Two Dissolve writers keep the Hulk conversation going...
Scott: Oliver, we’re looking at Ang Lee’s Hulk from a 13-year distance, and watching it again for Movie Of The Week, the film seems like a fascinating relic from a Hollywood even further in the past. For better and worse, across seemingly all aspects of production, the ethos for comic-book movies—particularly Marvel movies—post-Hulk is: Don’t be like Hulk. That message comes across plainly enough in the impulse to reboot this particular franchise five years later as The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton, which is the opposite of Lee’s Hulk—thoughtless and perfunctory, but smoothly constructed and not troubled by any auteur interests. Given the choice, I’d take the Lee every time, because at least there’s something to chew on, but I understand why we haven’t seen other superhero movies like it, and I approach it with profound ambivalence myself. I think it’s simultaneously the least thrilling and most thematically rich movie of its kind, and I hope we can parse out that contradictory opinion here. How did it play for you this time around?
And how did it play with audiences, for that matter? I never like to assume anything about an audience—as a critic, I can only account for my own point of view, and usually find it a fool’s game to account for others’—but Hulk was not a popular film, and you can see why. Here’s a character with the basest CAPS-LOCK appeal imaginable—“HULK SMASH!”—but Lee and his screenwriters (including longtime collaborator James Schamus) made it into an Ang Lee movie, tortured by themes of repressed trauma and familial inheritance, and built around a pair of star-crossed lovers right out of Lee’s Sense And Sensibility, or the film he made right after this one, Brokeback Mountain. But Lee reveals a distinct unease with the low business of actually delivering the goods, which wasn’t a problem with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the film that likely secured him this job. Perhaps he couldn’t master CGI like he could wire-fu. Or perhaps he didn’t wield enough control over the effects sequences at all. But something is amiss here, no?
Oliver: I’m not so sure it’s an effects issue. Heavily influenced by the character’s comic-book roots, Hulk has a visual style unlike anything else I’ve seen from Ang Lee in the past, and it’s very strange. Throughout the film, Lee uses the movie screen like a comics page, and breaks the action down into multiple panels, which is an interesting approach, but doesn’t serve the story in any valuable way. The visual flourishes become overwhelming at times, like in the scene establishing the desert military base where Bruce Banner is held in the middle of the movie. It’s hard to suppress laughter as Lee adds more and more panels of flying helicopters and a generic, industrial set to the screen, pushing this style so far that it becomes a parody of itself. And yet I applaud Lee for trying something different; I just wish it wasn’t such a mess. Incorporating comic-book-style storytelling into a film can be very effective, but unlike, say, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Lee doesn’t use these comic-book elements to enrich the narrative. Do you see any value in the visual style that is eluding me?
And then there’s the story, which spends a lot of time on plot points that, as you mentioned, don’t involve Hulk smashing stuff. I appreciate the attention given to Bruce’s relationship with Betty Ross, especially considering how superhero films have moved away from romance as they’ve embraced darker themes. But the material with Bruce and his father David (Nick Nolte) falls flat. Like a lot of superheroes, Bruce’s superhero identity has roots in his daddy issues, and Hulk devotes much time to Bruce’s repressed memories of his abusive father and how his current situation is a metaphor for the violent qualities he inherited from David.
While I say “superhero,” that isn’t necessarily appropriate, and Lee understands that Hulk doesn’t fit the traditional superhero mold. This isn’t a man who puts on a costume and fights supervillains. Instead, he transforms into a nearly invulnerable monster with the power to level cities. Lee uses that to explore the concept of rage through a more personal lens rooted in Bruce’s relationships with his girlfriend and father. I’m just far more captivated by the story of Bruce and Betty, which doesn’t attempt to resolve complex personal issues through superhero action like Bruce and David’s story does. How does the metaphor work for you, Scott?
