Hulk (2003)

© Copyright Universal Pictures

I don’t understand fanboys’ hatred for Ang Lee’s Hulk. Back in the day, the pensive blockbuster achieved both critical and box office success, which leads me to believe mainstream audiences appreciated it. Granted, the super-hero genre had yet to establish its golden formula, giving way to a number of cinematic oddities, but does that warrant hateful comments like, “keep them f–king gooks away from my comics” (actual quote)? These strike me as the remarks of privileged children who never learnt to share their toys.

To those who argue the film doesn’t respect the source material, I submit my own introduction to American funny books through grab-bag French paperbacks that I’d unbind to pick out the issues I liked. My favourite starred the Hulk, who, at the time, didn’t emerge whenever Bruce Banner lost his cool as in the television series but roamed an inter-dimensional crossroad that allowed him to travel to different universes, try to find peace, and get back should he fail (which he always did). Interspersed with flashbacks of our hero’s childhood abuse at the hands of his father, the stories described a man who’d grown past adversity only to find himself forever estranged from the world.

This is the reason I related to the Hulk as a child and what, I contend, Lee captured in his movie. Granted, the director altered some of the details. For one, Bruce (Eric Bana) doesn’t acquire the ability to turn into a jade behemoth from nuclear testing but from genetic experiments initially conducted by his father (Nick Nolte) and then culminated by gamma radiation. However, military agencies still want to use him as a weapon, and General Ross (Sam Elliott) still despises his guts, though, this time, the animosity echoes our alienation of those who’ve suffered deeper wounds ever since Oprah propagated the lie that abused kids grow up into abusers.

Perhaps fanboys feel uncomfortable with screenwriter James Shamus’ frank depiction of a warped social dynamic, or perhaps they resent it for pertaining to deep-seeded emotions rather than smashing things (mind you, we do get half an hour’s worth of our hero demolishing tanks and fighter jets). At the heart of the movie lies a tragic love story between Bruce and the General’s daughter, Betty (Jennifer Connelly). She hints in the first act that they’re bound to each other by paternal wounds: “Just a by-product of my inexplicable obsession with emotionally distant men.” However, it’s the Hulk who keeps finding his way back to her as if by instinct. I find poetry in both notions.

I mentioned paternal wounds. I also made reference to cinematic oddities earlier in the review. Hulk stands out from other super-hero flicks for providing its villain with a redemption arc but not its hero. Until the final, cathartic scene, Bruce is largely portrayed as a perpetual victim of circumstances, which makes Eric Bana a rather odd choice for the character, given he looks like he could beat the crap out of his fellow cast members without gamma-powered steroids.

Our hero’s father, on the other hand, seems to grow every time he appears on screen, his goals and allegiances constantly shifting. Every actor in Hulk gives a superb performance (no one in the industry can give more soulful looks than Jennifer Connelly), but Nick Nolte outshines the lot of them as this washed-up ex-con who’s paid the price for his rage and finds the monster in his son all too familiar. I love the theatricality of his last exchange with Bruce, how it bridges the gap between the characters’ grounded psychology and the surrealist aesthetic of the climactic battle.

© Copyright Universal Pictures
© Copyright Universal Pictures

Ah, yes, the final bout, in which an absorbing man (Marvel pun intended) corrupts every facet of Hulk’s environment, prompting him to lash out until there’s nothing left: I get how some might find this absurd action sequence difficult to decipher. In fact, I suspect the climax of Hulk works solely on a metaphoric level, bringing to mind how one parent’s sins can warp a child’s entire world view. Just the same, I dig the visuals, the way, for example, quick flashes of lightning unveil still images of the Hulk fighting in the clouds.

Sprinkled throughout the film, these inventive touches not only pay tribute to the static dynamism of the comic book medium; they also enhance the narrative, allowing it to move past the limitations of its special effects. By today’s CGI standards, the Hulk comes across more like a Plasticine model than a live creature, his rubbery movements reflecting an inconsistent mass. However, his power and urgency become undeniable when he uses split screens to literally jump from one shot to the next.

With such creativity displayed in every frame, I have a hard time understanding how fanboys could have so profound a disdain for Ang Lee and his version of the Hulk. I don’t mean to suggest they should like the flick just because I do, but there’s a thick line between saying something doesn’t quite work and using it as a basis for hate speech. I appreciate that, for those who grew up in simpler settings, Hulk captures neither the wonder they felt when they first picked up the comics nor their nostalgic longing for prepubescent fantasy, but you know what? You’ve had your amazing childhood. Let the rest of us have our movie.

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Editor in Chief / Movie Critic: When he started this site, Dimitri never thought he'd be writing blurbs about himself in the third person. In his other life, he works as a writer, translator, and editor for various publications in print and online. His motto is, "Have pen, will travel."