Every Comic Book Movie (Ever) is an ongoing series which examines the long-standing relationship between comic books and film through individual works as well as groups of works. While it is likely impossible that a single person could write about every single comic book film ever made, the series hopes to provide insight that ranges widely across eras and styles of filmmaking – covering acknowledged classics, hidden gems, huge disasters, and relatively unknown works with an empathetic and critical eye.
In theory, the Hulk should be one of the easiest characters to put to screen. He is Frankenstein and his monster. He is Jekyll and Hyde. He is King Kong. The Hulk is gothic horror retold for the nuclear era. In fact, in his first comic appearance, he is betrayed by his assistant Igor (who turns out to be a Soviet spy) while testing his breakthrough, the G-bomb. The literary and cinematic family from which the Hulk descends is rich and ripe for constant reinterpretation. It is a deep well. So it makes sense that he has been depicted many times since his creation.
In the hands of the creative team at CBS in the 70s and 80s, the Hulk became a lonely drifter, whose curse cuts him off from close human relationships, but allows him to do some limited good in the world. The TV series deserves a much longer column, and will hopefully get one in the future, but what makes it successful is the way in which it explores Banner/Hulk as a psychological construction as much as a biological one. The Hulk comics have always had a gnarled psychological undertone, but the show’s modus operandi was to explore that, taking the subtext of a flashy comic book and elevating it. This is a practical decision, on the one hand, as television budget and time constrictions made it impossible to, week after week, mount huge, expensive action sequences. But character studies also make for effective television. Instead of upping the spectacle with each episode, a game you cannot win, what the show chose to do was dive deeper and deeper into Banner’s relationship with himself. By giving him a lifestyle (that of a drifter) which lends itself to episodic exploits, the creators were able to deliver discrete adventures each week while making the complexities of the Banner/Hulk dichotomy the long arc of the show.
There is also the matter of how they portrayed the Hulk visually. With limited options, they chose to cast another actor (the truly hulking Lou Ferrigno) and paint him green. The psychological duality of Banner (played with agony by Bill Bixby) and the Hulk is manifested physically by the performances of the two actors. In addition to this, the show offered an equally complicated antagonist in the form of journalist Jack McGee, who is always hot on Banner’s heels, obsessed with proving the existence of the Hulk in order to advance his career. This obsession mirrors Banner’s own scientific obsession which turned him into the Hulk in the first place. The show works because of its intense focus on the characters’ states of mind. The rampages of the Hulk merely serve to spice the thing up a bit. A similar approach would be taken when the Hulk was finally portrayed on film.
It is possible that, due to the fevered pace at which superhero films have been put out in the intervening years, you have forgotten that 2003’s Hulk even exists. It was a different time in the world of superhero films. After a decade which saw the rise (in the hands of Tim Burton) and fall (at the hands of Joel Schumacher) of Batman at the box office, studios were still laying low. However, the success of Fox’s X-Men in 2000 and Sony’s Spider-Man in 2002 had studios reconsidering the potentially lucrative comic book properties which they owned the rights to. So before WB gave Christopher Nolan the wheel on Batman, and when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was merely a dollar sign twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye, Universal Studios (along with Feige, Avi Arad, and Marvel) tapped Ang Lee to helm the first big-screen iteration of the character.
Thirteen years later, Ang Lee remains the most interesting directorial choice for a comic book franchise. He does not at all seem a natural fit for the material (unlike say, Nolan, whose noir sensibility fits Gotham). Aside from, perhaps, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there is nothing to suggest a turn heading a comic book tent pole in Lee’s filmography, which is mostly made up of beautifully shot dramas. And unlike more recent indie/art house promotions, Lee’s career was both established and praised, so the studio had less leverage in shaping the final film. The trade-off was that Lee’s experienced hand could guide the film competently to completion. The development of the film had started in 1990, and I won’t delve too deeply into its history here, but over the course of the decade, several directors and screenwriters worked on the film and millions of dollars were spent in development. The studio needed a veteran hand, so Lee and frequent collaborator James Schamus were left to sort through the material and make a film of it.
