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Hulk: Revisited

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Monday, Jun 9, 2008
In preparation for the franchise reboot starring Edward Norton, SE&L looks back at Ang Lee's 2003 version of the Big Green Meanie, a criminally marginalized movie that truly didn't deserve the critical or commercial drubbing it took at the time.

It’s true: you either “get” what Ang Lee did to the Hulk or you don’t. It’s not a “love it or hate” it kind of quandary. It’s much more of a “yes” or “no” proposition. If you are used to the Raimi ideal of comic book moviemaking or think that Bryan Singer got the X down to a simple science, then avoid this movie at all costs, and chalk up the big green monster man to yet another misguided attempt by Hollywood to bring the graphic novel to life. But if it clicks for you, if you stick with it, buy into the premise and the way director Lee presents it, Hulk will stay with you for days after you’ve watched it. It will be the first superhero action film that actually says something profound about parental relationships, the untapped power of emotion, and the struggle for self-control.


The nature of the Hulk has always been described as the out of control id of Bruce Banner’s mild-mannered scientist nerd. The original origins for the character were steeped in repressed memories and parental abuse. Lee magnifies this concept, wanting to fully explore all aspects of it, to make the beast not only the representation of the human mind, but also the true physical interpretation of it. Most fans of fast action cartoon chaos claim Lee missed his chance to make the monster of all cartoon films. They lament how he instead focused all the fun into a dry, dreary drama revolving around Bruce Banner’s childhood and the genetic experimentation that physically mutated him and the emotional trauma that mentally manipulated him.


cover art

The Hulk

Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas, Nick Nolte

(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 20 Jun 2003; 2003)

And still there were those who wept for that forgotten foe in the standard comic film canon, the arch villain, a Joker/Magneto/Green Goblin of equal energy and emergence. But in Lee’s marvel universe, there isn’t one. All the bad guy vibe lands on the shoulders of Bruce’s father, which means that we must deal with Banner the son/man first and Banner the CGI beast secondary. And for most fans of carefree eye candy blockbusters, individualized character studies and special effects fantasy just do not mix, nor should anyone try.


It’s the more human issues in Hulk (interesting how Lee chose to skip both the “Incredible” tag and the impersonal pronoun as well) that Lee wants to focus on. If the idea of massive back story and flashbacks o’plenty make your stomach seize, or if you really wish the actors would just shut up and fight/blow something up, this movie will not be a pleasant ride for you. Lee is striving for something deeper here, something more philosophical and universal. He wants to tap into that time-tested relationship between parent and child and work its intense Freudian fire into an inferno of pent-up rage. Hulk is meant to be a release of that rage, to show how failures on the part of our guardians result in destructive behavior.


This is not some subtle, cinematically created symbolism. This was the basis for another Lee’s - Stan Lee’s - desire in crafting the original character. The genius of the Hulk as an entity is that he is indeed us, fueled at the genetic level by trauma and terror and overblown into a destructive force that must be reckoned with. It’s intriguing to note how there is not a real revelatory arc to the Hulk’s development. At one moment, Bruce Banner is a normal human being. The next he is an outraged giant with an even larger, deadlier chip on his behemoth shoulders.


The transformation of the psychological into the physiological is at the heart of Hulk as a character and Hulk as a movie. The entire film is actually about our biological and emotional heritage, about how our bodily chemistry and interpersonal lineage, become the reason for who we are. Unlike the comic book version, this Hulk was a fiend just waiting to be forged. Daddy Banner’s experiments and the unfortunate ramifications are just a more modern, less meat-fisted way of handling the humongous’ foundation. In Stan Lee’s comic book world, Bruce is escaping an abusively alcoholic and murderous father. In Ang Lee’s world, David Banner is DNA destiny, the reason why Bruce is who he is at the molecular as well as the persona level.


