Confronting Ang Lee’s “Hulk”

2008-06-13 (General release)

His detractors aside, it was pretty obvious to everyone that Joss Whedon’s The Avengers was going to be a hit. What nobody could have predicted, aside from the film breaking several box-office records, is that a certain Avengers member would wind up with a resurgence in popularity.

The Hulk, possessed by Loki in 1963’s The Avengers #1, was the villain the original Avengers lineup of Iron Man, the Wasp, Giant Man, and Thor battled against. He later joined with them to fight against Loki, only to leave the team next issue, saying “I don’t need ANY of you! I’m still THE HULK!” Although the team he became most associated with was the Defenders—a “non-team” consisting of him, Doctor Strange, Namor the Sub-Mariner and the Silver Surfer, Whedon perhaps chose him for The Avengers partially to reflect his role in the origin of the team and partially to complete the Hulk’s place in the Marvel Studios movie cycle leading up to the film.

Whedon’s interpretation of Ol’ Greenskin, coupled with veteran character actor Mark Ruffalo’s performance, has been met with vast critical acclaim. Anthony Lane wrote for The New Yorker that, as Banner, Ruffalo“seems embarrassed by the prospect of his own wrath, and there is a wonderful closeup of the sad, apologetic glow in his eyes as he turns green.” Michael Phillips stated in the Chicago Tribune that “Ruffalo doesn’t have to do much to hold the screen; [he] finds ways to do so without resorting to an artful but narrow range of throwaway sarcasm.”

Although constantly available in several forms as are all the Marvel superheroes, The Avengers is arguably the Hulk’s biggest splash in cinema yet. 2008’s The Incredible Hulk was a success but is generally considered to be among the lower of the Avengers film cycle, averaging a 67% on Rotten Tomatoes to Iron Man’s 94% and Captain America: The First Avenger’s 79%. But 2003’s Hulk, helmed by Ang Lee, fared far worse. The film bombed after its $60 million opening weekend when it spread that there wasn’t that much smashing to be had. But a decade after its release, and given how he seems to be undergoing a popularity resurgence, this film is worth a second look.

Hulk focuses on the human core behind all the bombast and special effects. Lee focuses on the small scale. This is evident from the film’s title sequence, which is comprised of various types of cells and molecules in action. The opening is intercut with footage of a young David Banner (played as an old man by Nick Nolte) performing genetic experiments on starfish, monkeys, a rat and eventually himself, after he is told his experiments are too dangerous. From the flashes of the notes we see, coupled with his defense of his work to a young Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (played in the present by Sam Elliott, in a fit of pitch-perfect casting), we see that Banner is trying to achieve immortality. 

When baby Bruce is born, David notices that, when he grows upset, his son’s legs begin to ripple and bulge, turning slightly green. Realizing what he has passed on to his son, David works for years to find a cure, but his work is shut down before he can do so. Here, we encounter the first of the film’s themes, inner turmoil. The regret and fear over what his son might become because of him drives David, instead of seeking help, to destruction. He rigs the lab to blow up and, returning home to kill the now four-year old Bruce, kills his wife when she intervenes. This scene is initially seen through Bruce’s eyes in the form of a nightmare with him hearing his parents arguing fiercely in the kitchen with the door closed. Later on, when the scene is fully shown, David screams at the young Bruce in a fit of rage and anguish, underlying another theme: that of the dysfunctional father-son relationship. This theme is fully bared in a pivotal scene later on in the film.

One year on from the phenomenal success of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers isn’t it time to reconsider his most unlikely Avenger, the Hulk? Particularly the lavish treatment offered the Hulk in auteur Ang Lee’s 2008 outing The Incredible Hulk.

