In the history of superhero movies, Ang Lee’s Hulk is generally considered a dead end. And not without reason: While the Hulk has since gone on to become a major player in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, starring in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk and appearing in both Avengers films, the Hulk of this movie never made a return appearance. Released in the summer of 2003, Hulk was positioned to do for Marvel’s Green Goliath what the previous year’s Spider-Man had done for its famous webslinger. It didn’t: The film made money, but it also left critics and audiences alike puzzled and disappointed, questioning whether the pairing of director Ang Lee with the story of a man who turned into a giant green monster could ever have worked. Maybe superhero movies didn’t need the touch of a filmmaker as intent on pursuing the thematic underpinnings of the genre as he was on pursuing its spectacle. Maybe superhero movies weren’t meant to work that way.
Maybe. Yet as dead ends go, Hulk remains worth exploring. Despite its reputation as a botch, Lee’s is a fascinating film, albeit a frustrating one as notable for what it was attempting as what it accomplished. If nothing else, it’s a strange film, one that withholds its titular hero until the 40-minute mark and ends with a fight scene that borders on abstraction. It looks odd, too, with a multi-screen editing scheme that sometimes attempts to mimic the look of a comic-book page and other times just seems like an attempt to exploit the unusual possibilities of digital editing, creating wipes out of characters’ faces and using rapid cuts to disorienting effect. There’s no other superhero movie quite like it, and that’s partly because the reaction to its peculiarity helped close the door to such unconventional treatments, albeit not all the way.
The period leading up to Hulk’s release might have been the only time when a Ang Lee-directed Hulk movie made sense, either for Lee or the superhero movie. Born in Taiwan, Lee received his college and grad-school education in the United States, attending NYU at the same time as Spike Lee. Lee’s first three films—Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman—received Taiwanese financing, with the latter two becoming arthouse hits in the U.S. All excellent, each explores the often tense relationships between different generations of the same family, a theme Lee would return to throughout his career, including with Hulk.
They also all featured two collaborators Lee would work with, with the occasional break, throughout his career: writer and producer James Schamus and editor Tim Squyres, who joined him as he moved onto bigger projects such as the Jane Austen adaptation Sense And Sensibility (for which Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay), the acclaimed ’70s-set drama The Ice Storm, and the overlooked Civil War movie Ride With The Devil. Both were also on hand for Lee’s thoughtful 2000 wuxia Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which seamlessly merged action and deep emotion.
It was Crouching Tiger’s success that, above all, set the stage for Lee to make Hulk. Crouching Tiger established Lee as a capable director of action scenes who could also make challenging material connect commercially. (As if to seal the deal on his action skills, Lee directed “Chosen,” a 2001 episode of BMW’s The Hire, the car company’s shorts-as-ads series starring Clive Owen. Dominated by a long car chase in which Owen attempts to bring a kid, played by Lee’s son Mason, to safety by getting him into the hands of some Buddhist monks, it concludes with Owen covering a nicked ear with a Band Aid featuring an image of the Hulk.) But, if anything, Hulk needed Lee more than Lee needed Hulk.
More specifically, Hulk needed a strong creative vision to give it shape. The film had been in development since 1990, its script passing through the hands of Michael France, Zak Penn, Jonathan Hensleigh, J.J. Abrams, Michael Tolkin, and others. Eventually, Schamus did a rewrite and the subsequent heated debate over who deserved on-screen credit became the subject of a New Yorker article illustrating the Byzantine process by which writing credits get assigned. But by all accounts it was Schamus who put the conflict between Bruce Banner, an emotionally closed-off scientist, and his estranged father David at the heart of the film. That choice allowed Lee a way into Hulk, giving him the emotional framework around which he could build the rest of the movie. (It’s worth noting that Schamus was drawing on elements that had been woven into the Hulk story by comics writers over the years. Bill Mantlo introduced the notion of Bruce being the victim of an abusive father in the 1980s, and Peter David’s long, decade-plus run on the title ran with it, positing Banner as having multiple personalities as a result of that abuse, including Hulks of various colors and temperaments.)
