Published on June 18th, 2012 | by PJ Montgomery1
Hulk – A Movie Flashback
When I write these movie flashback columns, quite naturally, I rewatch the movie in question before I set out to actually do any writing. Most of the time, when I do this, I have a pretty good idea going in regarding what I’m about to see. After all, I’ve seen all these films before, I’m just rewatching to make sure I get the specifics right. However, even though I’d seen Hulk a few times, and own the film on DVD, this time, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
When Hulk was first released in 2003, I went to the cinema to see it and came away liking the film. I recognised that it had some flaws (some of them quite large), but I very much defended the film against the naysayers. However, I hadn’t seen it for a few years, certainly not since Marvel released Iron Man and started showing us how superhero movies should be done. In this post-Avengers world, would Hulk still hold up?
Well, yes and no. Some of it still works, some of it never did, and some bits which used to work just haven’t aged that well.
With Hulk, director, Ang Lee, was looking to create a dark psychodrama, which just happened to feature a large green man pummelling tanks. This was a tricky prospect for a cinema going audience, more accustomed to and expectant of “Hulk smash!” style shenanigans than a serious drama, with little in the way of light relief. It’s not like this can’t be done with the Hulk, as both Peter David and Bruce Jones had well received runs on the comic which delved into the psyche of Bruce Banner and his emerald alter-ego. It’s just not what the general public were expecting.
Still, Lee makes this aspect of the story work, for the most part. He opens the film with a statement of intent, showing us Doctor David Banner (Paul Kersey) experimenting on himself and passing his altered genes onto his son, Bruce (Michael and David Kronenberg). Banner’s experiments are then shut down by General Ross (Todd Tesen), and Banner, in a fit of rage, accidentally kills his wife (Cara Buono) in front of their son. It’s a very dark opening for a superhero film, and not only sets the story tone, but the style of the film, with fast, frenetic cuts and multiple images on screen at once to evoke the look of a comic book page. Right away, it lets you know that this is something a little different to what you’ve seen before.
The scene then shifts to the present day, and an adult Bruce Banner (Eric Bana), currently going by the name Bruce Krensler (in this version of the story, Bruce was put into foster care after his father was locked up, and took the name of his adopted parents), and working with Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) on experiments with gamma radiation. And we all know what happens next. Bruce gets dosed with gamma rays, and starts Hulking out at times of stress. At the same time, his father, David, (Nick Nolte) returns, causing no end of grief for Bruce, and Betty’s father, General Ross (Sam Elliott) begins pursuing the Hulk. All of this is played out against a backdrop of Bruce struggling to come to terms with the repressed memories of his childhood, which are now surfacing, and making him all sorts of angry.
It would’ve been easy enough to fumble the more serious side of the film if the wrong actors had been cast. Thankfully, the cast more than acquit themselves. Bana is spot on as the tortured, withdrawn Banner, while Connelly is fantastic as Betty, playing her as the strong, intelligent woman she should be. Elliott is also on fine form, bringing an air of menace to General Ross while clearly showing that he cares for his daughter. The gravelly voice helps too. In fact, while Louis Leterrier’s 2008 The Incredible Hulk is the better film, it’s Ang Lee’s version which claims the better actors in the three key roles. Nothing against Ed Norton or William Hurt, who were both excellent in the Leterrier version (less so Liv Tyler), but if you could combine Leterrier’s film with Lee’s cast… Well, maybe The Incredible Hulk would’ve placed slightly higher up the list. But what of the rest of Lee’s actors? Nick Nolte is good as the unhinged David Banner (renamed from Brian in the comics, as a tribute to Bill Bixby’s David Banner in the seminal Hulk TV series), managing to just stay the right side of melodrama and keep the film grounded (at least, until he seems to become the Absorbing Man, but more on that in a moment). The only other real cast member of note is Josh Lucas as Glen Talbot. Lucas is fine in the role, though Talbot is the least developed of the main characters, really only showing up to be slimy, then get smacked around by the Hulk.