Bruce’s mother remarks in the opening scenes, after her son has his forehead cut open, that he is always “all bottled up.” Present-day Bruce is like that too; in their first scene together, Betty tells Bruce that “when you talk about nanomeds and gamma rays, you sound almost passionate.” As always pre-transformation, Bruce reacts to this with no detectable emotion whatsoever. Even when the film’s secondary villain, Glen Talbot (a cackling Josh Lucas), Betty’s ex, arrives, Banner barely raises his voice when telling him to leave. Later on, as the Hulk, he throws Talbot through a window and nearly ends up killing him. This belated outpouring of anger and rage sets up Talbot to try and take revenge later on.

Much later in the film, Banner is locked up by the military, and Talbot (whose company, Atheon, part of the military-industrial complex, has moved into the base) beats up Banner to trigger a transformation in order to obtain cell samples of the Hulk to patent and weaponize them for profit. When Banner eventually obliges, Talbot attempts to blow up the Hulk with a bomb that ricochets off of his skin, explodes and kills Talbot. This example clearly puts across just what the price of uncontrolled, unrestrained anger really is. It is also realized in a scene, where, after Hulk saves Betty from mutated attack dogs sent by David, changes back to Banner. Stumbling naked towards her car in a daze, Bruce, when trying to come to grips with the anger he has just dished out, says, “I killed them!” and grabs Betty’s neck, his face contorting darkly, as if to say, “Who’s distant now?”

Bruce also grapples throughout with what he perceives as the loss of his identity. More and more, every other person in the film comes to see him—except for Betty—as a monster and not a respected scientist. David even tells him in that aforementioned pivotal scene, “I came to see my real son. The one inside of you.” After nearly strangling Betty, Bruce says in despair that “The gamma just unleashed what was already there.”

But back to that pivotal scene. After being captured in San Francisco, Bruce is put in a room with an array of electricity pointing at him, and David is brought handcuffed from prison to confront him. What follows is a moment that lives up to Lee’s numerous comments during production that he was making a Greek tragedy. David screams at his son, “Stop bawling, you weak speck of human trash!” Nolte sits down at one point and actually mocks Bruce’s flailing around in rage; further evidence of the brokenness of their bond. He enrages Bruce to the point where he yells “GO!” David then yells back, “Oh, I’ll go! Just watch me GO!” then breaking into a electrical cable and biting it. Ross then orders a flunky to turn on the juice and, for an instant, it seems that David’s power lust and mania has compelled him into committing his own suicide. But due to his replicating Bruce’s experiments, David has basically become the Marvel supervillain The Absorbing Man, taking on the properties of any surface he touches. Hence, when zapped with electricity, he turns into a giant electrical monster.

What that scene demonstrates is just how far a bond can be severed. Due to guilt over his own mistake and a blinding lust for power, David comes to see Bruce as an object, a primal force waiting to be unleashed, not another human being and most certainly not his son. When he claims that the Hulk is his real son, however, there’s no pain on Bruce’s face; only an anger and an acceptance that, while it appears passive, is, given the emotional upheaval he’s gone through, anything but.

This film triumphantly mines the tragic, emotional aspect of the Hulk mythos and gives it a humanness rooted in small interaction. It’s not by dialogue that we discern how the characters feel, but rather, their body language, facial structure, and posture. The seemingly mundane conversations are given a weight that, at times, borders on tediousness, but the general strength of the script—credited to John Turman, Michael France, and James Schmaus from a story by Schamus—the paranoid, sinister Danny Elfman score, and Lee’s attention to visual detail and the appropriation of comic-type visuals prevents that from happening overall. Indeed, much could be said of how Lee comes perhaps the closest to capturing the comic book reading experience on film better than anyone, but this is not the space to do it. Suffice it to say that it feels revelatory and groundbreaking, even nearly a decade after its release.

Now to semantics. As always with a superhero movie meant to provide a big-screen intro or re-intro to a character, the updated origin story is worthy of discussion. Specifically, does it reasonably take the Hulk out of his Cold War-era origin, while making everything sound plausible to a 21st-century audience? By and large, yes.

