Ang Lee’s Hulk, one of the earliest films of the modern comic book movie era, celebrates its Porcelain Anniversary this year, reigniting a debate that has raged for two decades. Is the movie a misunderstood masterpiece? Or is it a disastrous bastardization of a beloved superhero character?
Hulk arrived in 2003 amid a growing landscape of superhero adaptations. Bryan Singer’s X-Men launched the movement in 2000, with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man bringing it to full momentum in 2002. It also came at a time when audiences had shown an interest in more literate action fare: both the Matrix and Lord of the Rings trilogies wrapped that same year.
Hot off the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lee resisted the siren call to more mainstream Hollywood franchises — such as Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines — to focus on a potential (and literal) cinematic juggernaut. Singer’s X2 and, to a lesser extent, Mark Stephen Johnson’s Daredevil had already hit screens earlier that same year to strong box office hauls. Universal Studios, Marvel, and box office analysts had every reason to think that Hulk could smash records for ticket sales.
One of Lee’s most interesting creative decisions on Hulk relates to its casting. In the role of Bruce Banner, he hired relative unknown Eric Bana, an actor who had generated considerable buzz in indie movies and supporting roles in moderate hits such as Black Hawk Down and Troy. As Bruce’s love interest, Betty Ross, Lee hired Jennifer Connelly, a veteran actress who had picked up an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind the year before.
Neither Connelly nor Bana had proven a box office draw in the past, and both actors, at 31 and 33 respectively, were older than the fresh-faced kids populating superhero pictures at the time. Tobey Maguire was 26 when he appeared in Spider-Man, and Ben Affleck was 29 in Daredevil. The X-Men movies had an ensemble cast of varied ages, but most of the actors — Halle Berry, James Marsden, Famke Janssen — looked fresh-faced, or, in the case of Anna Paquin and Sean Ashmore, actually were.
Today, the casting of the more mature Bana and Connelly seems even more egregious. Compare that to James Gunn’s ongoing search for a new Lois Lane today, where, despite an “outstanding” audition, Warner Bros. worries that actress Rachel Brosnahan, age 32, is too elderly for the part. Lee’s casting of adult actors over young up-and-comers signaled that with Hulk, the director would take some big risks.
A Genre Redefined
The opening scenes of Hulk further intimated that Ang Lee wanted to redefine the term “comic book movie.” The credits feature a Comic Sans script over extreme close-ups of reptiles, blood vials, and a mad scientist’s notebook, much like the opening pages of a graphic novel. Lee continues that approach throughout the film, using split-screen techniques and multi-camera angles to make the movie look like a comic come to life.
Some critics and audience members cried fowl over this approach, accusing Lee of heavy-handed direction. That didn’t stop other directors, including the likes of Robert Rodriguez, Zack Snyder, and Sam Raimi, from borrowing the approach in their future movies, and to great acclaim. Furthermore, every full-motion comic book adaptation produced in the years since essentially uses the same aesthetic.
The plot of Hulk recalls the origin of the titular beast: mad geneticist David Banner (Nick Nolte) performs experiments on himself to alter his DNA. His son, Bruce (Bana), inherits these mutations. A lab accident involving gene therapy and gamma rays causes Bruce to morph into a giant green, ahem, Hulk whenever he becomes emotionally agitated with a taste for violence and destruction. Bruce’s lady love/lab partner Betty (Connelly) works to save Bruce from his split personality, even as her own father, Gen. Thunderbolt Ross (Sam Elliot), and her shady businessman ex, Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas), plot to use Bruce’s DNA as a super weapon.
As with Batman Begins two years later, Hulk didn’t want to rush an origin story to get at mind-numbing action. Instead, it fleshes out the origin myth to better examine the psychology and motives of its characters, peppering in hardcore action to boot. Detractors of Hulk, then as now, often complain that the Hulk doesn’t appear on-screen enough, or that the movie takes too long to introduce him. Those complaints miss the point. Like Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the Hulk is as much a symbol of one man’s psychology as it is a character. The Hulk represents something frightening in everyone; an unchecked, violent id laid bare by scientific malfeasance. Even when the Hulk isn’t on-screen, viewers feel his presence, and it’s a scary one.
That association of the Hulk-as-danger has always set the character apart from other superheroes, both on the page and on the screen. If Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man fulfilled fanboy dreams of waking up with powers, a perfect body, and a longtime crush returning affections, Hulk does the opposite. Bruce Banner’s powers destroy his life and relationships and pose a threat to the world. Bruce might be a superhero, but the Hulk is a destructive force.
Even X2, which became a hit, in part, because it tapped into burgeoning calls for social justice — namely a revitalized LGBTQ rights movement — nodded at the joys of superpowers. Lee, like Bruce Banner, sees the Hulk as a curse. That doesn’t inspire audiences to fantasize about morphing into a giant green beast and saving the day. In 2003, audiences that wanted to see themselves or the United States as a kind of savior would have had a hard time swallowing Lee’s bitter pill.
That brings to mind one of Hulk’s boldest creative choices, and one that likely damned it at the box office. Much of the movie’s drama revolves around a nefarious businessman, Talbot, and a military hellbent on flexing its strength trying to discover the secret of Bruce Banner’s mutation.
The success of Spider-Man the year before tapped into public feelings in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Viewers wanted to believe in saviors that could defeat enemies, and that film’s scenes of New Yorkers shouting about an “attack on one of us is an attack on all of us” roused patriotic spirits. Those sentiments also make Spider-Man look horribly dated today amid a moment of moral grayscale and political division.
