Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
Let’s take a look at 2003’s “Hulk” from a 2013 perspective and find out what summer-movie audiences really seemed to hate about it. When Ang Lee’s film adaptation of the Marvel comic book series “The Incredible Hulk” was released in the summer of ’03, audiences walked out very disappointed and practically calling it a sad excuse for a summer-blockbuster. What was the cause of the hate? What went wrong?
Was it the numerous conversations within the characters? Isn’t it important for characters in superhero-movies to talk about their plight?
Was it the dark, depressing storyline? I think we’ve grown used to that by now, what with the releases of Christopher Nolan’s rebooted “Batman” films, for instance.
Was it the poor rendering of a CGI-Hulk running around and smashing things in his path? Well…fair enough. But haven’t we seen worse CGI? And aren’t we always aware that CGI is used in these movies? Granted, this Hulk looks more like Shrek on steroids, but he does interact with the real world very well—he smashes objects, encounters people, blends into shadows, etc. And in closeups, he doesn’t even look fake.
My guess is that “Hulk” was a superhero movie that was ahead of its time. Surely, CGI would progress in these films, but in the years since this film’s release, we’ve gotten used to action films of this type having many complex issues and dark material (see “The Dark Knight,” for example). With “Spider-Man” and “Daredevil” (both films based on Marvel comic book characters) already released before this one, people thought they were going to get just good solid entertainment with hardly anything more. I don’t think they were prepared for “Hulk.”
But wait a minute, you may exclaim. What about Tim Burton’s “Batman” films? Those came out more than ten years before “Hulk” and they were pretty dark for comic-book movies! Well since then, the superhero-movie genre was declared dead, not only with the Shaq vehicle “Steel,” the Pamela Anderson striptease “Barb Wire,” but even with Joel Schumacher’s embarrassing “Batman & Robin.” Then, “X-Men” was released in 2000, and it seemed like the superhero-movie was back, high on entertainment, low on much else, but entertaining nonetheless. So audiences figured we’d get more and more of these as they went along, and it would take a more iconic figure (like Batman) to make people ease into darkness.
I wonder what would happen if those people watched “Hulk” again nowadays because, to get straight to the point (if you didn’t figure it out already), I think “Hulk” is pretty good. It’s inventive, it’s involving, and well-executed. And more importantly, it’s successful in its character development and even how it represents the green behemoth himself, the Hulk. How Ang Lee sees the Hulk is probably different from the comic-book story (I admit never having read it), but all the more intriguing. Hulk is more of a tragic figure in this movie—a victim of unfortunate circumstances and consequences of a world he didn’t make. He can’t help but let out the rage in the physical form of a gigantic beast.
The Hulk is the rage that comes from within Dr. Bruce Banner (Eric Bana), a scientist working on a complicated radioactive experiment. He works with his ex-girlfriend, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), whom he’s still friendly with. Their experiment is still is the staging process, but things get even worse as a laboratory accident exposes Bruce to radiation. It doesn’t kill him, but it does enhance something inside of him, which isn’t clear until he transforms into the Hulk—a giant, green-skinned monster with great strength and speed. He discovers he is able to transform when he’s angry and can change back when his rage dwindles down.
Bruce also learns that there’s more to him than that, as he gets in contact with an old man who turns out to be his father, David Banner (Nick Nolte). He knows of Bruce’s ability and plight, and has also passed it on to him to begin with, by experimenting with his own DNA code and passing along transformed genes to his son. He then tried to kill him before being taken away for 30 years. Betty’s father, General Ross (Sam Elliott), knows of David’s history and keeps an untrusting eye on Bruce before realizing what he has become and takes him away. But that may turn out to be a mistake…
So, while Bruce is locked up and experimented upon, he becomes the Hulk again and runs amok, leaving General Ross and his men to decide whether to kill him or help him.