The film’s updated origin story still involves Bruce saving someone from gamma radiation. However, it is not teenager Rick Jones (also absent from the 2008 film) but is instead his and Betty’s lab assistant, Harper. It is also not a gamma bomb he saves him from, but rather, deployed canisters of gamma radiation, which he and Betty are using, in conjunction with nanomeds—nanobots programmed to heal wounds from the inside—to experiment on frogs with the hope of healing people the world over. However, every time a frog is exposed to the combination, they explode, but Bruce, due to his modified DNA, survives.

In his book Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre (an essential study for anyone interested in the superhero genre), Peter Coogan posits that the experimentation angle takes the Hulk out of the superhero realm and into the world of monsters. “Banner’s act of selfless heroism [in saving Rick Jones from the gamma bomb in the original story] turns superpowers from a blessing to a curse, an innovation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the Silver Age. Without that heroic sacrifice, the Hulk is just a monster, and so the Hulk film is not a superhero film but a monster movie.” But Coogan completely ignores the fact that Banner throws himself at the gamma canisters in an act of selfless heroism to save Harper. His experimented DNA does not affect this aspect of the origin in any way. Furthermore, the following events of the film lead to an inference that Bruce’s experimental DNA would have laid dormant were it not for the gamma radiation, which he received in an act of noble sacrifice. Therefore, the film still obeys the conventions of the superhero genre, despite Ang Lee’s comments, which Coogan rightly records, that he was making a monster movie.

This origin is a smart, relevant way to bring the Hulk out of the postwar fear of the atomic bomb that spawned his creation. More importantly, it purveys this with a tacit, matter-of-fact “This is what it is,” positing the idea that this takes place in some version of the present day, as in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, or in the near future, as with X-Men. It works well and helps usher the viewer into the film’s world.

Another interesting element about Hulk is the way it acknowledges the 1970s television series The Incredible Hulk. For those unfamiliar, a quick recap: David Banner (played by Bill Bixby) was a scientist obsessed with uncovering the secret of how gamma radiation from sunspots theoretically enables individuals to exhibit superhuman strength in times of danger. Testing his theory, he bombarded himself with gamma rays; unbeknownst to him, his equipment had been upgraded, causing him to give himself a far higher dose of the rays. Later that night, he changed into the Hulk (played by Lou Ferrigno, voiced by Ted Cassidy and later by Charles Napier) for the first time. A unfortunate chain of events caused the death of Banner’s research partner, which the Hulk was blamed for, along with Banner’s presumed death.

The formula of the series was that David, drifting from town to town, would become involved with the locals, and would inevitably “Hulk out” in anger, solve the problem as the Hulk, then leave again, all the while pursued by investigative reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin). Downplaying the superheroics of its title character and instead focusing on the pain of Bruce Banner and the isolation of his condition, The Incredible Hulk was an enormous hit, running on CBS for five seasons, along with three TV movies later made by NBC.

While several claimed that Hulk ignored this huge part of the character’s legacy, this is simply not true. By naming the antagonist David Banner and positing him as a scientist whose experimentation in the hopes of immortality caused his benevolent nature to turn dark, the film looks at just how far the David Banner of the television series might have gone if he had not become the Hulk. Additionally, unlike the series, where David’s wife was dead, here, we see where his marriage and offspring might have come to had he continued with his experiments. It is a way of acknowledging the series’ influence while also folding it into its own narrative.

David Banner’s characterization here, apart from his Absorbing Man transformation, is largely conflated with Brian Banner, Bruce’s emotionally and physically abusive father in the comics. A true, human villain, Brian, reated by writer Bill Mantlo and artist Mike Mignola, was fleshed out during the 12-year run of writer Peter David on The Incredible Hulk, which saw the Green Giant do everything from fighting aliens to grappling with AIDS. While David’s run is a benchmark in Marvel Comics history, there is one part of it specifically that delve into Bruce’s traumatic past and the dysfunctional relationship with Brian: Incredible Hulk #376-377, collected in Hulk Visionaries: Peter David Vol. 6.