Scott: Let me address the comic-panel style first. I’m torn between thinking it’s a clever way to get visual information across while paying homage to its source, and dismissing it as a gimmick that doesn’t pay off. I’ll make the former argument first: Hulk references comics panels, but it also came along at a time when films were transitioning into digital video, and while that transition wasn’t happening yet in mainstream studio movies, a lot of experimentation was being done in the independent arena. I’m thinking specifically of the Mike Figgis movies Timecode and Hotel, which came out just before Hulk (two years and one year, respectively), and toyed around with multiple screens within a screen, trusting that viewers would be able to take in all that visual information without missing anything crucial. (Figgis’ inadvertent trick: making both movies really mundane.) Lee and his longtime editor, Tim Squyres, attempt a more dynamic version of this in Hulk that typically gives viewers an establishing overview of a situation—like, to use your example, establishing the industrial setting—while flashing on smaller details, like actions and reaction shots. At its best, the style adds a depth and dimension that wouldn’t be as easy to achieve conventionally, but I agree that it often seems like a bit of visual trickery that detracts from the action rather than enhancing it. Overall, it’s frustrating to see a technique that theoretically compresses information being used in a film that’s so long and lumpily paced. Maybe Lee and Squyres were hoping for stylistic snap, but they haven’t achieved it.
As for the relationships in the film, I have trouble separating Bruce’s relationship with his father and Bruce’s relationship with Betty, because they’re yoked together thematically. Hulk is about many things, but the common denominator is generational resentment, this feeling that the younger generation, represented by Bruce and Betty, have been saddled with the sins of their Baby Boomer parents, David Banner (Nolte) and General Thunderbolt Ross (Sam Elliott). In Bruce’s case, that inheritance is literal. It isn’t the gamma rays that turn him into the Hulk, but radiation in concert with genetic material his irresponsible father passed down to him. There is no reason to believe that the Bruce and Betty we see at the beginning of the film would not have a blissful destiny, if not for their fathers determining that destiny for them. Hulk realizes that theme through the threat of nuclear weapons, but it could be applied to the long-term fallout that the bright young people watching Hulk will face—the fallout from 9/11 and our misadventures in the Middle East, the fallout from inaction on climate change, the fallout from our national debt. Hulk’s anger with his dad—and Betty’s anger with her dad—is identifiable, because we all carry the baggage of those who come before us. And it keeps us from forging our own paths.
That said, the confrontation between Bruce and David doesn’t work much for me, either, not least because of the spectacularly botched climax, which sets up an absurd father-son reunion at a military base, then peels off into an action sequence that might charitably be called “metaphysical.” What did you think of the staging and effects of the action in general? Were there elements you liked?
Oliver: Like everything else about this movie, the action is a mixed bag. There’s that fantastic desert sequence that gives me exactly what I want from a Hulk movie, but then there’s also Hulk fighting gamma-irradiated dogs and whatever the hell his father turns into. When I think of an Ang Lee movie, the first thing that pops into my head is his talent for capturing the majesty of natural landscapes, and I like that he uses that skill to amplify Hulk’s power in the desert scene. There are these beautiful shots of rolling sand hills and towering rock formations, and the expanded visual scope gives Lee the opportunity to show just how big Hulk’s presence can be.
Those first shots of Hulk leaping into the desert mark a strong, unfortunately brief shift for the movie, downplaying the Hulk’s tragic elements to emphasize the fun of being an invulnerable green superhuman. Lee does great work filming the shots of Hulk leaping great distances, and a much-needed element of joy enters the film when Hulk enjoys his new freedom as he soars through the air. These moments of exhilarating discovery are essential in superhero films, and Lee keeps the thrills coming as Hulk discovers how much damage he can take and dish out when he’s attacked by tanks, helicopters, and jets. Seeing Hulk tear through his opponents is entertaining on its own, but Lee also incorporates some humor in this scene, like that moment when Hulk bends the barrel of a tank so it points at the soldier inside. As disappointing as this movie is at times, it still shows Hulk catching a missile in mid-air, biting off the explosive head, and spitting it into a helicopter, so it isn’t a complete failure.
While the Hulk effects are starting to show their age, I think it was a wise choice going the CG route, although the coloring makes him look a bit too much like a bodybuilder Jolly Green Giant. (I appreciate that his later appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe use a less garish shade of green.) The Hulk should be inhumanly big; that was difficult to do when Lou Ferrigno played him on TV, but it’s possible with the technology available to Lee. The main problem I have with a CG Hulk is that it requires the actors to perform opposite a tennis ball when they shoot their scenes, and some cast members are better at this than others. Connelly is able to create a legitimate emotional connection with her CG scene partner, but Nick Nolte and Josh Lucas go completely over the top whenever they have to interact with the Hulk. What are your feelings about that Nolte performance? It’s certainly memorable.
