The Incredible Hulk is the nuclear era's Jekyll and Hyde. It is the story of the struggle between the rational man (ego) and his inner beast (id). It reveals the truth about human nature and the struggle of our inner duality. Bruce Banner's story is that of a desperate search to mediate (superego) the two sides of his personality. It is a classic story and when well told is compelling and speaks to something in all of us.
I wanted you to know the above going in because that is not quite what you are going to get in Ang Lee's interpretation. Part of this is due to directorial vision and the rest is left to some questionable acting. To put it bluntly, Eric Bana's Bruce Banner would just be the Hulk all of the time. Bana is irritated and frustrated for the duration of the film and he makes the audience uncomfortable right out of the gate. His characterization of Banner is so one sided you find yourself hoping he will turn into the Hulk just so he can stop being so obtuse. You are hoping for this, of course, until the neon green spongy-looking Special Effect shows up. Once that happens you are hoping that Netflix is still running the Bill Bixby Incredible Hulk TV show (which it is at the time of this writing!) so you can see what the Hulk should really look like. Seriously, somewhere between Ferrigno's body paint and this 3D cartoon, there has to be a more realistic looking Hulk (and there will be some improvements farther up on the list, but we are dealing with the here and now), even at this point in the evolution of special effects. But I'm jumbling things up a bit here, let's stay on task...
This is yet another movie with no likeable characters. Bana is so angry all the time and Jennifer Connelly's Betty is so weepy and empathetic that you have a hard time wanting to relate to either one. Further more Nolte's role as the lead villain provides so little for ol' Nick to do that you almost feel sorry for him instead! So I am never sure who I am supposed to like in this film. I know it is meant to be Bana, but he gives me no reason to like him. Is it a directing or acting mistake? I find that I pretty much don't care. If I have to choose, I think Sam Elliot was a decent cast for Thunderbolt Ross.
|This will always be the Hulk to me. You cannot replace him with a Special Effect.|
So with no characters to like, I turn to the story to find something here to enjoy. No such luck. The Hulk was created when Dr. Bruce Banner was caught in a gamma radiation explosion as he was rushing onto a nuclear test site to save a young man who had wandered onto the site. It was the freak result of a selfless act. This makes Banner the victim of circumstance and thus a sympathetic character. In this version Banner is the victim of bizarre genetic experiments conducted by his father when he was a child that bear fruit when he is bombarded by gamma rays trying to save another hapless character. Same basic idea, but because this is no longer the nuclear era we have to add in that little unnecessary genetic bit. Why? It takes away a lot of the sympathy for the character and instead makes him a victim of a different kind. You must be very careful when you tamper with the basic premise. It worked originally for a reason.
That aside, the rest of the story is a hodgepodge mystery to piece together why Banner reacted to the gamma rays the way he did. It takes far too long to get to the first appearance of the Hulk and there isn't enough worth watching to make me believe that the Special Effect is worth the wait. The early scenes between Bruce and Betty are dry white toast and neither one give me anything that indicates that they have chemistry together or any reason to be drawn into this tragic plot. I am reminded, sadly, of the romance in Attack of the Clones. Once the Hulk is on the scene the movie shifts from being a science drama a la Andromeda Strain and instead becomes an action film in the vein of Mission Impossible 2 with all of thinness of substance and motive implicit therein. The Hulk smashes things and beats up on tanks and explodes gas stations and none of it means a damn thing to anyone. We go from dry white toast to pop rocks in absolutely no time at all.
Finally, after what feels like hours, we get to what is supposed to be the big showdown between Banner and his nutjob father. And for some reason, before that showdown can occur the U.S. government has decided it would be a good idea for Banner and his father to have a nice little chat. And here, and ONLY here, do we get anything that is watchable in this film. Had the editor on this film left the entirety of this movie on the cutting room floor with the exception of these five minutes, you might have been able to make a case for this being a great Hulk movie. These five minutes by themselves make a decent Hulk film, the remaining 133 minutes completely undo anything that is done well during that time. Try it some time. What you'll get is a 5 minute absurdist play that speaks more to the themes and essence of the Hulk than any of Bana's mumbling or the Special Effect's jaunting about a desert canyon.
Unfortunately Ang Lee junks the rest of the film up with shaky special effects, unlikeable characters, and a needlessly complicated plot. It is almost unbelievable that drivel of this magnitude comes from the same guy who, only three years prior, gave us the mind-blowing, epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It almost feels like the story was played down because it was based on a comic book and the result is a movie that feels as thin as a comic page. The only reason this is better than Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is because some of the cinematography looks competently done. Hulk remained on the bottom our list for a long time because it belongs in the bottom of the bin. If you haven't seen this movie yet, give it a pass.
The Hulk is one of my favorites--and not from childhood. My exposure to the Incredible Hulk properties was largely minimal until the husband decided I should probably read some of Peter David's run on the Incredible Hulk comic book. Five issues deep, I was in love. I didn't need an origin story, I didn't need to know what had happened before. The book itself caught me up to speed, and I was thoroughly happy.
This particular run of the Hulk is deeply psychological in nature. Not just regarding the Hulk himself. The complexities of the relationship between Betty and Bruce, Rick and Marlo... Hulk and everyone. Doc Samson alone is worth a look, in my opinion. Now, I did this reading in 2009ish. I had already seen two Hulk movies. Revisiting them, I suppose I had certain expectations for how rich--how full--the story could be.
Ang Lee's Hulk is a terribly disappointing exercise. No likable characters coupled with an abysmally complicated plot leads me to feel like there's nothing here to entertain, much less sustain my mind. Add to the mix a film which is miscast, altogether too long, and plagued with poor (perhaps dated is better) special effects... and you have a bad movie. I feel like the movie has good intentions, but it really fails to understand the motivations of the characters. There's no reason to have Bruce so disconnected from his past, and there's no reason for Nick Nolte's character to have all those bizarre gamma dogs. There's no reason for Bruce to be so terribly moody all the time--or so built. There's no real dichotomy between the skinny, wimpy scientist and the primal emotion and pure strength of the Hulk. He's already shades of the Hulk before he even transforms. I guess, there's just no reason for most of the things we watch in this film. I think I understand why people initially liked Hulk: in 2003, there were few new comic book movies in the field, and I think the "Ang Lee" branding had everyone a little starstruck. Simply put, we didn't know what we were watching, and it didn't seem so bad. But it was. It was.
And that, my friends, is why until the unspeakably horrible Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance hit theatres... Hulk sucked up the bottom of our list.