Remarkably for a supposed summer-blockbuster, “Hulk” is very somber in tone. There’s some good action and some intriguing entertainment values, but for the most part, it’s pretty dark. There’s a tragic backstory involving David and what he may have attempted to do with Bruce (to end his “curse” early), as well as the philosophy of who’s human and who’s not, which is something that any science-fiction story likes to use. But more importantly, the characters talk about their situations at hand. They discuss their plight and how it’s affecting them all. That’s kind of refreshing. The film’s audience in 2003 may have found the conversations too “talky”—so what? I felt for the protagonists even more because of that. Probably the strongest moment is when Bruce and Betty discuss this transformation alone in a cabin before Bruce is taken away. Bruce reveals that it scares him most when he realizes that he likes it when he completely loses himself into being the Hulk. It’s a revealing moment and it sets the mood for the rest of the movie, in that Betty knows how her father and the authorities will treat him and hopes to be able to soothe him.
I don’t even want to call “Hulk” a superhero-movie. It’s more of an Incredible Hulk version of the classic monster movies, such as “Frankenstein,” “King Kong,” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Elements of all three titles are evident here in a modern light. I think more of those titles than I do of “Spider-Man” or “Daredevil.” With “Frankenstein,” we have the creation gone wrong, the belief that humanity will never accept the unusual, and the creature unfairly hunted by those who don’t understand. That last one also resembles “King Kong,” in that Hulk is seen as a monster and hunted by the authorities. Also resembling “King Kong” are the action sequences, in which Hulk fights off mutated dogs that were part of David Banner’s genetics experiment, and an extended sequence in which Hulk battles Army tanks and helicopters (those scenes resemble Kong’s battle with dinosaurs and his last stand). As for the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” aspects, it pretty much explains itself. Bruce is Jekyll. Hulk is Hyde. Simple.
I mentioned before that I didn’t want to call “Hulk” a superhero-movie. But I can’t deny that it is a comic-book movie. Ang Lee goes all out to give it the look of a comic-book. He positions many shots to look like comic frames; he uses mobile camera movements to keep the flow of the mood; and more frequently, he uses multiple split-screens that show one area or another while keeping in the same scene. Watch this movie, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s very clever.
Oh, and should I also mention that the credits are also in that Comic Sans font that is used in descriptions of…comic books?
As for the action, it’s pretty good too. That lengthy sequence in which the Hulk battles the Military is exciting and intense. And because of everything that’s happened before, we always root for the Hulk to escape this situation.
The acting is across-the-board solid. Eric Bana is great as Bruce, giving us a complicated character to like and root for. Jennifer Connelly is appealing as Betty, who is stronger than you might think in this “girlfriend” role—she’s better than that. Sam Elliott is not entirely villainous as General Ross—he gives the character a more human side than you might expect. He’s very stubborn, yes; but he’s not evil. And then there’s Nick Nolte who is just perfect as David Banner. This is a mad scientist done right. Not manic or campy in the slightest—just a deranged, self-centered lunatic who cares more for how his experiment progressed with his son, rather than rekindling a relationship with his son.
OK, now what about the Hulk himself? Yes, I know he’s entirely CGI and people have attacked this creation as looking very fake. It’s easy to make fun of this Hulk, apparently. And I have to admit, it is the least interesting element in the movie. That might be because while in closeup, it looks very real and like I said, it interacts with the real world fine. But when you see it in faraway shots, it does look quite fake with herky-jerky movements and a cartoon-like look.
But for the most part, I really like “Hulk.” I know I’m in a minority on this, but hopefully that’ll change if people actually give this a second look. When you really think about it, comic-book movies have improved into being movies for people who don’t like comic-book movies (and thus, making them like even more comic-book movies, ironically). “Hulk” was one of the first to share that label, while other fans of the superhero-movie genre were left disappointed by the heavy dramatic situations and the dark storyline. Times have changed. It’s time to watch this movie again. Hopefully you’ll see it a different way.