Superhero films have changed. With each brick added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe after the success of Iron Man in 2008, the subgenre has moved more toward shared universes and an overarching editorial vision determined by the studio—not unlike how superhero comics work at large comics publishers. But in 2003, the rules had yet to be written. The success of X-Men and Spider-Man suggested superheroes could be a big deal in the 21st century, thanks in part to advances in special effects that made it easier to create cinematic renderings of superpowers. But, in the pre-Iron Man era, assignments for such films tended to go either to journeymen like Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil, Ghost Rider), Tim Story (Fantastic Four, Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer), and Rob Bowman (Elektra), music-video and commercial directors attempting to level up like Francis Lawrence (Constantine), and indie directors who’d brought strong visions to the A-list like Bryan Singer (X-Men, X2, Superman Returns) and Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins).
Lee belongs to this last category, and with Hulk he attempts to satisfy all the requirements of both a big Hollywood blockbuster—a first for him, even factoring in his Crouching Tiger breakthrough—and an intense family story, an area he already knew well. To the latter end, the script features not one fraught relationship between fathers and their children, but two. Eric Bana plays Bruce Banner, a brilliant but troubled scientist working with gamma radiation alongside fellow scientist Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), who’s grown distant from her father General Ross (Sam Elliott), who once oversaw the work of Bruce’s scientist father David Banner.
After an unsettling credits sequences that pairs Danny Elfman’s pounding score with images of animal experimentation, the film then segues into the first of several flashbacks to Bruce’s childhood—or more specifically, the period just before his birth, when his scientist father (played as a younger man by Paul Kersey) experimented on himself and then passed his altered genetic material onto his son. Narratively, it establishes that Bruce is already primed to become the Hulk even before the event that seals the deal. Metaphorically, it sets up the notion that Bruce—and Betty and everyone else—inherits troubles that will stay with them from the moment of conception.
There’s a specific kind of dark legacy that the film keeps coming back to, however. David’s behavior grows increasingly erratic. He keeps experimenting on his son and in time goes mad, setting off an explosion at the military lab where he works, coming home, threatening to kill Bruce, and instead killing his wife (Cara Buono) while Bruce looks on. Bruce represses the memory, but that doesn’t make it go away. The flashbacks end, but David (now played by Nick Nolte at his most derelict) returns to Bruce in adulthood, posing at a janitor at Bruce’s lab and looking to resume his experiments. Meanwhile, Bruce is under the twin strains of a review board that threatens to pull the funding for his and Betty’s project and the work itself, which requires him to remain close to Betty even after she ended their relationship because of his emotional distance.
It’s enough to make anyone angry. But Bruce doesn’t get angry. In fact, he doesn’t really do emotion, and it’s evidence of Bana’s acting ability that despite being a handsome, fit man, he can convincingly play Bruce as a closed-off dweeb who struggles to express passion for anything beyond the facts, figures, and experiments. That changes after a lab accident that finds him pelted with extreme levels of gamma radiation, an incident that then turns him into a giant, green, grunting monster-man when under emotional stress, even though the film establishes, effectively if none-to-subtly, that he’s had the monster inside him all along. There’s a difference between lurking and manifesting, however, and one night, alone at the lab and overwhelmed by memory and professional pressure, he makes that terrible transformation.
It’s here that the film starts to get into trouble. The effects used to create the Hulk keep hitting the limits of what 2003 CGI could accomplish, making the monster look more like a work of animation than green flesh and blood. Effects always have limitations, however, and even films with most polished effects require some suspension of disbelief. It takes a certain amount of giving yourself over to a movie to stop thinking of E.T. as a little person in a suit, or Groot as the end product of much binary coding. The trouble with Hulk is that it doesn’t give viewers enough reason to suspend disbelief, soon throwing its hero into a fight with some Hulked-out dogs that’s at once poorly choreographed and muddily rendered—to say nothing of it being a little ridiculous in the first place. Hulk doesn’t send audiences out of the theater with a lot of good will, either. The somber climax involves Bruce turning into the Hulk and fighting his father, who’s since picked up some superpowers of his own. Lee stages this in a way that plays up symbolism at the expense of thrills, turning it into what borders on an experimental short film about two monsters working through their Oedipal issues.