In the events before these issues, David had the Grey Hulk—the Hulk’s original coloring in his first appearance—come back in the form of the wisecracking Joe Fixit, who had a reasonable level of intelligence and worked in Vegas for the mob, replacing the green “Savage” Hulk as the primary Hulk form. In issue #376, “Personality Conflicts,” Bruce argues with the two Hulks out loud in the back of a truck at night. Three panels on the 2nd page, in particular, showing Bruce talking to himself as each of the Hulks, with their own distinctive voices, underlies a diagnosis made the next issue that is an undercurrent of David’s entire run: that Bruce suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder—popularly known, and as it was called at the time, as Multiple Personality Disorder, with both of the Hulks representing different facets of his psyche.

Later in the issue, the Green Hulk is let free from a giant mental door he had been locked behind in an earlier issue and begins strangling the Grey Hulk. In the physical world, this causes Bruce to turn into a hybrid of both Hulks and begin blindly wreaking havoc, talking to himself all the while, with interspersed scenes of Bruce, in his mind, trying to seperate the two Hulks, who are choking each other. It is only through Betty begging him to “Be strong! Please! Be strong!” that he can finally punch out the two Hulks, screaming, “It’s time you muscle-bound morons realized THAT BANNER IS THE STRONGEST ONE THERE IS!”

Banner faints and Doc Samson—a gamma-irradiated superhero who is also Dr. Leonard Samson, psychologist—arrives, brings Banner, Betty, Rick Jones, and Rick’s girlfriend Marlo Chandler to a nearby hospital. With the help of the reformed villain and master hypnotist, the Ringmaster, Samson brings Banner and the two Hulks together inside Bruce’s mind to confront his past traumas through hypnosis. This confrontation is the focus of the next issue, “Honey, I Shrunk The Hulk.”

Samson explains to the Hulks that “You’re going to have to come to terms with each other because you’re all tearing this man apart.” Grey Hulk wonders why the room they all appear to be in looks so familiar when a voice screams off-panel, “MONSTER!”

On the next page, the voice is revealed to belong to a terrifying, demon-like creature who is yelling at a young Bruce. “You’re some sort of monster!” it cries. “A freak! A MUTANT freak!”

“Lemme ALONE!” the young Banner cries. “I’ll be good. Don’t hit me! DON’T HIT ME!”

Outraged, the Green Hulk tries attacking the monster, but it picks him up, breaking his back, then stabs the Grey Hulk straight through with its claw. “You’re mine. All mine. I’ll kill you,” it growls triumphantly at Bruce. Snapped out of it by Samson and Ringmaster, Bruce is then dropped back into the past, at the point where his mother tried taking young Bruce away from his father. They make it outside to the car, but are halted by the demon creature, who screams so violently no word balloon is even drawn, in bold red letters, “WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING?!”

“Away, Brian,” Mrs. Banner tells him. “I can’t take your craziness anymore. Your attacks on Bruce. It’s over.”

“It’s not over until I say it is!” the creature growls, grabbing Bruce’s mother and violently tossing her on the ground, killing her. We then see the child Bruce bending down in shock, stroking his dead mother. The adult Bruce pleads with his younger self to show any form of emotion at all. In response, child Bruce briefly turns into the Green Hulk and lets out a savage cry.

Changing back, he says, “There. I reacted. A nuclear reaction. Happy now?”

After a final mental confrontation with the creature at the graveyard where his mother—Rebecca Banner—is buried, Bruce breaks down and cries; the monster then shrinks down to reveal it is nothing more than a middle-aged Brian Banner, robbed of his power now that his son has given in to his emotions. The spirit of Rebecca then appears and urges the two Hulks to merge into Bruce. In the real world, this results in Bruce changing into and confronting Betty as what would be come to know as “Professor Hulk,” who has the Green Hulk’s appearance and strength combined with Bruce’s intelligence.