Lee and Schamus take an even more thoughtful and staid approach to the material than the TV series. The film takes its time developing and revealing Bruce Banner’s backstory, the lynchpin of which is his complicated relation to his long-disappeared father, whose experiments on himself are inherited by Bruce. Bruce’s own research in the same field leads to the accident which causes his transformation. The film’s take on the origin story adds a thick layer of family drama over the b-movie science. Betty Ross, who leads the research into gamma radiation along with Bruce, also has a complicated and cold relationship with her father, Gen. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, who shut down Bruce’s father’s research and is highly suspicious of Bruce. Complicating matters further, Bruce and Betty allude to a failed romantic partnership in the past. The tension between all of these characters is further heightened by the arrival of Maj. Glenn Talbot, a military sub-contractor interested in appropriating Bruce and Betty’s research for military use. In addition to this, a mysterious new janitor is employed in the lab, skulking around gruffly. It turns out that he is Bruce’s father, returning to finish the work he began.
All of this is hard to keep track of in print, but the film does a commendable job of balancing the melodrama and the science which make up its first half. As the pace begins to quicken and conflicts come to a head, the slower development of the first hour proves its value. We care about these characters and have at least a basic understanding of their motivations, whether simple or complex.
And some are fairly simple. Talbot is transparent from the beginning: he’s in this for the money. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself. The character would be unnecessary and boring if it weren’t for Josh Lucas’s scenery-chewing performance (he excels at playing these sorts of characters). Talbot is the furthest removed from the Banner/Ross drama, with motives separate and unrelated to the history the two families share. But he serves a purpose in the plot, first as Gen. Ross’s henchman, then going behind his back to take control of research on the imprisoned Banner.
Betty’s characterization is a bit thin as well. The specifics of her sour relationship with her father are left untouched. This is a shame because vacillation between distance and needing access to her father for help is well played by Jennifer Connelly, whose performance is intelligent and low-key. When the fact of her actions seems incongruous with the qualities of her character, Connelly sells them carefully. For what is essentially a Fey Rey role, Betty is filled out by the compassion that Connelly exudes. In fact, aside from a scene where they walk through the ruins of the town they (unwittingly) grew up in, the most affecting scenes between Betty and Bruce are when he is transformed. If Belle were not the protagonist of Beauty and the Beast, it might look something like this. And while her father is not exactly a complicated man, his priorities of safety, and the revelation of his past dealings with Banner the elder, make his motivations understandable, if a bit straightforward. He wants his daughter safe. He wants to keep his job. He wants to finish what he started.
The emotional and psychological core of the film is the oedipal conflict between Bruce and his father, David. The reason Bruce continues to transform all comes down to his father – both the emotional and physical damage caused by the man are a large part of what makes Bruce the Hulk. The revelation, late in the film, that what Bruce had been blocking, what was behind the closed door in his nightmares, was his father charging out to murder him in a fit of twisted compassion and, instead, killing Bruce’s mother by accident, is what allows Bruce to begin to face his demons, both physical and emotional. The last memory of the woman, dying on the desert floor, reaching out toward a green mushroom cloud on the horizon, is a source of trauma for both of these men.
Eric Bana’s performance is noticeably restrained, even wooden. While the performance doesn’t exactly light up the screen, it does track with Bruce’s psychology. The Hulk becomes a metaphor for Bruce’s repressed feelings – rage, passion, love, sadness. While Bruce remains closed-off, the Hulk is both gentle and fiercely protective of Betty when David sends mutant, radiated dogs to test his son’s abilities. In a lovely moment during the climactic sequence of the film, the Hulk leaps far into the desert, away from pursuing helicopters and sits, cross-legged on the ground. It is a contemplation which Banner cannot achieve in his normal life. Betty’s reasonable assessment of Banner as “emotionally distant” is why the romantic pair can’t make things work before the accident. But afterwards, where others see a dangerous monster, Betty sees the messy humanity that Bruce has been trying to hide, it just so happens to be contained in the body of an eighteen foot, bright green lab accident.
