Hulk (2003)

Written by: James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman

Directed by Ang Lee

Hulk_movie.jpgTwo of the key motifs in Ang Lee’s 2003 adaptation of The Hulk are Frankenstein, and the Star Warsian idea that anger is but a sub emotion of fear. Superficially, perhaps these ideas do not sound like much: Hulk is green, Frankenstein’s monster is green, “big deal.” However these motifs set up Hulk to be a superhero film like no other.

A common recipe for superhero films is giving their hero(es) sass, arrogance, a pinch of situational comedy and of course a healthy does of action scenes. The incredible thing about The Hulk is it succeeds as movie not by slightly retinkering this formula (à la Deadpool) but by discarding it entirely (granted, The Hulk predates the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe). This approach may explain why the film did not do well at the box office. Indeed, the scenes of pre-Hulk adult Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) are a little slow. Nonetheless, Hulk’s uniqueness is ultimately a rewarding experience. With Marvel movies now coming out at a one-after-another rate, its easy to become cynical about superhero movies and feel like if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. The Hulk, however, truly feels like a standalone idea for a story: one that simply happens to feature a mutated, superpowered individual.

The Hulk features five main characters, each with a unique motive and a different relationship to Bruce Banner, a young scientist who becomes the film’s titular hero/monster. The most unequivocal villain is Glenn Talbot (Josh Luas). His lack of complexity, however, is well juxtaposed with his ultimate pettiness as an adversary. He’s a Draco Malfoy-esque bully, and is ultimately subject to a comic-book-homage gag (director Ang Lee occasionally framed the scenes to resemble comic book panels). Yet another adversary is General Thunderbolt Ross (Sam Elliot), a character who can be heartless, but because he acts in the roles of soldier and protective father he comes across less as evil than as set his cold-ways, adding a level of mystery and tension whenever he speaks.

The third adversary, meanwhile, is its most compelling and confusing. Nick Nolte stars as a janitor whose behaviour at times mirrors the cold protectiveness of the General, at times is purely sinsiters, at times is radical and at times is purely affectionate. In so far as The Hulk is Frankenstein, Nolte is Victor. His character’s psychology is too allover the place ever to be fully coherent, but in the context of the film it works: perhaps because we are implicitly seeing him through the monster (Hulk)’s eyes, and not through his own.

The main cast is completed by Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly). She is introduced as Bruce Banner’s still-friends-ex-love-interest. In most superhero films, the story would no doubt follow Bruce Banner’s attempt to achieve self-actualization and win her back. The Hulk, however, avoids this predictable path, for a subtler relationship of affection. Betty and Banner empathize with and act on behalf of one another throughout the movie, despite a constant spectre that their relationship could be further damaged by Banner’s angry side.

Through these five characters The Hulk sets up a series of compelling emotional clashes that I found far preferable to the dearth of action scenes the film omitted. Where the film does use action, it does so to advance its dramatic message. We see The Hulk in action just long enough to see what he can do: enough to show why the General dehumanizes him, and enough to see why pain inevitably claws at his and Betty’s understanding relationship. The film’s action-emotion balance is also, again, at the heart of its themes. Frankenstein is a story of two misfit characters, doctor and monster, who despite being individually sympathetic figures end up pitted against one another. The monster’s story is made specifically tragic because he is largely a victim ,not of his actions, but of how his appearance leads him to be perceived: a problem that ultimately pushes him in a more violent direction. This is the story of The Hulk a hero who unequivocally does not want to be one, as it seems his superpowers can only lead to him being perceived as a supervillains.

Meanwhile, the anger is fear motif, factors into this Frankenstein story. The emergence of Hulk is a cruel cycle, in which a character terrified of parts of himself, is made to feel vulnerable to the world, and as such, lets the angry part of his self come out and deeper cement his fear. This motif does come at some costs. When we first see Banner get angry it feels awkwardly sudden (up to this point he is a sad-eyed mild mannered character, who is never described as angry, only “emotionally removed”). This is not to say, the motif was not overall effective, however, the script and or direction should probably have been tinkered to either show Hulk’s anger earlier in the film, or to make it more clear that it’s a sudden consequence of his being mutated.

Thematically, in short, Lee’s Hulk in a good piece: it would translate well as a short story, stripped of all the (already limited) graphic action scenes it boasts. The film, however, is also strong visually, combing simple but colourful, Americana backdrops (in contrast to the generic urbanity of many superhero films), intentionally unrealistic animations of molecular biological reactions and of course the comic book panels (which, though sometimes an afterthought, do help nail home the film’s commitment to individual emphasizing character personality over chaotic action scenes). I realize some viewers and critics felt it lacked Hulk smashes, but I can’t help but feel such cravings got in the way of their appreciating the far stronger blow of Banner’s Frankensteinian pain.