Tellingly, the cover of this issue was titled The New Incredible Hulk. This is not just because of the introduction of Professor Hulk, but because of the revelation of the full extent of Brian’s child abuse and the trauma Bruce endured. The issue is just as vivid and classically tragic as the confrontation between David and Bruce in Hulk.

Whedon and Ruffalo’s version of Bruce in The Avengers is devoid of daddy issues, but the dissociative identity angle is still represented to an extent. We never see Bruce talk to himself, but he continually refers to the Hulk as “the other guy.” When Bruce speaks indirectly about the Hulk, or when Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark tells him, “I’m a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster,” he acknowledges his alter ego with a sense of wry anguish, as if he gets the appeal the Hulk has for other people, but is still haunted by the creature internally.

In one of the most heart-rending scenes in the film, during a heated argument amongst the whole team, Bruce stares the others down and says starkly, “I was at a really low point. I put a bullet in my mouth and the other guy spit it back out.” Ruffalo says this painfully, to convey the idea that, even in suicide, Bruce cannot escape the specter of the Hulk. It’s a stunning scene, and is probably one of the key scenes in the film people will point to in the future when explaining how this film boosted the character’s popularity. That, and his takedown of Loki.

When comparing Hulk of The Avengers to the Hulk of Hulk, it must be said the former looks infinitely better. Despite the Ang Lee Hulk being brought to life by the wizards at Industrial Light & Magic, CGI & motion capture technology have come a long way in the 9 years between that film and The Avengers. Further, the newer Hulk looks closer to the modern-day comics interpretation, while Hulk’s Hulk is so obviously modeled after Bana. This is somewhat ironic given that Ang Lee acted out motion capture for his film, while Ruffalo did it himself for Whedon.

For all that I have praised it here, Hulk is still not a perfect film. Ol’ Greenskin himself aside, the CGI is rather gorgeous at times and rather iffy at others. The performances are also problematic. Eric Bana as Bruce has the look down, but can’t really nail the emotional tone. Jennifer Connolly fares off far worse as Betty Ross, appearing rather wooden save for one or two great emotional moments.

The screenplay moves along at a swift pace and, as noted above, Lee’s direction is a marvel indeed. But parts of the film that are supposed to be gripping, like a tense conversation between Betty and David about Bruce, come off understated instead of having the bombast they require. Furthermore, there is a distinct lack of Hulk, with the monster spending his first big appearance, in a fight scene with three gamma-irradiated dog monsters modified by David and sent to kill Betty, nearly always in shadow. It’s easy to see then why this movie’s box office tanked after opening weekend.

Overall, this film is a forgotten gem. In the rise of geek culture to the top of the Hollywood pile, there wasn’t so much a need to faithfully, lavishly adapt comics characters to movies as it was to simply get them out there. Experimentation, like what Sam Raimi did with his Spider-Man trilogy, was tolerated rather than vehemently railed against (well, at least in the mainstream media). But I like to think that Lee, given the sheer goodwill audiences gave him after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, experimented to his own personal level rather than in the name of the fans.

While this isn’t a bad thing at all—in fact, it helps the film forge its own identity– it was altogether too much for mainstream audiences to put up with. Expecting an action-heavy tentpole blockbuster, what they got was a dramatic portrait of a tortured individual along with some smashing and bashing. Again, it’s easy to see why the backlash happened.

But ultimately, if you look past the general conceptions of what the Hulk should be with Hulk, you’ll find a problematic but still pretty great movie. You’ll find a movie that doesn’t ignore the Hulk’s legacy but rather offers its own take while still paying tribute to what has come before. Not only that, it also takes the sheer tragedy of a man turned monster and brings it front and center, forcing fans and regular people alike to confront some pretty heavy themes. In the end, it’s worth a second look.

If nothing else, at least it’s not Ghost Rider.

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