Hulk (2003) Review
Originally posted to Justice Bulletin, June 2012
Throughout the 80s and 90s, it wasn’t unusual to see comic book superhero movies and TV shows that deviated wildly from the source material or got dumbed down for a wider audience. Things started to turn around with the boon of the X-Men and Spider-Man movies. This is one of the reasons why Ang Lee’s Hulk is such a peculiar oddity. Rather than the usual hack director or apathetic studio messing with the material, it was an artist doing the same thing for decidedly artistic reasons. In some ways, it’s the first summer superhero adventure that went too far in the opposite direction.
Rather than crafting the definitive adaptation of the comics or the popular 70’s TV show, Lee used the basic premise to make his own separate points on the material that he found more interesting than the jolly green giant smashing things. The result is a lyrical, effects-filled Greek tragedy that’s high on psychological angst and low on thrilling property destruction.
The first half hour is aggravating to sit through as we watch talented actors like Jennifer Connelly and Eric Bana drone on in hushed tones about science and feelings as scenes are punctuated by dream-like flashbacks and transitions. Bana described the Hulk set as “ridiculously serious” to the point of being “morbid in a lot of ways,” and it comes through on film. Lee is great at building atmosphere, but his talents for creating tension leave much to be desired here. Many of those early scenes could be trimmed down without losing anything significant.
The main antagonist for this film is setup as Bruce Banner’s scientist father David, played in present day by a gruff and frazzled Nick Nolte, whose genetic experiments on himself were passed onto his son. Josh Lucas’s smarmy Talbot and Sam Elliot’s largely sympathetic General Ross get a share of the action, but the main conflict belongs to Nolte, who seems like the only actor who’s having any fun. As an adult, David poses as a janitor and sabotages Bruce’s gamma radiation research. Despite the changes in setting and circumstance, the film thankfully keeps Bruce’s heroic sacrifice from the comics when he uses his own body to block the deadly radiation leak from harming others, but the altered cells he inherited from his father combine with the gamma rays and instead save his life, and later triggers the Hulk transformation. Much later.
Action-wise, much of the film feels like it’s in a holding pattern. Even when Bruce first hulks out (completely alone and without any compelling reason to do so) and tears apart the lab, the plot still doesn’t really get going. Bruce’s journey, though packed to the gills with complexity and metaphor, is compelling enough in its tragic element to keep the central story from getting stale. Once the story gets going, anyway.
The strangest directorial flourish is Lee’s method of filling the screen with multiple panels like a comic book page, showing the scene unfold from a variety of angles and perspectives simultaneously while making a not so subtle nod to the character’s printed origins. It helps give the movie its distinct look, but since it doesn’t enhance the story or develop the characters, the effect is more gimmicky and distracting than anything else.
Hulk is still Lee’s most effects-heavy production by a wide margin, and surprisingly that effects work ranks high among the film’s strengths. Lee manages to imbue the green goliath with believable heart and soul. Some fans complained that the Hulk was too oversized or bore too much resemblance to Shrek and/or Gumby, but there’s nothing wrong with the movie that would’ve been fixed with better special effects.
Once the story finds time to work in some action (almost begrudgingly), the results are often middling. The Hulk’s extended battle with General Ross’s armed forces has some cool moments, but it’s far too restrained to generate much tension, and not just because the Hulk takes no damage. The filmmakers go out of their way to assure the viewer that all uniformed combatants sustain only minor injuries, because apparently as soon as Hulk kills someone, he really is just a monster. But that approach has the unfortunate side-effect of robbing the Hulk’s near-limitless power of any real danger for anyone. For my money, the film’s best action sequence is the fight with the dogs, despite the scene’s general silliness and SFX dependence. But it really is the only point in the movie where the gloves come off and the titular leviathan is allowed to cut loose and kill things.
Can a summer action thriller also be somber and cerebral? Of course. But despite a valiant effort, Hulk doesn’t even come close to pulling it off. Ultimately the biggest issue working against the film is its supreme lack of fun. Lee goes out of the way to balance the scenes of Hulk smashing with scenes of him sitting around staring at flowers.
Regardless of overall quality, it’s easy to see why the Incredible Hulk reboot was necessary. Hulk doesn’t fit in with Marvel’s other cinematic efforts over the years. It’s an interesting movie, both in its deeper narrative and as a valiant attempt at something new. As an ambitious piece of art and a meditative character study, there’s a lot that works. As a Hulk movie, a superhero movie and a summer blockbuster, its far too concerned with brooding and daddy issues to have any fun with the material. It’s cerebral, but not terribly exciting. It doesn’t really hold up on repeat viewings, and yet for all its flaws it’s worth checking out at least once.
Final Score: 7/10