Hulk (2003): Comic Myths and the Monsters in Us

The blood of mothers produces heroes. Mary birthed a messiah. Thetis dipped her son Achilles in the haunted river and granted him near-immortality. The Catholics were right to make the mythic mother the center of their faith and also to worship her story less than her image. Shakespeare understood the significance of this image, that to be completely virtuous the mother would also have to be absent. She can stand in for all mothers that way, for the idea of being mothered. Conflict, in the sense of the story, would be able to leave the mother out of it. That would keep her pure. As it goes in Oedipus and The Odyssey, so it goes in The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, Henry IV, The Tempest. The blood of mothers produces heroes. The blood of fathers produces vengeance.

It may not seem like this has much to do with Hulk (2003). The first thing to understand about it when I connect it to mythic lore and Shakespeare is that its idea of drama is unquestionably what is in those fables (even if it's the worst in them). Its world is a house of curtains and mirrors. Its psyches are all torturous, exaggerated, archetypical. Its mothers are perfect sculptures, and most importantly, nowhere to be seen. I've heard review after review compile the flaws in Hulk. I don't disagree with all of them: it's full of flaws. But many of them are the flaws in our myths, and many of them are what make any of these stories human and endurable. Please understand: I’m not saying that Ang Lee has made good literature. I’m saying he has made grand literature.

The stage Lee sets is not the Hulk's usual stomping ground. The opening montage, which is awkwardly speed-corrected to emulate the awkwardness of comic book panels, shows a scientist experimenting on himself, and unexpectedly discovering that his wife has become pregnant with his altered seed. That child of course is Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) whom the fates promise will meet a turning point with a gamma ray overdose at the start of the second act.

But the addition of the father has huge implications for this character. Instead of the science accident creating Hulk, in Lee’s universe, the gamma simply enables it. The Hulk is a fragment of Bruce’s subconscious, a Minotaur at the center of the maze in his mind, whose anger permits him to do as he pleases, perhaps for the first time in his life. “You know what really scares me?” he tells Betty (Jennifer Connelly) after calming down and resuming melanin-neutral activity, “I like it.” In the same way that Mr. Hyde weaponizes an ego his other half could never have, this Hulk is a release of endorphins, an emergence of instinct and ambition. He is a better form of Bruce, awakened by anger and empowered for apathetic, destructive justice. Like the best monsters, he really just wants to be left alone.

But the military, led by Betty’s bootstrapping father (Sam Elliot), sees dollar signs and potential weapons tech. They seal Bruce in a sarcophagus and haul him over the Nevada desert as many of the great monsters have been (see King Kong in chains, or Count Dracula ferried across the Atlantic in his coffin). When he wakes from a nightmare as the Hulk, you believe Bruce’s earlier statement that the Hulk isn’t just rage, but freedom. Lee shows an incredible prowess of visual restraint to portray Hulk's escape across the desert as scenic and diminishing. Against the natural wonders, the Hulk looks small and very far away. Pondering the lichen that reminds him of his own cells, or the house that he grew up in, he is a monster in the sense that he knows himself, and likes it. But he has a spirit that makes him more, like Bruce is reborn into what he's always wanted of himself. The imagery collaborates with my theory when the Hulk’s transformation for the third act occurs in a sensory deprivation tank, as the memory of his mother causes him to burst from the chamber, sopping wet and furiously alive.

This may not seem like a revolutionary interpretation of the material, but it’s diametrically opposite to recent portrayals. Whereas the monster usually represents a broken person struggling to be rid of themselves, Lee unmistakably makes the true beast Bruce’s unification. When describing the Hulk to Betty, Bruce calls it “rage, power, freedom" (I recall a similar rationale in An American Werewolf in London, a movie that tempted us to realize that monsters probably shouldn't take these things into their own hands, especially if they can). I dislike Bana but in this role, it’s to his credit: he’s a tacky Bruce, an unlikely human to have such power within him, “to share with the world,” as his mom puts it in an ignorant but true mythic prophecy. He’s passively meek; unlikeliness is his strength. He’s like if Bill Murray took the role and played it straight.

Hulk is a patchwork quilt of time jumps and perspective that strive to communicate this unification that Lee sees spread out over decades of comics (he had never read the Hulk, until preparing for this movie). The sheer amount of repeated flashbacks probably sunk the film for a lot of early viewers, especially those unaccustomed to someone taking such frivolous material so seriously. Throughout the film, a door hides a perilous secret. The child Bruce opens it and sees the outline of the Hulk, before he knew who that was. Then that climatic recollection of seeing his father’s murderous rage open that door makes Bruce’s dilemma so palpable: the power that he loves in himself, is him becoming the father that he hates. Freud would probably call this a universal truth of boyhood. For all its weirdness, there's ambition in that. Can you honestly recall any truths of this character portrayed that strongly, in any of the last twenty-two Marvel films?

