Ang Lee’s Bruce Banner Can’t Carry the Weight of Hulk

The year 2003 saw the release of three Marvel films: Daredevil, X2: X-Men United, and Hulk. These were the films that entered serious production (sometimes after years of fitful development) following the success of X-Men (2000), and arrived just in time to ride the wave of excitement following Spider-Man (2002). Of these 2003 films, only X2: X-Men can be considered an unequivocal success. Daredevil was meddled with, resulting in an unsatisfying film that underwhelmed at the box office. Hulk, on the other hand, had a clear vision and a unique approach to comic book filmmaking. Hulk has excellent visual effects (the best seen in a Marvel film up to that time) and a highly prestigious art-house filmmaker, Ang Lee, at the helm. What harms Hulk, unfortunately, is a severe mishandling of its central character — Bruce Banner, the “puny human” — which results in the film, and its attempts to bring psychological depth to superheroes, feeling deathly dull and uninvolving.

Bruce Banner/The Hulk was created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and debuted in The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962), just six months after Marvel had made a splash with Fantastic Four #1. In the book, a teenager unwittingly drives onto a military nuclear testing site moments before an experimental gamma bomb is set off. Lead scientist, the nebbish Bruce Banner, rushes out to save the boy, but is caught in the explosion and absorbs an incredible dose of gamma radiation. As a result, when Banner becomes angry he changes into an enormous, nearly invulnerable, incredibly strong, dim-witted and uncontrollable monster dubbed the Hulk. Almost immediately, Banner becomes a fugitive from the military who, led by General “Thunderbolt” Ross, set out to capture or kill the creature. Banner, for his part, attempts to keep the monster at bay, or even try to cure himself, while recognizing that Hulk can be strategically aimed at certain threats for the good of the world.

For Bruce Banner, not the Hulk, is the true hero. His attempts to tamp down or eradicate the destructive force of nature that is the Hulk, and yet submit to it when Hulk is needed, represents the issue-to-issue heroism on display. This interpretation is a bit simplistic, particularly over the years as the Hulk’s intelligence, agency and connection to Banner has continuously been explored. This is my interpretation, however. Clearly the filmmakers behind Hulk did not agree with me, but I will elaborate on that in my film analysis below.

As for the comics, the initial Incredible Hulk series was cancelled after only six issues. However, after successful guest appearances in Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man, and becoming a founding member of The Avengers, Hulk’s popularity began to grow. Part of the character’s appeal stemmed from the themes touched upon by his unique origin and situation. Banner’s accident, like so many comic book origins from the ’50s and ’60s, was related to nuclear technology, speaking to the general uneasiness about this relatively new source of power. But Banner also worked directly with the military — and then became a military target.

As the ’60s wore on and the Vietnam War grew increasingly controversial, Hulk became a counterculture figure. Psychologically, many readers could identify with Banner’s struggle with his emotions, his anger, and the more destructive side of his personality. The character was like an updated Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with shades of Frankenstein. New Hulk stories began appearing in Tales to Astonish, which was eventually renamed Incredible Hulk.

Dr. David Banner (Bill Bixby) transitioning to the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno) in The Incredible Hulk

(Image: S1 DVD cover)

Unlike most Marvel superheroes, however, the Hulk property achieved a high level of mainstream success prior to the comic book film boom of the 21st-century. This was due to a very popular television series that technically ran from 1977 to 1990, including five television movies and 78 regular episodes. The bulk of The Incredible Hulk aired between 1978 and 1982. It followed Dr. David Bruce Banner, played by TV everyman Bill Bixby, as he moved from town to town, on the run from the authorities, and tried to find a cure for his transformations. He would, without fail, encounter people in need of assistance and would often transform into the Hulk, portrayed by bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno, when necessary. The series emphasized Banner’s heroic nature, a fugitive desperately searching for a cure while being unable to turn his back on people in need. The success of the series established a popular image of Bruce Banner/the Hulk in the public consciousness. This is even true for me, and I was not yet born to experience the main run of the series and have not watched it. The success of the series also ensured that a big-budget, blockbuster film adaptation was inevitable.

Compared to the Bixby/Ferrigno television series and even most of the Hulk comics, Hulk was not what audiences were expecting. The screenwriters and director Ang Lee opted for a different approach to a comic book superhero film, one that strived for an emotional and psychological depth more often associated with Oscar-baiting dramas, at least until the smashing begins. This is not a surprise, given the Taiwan-born Lee was best known in the Western world for directing such dramas as Sense and Sensibility (1995) and The Ice Storm (1997). Most recently, Lee had directed the brilliant, beautiful martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and, according to Hulk‘s commentary, was looking to delve deeper into action filmmaking.

I’m not against psychological or dramatic depth in a film or a genre that is generally known for action and popcorn thrills. In fact, I welcome it as a change of pace, particularly when done well. The trick, however, is that the drama needs to resonate, it needs to connect with the audience on some level. In Hulk, the psychological depth and drama that define the first three-quarters of the film do not resonate, they do not connect, and the entire film suffers as a result. The reason for this is that the central character, Bruce Banner, is a passive cipher, doing nothing to help himself or others, and is not relatable in any way. Lee asserts in the commentary that “in the comics, nobody cares about Bruce Banner.” And therein lies the problem with Hulk.