But what comes between those two ineffective setpieces is really something. In the film’s long middle section, Bruce is captured by the military and held at a base beneath the ruins of the desert town destroyed by his father years before. Under heavy guard, he’s allowed to walk the ruins and sort through his past with Betty, connecting with her in ways he couldn’t before his inner monster manifested itself. It’s here that Lee’s decision to take the long, thoughtful approach to the material starts to pay off, and it’s soon after that Hulk makes its best use of the Hulk. Goaded into transforming by a cartoonish corporate bad guy (Josh Lucas), Banner hulks out and begins a long flight through the desert, which Lee plays as a lyrical, nearly wordless sequence as memorable for its shots of Hulk bounding through the desert as the moments in which he fends off tanks and helicopters. In long shot, even the Hulk looks dwarfish compared to the dunes and mountains around him, like just another fragile creature trying to make his way through an unforgiving world. At times it seems almost like Gus Van Sant’s Gerry if it were reworked into a Marvel property. It’s here that it becomes clear Lee was really onto something, even if he couldn’t quite pull it off.
“No contemporary filmmaker has taken a comicbook character more seriously than Ang Lee takes Hulk,” Todd McCarthy wrote in a Variety review that typifies the admiring-but-guarded critical response. His piece goes on to call it “[a] seriously brooding psychological drama” and “an impeccably crafted piece of megabuck fantasy storytelling,” but the praise comes with a lot of caveats working toward a conclusion dubbing it a “noble, shrewd, skillful but still thwarted try at upgrading one of the preferred genres of the moment and of respecting the intelligence of the audience more than is the norm with popular entertainments these days.” Of its box office prospects, McCarthy wrote, “After a brawny B.O. opening, anything is possible, although heavy repeat business looks doubtful.” The doubts proved well-placed.
Yet even as Hulk developed a reputation as a dud—manifested most hilariously in the Hulk-penned 2004 Onion op-ed “Why No One Want Make Hulk 2?”—the norm never quite reverted back. Though only Christopher Nolan was able to run with the idea of an auteur-driven superhero movie with his Batman films, and plenty of dumb takes on the superhero film appeared in Hulk’s wake—two awful Fantastic Four movies, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Catwoman, etc.—the most successful and enduring superhero films have drawn on Lee’s thoughtfulness. Specifically, the best MCU films have put character first, starting with Robert Downey Jr.’s damaged, witty Tony Stark.
At the same time, Marvel also developed a reputation for reining in the directors playing with its toys. Jon Favreau brought a steady, though not particularly distinctive, hand to the first two Iron Man films, and directors like Thor’s Kenneth Branagh and Captain America: The First Avenger’s Joe Johnston only stuck around for one tour of duty with their respective characters. Even Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, as terrific as it is, plays like a Marvel product first and a Whedon film second. When Edgar Wright parted ways with the company on the eve of directing Ant-Man, it seemed like a sign of changing times. Wright began working on the film well before the MCU became the juggernaut it is now and, by all reports, conceived it as a project to suit his distinctive style. When it came time to make the film, however, there seems not to have been room for that style. (Meanwhile, Warner Bros. seems to have adopted second-hand Nolanisms—particularly a relentless grimness—as its default mode for DC Comics heroes, with no hint of it changing even as it embarks on a Marvel-inspired universe-building plan.)
Nonetheless, there are signs of evolution within the Marvel camp. For all its requisite movie-ending fireworks, Iron Man 3 plays very much like a Shane Black film, thanks to its love of verbosity and misdirection. Joe and Anthony Russo, directors very much on the ascent at Marvel, brought a lot of distinctive character to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, deepening the universe’s moral gray areas while complicating some of its central characters. Elsewhere, James Gunn turned Guardians Of The Galaxy into an expression of his lifelong obsessions with heroes, damaged psyches, and the lingering effects of childhood trauma while taking some daring stylistic chances, like setting it all the the greatest hits of the 1970s and giving some of its most emotional moments to a talking raccoon. It’s fitting that the best elements of a film about the inevitable return of the repressed—its thoughtfulness, its concern for characters, and its stylistic experimentation—would start to resurface in so many places. The world might not have been ready for Lee’s film, but, like the Hulk himself, it refuses to disappear for good.
The Hulk discussion continues over in the Forum, where Scott and guest comics expert Oliver Sava talk over why a great Hulk movie is possible, but a great Hulk action blockbuster is much harder. And come back Thursday for Tim Grierson’s essay on why Hulk isn’t such an anomaly in Ang Lee’s career.