This one-two punch makes the movie Hulk a far more complex, preordained brute. The notion of not being able to control one’s own providence is a fear that most offspring have, and Hulk blows it up into a big green overtly violent twisted mass of muscle without the ability to properly control itself; again, another part of the panic of growing up. True, we all aren’t worried about growing thirty feet in every direction and raging without rhyme or reason, but we do concern ourselves with the notion that our past controls our present and future and we are unable to keep it from happening.


This is, perhaps, why Hulk does not resonate with the standard blockbuster audience: the teenage boy. As the unbearable kings of the planet, they have yet to figure out how their past and their father figure (or lack thereof) has influenced their life. To them, Hulk should be about smashing and bashing. He should not be a reflection of a youth unfulfilled or a life filled with empty pain. So this is really the first adult action film, a movie that uses a unique cinematic style and obvious operatic tendencies to invoke more than tell its tale. Indeed, there is not a lot of mood swinging going on in this film. Lee gives us emotional archetypes versus real three-dimensional people.


Thankfully, all this deep-seeded child rearing rhetoric is couched in a wonderfully visual and abstractly arresting set of moviemaking ideals. There are those who find Ang Lee’s choices suspect and/or even irritating. He uses more split screen sequences than Brian De Palma has ever fantasized over and loves to overlap shots to give us multiple “every conceivable angle” opportunities. It helps to propel the narrative over the deeply bruised sequences of psyche in somersault and shows us that someone can literally take the structure of a comic book, apply it to the movies, and make it work.


As a CGI creation, the Hulk himself seems one shadow and character crafting computer map pass away from being the most amazing digital creation ever. It appears that, after the success of Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the computer-generated imagists at ILM just can’t quite figure out how to make something not look fake. While this may seem like an oxymoron, the completely green, oversized giant never once looks natural or “human” enough. He is overly detailed, all carefully placed ripples and dirt. We never get the full effect of the Hulk being flawed or part of his environment. Instead, we can see the environment conforming to him, with tanks and planes and houses becoming more “cartoon” like to fit in to what the Hulk has in mind.


No place is this more abundantly clear than in the much-discussed ‘Hulk Dogs’ sequence. While overall it’s a very well done action scene (what else would you expect from the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?), the oversized mutts look Scooby-Doo awful. They don’t appear as genetically altered hounds; they’re animated cartoon monsters in puppy suits that look phony from the minute the binary spit flies from their flapping jowls. What many computer artists forget is that they are supposed to be rendering the unreal real, not crafting perfectly painted practicality. For all his accurate body movement and incredible facial gesturing, more times than not the Hulk just looks like a well-painted drawing.


Thankfully, the depth of symbolism and the sheer cinematic artistry of Ang Lee keep Hulk afloat. Yes, the movie is too long and the effects are not always special, but what this Lee does is prove the Stan Lee thesis of Marvel’s best comic creations. It was the elder Lee’s belief that the best entertainment came out of the personalities and storylines, not fancy ink sketches. Hollywood, in turn, definitely lives by the bright lights, pretty colors theory of superhero movies. Details just get in the way of the next attractive explosion or the fast food tie-in moment. Hulk is a good movie burdened by expectations it could never meet and limitations that couldn’t be overcome. It is an effective denouncement of the parent/child relationship, of the basic progeny’s fear that we will grow up under the direct influence of our parents, almost to the point of pinpoint replication.


Bruce Banner’s problem is that, if he indeed matures exactly like his father, there is truly no hope for mankind. In order to survive, he will have to come to terms with what he is, and how he can manage it - if ever. Actually, this critic predicts that ten years from now, Hulk will be viewed as way ahead of its time in grappling with subjects that something like X-Men only skims over or Spider-Man avoids altogether. With a push to give every bi-monthly name a cinematic incarnation of its own (and even the revisiting of some previous franchise presentations), Hulk is destined to get lost. But wipe the blockbuster mentality from your perception and view this film again. Perhaps you’ll see an excellent exploration of human nature wrapped inside a thick green shell.


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