Scott: Given the terrific performances Lee usually gets out of his actors, the acting in Hulk is all over the map. I think Nolte overplays his role more than a tad, but part of that is that Bana is such a non-presence as Bruce Banner. On paper, Bana was the perfect casting choice, having broken through playing a real-life rage monster in Chopper, but Hulk’s tone is so sober and contemplative—at least by comic-book-movie standards—that he seems to sink into it. Whenever he’s roused into a fit of anger, it never feels emotionally credible; his Banner is more wounded child than vindictive one. For Nolte’s part, the opposite is true: He’s all Method-y rage, and he misses the subtler notes of regret and affection that a father surely has for his son. When the two get together for their big third-act confrontation, I had trouble recalling what the stakes actually were, much less feeling the volcanic emotions being expressed. And that’s unusual for Ang Lee, who likes to play around in different genres and periods and styles, but is at heart an excellent dramatist.
I’m glad you cite some of the action sequences that work, because that baby tends to get thrown out with the CGI bathwater. Because Lee’s Hulk is associated with the worst computer graphics has to offer—bright and cartoony, without enough connection to the flesh-and-bone human underneath—the merits of that battle sequence in the desert are passed over or lumped in with the dramatically weaker fight with the super-dogs and the energy-based abstraction Nolte becomes in the end.
All of which leads me to this question: Is a great standalone Hulk movie even possible? This comes closer for me than the generic Edward Norton version, but the small dose of Mark Ruffalo we get in The Avengers is extremely effective—that bit with Loki is the crowd-pleasing highlight of that film, hands down. Given how much Hulk’s story is embedded in emotional trauma, Lee was an inspired choice to direct Hulk, and for all its faults, the film has true complexity and personality, which is harder to come by in the high-stakes, somewhat uniform world of current Marvel mega-productions. But Hulk isn’t a superhero, and Banner has to be roused into enough anger to make his transformation credible, which is no easy task for Hulk movies of any kind. Maybe this is a beast that can’t be tamed.
Oliver: I think there’s definitely potential for a great Hulk movie, but it’s difficult to make a great Hulk action blockbuster. The Avengers sidelines a lot of the character’s tragic elements, which is a smart decision for a big, flashy superhero team-up, but the tragedy is where the meat of the character exists. In its effort to distance itself from Lee’s take on the Hulk, The Incredible Hulk turns up the smash-factor, but loses the heart. Finding the right balance between crowd-pleasing action and emotionally rich character drama is something superhero films regularly struggle with, and it becomes even harder with the Hulk because he isn’t a traditional hero or antihero.
I’d like to see a Hulk action thriller, maybe with someone like Paul Greengrass at the helm. There was a great Incredible Hulk comic-book run in the early ’00s by writer Bruce Jones that focused on Bruce Banner as a fugitive, going out of his way to keep his other half under control as he runs from people who want to make him pay for the damage he’s caused as the Hulk. I think that could be a very interesting angle for a film. (That run shared a lot of similarities with the Incredible Hulk TV series, and looking to that show for inspiration isn’t a bad idea for a film.) I want something that really focuses on building an atmosphere of paranoia and tension, which is occasionally interrupted by these big, explosive scenes of Hulk on a rampage. But I would also love to see Bruce Banner as reluctant action hero, taking extra precautions to ignore conflict by engaging in some exciting Bourne-style chase sequences.
There’s so much potential in a Hulk film, because the idea behind the character is so strong. I actually think Hulk is one of the top Stan Lee and Jack Kirby creations, allowing for a lot of insights into both the human condition and the nature of the military in the nuclear age. The Hulk is a metaphor for the rage inside man, but it’s also a metaphor for the destructive power of the atomic bomb, and Ang Lee starts to delve into this idea, but doesn’t commit to it fully.
Lee and Schamus could have made a great Hulk movie if they kept David completely out of the action in the present, and focused on Bruce’s relationship with Betty, Hulk’s relationship with General Ross, and how those complicate each other. I wonder what an Ang Lee Hulk would have looked like at Marvel Studios, where the producers have a much stronger handle on the fundamentals of these characters, because with a shift in a focus, Lee could have done something beautiful with the property. I see the bones of a great film in Hulk, but the skeleton they form looks like something that just got a bear hug from an angry Bruce Banner.
Don’t miss Keith’s Keynote on how Hulk changed the course of comic-book movies to come. And come back Thursday for Tim Grierson’s essay on why Hulk isn’t such an anomaly in Ang Lee’s career.