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Non-Review Review: Hulk

Ang Lee directing a superhero movie? He’s certainly a strange choice to handle the first big screen adaptation of Marvel’s iconic green monster to the big screen, but arguably a smart one. Hulk is at its best when it hints at the psychological melodrama playing out behind its lead character, but suffers greatly from the fact that it is apparently really uncertain about its source material or what it wants to be. It’s weird to see a movie so wonderfully risky in one sense, but so utterly bland in others. Hulk is an experiment, but sadly isn’t consistent enough to be a successful one.

"Hulk Splash!"

I’ve remarked time and time again that Peter David is perhaps the best writer to work on the character of Bruce Banner and the Hulk. David took a character whose sole feature was his capacity to turn into a big green muscle-bound misanthrope when provoked, and managed to add layers to the comic book creation. Why did the gamma radiation release a monster inside Banner, and why is it tied to his emotions? Is it an embodiment of his repressed urges, and, if so, where do they stem from? Is the Hulk, traditionally shown with the intellect and mindset of a child, somehow anchored in Banner’s childhood? David suggested that Banner’s childhood – specifically an abusive relationship with his father – is a major factor in his transformations.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of Ang Lee’s adaptation is that it explores this wonderful pseudo-psychological angle of the story. At its core, the movie is a story about fathers and their children – whether embodied in Betty’s stoic and controlling father, General Ross, or Bruce’s manipulative and exploitative father, David. Both want to control their children – Ross rationalises that it’s for his daughter’s protection (which the movie reinforces by having Betty bounce between the two men in her life – Bruce and her father); while David makes no pretense. He gave his son life, so his son owes him big time.

The problem is that the movie quite simply isn’t sure how to explore this angle of the plot, so it falls back on “classic” comic book storytelling. And by “classic”, I mean “silly”. Ang Lee clearly wants to do right by his material – his use of on-screen panels to represent the image of a divided comic book page is interesting, even if it doesn’t always work out – but he’s clearly uncomfortable with the material. So he throws everything against the wall and watches what sticks. The more intellectual material above plays out by making Bruce’s father into a supervillian and having them grapple with each other, rather than playing out to a fittingly subtle conclusion.

You could argue that Ang Lee is merely showing his respect towards the full range of Hulk comics. Awkward moments like a confrontation with “a mutant french poodle” would have been at home in the hokey sixties comics (and, indeed, formed the basis of an arc around the same time as the film), but not so much in the more considered and quiet explorations of the Banner father-son relationship. The comics have shown the Hulk leaping great distances, but the image simply doesn’t work on screen. The Hulk never goes nude on panel, for fear of offending delicate sensibilities, but here Eric Bana must be wearing some incredibly stretchy boxers. There is half-a-century’s-worth of material featuring the character, and it’s the writer and director who must find a way to synthesise that to create something which works on screen. The result we end up with here is something that looks like Lee was confused staring at the comics and plucked disjointed ideas at random, rather than trying to build a smooth and consistent environment.

Which is a shame, because there is some good stuff in here, it’s just mixed with some really awful ideas. Banner is repressed and socially awkward, but he’s played by hunky Eric Bana, who is quite charming with the material. Banner isn’t a guy who you’d like to grab a beer with after, he’s a nerdy little guy who is maybe nice, but never quite fits in. Bana just can’t channel the sort of discomfort or “incompleteness” that we need from the character. If Betty’s dialogue didn’t spell out his repression about his parents, we’d never realise that there was anything missing from his life.

The rest of the cast don’t really do any better. They all make valiant efforts, but they can’t help but seem hopelessly miscast. Sam Elliot always looks ready to offer fatherly advice rather than representing a coldly repressive force in the life of his daughter. Jennifer Connelly can’t find the right mix of quiet rebellion and the timidness of a woman caught between her father and her lover – either the script portrays her as too weak a character or Connelly can’t make those flaws feel organic, but she doesn’t feel right. Nick Nolte is probably the best member of the cast – but it helps that he’s got the scenery-chewing bad guy role. Nolte is creepy enough anyway, even without the scruffy look, and there’s a pang of arrogant self-righteousness which suits the character well. His character drives the most interesting aspects of the plot, and the best scenes feature Nolte and Bana interacting, but there aren’t enough of them.

I mean no disrespect to Lee, but he appears to have great difficulty with the CGI aspect of production – and maybe some other difficulties with the blockbuster nature of the production. When your first major action scene features some fairly wanton acts of animal cruelty by your protagonist (Hulk takes care of three mutant dogs – including a french poodle – viciously), it’s more than likely you’re missing the mark. The creature itself never looks right, and that’s something more fundamental than the technology of the time. When the bullets hit him, his skin jiggles, like fat. The Hulk should not look fat (The Incredible Bulk, anyone?). The movie’s action scenes never really take off, which is a shame – because the second half is blocked full of them.

Add to that the fact that the Hulk himself doesn’t exactly look impressive. I know that he’s meant to grow stronger the angrier he gets, but does it really have to look like Suepr Mario just took a mushroom? It’s a shame, because most of the CGI work is impressive (including that featuring Nolte), but not the main character. A green monster is always going to look ridiculous on film, but here his skin looks to smooth, particularly juxtaposed against real surroundings like rugged rocky landscapes or San Fransisco.

In the end, Ang Lee’s adaptation gets respect for its willingness to offer something more than “Hulk Smash!”, but that’s somewhat negated by the fact that it doesn’t seem to know or care about the character particularly much. One gets the sense that there was a roulette wheel in the production office that could have just as easily landed on “becomes a bouncer in Los Vegas” as “paternal issues” and the choice of material – everything from the core themes to the little quirks – doesn’t come from a love or respect of the original source, but from random chance. Perhaps it’s fitting that, like its subject matter, Hulk ends up as a failed experiment.

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4 Responses

  1. A weird mix of the two films would have been better. Unfortunately it looks like it will change again in Avengers so who knows?

  2. I agree that it was a “failed experiement.” To be honest, I thought the whole movie just dragged along.
    P.S. I’m ignoring the review of “Inception” for the moment, as I haven’t seen it yet. I haven’t read one review, for fear that it will taint my judgment!

    • Yep. Two and a half hours was perhaps a bit much. I hope you enjoy Inception when you get to see it.

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