“You’re making me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry,” says Dr. Bruce Banner.
The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, NY, held an Ang Lee retrospective 11 years ago. I got to see some of the films I wanted to see in the retrospective (Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). It led up to a preview screening of his newest film, Hulk. I wasn’t particularly keen on seeing the film, especially when it was announced a few years before that the Hulk himself would be a CG creation rather than an actor with green body paint like in the 1970s/1980s TV series The Incredible Hulk. After seeing some of Lee’s films, I started to change my mind. Having put my trust in Lee, I claimed my free tickets for the Museum’s preview screening (which was held at the original Beekman Theatre in Manhattan). I was so glad that I decided to attend; it’s one of the few gambles I’ve taken in seeing a film on the big screen, and I was delighted that it paid off.
Based on the Marvel Comics character, 2003’s Hulk follows Dr. Bruce Banner as he works with his ex-girlfriend Betty Ross on a soldier enhancement formula (similar to a super soldier serum) for the military. One day, Bruce is accidentally exposed to gamma radiation while trying to save a colleague. After miraculously surviving, Bruce recovers in the hospital, where he receives a visit from his biological father, Dr. David Banner (who was recently released from prison after being put there decades before by General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, Betty’s father). David’s experiments for the government decades before weren’t getting the approval for human testing, so he tested his serum on himself. When he discovered that something was passed on to Bruce, David tried to find a cure until General Ross intervened. Bruce recovers from the gamma exposure and returns to work, where a voice message starts to anger him and triggers his transformation into a large green creature that’s virtually impossible to kill. When General Ross finds out, he tries to have Bruce contained while Glenn Talbot, an old colleague of Bruce and Betty’s, tries to exploit the situation, leading to disastrous consequences.
Lee certainly embraced making a comic book film as evidenced by his film editing choices. Editor Tim Squyres employs moving panels, shots that often slide in and out like comic book panels (many of the shots that appear simultaneously are alternate angles). In a surprising move, the story told in Hulk is more of a Shakespearean tragedy rather than a regular superhero movie (this became the main point of criticism against the film from both critics and comic book fans). I believe this is what enhances the film and sets it apart from other comic book-based films. Hulk is a story about the sins of two fathers and the resulting consequences that must be suffered by their children. It’s a story about two scientists (Bruce and Betty) who must confront their past if they are to have a future.
The great amount of work that went into bringing the Hulk to life through CGI paid off (Lee even did the motion capture performance for the Hulk). The special effects in the film were surprisingly top-notch (especially since I had been skeptical about them a couple of years earlier). Admittedly, in the years that have followed, advancements have been made with CGI that have yielded more impressive renderings of the Hulk in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk and 2012’s The Avengers (but I feel that the CG Hulk in this film still holds up well, something that not everyone agrees with). Danny Elfman, a last minute replacement for Mychael Danna, wrote a terrific score. Some portions of his score are reminiscent of his music from 1990’s Darkman but in a fun way (mainly the scientific experiment scenes). Ang Lee’s Hulk is a criminally underrated film that boasts an excellent cast (Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Josh Lucas, Sam Elliott, and a very strong Nick Nolte), terrific action set pieces, and an underappreciated dramatic story. If you appreciate tragic family dramas and don’t mind some comic book action, then you can’t go wrong with Hulk.