Hulks (five different ones). Part 3: the 2003 Ang Lee movie

My friend and colleague Matt Wedel is not a fan of the 2003 Hulk movie. In an email exchange back in 2008, he classified all the then extant superhero movies into four bins and concluded: “You won’t be surprised to hear that I put Ang Lee’s Hulk in the fourth bin”. I was interested earier today to re-read my own response:

I don’t think it belongs in any of those bins. It belongs in bin i, which is at right-angles to the real-integer bins you’ve designated here.

And I think that verdict stands up pretty well. Hulk is simply not trying to do the same thing as other superhero films, and it’s a mistake to judge it a failure on the basis that it doesn’t do what other superhero films do.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be judged a failure on other grounds. We’ll get to that.

But the key thing to recognise about Hulk — which came out when the first X-Men and Spider-Man movies were fresh in the memory — is that it is first and foremost an attempt to make a good film using superhero vocabulary, rather than an attempt to make a good superhero film. So for example, we see some astonishingly efficient story-telling in the prologue and early dialogue: it lays out the multi-generational back-story, the present-day characters and their web of relationships with admirable concision and elegance. In almost her first line, Betty Ross tells Banner “You’re just a by-product of my inexplicable obsession with emotionally distant men” — which in a single sentence tells us all we need to know about her, her ex-boyfriend and even her father who has not yet appeared.

And Betty in this film is much, much better than in the proto-MCU movie that we’ll be dealing with next time. She is an actual person who has a life of her own, and goals, and ambitions. Jennifer Connelly does a fine job with her throughout, managing for example to be convincingly disappointed when her emotionally distant father lets her down in exactly the same way he always has. She brilliantly sells her character as both tough and vulnerable at the same time.

(Interesting-but-meaningless connection: Jennifer Connelly is married to Paul Bettany, who plays Vision in the MCU films. And she herself plays the AI voice in Peter Parker’s Spider-Man suit in Homecoming.)

General Ross himself is not straightforwardly a bad guy:according to his own role and responsibilities, the decisions he makes are all perfectly justifiable, and in some cases downright insightful (as when he gives the order to channel the Hulk out of the underground base). His inability to be the kind of father Betty needs him to be is his own tragedy as much as it is hers. (Talbot, on the other hand, is a straight-up nasty piece of work.)

So far, so good — and so conventional. Everything we’ve discussed up till now is simply good film-making. Where Hulk seeks to go beyond that is in its radical use of split screens. There’s an example above from Hulk’s stand-off with the military in San Francisco. Here’s another, from when Ross is watching the Hulk’s rampage through the military base on monitor screens:

Something qute subtle is going on here (and in the earlier example). In comics, the use of multiple panels is necessitated by the page being a static medium. Successive panels are used to show the passage of time because — unlike a cinema or TV screen — the page itself doesn’t change. Lee has chosen to split the cinema screen in a visual echo of comics even though cinema doesn’t need to do this to convey the passage of time. Instead, he uses the multiple moving images to show us multiple perspectives on the same moment. It’s cosmetically similar to how comics use frames, but its purpose is completely different.

The technique is fascinating. It gives is an opportunity to make conflicting or corroborating readings of a single character; or to see how two characters respond similarly or differently to the same situation. It’s not done perfectly, but then what new technique is ever done perfectly the first time it’s used? The tragedy for me is that no-one seemed to pick that ball up and run with in in subsequent films (whether superhero-themed or not). Hulk feels to me like the first step on a path never taken — like the first talkie in a universe where all the other film studios decided to stick with silent movies.

So, while I know I’ve used this quote several times before (in other contexts), it’s hard to improve on Andrew Rilstone’s summary of Hulk in his review of the film: “The whole thing doesn’t quite work, but it’s the sort of failure one would like to see rather more of.” (Though there’s plenty more in that review that I don’t at all agree with.)

So much for the movie. What about the actual Hulk? There’s no denying that the effects are unconvincing. He doesn’t feel real. The greenness of his skin is somehow cartoonish. His inexplicably intact purple trousers look painted on.

I have wondered whether this was a deliberate choice, another attempt to invoke the comic-book aesthetic? Roger Ebert, in a mostly positive review, thought that Hulk’s movement was somehow jerky in a way that resembled the stop-motion animation used in early creature features like King Kong, and wondered whether that was deliberate. Either or both could be true. (Of course, even if it was deliberate, that doesn’t make it good.)

Several things about this Hulk, though, I really like.

First, he is big. He gets bigger as he gets angrier, and in some scenes is really visibly a giant — very different from Lou Ferrigno’s “big muscular person” version. I know this a different take from the Hulk we know from comics, and from the 2008 movie and MCU movies. But on its own terms, it works.

Second, there is a really rather marvellous scene after his second transformation when he goes to Betty Ross’s cabin in the woods and just sits outside in the darkness. She hears something, goes outside to see what it is, and discovers him only slowly, at first missing him because he is just so darned huge. There is a tentativeness and vulnerability about Hulk at that point that we’ve rarely seen. Betty seems almost to realise immediately that it’s Bruce. There is an immediate bond between them. It’s rather lovely. (Admittedly, it’s amost immediately ruined when the Hulk is attacked by a giant radioactive poodle, but let’s just pretend that never happened.)

