One of the more common questions that people have asked me is my opinion on the Hulk films that came out in 2003 and 2008, respectively. In giving my opinion, I manage to baffle many people in that I actually like the 2003 film better than the 2008 production. Make no mistake, the 2008 movie had its good points. The special effects were better and Ed Norton did a great job of playing a Bill Bixby-esque Bruce Banner. However, the 2008 film played things timidly, with the studio interfering to keep the movie from getting too dark. A look at the deleted scenes of the DVD will show some of what the studio chopped because they wanted to sell action figures. 2008’s The Incredible Hulk was a movie that took no risks and, as a result, failed to really reach any emotional heights. By comparison, 2003’s Hulk took a lot of chances and got mixed reviews as a result. However, in taking those risks, I think that the 2003 film was a terrific movie that unfortunately suffered due to bad marketing.
The actual film, directed by Ang Lee and starring Eric Bana as Bruce Banner (and, in a way, the Hulk), received mixed reviews and mixed results at the box office. Some people liked it for being a cerebral comic book movie, while others ripped it for not being fun enough. At the box office, it set records for an opening week in June, but dropped off quickly in sales. It netted $250 million worldwide, but had a budget exceeding $120 million.
I would guess that one of the reasons that folks have asked me about the two movies is that I’ve made it no secret on my page that I am obsessed with the Hulk. That does not mean that I will blindly enjoy any crap with that name on it. I hated the movie tie-in video games, abhor most of the cartoons that have featured him, and frequently drop the comic book when I feel the writing is not up to par. I’m also not obsessed with nailing every aspect of the character. The television series starring Bill Bixby is an excellent example of something that screwed up every detail of the comic, including changing Bruce Banner’s name to David. However, it did a very good job with the basic concept of the character and had some excellent acting in it. So while I am probably biased toward both the movies, I like to think that I’m a pretty well-balanced fanboy.
The first thing that jumps out as Hulk gets going is Ang Lee’s style in directing it. The film physically looks like a comic book. The most obvious aspect of this similarity is when the screen breaks into different panels, but it can also be seen often in more subtle ways. During a closeup of a character, for instance, the camera will switch angles without breaking away, changing the way you see the character. If two people are having an intense conversation from across the room, the camera will give us a closeup of both of them at once, so we see the people rather than the scenery. Many people consider this style of camerawork to be gimmicky, and in a way it is. However, it also sets the tone of the movie. This is a comic book film; the characters and the action all have that larger than life aspect to them. When you see the Hulk swat missiles away later on, don’t be too surprised.
There are also several key points during the film where the comic-style transitions work particularly well. When Edith Banner is giving birth to Bruce, the scene swells and bursts through the middle of the screen, emphasizing the pain of childbirth. When Bruce meets Glenn Talbot, a former lover of his own beloved Betty Ross, the screen splits to give us a view of how each of them reacts within the love triangle. When Banner is finally captured by the military, the multiple panels give us a quick layout of the desert base where he is brought, showing us exactly how securely Bruce is kept.
The acting is also a major strength of the movie. Nick Nolte plays Bruce’s villainous father David, and presents him in a surprisingly human light. David Banner is a man who most consider to be a raving lunatic, and it would be extremely easy to dismiss him as such. Instead, Nolte brings out a very human quality to him, showing the character’s motives and how they spawn from a twisted desire to help Bruce. Sam Elliot plays the other father character, General “Thunderbolt” Ross. Ross is seeking to keep his daughter safe from the Hulk, but at the same time must accept that she loves Bruce Banner, and as such he must try to help the menace rather than simply destroy him. Elliot manages to convey his character’s feelings mostly through body language and facial expressions, and does a terrific job of it. As an added bonus, he is the spitting image of the comic book Thunderbolt Ross as well.
It takes about a third of the movie before the Hulk really shows up. He’s there beforehand, but not in a physical sense. He shows up in Bruce’s dreams, lurking in the shadows, and can be seen briefly during the accident that eventually unleashes him. However, the part many people are waiting for – the actual smashing – comes later in the film. The first 40 minutes focus on what has made Bruce Banner who he is. We know that he has repressed the memories of his childhood, due to some sort of family tragedy. We know that he dated Betty Ross (the General’s daughter and fellow scientist) for a short while but that their relationship fell apart because he couldn’t express his emotions. Everything about Banner is controlled, from his desert flowers that he mists every night to the careful strokes he takes when he’s shaving. The formula here is similar to an old-fashioned monster movie. First we see life as it should be, ordered and neat. Then Godzilla shows up and starts smashing, or the Frankenstein monster comes to life. Without the prolonged period of calm, we have no sense of how quickly things unravel.