While Bruce sees these past events as a curse to match his monstrous transformation, David uses them as fuel for his revenge against those who ruined his life, Gen. Ross being chief among them. Unsurprisingly, Nick Nolte has the most memorable performance in the entire film. As David Banner, he channels all the anxiety and madness of a protective father and mad scientist. Unleashing mutant dogs, stalking his son at his work place, springing on him the revelation of his parenthood without so much as a hello – all the good dad stuff. Although he is clearly warped and lacking perspective, there is a tragedy to his character. Nolte’s wild hair, grizzled beard, and rumpled jacket hide a broken man, looking to atone for his past sins and punish those who orchestrated his tragedy. David is unhinged, but the madness has a method, and so he replicates the accident which created the Hulk in order to “cure” himself and set about on his revenge.
The key to his plan is that he turns himself in, the only condition being that he see his son one last time. And while the plot machinery that brings them together is a bit convoluted, the operatic scene that it leads to more than makes up for that. David emerges from the darkness and sits across from Bruce, blackness all behind them, and two huge suppressive on either side (this is one of those great moments where science fiction can give physicality to mental states).
Bruce is the first to speak: “I should have killed you.”
David responds: “And I should’ve killed you.”
Bruce breaks down over his mother’s death, David moves in to console him, but Bruce rejects him, telling him that he isn’t his father. David chuckles, “I’ve got news for you.” In David’s mind, Bruce’s true being is made manifest in the Hulk, and David is the sole creator of the Hulk. He is more than a father, he is a god. Bruce is “nothing but a superficial shell” concealing his “true” son underneath. Nolte’s monologue here is Shakespearian. The drama, Greek. The madness and tragedy of David is unleashed in the way Nolte slowly loosens up, voice growing louder, arms flailing. His voice breaks with sadness, then with anger. It is theatre. It is musical, his voice rises and falls as if he is reciting poetry. It echoes in the black space. He is possessed by power and self-righteousness. His vision is mythic and apocalyptic. Bruce screams it to a stop. David collapses in his chair, play-acting a tantrum to mock Bruce. “Stop your bawling,” he says, before sucking his teeth and impishly glancing around, as if to ask, “is it time to begin now?,” before biting into the thick electrical wires draped on the floor.
The result of this scene is that David absorbs the energy from the surrounding city, becoming a hulking figure of pure electricity (literalizing the electric performance of Nolte in this scene). With no other choice, Bruce gives in, and becomes the Hulk. David takes him for a ride through the sky in what is the most beautiful and painterly scene in any superhero film. David flashes like lightning, like Zeus, in the sky, illuminating in stabs his son and he, absorbed in battle. The alternating light and murky darkness of the scene frames each of them in still poses. Without the limitation of movement, the CGI here is emotional, physical, primordial, and mythic. The final conflict ends with the two of them blasted by the technology they helped create. David and Bruce disappear. While we are left to wonder about the fate of the father, we catch a glimpse of the son, deep in the rainforests of South America, helping people, a man-on-the-run in the tradition of the TV series.
The film does not always achieve these visual heights however. Lee films the lab spaces and character interactions (especially early in the film) in a kind of ambient light which gives everything a drab aspect. The lighting becomes more dramatic as the film goes on, but the camera work remains mostly traditional. Except for one distinctive feature: Lee attempts to adapt comic book paneling to the screen. Sometimes it is successful in establishing the space, or defining characters’ relationships to each other, but mostly it is gimmicky and distracting. In the best scenes of the film, Lee resorts to this tactic only briefly, and these scenes are noticeably diminished for it. The different ways in which he organizes panels and swipes is completely arbitrary, violating the cinematic language of the film, and ignoring the kind of sense these framings bring to comics. The only purpose they seem to serve is in reminding us that we are watching a film based on a comic book.