The film opens in the mid-’60s at a southwestern US military base where Dr. David Banner conducts genetic experiments on various animals, ostensibly hoping to develop a method for soldiers to rapidly heal on the battlefield. When his superior, Ross, refuses to allow human testing, David secretly experiments on himself. His wife soon becomes pregnant with their son, Bruce, who inherits some of the results of David’s experimentation. David searches for a cure for his son but, after four years, Ross discovers evidence of human experimentation and shuts him down. In response, David blows up the base and rushes home to kill his son. Bruce’s mother defends him, however, and she is killed. David is sent to prison for 30 years while Bruce grows up with these memories, and most of his emotions, heavily repressed and believing his parents are dead.

The climax of this backstory is only hinted at for too much of the film, as Bruce refuses to allow himself to remember. And yet this is a critical moment in his life, it fuels the Hulk and has potential to give viewers a reason to care for Bruce. Holding back the full details of Bruce’s trauma makes it more difficult to understand or root for Bruce. And that is a major problem. Another problem is that Bruce Banner is portrayed as such a passive character, observing the events surrounding and effecting him without active involvement. Even once the film finally fully reveals Bruce’s childhood trauma, the film depicts him watching from under a table as his father storms into the house, argues with his mother, then accidentally kills his mother. Bruce is a spectator in his own life, so why should we care about him?

Eric Bana as Dr. David Banner in Hulk (2003)(Photo by Peter Sorel. – © 2003 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. / IMDB)

The adult Bruce Banner, portrayed by Eric Bana, works at the University of California Berkeley, just outside of San Francisco, on a project that it surprisingly similar to his father’s research. It’s updated, however, using a combination of nanotechnology and gamma radiation to induce fast regeneration. He works closely with Dr. Betty Ross, his recently ex-girlfriend and, unbeknownst to either of them, the daughter of the man who imprisoned Bruce’s father. It’s difficult to determine where the portrayal of Bruce Banner went so wrong, but he’s incredibly flat in the film. Bana is a talented, charismatic actor in many projects, but his performance here is like an empty shell. Maybe that was intentional, written by the screenwriters or directed by Lee to demonstrate the psychological damage done by Bruce’s childhood trauma, which can then be contrasted by the emotional explosion that is the Hulk. Either way, Bana’s Banner is a miscalculation that sinks the whole film. Whereas Spider-Man took the audience through Peter Parker’s journey with relatable human emotions and a joy of discovery, the first 90 minutes of Hulk are a slog. Even scenes between Bruce and Jennifer Connelly’s Betty fall flat because the two characters have no chemistry. If the audience doesn’t connect with Bruce Banner, why should we care when his life falls apart, or when he becomes the Hulk?

But become the Hulk he does. During a laboratory accident in which Bruce saves his assistant, the only non-passive action he takes in the entire film, Bruce receives a dose of his own nanotechnology and gamma radiation. This interacts with his inherited and altered DNA from his father, unlocking his Hulk side. When Bruce becomes angry or is confronted with his past traumas he becomes the Hulk. This is complicated by the fact that David Banner, now portrayed by Nick Nolte, has recently been released from prison, and immediately sets out to reconnect with Bruce and meld their research for his own nefarious ends. Also, Betty’s father, now played by the always-commanding Sam Elliott, discovers Bruce’s sordid history and immediately assumes the apple didn’t fall far from the mad scientist tree.

So Bruce is stressed. But once again, he’s a passive character in a film that’s ostensibly about him. Ross wants to put him away because he sees him as a threat. David wants to ally with the Hulk, but also harness his power. Betty wants to help him, possibly cure him. Meanwhile, a sleazy private military contractor, Talbot played by Josh Lucas (who gives good sleaze), wants to take over Bruce and Betty’s research, and by extension the Hulk, for financial gain. And Bruce just lets all of this happen, so why should we care about him?

(© 2003 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. / IMDB)

So the story goes on. After a couple of Hulk “episodes”, Bruce is captured and moved to a secret military compound underneath the base where his father once worked. Talbot’s manipulations lead to the biggest Hulk-out of all: an epic action sequence that spans from the deserts of the American Southwest to San Francisco, and features Hulk versus military tanks, helicopters and fighter jets directed by Ross. I genuinely enjoy this sequence when the film really lets loose, so I will use it as an opportunity to highlight the strong points of the film before explaining why none of it is effective.

Much of Hulk is dynamic and gorgeous to behold. The colours pop off of the screen, with a particular emphasis on green and purple, the traditional colours of Hulk’s skin and tattered shorts. The Hulk itself looks excellent, and the computer effects used to construct the character hold up to a fair bit of scrutiny even by today’s standards. I watch each of these films in my home projection theatre, which has quite a large screen. Imperfections are, therefore, magnified quite a bit. Even so, my Hulk DVD passed muster. These are arguably the best visual effects I have seen in a Marvel Film up to that point, and I was shocked that they were not even nominated for an Academy Award.