 

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Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo

Avengers_Infinity_War_poster[1] When I first saw the trailer for Avengers Infinity War, I mentally sorted it into the so-bad-it’s-good category of film. In other words, it was the kind of thing I secretly desired to see but would make fun of in respectable company. Its trailer reminded me a classic viral video called Too Many Cooks (which you should watch, but in case you don’t the joke is…well…too many characters). The film seemed like the kind of thing that was parodying itself. Surely, I thought, no wise writer would try and fit that many main characters into a story. How, for instance, I asked could they find screen time for the eighth most important character in Black Panther? How, I asked, could they justify bringing in all six Guardians of Galaxy characters, when their’s feels more like a sci-fi than a superhero franchise?

In short, going into the film, part of me knew it had too much going on to be well written and as such I was willing to dismiss it. On the other hand, part of me wanted to believe that the writers were aware of this absurdity, and as such would brilliantly weave all of those fates together into a masterpiece (or at very least present a self-aware piece with Too Many Cooks style humor). Unfortunately, it was the first of these statements that proved true.

Avengers: Infinity War opens with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) confronting Thanos (Josh “I’m having a very good Marvel Month” Brolin). This is the point where I have to admit I’m no comic-book-nerd nor have I systematically seen each Marvel film. That caveat noted, I found this introduction oddly direct yet simultaneously very confusing. We are not introduced to Thanos, we are just expected to know who this purple giant is and somehow make sense of the complex dealings he has with Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Thanos, it turns out, is a solid villain. His ambition is to save the universe by wiping out half of its population. He is a twisted idealist, who despite being incredibly powerful, makes himself sufficiently vulnerable to regularly engage with, and even take a punch or two, from the film’s heroes.

Following the opening confrontation, the Avengers (an all star team of Marvel heroes) are gradually brought together. This allows for some pleasant comedic moments. Marvel heroes tend to be at least mildly funny, allowing for banter between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) or Thor and Star-Lord (who, in my Marvel naivety, I briefly confused for the Iron Giant (now that would be a cool, Too Many Cooks-esque cameo)) to be somewhat entertaining. From then on  the film gradually re-introduces characters including The Hulk (a funny, if, inevitably underused, Mark Ruffalo) Spider Man (Tom Holland) Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Captain America (Chris Evans), leaving time for funny banter, as well as some compelling drama (particularly in Thanos’ relationship with Gamora (Zoe Saldana)).

Infinity Wars’ problem, however, is that its humor peaks too early, giving way to dull action scenes. Its comedic style is also off-putting when it comes to its portrayal of Spider Man. That Marvel’s most famous superhero is left fairly one-dimensional (his one personality trait being that he seems to constantly, and nervously seek the approval of Iron Man) rings somewhat hollow. I could rant now about how hollywood needs to get over its intellectual-property bullshit and just accept that there were already good Spider Man movies made in the 2000s and there was no need to reinvent the character, but I suppose that’s going off topic.

Infinity Wars’ drama meanwhile, suffers from being too spread out, due to the film’s dearth of protagonists. Numerous characters die in the film, but these deaths lose their dramatic effectiveness due to our understanding that they exist in a cinematic universe. In some cases we know these deaths to be temporary: some characters die way too quickly and unmarkedly given their importance in the franchise (also we know some of these characters are slated to appear in future movies). I understand that the writers had their hands tied when it came to writing these “deaths.” More frustrating, however, is the death of one character which is stylistically distinct enough from the others to give off the impression that it is a permanent.  This death scene is nonetheless,  so rushed and early in the script that it does no justice to its target. This character (who I will not name) is a sad casualty of Marvel’s Too-Many-Cooks foolhardiness that simply left them without enough screen timing to meaningfully tend to all the characters they chose to depict.

R.I.P. *CHARACTER NAME CENSORED TO PREVENT SPOILERS*: you will be missed.

Perhaps Marvel nerds will love Infinity War. It certainly takes the Avengers’ struggle to a new level. Nonetheless, I suspect casual fans (especially ones like me who don’t watch the movies for their action scenes) may be disappointed by the film’s narrative structure. Thanos is an engaging villain, and Thor, The Hulk, the Guardians and perhaps some of the others are fun protagonists. Unfortunately, the film seems too rely to heavily on the premise of “look at these cool characters fighting,” rather than truly considering how best to make their narratives collide.