And third, while this again is rather different from how we usually think of Hulk, I like that his face is like the face of a gigantic toddler. And like a toddler, he seems to be motivated not so much by rage as by lack of self-control. Not that he necessarily wants to smash, but that he doesn’t quite know how to do anything else. At times (as in the scene below, when Betty calms him down before the Los Angeles stand-off escalates into a war), he looks almost sheepish. This ties in with Banner’s whispered confession to Betty late in the film: “You know what scares me the most? When it happens, when it comes over me and I totally lose control … I like it.”

So: most of what I’ve said till now has been positive. Why is it that the film has been so widely disliked and dismissed? I think it all comes down to the last act of the film: a coda that is both superfluous and unmotivated. For reasons that are never even explored, let alone explained, the military bring Banner and his superpowered father together for a confrontation that, predictably, escalates into a super-fight. The fight itself is confusing and hard to follow, and its conclusion is anticlimactic and opaque. And of course that’s what people walked out of cinemas remembering.

I can’t shake the notion that the film would have been much better if it had ended with Hulk being talked down by Betty in San Francisco, and if some resolution had been worked out from there. As it is, the film not only outstays its welcome, but does so by appending the worst material in the whole movie.

The missed insight here — and it may have been one step too far for Ang Lee or for the studio — is that actually you don’t need a supervillain to fight the Hulk. He already has the whole world against him, and that’s enough. I actually liked all the backstory with the scientist father and the dark secret and all. But none of that required that Banner senior should turn out to have superpowers. In a more courageous version of Hulk, his big fight could have been with himself.

Oh well. So near, yet so far. I think it’s a real shame that Hulk didn’t quite work, and that its qualities have been so widely overlooked for this reason: while I love the MCU films, I recognise that they have a distinct shared aesthetic, and I’m not sure the total domination of that aesthetic is healthy for a diverse superhero-movie ecosystem. The DC attempts at a shared universe seems completely rudderless, and MCU needs some left-field competition to keep it honest. A lineage inspired by and improving on the approach of Hulk could have been it.

 

Appendix: some people really hate Hulk

Matt Wedel’s August-2004 ranking of superhero films:

1. X-Men 2
2. Spider-Man 2
3. X-Men
4. Batman
5. Batman Forever
6. Spider-Man
7. Daredevil
Infinity-plus-1: Batman movies 2 and, I assume, 4, although I never saw
the last one.
Infinity-plus-3: Catwoman. Haven’t seen it, don’t want to.
And in another universe, on the definitive list of Movies With Lotsa
Girlie-Man Angst and “Daddy Didn’t Like Me” and Other Crap That Wasn’t
In the Comics On Which They Were Ostensibly Based, and Which Were
Dramatically Muddled and Would Be Completely Disappointing If I Could Shake the Nagging Suspicion That They Were Actually Parodies, we have (dum-da-da-dum):
1. Hulk

 

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9 responses to “Hulks (five different ones). Part 3: the 2003 Ang Lee movie

  1. I totally agree. This movie is… something else…

    I actually like it, but probably for love for the character and, in particular, the kind of approach to the character. I talked before about my love for Peter David’s run in the character, something this movie takes a lot in terms of inspiration.

    It’s interesting to me that this movie and Superman Returns, another failed superhero movie came in a relative short span of time…Both to me seems to come from a place where the directors had a good grasp of the character, but for some reason the end product was below expectations.

    I don’t really have much to add to your review, but just to say that the split panel effect had been used before by Brian De Palma, also in a similar way. But I love how it gives a peculiar comic book effect in the way it’s integrated.

  2. Oh, interesting! Where did Brian De Palma use it?

  3. The most famous is probably the prom scene in Carrie https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NnkYzPSmgUM

    but a more sustained example is the bomb scene in Phantom of Paradise, where one part follows the bomb

  4. (and btw, Phantom of the Paradise is such a weird movie…)

  5. Interesting. I’ve never seen Carrie. I watched the segment you linked. I see it uses the split screen hesitantly, as though De Palma isn’t sure whether it’s OK to do. It lacks conviction — though it is of course a clear precedent for what Lee subsequently did much better.

    Whereas in Phantom of the Paradise, De Palma seems much more committed to the idea, and I think it works really well. Oddly, this film was two years before Carrie, so you’d have thought that if anything he’d have become more confident with the technique.

  6. The tragedy for me is that no-one seemed to pick that ball up and run with in in subsequent films (whether superhero-themed or not).

    I was going to say ‘What about Timecode?’ but then remembered that was three years previously.

  7. Pingback: Hulks (five different ones). Part 4: the 2008 proto-MCU movie | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  8. Guy Ritchie employs split screens in the closing raid sequence of Man From UNCLE, mainly I suspect in an attempt to portray the traditional action movie climax differently. It doesn’t really work in that case as it disperses your attention across every frame and you end up not really being able to recall anything that happens. (Personally, I think the film has other virtues but I may be in the minority with that view.)

  9. mainly I suspect in an attempt to portray the traditional action movie climax differently

    Probably more to do with giving it a sixties feel, The Thomas Crown Affair and all that. Round, like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel…

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