I always loved Ang Lee’s HULK. It was a blockbuster nobody else would’ve made, the Hulk movie that takes time for the Hulk to sit in the desert staring at the moss on the rocks. The weird one. The one that’s split between crazy action and subdued character drama. The one with Nick Nolte in mugshot mode as the villain, commanding a pack of mutant dogs, later turning into an electrical storm.
Well, I still love all that, but I’m disappointed to find that I don’t enjoy the movie quite as much 10 years later. At least not the pre-Hulk chunk of the thing. And I think it comes down to the very idea of it.
Lee cast Eric Bana, so hilarious and maniacal as Chopper, to play a character defined by being closed up, keeping everything buried deep inside. Something bad happened with his parents when he was little – experiments, explosions, etc. – but he doesn’t remember it, doesn’t recognize that it haunts him, doesn’t act upset that his girlfriend Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly, PHENOMENA) dumped him and he still loves her and works with her and then she sewed the first American flag I believe but that’s not covered in the movie. Anyway the Hulk is all these things boiling inside of Banner, waiting to explode out, but Bana never gets the benefit of pushing the button on the detonator. He does some twitching and then has to tag in the animated character who’s the real star of the movie. Poor Bana (and Connelly) have to spend the whole thing being restrained, and looking real concerned all the time, which is not as compelling to me as it used to be. I used to be more patient with it.
Lee made a couple choices for the people who want it to be “like a comic book,” he uses all these split screens and wipes shaped like comic strip panels. Like it’s that BRENDA STARR movie or something. I remember this being singled out in many of the negative reviews as the one good thing about the movie, but I always hated it. He’s not using split screen in a useful way, like DePalma showing both Carrie and her POV at the same time. And it’s only superficially like a comic book, unless a comic book would have a bunch of panels in a row that are just different angles of the same helicopter, no dialogue, and you’re supposed to look at all the panels simultaneously. I mean, do you really read comic books that are like this:
Seems to me like it would be a boring read, but I guess I’m not a comic strip guy.
Oh shit, do you remember how Lee kills off the Josh Lucas character? I forgot about this. Check this out:
Freeze frame t-shirt iron-on in front of explosion footage. Beautiful! I mean I kinda like it in that “ha ha, he doesn’t give a fuck!” way I kinda like the dance scene in SPIDER-MAN 3. But it’s pretty crazy that he put that in there. That would be funny if they did that in a comic book movie now. Like, that would’ve been a good way for Bane to go out in DARK KNIGHT RISES.
Fortunately, the Hulk himself and Nolte as the father/villain are every bit as great as I remember. The Hulk character does not look as photorealistic as many digital creatures, especially today, but he has more personality than many. I thought I preferred the look of the newer incarnations in INCREDIBLE HULK and THE AVENGERS but when I watch this I can’t help but enjoy looking at him. I mean, look at this guy:
You gotta love him! Unless you’re Josh Lucas. Quit shooting at him, Josh Lucas! It tickles.
The highlight of the movie is clearly the section where the Hulk escapes from a military base out in the desert and spends some time battling tanks, helicopters and jets. Also he gets some time to himself, some Hulk time, to appreciate the fun of Hulkmanship and the beauty of nature. He uses his super leaping powers to glide across dunes and mountains. General Ross (Sam Elliot, ROAD HOUSE) tells the bombers to “make a parking lot” out of beautiful land formations, so I think Hulk has a deeper connection to nature than man does.
Nolte is wild-haired, mumbly and bizarre, the best depiction of a truly mad scientist since Brando in THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. And his greatest moment is when the military sits Banner and dad down between two giant rocket engines, in case they gotta blast ‘em. But at least they give ‘em chairs, out of humaneness.
Dad decides that this is like a stage and he puts on a little performance, a mega-acting monologue piece about his grievances with the military. I still enjoy that and the weird monster vs. man-who-can-turn-into-lightning-and-water climax. To this day it is unique among super hero battles.
It’s weird to watch this movie 10 years later with the knowledge of where Marvel Comics movies have come since. SPIDER-MAN was before this, it’s since gotten 2 sequels and a reboot. X-MEN 2 came out the month before this, it has since gotten another sequel, a prequel, 2 spin-offs. BLADE II had come it, it got another sequel and a TV season. PUNISHER has been rebooted twice. GHOST RIDER somehow got 2 movies. We got 3 IRON MEN, THOR, CAPTAIN AMERICA and THE AVENGERS, and sequels to the latter 3 on the way. The Hulk himself got rebooted in 2008 and recast for THE AVENGERS in 2012.
One decade later it’s a whole new world. They would never pull that split screen thing now. “You know… like a comic book!” Back then the idea of all these characters crossing over into each other’s movies seemed like an embarrassing nerd pipe dream. Now it’s what the audience expects. The sit after the credits and groan when there’s not a little thing where some character from another movie comes out and tells them about some other thing that’s gonna happen.
HULK failed to really connect with either audiences or moneypiles, but it didn’t scare them away from the formula of respected-director-who-hasn’t-done-something-like-this-before directing rising-actor-known-for-recently-acclaimed-performance. The director thing arguably started with Sam Raimi doing SPIDER-MAN (although since he’d done DARKMAN and everything it seemed natural that he’d want to do something like that) or with Bryan Singer on X-MEN, and it continues to this day. I think the difference is that it seems like Lee was pretty much allowed to do what he wanted, while it’s clear that when they bring in Kenneth Branagh or even Jon Favreau they are considered a hired gun and the honchos at Marvel Studios are holding the reins. That’s how they’ve been able to build this thing but it’s also why HULK, despite its weaknesses, continues to be special.
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other movies that came out that summer: X2: X-MEN UNITED, THE MATRIX RELOADED, 2 FAST FURIOUS, CHARLIE’S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, BAD BOYS 2, FREDDY VS. JASON
highest grossing movie that year: THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING