We're gonna have to watch that temper of yours.The third era of superhero films struggled with the question of what a superhero movie was. It's an important business question, after all: if you're dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into exploiting these properties, how do you distill it into a formula?
Given studios' inherent chasing of formula, Ang Lee remains one of the most intriguing choices for director of a superhero film. In 2003, he was known primarily for dramas exploring repression, notably in the West in Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm; even his great action epic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, found its' real dramatic power in the unleashing of repression -- particularly in the tragic final revelations that are unveiled too late. But if there's one superhero he was suited for, it was the Hulk -- a man who turned into a monster when his rage overtook him. And Lee, being an outsider approaching the genre, figured out the great secret of Superhero movies:
Superhero isn't a genre - it's a trope.
Instead of crafting a film of a man getting powers and becoming a hero in escalating action sequences, Lee approached Hulk on its core emotional terms and worked the film out from those. The result, unfortunately, crashed into a deeply mixed reaction. Some appreciated what it was doing, while many others were put off by it. After a strong opening weekend, the box office plummeted, and Universal's huge expenditure was left in the red. Still, it made enough to not really be a flop, and work was done on a Hulk sequel anyway. But by the time another Hulk film came out, it had been co-opted into the nascent Marvel Cinematic Universe with a different cast -- and the star of that version insisted that they wipe the first Hulk from continuity, thus leaving Lee's Hulk a curious orphan.
Hulk opens not with bold, heroic brass on the soundtrack, but troubling, challenging gothic horror music (courtesy Danny Elfman yet again), with a near-shrieking descending ostinato giving a dark fantasy vibe to a troubled, deeply brooding string and percussion underscore, punctuated by Middle Eastern vocals and instruments and punched across with brutal brass. This intensely sets the mood for the title sequence, a subtly horrifying montage of animal experiments, and the scientist experimenting on them becoming increasingly obsessed with his work.
This scientist, David Banner, desires to move his genetic experiments to human subjects, but is shot down by the military employing him, particularly one General Ross. So Banner experiments on himself... and then, years later, finds that his son, Bruce, has been affected by his experiments. And then... Bruce forgets what happened. His parents had a fight behind closed doors, and there was some sort of distant green explosion, and after that, he was raised by foster parents.
David Banner's experiments were attempting to create super-soldiers; decades later, his son, Bruce (Eric Bana), and General Ross's daughter, Betty (Jennifer Connelly), are also scientists extending the same concepts, but trying to create ways of healing and improving all people, not enhancing soldiers. The two were once romantically linked, but it fell apart due to their own similar demons. Both are psychologically tormented by the sins of their fathers. David's abusive nature has manifested in deeply-rooted fury in Bruce, which he suppresses deep down so that he struggles to access or control his emotions. He projects a calm, quietly friendly face to the world, not showing or even acknowledging the torment within. The strongest hint comes from his cold reaction to Major Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas), who stops by to try to poach Betty.
GLENN: We've never gotten to know each other properly.
BRUCE: That's because I've never wanted to know you, properly or improperly.
This heavy drama and meticulous characterization could make for a very slow film, and from an action standpoint, it certainly does. But Lee keeps it lively by embracing the visual language of comic books. Split screens, picture-in-picture, wipes, and all manner of other tricks abound; while there are a few points where it's distracting, for the most part, it's fantastic and remains unique. It gives real energy to a story that takes its time, injecting razzle-dazzle into otherwise mundane scenes. And unlike many directors who use gimmicky visual tricks to enliven dramatic scenes, Lee never loses sight of the drama at play; his gimmicks are carefully used to enhance and focus it.
Naturally, this must take a turn for the strange, and in a freak lab accident, Bruce saves the life of a lab tech by taking the full power of a gamma radiation burst himself. It's a fast, intense sequence; Lee's visual tricks included breaking the hallowed 180 rule to add to the unnerving effect. When Bruce awakens, it turns out that what should have killed him has made him stronger. It's more traumatizing for Betty: "You were going to die, and I was going to have to watch you die." (After all, this is an Ang Lee movie. People don't get to stay happy in those.) Worse still, it seems the gamma radiation awakened the genetic modifications brought on by his father. Now, his long-repressed emotions begin to break through, until, finally, he transforms into a monster.
Lee repeats the motif of things hidden behind closed doors representing the repressed memories and emotions throughout. It's particularly vivid in Bruce's dreams, as he later dreams of the Hulk being what's hiding behind those doors; it's a blunt metaphor, and hits like a blunt weapon. An even more vivid variation in a dream has the Hulk on the other side of the mirror as Bruce looks in - and then breaking through the mirror to crush Bruce, intoning, "PUNY HUMAN."
And when the rage does finally break free, and he turns into the Hulk, it's not a thrilling action sequence, but a tragic horror one, made only worse by the reappearance of David Banner (Nick Nolte), who really brings out the monster in Bruce. And here, I think, is the first reason the film had such a deeply mixed reaction: anyone who wanted a fun movie about the Hulk smashing things found themselves enmeshed into a dark drama, where the HULK SMASH wasn't a fun power trip or an escapist fantasy, but merely a further expression of the stormy emotions so carefully explored. The audience came in wanting him to hulk out, and the movie then makes you really not want him to hulk out.
Of course, that might have been fine; audiences are often able to accept something more challenging and unexpected in a satisfying film. And while the film is mostly difficult instead of fun, it does eventually come around to that exhilarating extended sequence of the Hulk fighting the military, of which more later. But there are two other issues here. The first is that while Eric Bana is a terrific actor who absolutely nails the hurricane under the closed-off surface, Bruce Banner is thus an off-putting character. Like Betty, we like him because he's a fundamentally decent person - the accident, after all, involved him sacrificing himself for someone else, and his work is dedicated to helping the world rather than making a profit. But it's difficult to emotionally empathize with his pain because he's so shut off. The result is compelling in its own way, but it doesn't leave us quite either cheering or crying with Bruce's emotional swings. We're just observing them.
That doesn't make it bad; it's just very much not a crowd pleaser. The craftsmanship on display is often brilliant, after all, and a lot of challenging, off-putting films have found great success, even in blockbuster genres; just last year, Logan pulled it off. But there's one more element that really solidified the broken reaction to the film - the wildly inconsistent tone. Let's call it the Poodle Factor.
In the first 45 minutes, this plays out mostly in the performances. Bana, Connelly, and Elliott all give nuanced performances as subtle and carefully crafted as those in Lee's subsequent Brokeback Mountain. Nolte, on the other hand, growls and screams through a voice so graveled it makes Elliott sound as smooth as Patrick Stewart. It's creepy, certainly, and he does a fine job of getting across David's own complexity; his asking for forgiveness for the horrific things he keeps committing feels effectively sincere. But it's also wildly over-the-top even before his out-of-control ranting and raving at the end. And if Nolte is over-the-top, Lucas is in unsanctioned buffoonery territory. His endless sleaze makes for fun scenery chewing, but it seems to come not just from a different movie, but a different planet from these Hu-Mans with their Feel-ings.
But then there's the poodle. David sends three mutant dogs to kill Betty; Hulk fights and defeats them. There are great Hulk moments here, when Lee finds the beauty and grace of the Hulk, particularly when he takes the fight to the treetops. And it makes sense that a monster movie would have monster fights, after all. But the film keeps telling us that this is brooding, serious stuff, and then has the Hulk beat a spectacularly cartoonish CGI poodle to death. It's... jarring.
Bruce them comes to perhaps the film's most iconic moment, when he explains to Betty that what truly terrifies him is that, when he lets all this rage out in this destructive horror, "I like it." To protect him both from himself and the increasingly intrusive David, she lets her father take him into a secret facility. For a while, she works with Bruce, but then David is shut out by Talbot, who's been given control. And he's going to intentionally bring out the beast partly for research, partly for sadism.
Thus, the film reaches its grand climax, as Talbot gets an imprisoned Banner to Hulk out, and drastically underestimated how smashy Hulk was going to get. Talbot dies in a Wile E. Coyote bit of slapstick with a side of turning into a 2-dimensional freeze frame, which somehow seems befitting the character. Ross, not being the idiot Talbot was, lets him out of the facility so they can deal with him in the empty desert. The result is legitimately spectacular. The Hulk leaps about, wrecking every piece of hardware the military throws at him, somehow without killing anyone as he destroys tanks and helicopters with wild abandon, while the military destroys every rock formation from the Grand Canyon to Monument Valley in an attempt to kill the Hulk. It's an absolute blast; it took 75 minutes to get to the serious HULK SMASH, but it delivers sensationally. My favorite touch is probably the Hulk catching a missile, biting the explosive head off, and spitting it back at the helicopter. Everyone somehow survives the crash just fine, so it stays fun.
It also comes shortly after Bruce finally faced the innermost demons he had repressed - the memory of watching his father try to kill him, and his mother save his life - by sacrificing herself. Again, jarring. It feels, in some ways, like a different movie; it's such a cool sequence that it's easy to forgive it for losing some of the metaphor, but still another measure of the film's unevenness.
The remarkably low body count in the desert at first plays like the delightful joke in Goldeneye where Bond rampages through St. Petersburg in a tank, crushing and blowing up police cars left and right, somehow, impossibly, without killing or even injuring any of them. It's a PG-13 superhero movie, of course he can't be killing them. But then it becomes clear that it's deliberate; the Hulk may be an unleashed rage monster, but he's still Bruce Banner, and doing everything he can to not actually kill anyone. When he sees the F-22 trying to kill him is going to crash into the Golden Gate Bridge, he jumps on it to put it out of harm's way. The pilot tries to get rid of him by flying into the mesosphere until he succumbs to unconsciousness and falls into the water miles below. (This is where that great aforementioned dream sequence with the mirror comes into play.)
When he awakens, he smashes through San Francisco. But at this point, Betty has gotten in touch with her father, insisting that she, at least, should be able to calm him down and de-Hulkify him. Ross is also not the monster David Banner is, and goes with this plan. It works; Betty, simply with her presence and gentleness, manages to calm Bruce back to himself.
The leads to the denouement, as Bruce and David are locked together under a ray that should destroy both of them if something goes wrong. Both because David, using Bruce's work and blood, was able to turn himself in the literal monster he always was metaphorically. In his case, he becomes the Absorbing Man, taking the essence of whatever he's touching. And after a long, incoherent rant, he absorbs the electricity powering the ray that was supposed to destroy him, and tries to turn himself into a god.
The Hulk fights him. And here, we get our last Hulk set-piece that defies expectation -- an abstract, poetic sequence of creatures we don't fully understand fighting in ways that puny humans couldn't understand. It's a wild, one-of-a-kind fight sequence more about emotion and a horrific awe and wonder than destruction or force. Again, compelling in its way, even if it wasn't what many in the audience wanted. But its conclusion is remarkably thoughtful. David tries to take the Hulk's power. Bruce pleads with him to do exactly that; he doesn't want the scars David left him with, even if he can never truly get rid of him. But absorbing Bruce's power overwhelms David, and Ross's missile attacks eradicates him.
When we last see Bruce, he's in the Amazon, doing charity work for the natives... and warning a local strongman not to make him angry. "You wouldn't like me when I'm angry." The film, in its final scene, does actually feel like a normal superhero movie, again becoming fun in a way that doesn't fit with what was before.
I haven't discussed the visual effects yet outside of the poodle. They're mostly strong overall even if the Hulk sometimes looks like a cartoon. But after 15 years of attempts to make him more textured, grittier, and more expensive to render, it's become clear that he's always going to look like a cartoon, just uglier than he does here. Still, it's a bit more blatant here than later simply because it was a different era for effects.
In the late '90s and early aughts, CGI tended to be used primarily for one or two elements in films that otherwise used older, practical effects. Even the much-maligned Star Wars prequels used thousands of miniatures to achieve many of their effects. (Did you know Mustafar, the lava planet in Revenge of the Sith, was a combination of a miniature and real footage of a volcanic eruption? There's a reason it still looks so good.) Still, Attack of the Clones had largely been shot digitally on blue screens, regardless of how the effects were accomplished. This approach, refined by Sky Captain and Sin City, came to dominate blockbuster film making by the next decade. Now, instead of a CGI Hulk interacting with real environments, we get a CGI Hulk interacting with CGI backgrounds and CGI props and CGI characters and Chris Hemsworth's real face pasted somewhere in there. Instead of one element looking cartoonish, everything looks cartoonish. It's really a matter of taste which you prefer.
But for all that unevenness, this is a remarkably compelling and exciting film in ways few since have been. It doesn't care for formula or heroism; it uses superheroes to explore deep-rooted psychological scars, and thus completely upends and expands what superhero films can be.
And while Hulk was not quite successful on its' release, it opened the door to this truth that Kevin Feige (and Christopher Nolan) understood to the great benefit of their respective films. Feige, now the architect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, had already worked as an associate or co-producer on several Marvel films, and here was promoted to his first Executive Producer credit. Feige learned two lessons from Hulk.
First: don't get too experimental. Stay mostly within the audience's comfort zones. If something seems like it would go outside that, couch it in a joke. Once the MCU gets over its genre cold feet early on, it's more experimental, but still makes sure the third act is 20 minutes of punching and exploding and destruction porn to save the world. There are a lot of good MCU movies, a few great ones, and no truly bad ones, but too many of them are held back by a fear of being too weird, too unconventional, insufficiently heroic.
And yet, there's also the second lesson: Superheroes aren't a genre, but a trope. You can do high fantasy, political thriller, space opera, heist, or whatever type of yarn you want to spin; mix in the superheroes for flavor, for color, and for unique spectacle.
Just maybe not a sad poem about the emotional scars wrought by abuse, abandonment, and deeply repressed emotions. Or, if you are going to do that, at least put in lots of explosions, Mary Poppins jokes, and a dancing baby tree.
Director: Ang Lee
Producers: Avi Arad, Larry J. Franco, Gale Anne Hurd, James Schamus
Writers: James Schamus, Michael France, John Turman
Cast: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing themes, language
Budget: $137 million
Box Office: Opened with $62 million, 6th-best weekend of the year, then collapsed immediately, barely doubling that opening at $132 million. Worldwide pushed it to $245 million. After marketing and what the theaters kept, the studio needed $400 million to break even.