[As Hulk hits 4K today, we’re reposting this editorial on Ang Lee’s unique superhero movie.]
It’s tough to imagine a time when superhero movies weren’t omnipresent. The “genre” is currently the biggest around, with comic book adaptations flooding multiplexes year-round to massive success. They’ve become so huge that just last month, two superhero movies completely overshadowed a brand new Star Wars film at the box office.
But it wasn’t always this way. Not too long ago, comic book adaptations were niche, and Hollywood was still a little iffy on the whole idea. That changed significantly with the one-two punch of 2000’s X-Men and 2002’s Spider-Man, which can be considered the godfathers of the modern comic book genre as we know it, but in 2003 we got filmmaker Ang Lee’s Hulk. The adaptation was not much of a success with critics or audiences, and the source material was swiftly rebooted at Marvel Studios in 2008, but in hindsight Ang Lee’s ambitious, dramatic, and at times downright insane take on the character is a fascinating testament to how far the superhero genre has come in such a relatively short time.
While Hulk was released in 2003, a feature film adaptation of the famous comics character had been in the works for years. By the time Lee signed on in 2001, the existing screenplay by David Hayter included the Hulk facing off against of trifecta of villains—The Leader, Zzzax, and the Absorbing Man—who come about as a result of getting caught in the same lab accident as Bruce Banner. Lee was dissatisfied with this script and enlisted his longtime collaborator James Schamus to rework the screenplay into something very, very different.
Lee was coming off the immense success of his 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for which he received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director and won the award for Best Foreign Language Film. Indeed, much like 20th Century Fox tapped critically acclaimed The Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer for X-Men, Universal Pictures hoped that by tasking an acclaimed filmmaker to adapt The Hulk, they’d get a meatier blockbuster.
I’m not sure anyone could have predicted exactly what Lee and Schamus cooked up, however. The story was far darker than other superhero films at the time, essentially crafting a tragic father/son tale revolving around Bruce (Eric Bana) and his biological father David Banner (Nick Nolte), who accidentally murders Bruce’s mother when trying to stab Baby Bruce to death, and who tracks Adult Bruce down and becomes obsessed with Bruce’s gamma ray-induced transformation.
It’s an intensely dark story, and it’s juxtaposed with groundbreaking yet anachronistically colorful visuals. At the time, there was no template for how one was “supposed” to make a superhero movie, and so Lee came up with the idea of literally presenting comic-like panels on the screen made up of moving pictures. In theory, this idea is kind of brilliant, and it also really highlights the cutting-edge digital character work that was involved in bringing the Hulk to life onscreen. But in practice, when playing out alongside a story that evokes iconic Greek tragedies and takes issues of pain, grief, and murder very seriously, it never really clicks together.
This is probably best exemplified by a scene in which the Hulk’d out Hulk is battling a group of Hulk’d out dogs that his father genetically modified. The scene plays the horror for real in Aliens-esque fashion as Betty (Jennifer Connolly) is locked inside a car and terrorized by a giant, digital, ferocious poodle. Hulk violently smashes the poodle into the windshield, then hurls the body into the forest behind him, at which point the monster poodle hits a tree and explodes into green dust, as if Matthew Vaughn has suddenly stepped in to guest-direct this particular moment.
But there are also moments of deep, dark drama. The final confrontation between Bruce and David literally plays out on an outdoor stage, evoking something akin to Shakespeare as Nolte monologues about fatherhood, power, and genetics, demanding that his son return to him the power that he passed on through his genes. Thematically, Hulk is a film that has a lot on its mind, and moments like this are genuinely show-stopping. They just don’t really match up with the comic-book-like visual flair that comes and goes, or the lingering shots of moss on rocks, or the long stretches of quiet dialogue in the film that drone on for far too long.
While far from a great film, Ang Lee’s Hulk is at least interesting (Which gives it a leg up over the forgettable MCU reboot in my book), and what it lacks in bombast it makes up for in downright insanity (see: Josh Lucas’ death scene). In many ways, it was a film ahead of its time. With X-Men, Singer successfully grounded superpowers with a universal story about “the other,” but it was padded out with plenty of eye-popping set pieces and a knowing wink to the audience with regards to the story’s more ridiculous aspects. Then with Spider-Man, Sam Raimi nailed the colorful and poppy nature of what a superhero movie could be, with a tone that landed right in the middle of acerbic and earnest. These two films, in quick succession, had created a genre. The problem with Hulk is that it’s accidentally a subversion of a genre that, at the time it was being made, didn’t yet exist.
Indeed, Hulk has far more in common with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy than it does with Spider-Man, and I vividly remember coming out of Hulk disappointed that it wasn’t more “fun” like Spider-Man or the recently released X2. While Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is grounded and at times very dark, its visuals are perfectly in tune with the story’s tone, so there’s no confusion as to what kind of film you’re witnessing. Moreover, it’s far easier to tell a gritty, grounded, and dark story with a non-super-powered hero like Batman than a guy who physically transforms into a giant green rage monster.
The film didn’t exactly light up the box office, and Lee for a moment considered retiring from moviemaking altogether, but the master filmmaker recovered tremendously with his next film, Brokeback Mountain, and the superhero genre would reach a new pinnacle just five years later with the release of The Dark Knight. Looking back at the landscape in which Hulk was made, however, it remains an utterly fascinating film, and far more interesting than it got credit for at the time.
This original feature was initially published at a previous date.