, his father, his mother, and the secret behind Gamma Radiation all the more poignant when they are doled out throughout the narrative.
In fact, one of the big strengths of this version is how it plays with the audience. While we see most of the facts in the movie’s prologue, which also serves as its opening credits, we’re never quite sure – not until the end. The full horror of Bruce’s childhood is kept a secret, much like it seemed to him, and really makes us appreciate the journey he’s undertaking. Not only as a man turned into a monster, but as a person in search of who he really is on the inside. While some decry the movie’s, arguably, anti-climactic finale, its cathartic effect more than makes do.
This transition is portrayed surprisingly well, not only through Bana, who sells the quiet sadness, but also through the digitally created character of the Hulk itself. Fully transformed, the Hulk resembles a young child. Baby faced, he exudes an aura of sadness, innocence, and confusion. Whether or not that worked is up to you, but it played hand in hand with the central themes of maturity, fatherhood and acceptance. There’s a reason why the Hulk doesn’t speak for 90% of the movie and it wasn’t to save costs on dubbing his voice in.
As for the rest of the cast, Jennifer Connelly and Sam Elliott play their roles rather well. They too play into Lee’s main theme of how fatherhood affects both parent and child, both Bruce and Betty being burdened by absent/distant fathers and how that has driven them together and apart. Elliott, and Nolte for that matter, play characters who are dragged down by the way they have ruined their relationships with their kids. Honestly, this is a movie where no one gets to be truly happy, or gets what they want. In all fairness, that’s a pretty good tone for a Hulk movie, in this fashion.
It’s a movie about moving forward, and it really sells it. Of course, it is not without its faults – but let me clarify a few things first. The Hulk-Dogs are, admittedly, silly – but the scene is intense and the fight is incredibly brutal. Focusing on just the animal is missing the forest for the trees in a large sense. It’s a similar case with the ending fight. Is it the punch-out that many expect? Not in any way. Yet it is packed with emotion, and the conclusion of the ties that have bound Bruce and his father. The final moments stand as a highlight of the film.
In terms of actual problems with the film it comes down to one umbrella term – schizophrenic. While I have praised the movie’s deeper aspects, there still lies the weirdly toned nature it finds itself in. The main instigator of this were the kooky comic book panel transitions. You could in the middle of a pathos fraught scene and then suddenly get jerked out of it. It’s whiplash in form. Near the end of the movie it gets worse, due to usage of brighter color schemes, just really creating a wholly different feel in terms of visuals. The less said about Talbot, the better.
It’s not a perfect film, but it is a surprisingly well-handled and well-done movie. The one thing it doesn’t do is try to go with what the audiences want out of the Hulk, which was The Incredible Hulk’s job, and instead does what it wants. I think that if it had fixed the tonal issues and came out later, it might have fared better. Not expecting everyone to agree, so opinions and thoughts would be appreciated below.