Hulk, by contrast, pits the military against its protagonist at the same time the US invaded Iraq. What’s amazing isn’t that Ang Lee made a film critical of American foreign policy at the time. Rather, the film’s observations about militarism and commerce prophesied something chilling. Hulk arrived long before corporate war profiteers such as Halliburton or Blackwater entered the vernacular, before Iraq became a disaster, and before the abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay would stain America’s reputation.
Lee’s movie somehow predicts it all: Hulk touches on warmongering robber barons, illegal spying, torture, ill-conceived attacks, and trigger-happy commanders itching for combat. Did Lee see catastrophe ahead? Is Hulk meant as a warning cry to a public unwilling to listen? Who knows … but history has gifted the film an eerie prescience.
At this point in this essay, readers who hated Hulk probably have two concerns on their minds: 1) the movie’s special effects, and 2) the character’s role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and how this 2003 interpretation does or doesn’t fit in. Regarding the former, Hulk gave the wrong impression before it even opened as trailers for the film using unfinished effects.
The movie also arrived at a time of growing antipathy toward the overuse of computer effects as well. In the wake of Attack of the Clones and the Matrix sequels, audiences began to bemoan the loss of practical and physical movie magic. Hulk, of course, used groundbreaking motion capture technology to achieve its title character, and for the most part, the Hulk looks as good as the current incarnation in the MCU. If he doesn’t look “real,” that’s OK; he’s a giant green monster. He shouldn’t look real in the traditional sense.
About Those Effects…
On the other hand, several other effects realized through CGI look awful, most notably the Hulk dogs, which invited wide criticism at the time of the movie’s release. Today, they look like most other digital creations of the era: pixilated and liquid. Lee does his best to sell the sequence of the Hulk wrestling the canines by shooting the set piece in shadow to hide the effects’ shortcomings, but only achieves partial success.
The same can be said for the scene when the military traps the Hulk in spray foam, which looks silly by present standards. CGI, particularly of the early 00s, has a certain reductive nature to it. By the time it hits movie screens, it already looks out of date. What’s amazing here isn’t that the effects don’t hold up, it’s that, by and large, the Hulk itself still looks physically and emotionally credible, as opposed to other effects.
As for Lee’s Hulk vs. that of the MCU, viewers will note that, apart from the 2008 Edward Norton-led reboot, the character has played only a supporting role. That movie focused more on Hulk-as-antihero and featured a story heavier with action and effects devoid of Lee’s psychological depth. A gaunt Edward Norton fit the part better than Bana, who, in truth, looked too handsome to play Bruce Banner. Norton is also a better actor, and Bana, talented as he is, didn’t quite have the charisma or experience to carry a movie in 2003.
But the 2008 film, directed by Louis Leterrier, had none of the innovation or depth of Lee’s version. It also underperformed at the box office and among critics due to the limitations of the character. Without the psychology, there’s not much to the Hulk…not enough to hang a whole movie on.
The MCU’s subsequent incarnation of the character, played by the affable Mark Ruffalo, doesn’t seem to mind being the Hulk at all. Apart from a few nods to the danger the character posed, the Marvel films have ignored him as a danger. The MCU Hulk has more sensitivity and sentience than Lee’s take on the character, drawing him as yet another wise-cracking caricature in a franchise ever-populated by joke-spewing cartoons. As fans of the comics will note, the Hulk shouldn’t crack jokes. He shouldn’t come off cuddly or cute. At his absolute, the Hulk is a monster in the vein of Mr. Hyde or the Frankenstein creature. Even when he does something heroic — and he does in Hulk — he should frighten the other characters.
Lee’s movie knows as much. In essence, Hulk is a story about child abuse, how it fosters rage, and how that becomes a mental illness passed down through generations. Both Bruce and Betty suffer neglect and mistreatment at the hands of their fathers; Betty, in the form of domineering manipulation, and Bruce, as experimentation and violence.
The events of the film help Betty and Gen. Ross reconcile their estrangement. David pushes Bruce to embrace his inner monster, which he refers to as his “real son.” That David also becomes the eventual villain of the movie speaks for itself. That approach pushes viewers into uncomfortable territory, forcing them, like the characters, to confront moral and ethical questions that don’t have easy solutions.
Great art, be it on a comic book page, or on a movie screen, does that. Any superhero movie with a costume and effects budget can create colorful images and action mayhem. Only the best movies in the genre — the Dark Knight Trilogy, Superman, Black Panther, and the like — take the characters deeper. 20 years on, nitpickers will still find plenty to complain about in Hulk. Viewers who want a passive, colorful, cartoon parade or that expect a movie to pander to them with one-liners and fan service will still balk.
But for audiences ever fatigued by superhero movies cranked out like fast food, Hulk tastes like gourmet cuisine. Critics and audiences who reviled the film for its ruminations on psychology, abuse, or its political sentiments missed the point. Ang Lee knows what the Hulk, the character, actually symbolizes, and that he exists in the real world. He is rage. He is violence. He is neglect. He is war of aggression. He is pain and shame.
Time has been kind to Hulk. Today, a movie often cited as one of the worst of its genre plays a lot more like one of the best.
Hulk streams on Tubi, Peacock, Amazon and YouTube.