Ah, the Hulk. The title character himself, at the time, was lauded as a triumph of CGI, compared favourably to the other big CGI creation of the era, Gollum. Sadly, Hulk hasn’t aged nearly so well as Smeagol. Watching the film today, it’s painfully obvious that Hulk is a computer generated creation, looking like a cartoon for much of his screen time. The shade of green they use is too bright, and his skin too shiny. It doesn’t quite work. There’s also the bizarre choice to have the Hulk get bigger as he gets angrier, leading to a Hulk fifteen feet tall at one point in the film. It’s just a little bit too ridiculous, which, given the source material, is an amusing statement. Nevertheless, it would’ve worked better if Hulk had remained a constant size, both from a story and an effects point of view. That said, the Hulk here set the ground work which the Incredible Hulk and The Avengers have both built on, to the point where we now have a CGI Hulk who is completely believable on screen. Would he have been so successful in the Avengers if they hadn’t started here? It’s hard to say for sure, but I tend to think maybe not.
Despite Hulk himself not being entirely believable, there’s still tremendous fun to be had when he does start smashing. The gamma-powered dogs may be a small step too far, even if they do have their origins in the comics, but the scenes where the Hulk takes on the military and starts beating up tanks in the desert is a cracking ride, and the climax, where Hulk takes on his father… Actually, that makes no sense at all and almost succeeds in derailing the entire film. The bizarre decision to have David Banner get powers which, certainly on a superficial level, mimic those of the Absorbing Man in the comics, never really works. How do the nanomeds, which haven’t been shown to grant anything remotely resembling this ability before, transform him like that? And what happened at the end of that fight? He absorbed Hulk’s energy, became a giant blobby thing, then had a bomb dropped on him? It’s not what you want from the final showdown in a Hulk film, which should end with Hulk actually having a knock down, drag out scrap with a physically formidable opponent like himself. You know, like in The Incredible Hulk.
Lee does direct the film well, for the most part, but he overdoes it with the comic panel edits and cuts. For some scenes, it works well, allowing you to see multiple characters points of view of the same moment at once, such as towards the beginning with Talbot’s first visit to Bruce and Betty. Other times though, it jars, and pulls you out of the film completely. Having the scene where Bruce’s mother gives birth pop up in a circle in the middle of the screen, or Talbot freeze framed and torn out of the shot after an explosion is a step too far, and just doesn’t work. Also, the film is a little on the long side, dragging in places while you wait for the Green Goliath to show up again.
Hulk isn’t a bad film, but it’s also a ways off being a really good film. Taken more as an interesting curio, it’s definitely worth a look, and the cast are eminently watchable. If anything, it tries too hard, and comes across as a bit confused. But you know what? I enjoyed it more than I was expecting to.
1. X2, 2. Captain America: The First Avenger, 3. X-Men: First Class, 4. Thor, 5. Iron Man, 6. X-Men, 7. The Incredible Hulk, 8. Daredevil, 9. Iron Man 2, 10. Hulk, 11. X-Men: The Last Stand, 12. Ghost Rider, 13. X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 14. Elektra
Recommended Reading – Planet Hulk
I was all for just recommending Peter David’s entire run on The Incredible Hulk (collected in the Hulk Visionaries: Peter David run of trade paperbacks), awesome as it is, but that would require you buy a stupid number of graphic novels. I mean, you should, but I feel I need to offer a cheaper alternative. So, instead, I’ve plumped for this story written by Greg Pak, in which Hulk is fired off into space, and lands on an alien world where he is forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena for his life. Hulk goes on a very Spartacus like journey, which culminates with him leading an army to Earth to set up the following storyline, World War Hulk. Featuring a guest appearance from the Silver Surfer, and asking genuine questions about who is in control, Hulk or Banner, Planet Hulk is available as one complete volume, and is definitely worth your time.
Next week, I take a look at Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film, and I want to start bringing your views into play. Hit me up on Twitter, and tell me what you thought of Spidey’s first cinematic outing.