Written by: James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman
Directed by Ang Lee
Two of the key motifs in Ang Lee’s 2003 adaptation of 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 Hulk is it succeeds as movie not by slightly re-tinkering this formula (à la Deadpool) but by discarding it entirely (granted, 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. Hulk, however, truly feels like a standalone idea for a story: one that simply happens to feature a mutated, superpowered individual.
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 in his cold ways, adding a level of mystery and tension whenever he speaks.
The film’s 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 sinister, 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 all-over-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 Bruce 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. This is a problem that ultimately pushes him in a more violent direction. This is the story of Hulk a hero who unequivocally does not want to be a hero, as it seems his superpowers can only lead to him being perceived as a super-villain.
Meanwhile, the anger-is-fear motif, also factors into this Frankensteinian story. The emergence of Hulk is a cruel cycle, in which a character terrified of the angry part of himself, is made to feel vulnerable to the world, and as such, lets his anger and self-loathing grow stronger. 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 is 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 emphasizing character presence 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 Bruce Banner’s Frankensteinian pain.