The CGI of the Hulk has not aged particularly well, but this is mitigated by two important factors. First, Lee is a good director, and he knows when to bring out the monster. As a result, the Hulk is only onscreen for about 15 minutes of the 2+ hours of runtime. The scenes in which he appears are spread out fairly evenly besides the last act of the film, so it feels like he appears more. On top of this, Lee uses practical effects as much as possible. While the Hulk himself is obviously digital, Lee blows out windows, flips cars, busts plaster, breaks walls, and does everything he can to give actors real, physical destruction to respond to in these scenes. The Hulk looks removed when he is standing still, but when he moves, the world around him responds naturally.
The film is, at worst, a fascinating failure, in which the disparate parts do not quite coalesce into a coherent whole. But I think the film makes daring choices that, for the most part, pay off. Visually it has lows and highs, but the highs are staggering. By pushing the characters to the forefront, Lee makes sure the film centers around a relational, human conflict, rather than a set of world ending jargon. Nolte’s performance is a huge part of this and it would not surprise me at all if Heath Ledger had studied the sci-fi Freudian couch scene that precedes the final battle in preparing to play the Joker. Unfortunately, the mixed reception of the film, its less than impressive box office, and the onslaught of comic book adaptions we’ve been hit with since have buried the film’s exceptional qualities.
After Hulk failed to perform as well as Universal would have liked, Marvel Studios reclaimed the rights to the character (though not to stand-alone features, as the 2008 film is still a Universal production) and set about making, I believe, the first superhero reboot. Bringing Edward Norton in to play Banner, The Incredible Hulk came out just a little over a month after Iron Man and solidified the arrival of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Despite being named after the television show (and borrowing the flourish of Banner as a man-on-the-run), the film flattens the complexities of the series. As a reaction to Lee’s interpretation of the character, both the film’s psychology and biology are simplified. Where before, Banner was driven by rage (the TV series) or repressed trauma (Hulk), here the explanation is as simple as a set number of heartbeats in a minute. In this iteration of the character, anything can set him off so long as it elevates his heart rate. The transformation loses its tie to Banner’s state of mind and becomes something like an allergic reaction. An uncontrollable byproduct. Indeed, Banner is something of an unfortunate byproduct himself as his origin in the MCU is tied (isn’t everything?) to the super soldier program. Instead of spending time developing Banner, the film opts for CGI fireworks (the lack of these being a primary criticism of Lee’s film) which fail to thrill in the same way as Lee’s animated conflicts because they are devoid of his thoughtful character and psychological work, which serve to imbue the conflicts with drama both personal and relational.
In all of the other MCU films in which he appears, Banner is portrayed by Mark Ruffalo who, with what little time he is given to explore the character, comes close to the kind of tortured but mild-mannered scientist that Bixby portrayed in the TV series. The Hulk, since the 2008 film, has been settled as a sort of tragi-comic supporting character, complementing the feather-light tone that most of the MCU films have while acknowledging the gravity of the character’s background and predicament. Age of Ultron attempted to advance the character forward through a romantic relationship with Black Widow. But ultimately, the film casts Hulk out into space, which is fitting way to describe what marvel has done with him the past 8 years (and, seemingly, into the future, as he does not look to be getting a stand-alone film anytime soon) through their inability to properly or even interestingly render one of the great movie monsters.
This is what, I think, makes Lee’s adaption so interesting and (dare I say) essential: he had an understanding of the Hulk as both monster and myth. He stripped it down to the bone and built up his story around it. Comic books are fairy tales obscured by cartoons and thought balloons. They tap into the same place as all the old myths do. They are filled with tragedy, comedy, and passion. They are ancient and archetypal in their construction and work best when treated as such, rather than pop escapism or self-serious video-games, hiding behind posturing edginess. If there is a way forward for superhero films as vital cinematic art, it is in finding artists with this kind of insight and allowing them to make good movies free of studio, or fan, interference.