Lee also makes a bold visual decision to echo comic book transitions and panel layout throughout the film. Sometimes this means a split screen, showing a scene from multiple angles at once, or depicting concurrent events simultaneously on-screen. Sometimes images are transposed onto one another, causing elements or characters in a particular scene to appear next to each other when they actually exist in separate spaces. Sometimes Lee becomes even flashier, zooming out from a particular image, then traveling down a moving, comic book style page of other scenes to arrive on the next scene of focus. These are dynamic visuals and transitions which uniquely approximate the experience of reading a comic book. That this technique has never, to my recollection, been repeated by another comic book film speaks both to the difficulty in achieving it, and in the desire of other filmmakers to not be associated with Hulk in any way.

The action scenes are quite entertaining. The second Hulk-out features the famous dog fight, wherein Hulk fights a Hulk-poodle and two other monster dogs of his father’s creation. The fight is interesting, taking place in a forest of giant sequoias at night, dwarfing even Hulk and keeping him in shadow as a tease. The sequence only seems odd because of the off-putting dog designs, but that’s hardly enough to dismiss it outright.

More exciting is the largest Hulk sequence, alluded to before, as the Hulk escapes military captivity. He fights his way through the underground facility, smashing everything in his path, before being let out. Once outside, he flies through the desert in enormous leaps, fighting off everything the military throws at him. He destroys four tanks in a desert, then spars with advanced helicopters in Monument Valley. I find it impossible not to get a visceral thrill from watching Hulk do what he does best. As he reaches San Francisco, he faces fighter jets. He hangs on to one as it soars into the stratosphere, hoping to knock out the Hulk before he destroys the plane. These scenes are well-mounted and exciting. They also also feel completely disconnected from the rest of the film.

That’s because these action scenes feature the Hulk, not Bruce Banner. The film spends 90 minutes treating Bruce Banner like a passive blank space, then it turns him into an aggressively exciting character for a large-scale action sequence. But I, for one, do not feel Bana’s Banner in the Hulk. The character, and thus the sequence, don’t feel tethered to the rest of the film because the rest of the film has made Banner aggressively uninteresting, unengaging, and unrelatable. For action sequences to work well, they need to be an extension of plot and character. Extension of plot ensures the sequence has a reason for occurring. Extension of character ensures that the audience cares about the sequence, as we want the characters to succeed, fail, triumph, survive, whatever is appropriate. Without these connections, action sequences are all superficial sound and fury (see Michael Bay’s filmography). Hulk misses that essential character component, so why should we care?

As the film ends, we are treated to a solid scene between Bana and Nolte, as they talk out their issues on a platform that’s staged like a Mamet play before the inevitable fight. At this point, David Banner has used Bruce’s research to alter himself into a version of the Absorbing Man, and he snatches Bruce in order to absorb the Hulk’s power. But that power is too great, and it overwhelms David before a missile destroys him. Bruce is last seen one year later, hiding in a rain forest, acting as a doctor for locals and about to defend them as the Hulk. This throwback to the television series, complete with its signature line spoken in Spanish (“You’re making me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” Classic!), is too little too late. I was so ready for Bruce Banner to finally become a hero, but alas, it was not to be. Not in this film, or this franchise.

Hulk was the second Marvel franchise of 2003 to end after a lackluster first film. Both of these films, Daredevil and Hulk are, guilty of putting too little emphasis on the relatively ordinary men behind the superhero personas. As discussed in my article on Daredevil, the version released in theaters cut much of the non-superhero scenes that were present in the original version. But there’s no other version of Hulk that I know about. There was just a general disinterest by the filmmakers in Bruce Banner as a character. Maybe future films would have corrected this issue. Eric Bana signed an increasingly typical comic book film contract that included options for three films. But those films never materialized. Unlike Daredevil, Hulk’s journey continued to play out on the big screen, so I will wait to discuss future appearance of the character in upcoming articles.

What’s worth noting is that the comic book film boom was still just starting when Hulk was release, and these were the growing pains. Studios and filmmakers behind the films of 2003 seemed to think audiences wanted more Daredevil and Hulk than Matt Murdock and Bruce Banner. Eventually they would learn that audiences must care about the characters within before they could care about the superheroes. There were more growing pains to come, but eventually people would learn.

* * *

Stan Lee Cameo Corner: Lee appears in an early scene at Berkeley discussing lab security measures with fellow cameo-er Lou Ferrigno. His dialogue, including a cheery hello to Bruce Banner, was unscripted.

First Appearances:

Producer Gale Ann Hurd would go on to produce three more Marvel films (The Incredible Hulk and the two Punisher films)

Screenwriter Michael France contributed to the screenplays of Hulk, The Punisher and Fantastic Four

Next Time: Thomas Jane punishes John Travolta. Also punished: the audience.