For Bruce Banner, things fall apart at an alarming rate. After receiving what should be a lethal dose of gamma radiation in a lab accident, he first discovers that his real father has been stalking him. Then he has to deal with a potential hostile takeover of his lab from Glenn Talbot. Finally, when Betty tries using her high-ranking general of a father to exert some pressure and get rid of Talbot, she instead finds out that he is more concerned about Bruce as a potential danger. Eventually, Banner loses his temper and turns into the Hulk, and the carnage begins.
The Hulk himself is a major controversy regarding the film. In the trailers, the CG wasn’t finished, and as a result the creature was not fully defined, leading to many complaints about the special effects before the film was even released. The final product does have its flaws; the Hulk’s body movements are occasionally jerky and he doesn’t look 100% perfect in long shots. Of course, he is a 15-foot tall creature with emerald green skin, so realism isn’t too much of an issue. The special effects do manage to make the Hulk look like he’s a part of the environment. When he’s in the desert, his skin gets dusty. He gets wet when exposed to water, and the environment around him changes based on how he interacts (or smashes) it.
I think I should note here one minor observation that I’ve made regarding Banner’s pants. Many people have asked why the Hulk’s pants don’t fall off when he transforms. The simple answer is that no one wants to see a massive irradiated penis. But the film does explain this, in a way. When Banner first transforms, he isn’t as big as he becomes later in the film, and so his pants are only torn. The next time he shows up, his pants do fall off when he transforms, and all the ladies get a nice shot of Eric Bana’s ass. Later on, he’s wearing stretchy pants, and in the fourth and final transformation we don’t see how big the Hulk has become because he is fighting another monster. Just an observation on my part.
Anyway, the Hulk actually combines elements of several actors thanks to motion capture. For obvious reasons, he looks vaguely like Eric Bana. Jennifer Connelly was used for his facial expressions, allowing him to convey a great deal of emotion (which is important since he only speaks twice). Finally, Ang Lee himself did most of the Hulk’s actions, which must have been physically exhausting considering how much carnage he causes. During the span of the film, the Hulk trashes Banner’s lab, tangles with mutated dogs, takes on tanks, helicopters, and jet planes, and battles with the aforementioned other monster. There is a lot of action here, showcasing the Hulk’s power. But while the Hulk is a creature of rage, he also has a human side. There is a surprisingly low body count, mainly because the Hulk shows enough control not to kill people. He also has several moments when he is alone in the desert or facing Betty where the gentle aspects of his nature show through. In short, the crew managed to create a monster with a soul very effectively.
Above you might have noticed that I mentioned mutated dogs. That’s right, he does fight a bunch of gamma dogs, but the scene is no where near as lame as it sounds. The actual fight is awesome, and is probably the best battle in the film. The Hulk tangles with three gamma-irradiated dogs that are out to get Betty, and the fight is absolutely brutal. If you are a dog lover, you might want to close your eyes near the end of the battle.
The scene also allows for a good example of some of the humor in the film. One of the three dogs that the Hulk faces is a gamma poodle. While many people complained that the film lacked humor, I think that it is there, just not in the form of one-liners and insanely cackling supervillains in stupid costumes. The gamma poodle is one example. Other bits of humor can be found mostly in the battle scenes, such as when the Hulk grabs a missile, bites the head off, and spits it back at the copter that shot it at him. While the movie is mostly serious, I don’t think that anyone who actually sits down and watches it will get through the entire two hours without laughing at a couple points.
Hulk does have its flaws. At certain points the script is a bit cumbersome and causes the actors to stumble through their lengthier lines. The lack of a body count is sometimes contrived, and as I mentioned before, the Hulk is not 100% realistic. However, the film is overall very powerful, working not just as a superhero and monster film but as a very good metaphor of rage, repression, and the long-term effects of those things. It is a very good movie, perhaps the best of the Marvel movies made. I would recommend that everyone see it at least once. If you don’t like it, then it might just not be your thing. But I think lots of people simply don’t give this film the chance it deserves.