Hulk has been reduced to an in-joke, relegated to pantomimes of Looney Tunes comedy. Disney has sanitized him into the new crowd-favorite Avenger, and to do so they’ve persecuted the psychology out of him. When the new Hulk said, “Puny god" in The Avengers, he meant that he is more physically powerful than someone who claims to be a god. There is no psyche or revelation in that statement, which is a fact, that he’s literally bigger and stronger than Loki. When Hulk in the 2003 film says, “Puny human,” it’s in a sinking nightmare: Hulk says this from behind a foggy mirror, and he’s talking about Bruce.

Compare the fight against Abomination in The Incredible Hulk with that against the father (Nick Nolte). Nolte is a campy, exasperating presence in the third act of Hulk. He's dad rage, impudence, snarkiness, and it comes out against Bruce as though he's finally old enough to see it. Abomination and Hulk are similar, yet share almost nothing. They have no common enemies or uncommon goals. Their fight is pure carnage, and total animated mayhem. But the battle against his father in the thunderstorm in Hulk is like a fresco, culminating so much of his journey into an extravagant but poignant series of singularly angry images. Nolte overworks the preceding conversation, in which Lee puts father and son on an over-lit stage as prisoners in of the same life choices, and lights their emotional fuse. The father’s placation, his rage, his regret, are all so palpably funny, pathetic, and threatening that it could have come straight from Shakespeare on a sarcastic day, for all its straight-faced doggerel. This poignant over-portrayal is from a director engrossed by this material; the Hulk knocking himself in the genitals with a tank turret is an example of how things lose their way, for a director trying to take decades of material and represent it all with one movie, like a man looking at a city and trying to draw the trash cube it would become with enough pressure.

What turns people off to this hyper-male Hulk seems to me to be a cocktail of its visual elements. The design of Hulk himself is strange: he is, of all things, kind of good-looking. He looks like the handsome Shrek at the end of Shrek 2. Lee, who doesn’t seem to have ever read a comic book except as research for the film, tries to emulate the frame of the panels with the lens. This works beautifully when the screen is split between perspectives or times, something I remember Brian De Palma doing in Phantom of the Paradise. The diverse angles of visual attack in the scene where Bruce is transported in his vacuum-sealed coffin work wonders and the gamma accident is choreographed with tension built into the separations between panels, much like in a comic book. But sometimes, Lee goes too far, switching too fast, or even displaying a character’s death as a silly combination of 2D cut-outs and CGI transitions. It is always frenetic, but not always beautiful.

And unrelatedly but impossible not to mention, Hulk’s pants are ripped off in a moonlit fight against buff poodle mutants. If ever a scene was made to be a bonus bit on a DVD, that would be it.

People are right to nag these choices, but there’s something so emotionally resonant at the core of Hulk that I would think it would be a source code for the rest of superhero films to build on and improve. It’s so theatrical and perversely gratifying that these visual critiques, while valid, are equivalent to using a red pen to correct Ovid’s verb tenses.  There is simply no room in the Disney machine for emotions on this psychological scale. Lee’s Hulk isn’t sterile and perfect, he’s not resolved with the human within him, and most importantly, he’s not a hero. The journey he takes is broader and more mythologized than any taken by the new Marvel characters, who are so concerned with remaining consistent to the broader franchise that their emotions go numb and fall off.

Please understand that I'm not making an argument that all the new Marvel movies are bad: in many quantitative ways, they're better than Hulk, which is often so brutal and ambitious that it tears at the seams and causes collateral damage all around it. What I'm saying is that with emotions in the new Marvel franchise, it’s always safety first. Hulk, as you might imagine, is least able to survive that restriction.

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Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Ang Lee

Stan Lee (Marvel comic book character by)
Jack Kirby (Marvel comic book character by)
James Schamus (story by)
John Turman (screenplay by)
Michael France (screenplay by)
James Schamus (screenplay by)
Bruce Banner Eric Bana
Betty Ross Jennifer Connelly
Ross Sam Elliott
Talbot Josh Lucas
Father Nick Nolte

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1 thought on “Hulk (2003): Comic Myths and the Monsters in Us”

  1. I am so glad that someone else shares my appreciation for the first Hulk film! Poodles notwithstanding, I thought it was really an excellent — perhaps quirky — and delightfully original take on adapting a comic book for the big screen. I love how Lee imbues the scenes with frenetic energy, how he makes it clear and believable that Banner and the Hulk are different aspects of the same person, and how he attempts to mimic the FEEL of reading a comic book by imitating the ubiquitous panels. I love the lighting and color of the film, too. And, I disagree with people who think that the CGI Hulk looks bad! It looks so much better than the vastly inferior Edward Norton Hulk that came out five years later! As a big fan of the silver age Incredible Hulk comics, I think that this film stays remarkably true to the characters while updating them for modern audiences. To me, this is the definitive Hulk film, and I just can’t understand the hate it got. I think that time is starting to prove me right, too, in light of the completely forgettable Ed Norton film and the lack of character development of the Ruffalo Hulk in the current MCU.

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