Hulk (2003)

The blood of mothers produces heroes. Mary’s womb birthed a messiah. Thetis dipped her son Achilles in the haunted river and granted him near-immortality. The mythic mother is a paramour – the Catholics were right to sanctify her as a concrete, making her story insignificant next to her image. Shakespeare understood the significance of this image, that to be completely virtuous the mother would also have to be absent. Active conflict, in the sense of the story, would always be between child and father. 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 fathers produces vengeance.

I’m not overextending an analysis of Hulk (2003) when I connect it to mythic lore and Shakespeare – its idea of drama is unquestionably what is in those fables, even if it is the worst in them. Its world is a house of curtains and mirrors. Its psyches are all torturous, exaggerated, archetypical. Its mothers are perfect, imagistic, absent. But what is worst in myth, what is flagrant and flawed, is also what is 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 unlike any the Hulk has ever transgressed. The opening montage, which is awkwardly speed-corrected to emulate the awkwardness of fragmentary memory, 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 far-reaching implications for the jolly green guy. 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, 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 oozes an ego his other half could never have, this Hulk is a release of endorphins, an emergence. 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 of course 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 like King Kong in chains. 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 the journey 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 there is a spirit at his center that makes him more, like Bruce is reborn into a better version of a man. 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 fragmentariness, 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. 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 in an ignorant but true mythic prophecy. But he’s likably meek; unlikeliness is his strength. He’s like if Bill Murray took the role and played it straight.

Hulk is a buffet of temporal perspectives that all strive to communicate this unification that Lee sees spread out over decades of comics. 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 with such gravitas. 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. Can you honestly remember any of those in the new 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 says, “Puny god,” he refers to the absolute limit of the depth of storytelling in The Avengers: he means that he is more physically powerful than someone who claims to be a god. There is no psychology or religion in that statement, which is a fact, that he’s literally bigger and stronger than Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. When Hulk in 2003 says “Puny human” it’s in a somber 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), now the Transforming Man, whose genetic composition mimics everything he touches. Abomination and Hulk share almost nothing. They have no common enemies or disparate goals. Their fight is pure carnage, and total cartoon. But the fragmentary battle against his father in the thunderstorm is like a fresco, culminating so much of his masculine journey into an extravagant but poignant series of singularly angry images. Nolte shines in the preceding conversation, in which Lee rebuilds the proscenium arch for the final act, places father and son on an over-lit stage, 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 its straight-faced poetic doggerel. Poignantly over-literal, hilariously serious: what better epitaph for a man who turns green when he’s upset?

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 exploiting in The 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.

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 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 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.

With emotions in the new Marvel franchise it’s always safety first. Hulk, as you might imagine, is least able to survive that restriction.

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

Official Trailer

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1 thought on “Hulk (2003)”

  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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