Warning: major Hulk spoilers.
I’ve been defending Hulk for almost 10 years. Yes, Ang Lee’s Hulk, not that unnecessary mess with a disinterested Ed Norton. It’s not just that I like a film that somehow ended up being pop culturally maligned, living in a collective memory of mockery – it’s that Hulk is one of my very favorite films. I also feel that it’s a very-good-to-great film, not just a good super hero film (which it is) or a good action film. I would also say as much for X2, The Dark Knight and possibly Watchmen, but few others are even close in my esteem, falling squarely into one or both of those caveats instead.
As the years pass and more Marvel films ebb and flow into the orbit of Avengers, the more stark and singular Hulk becomes. This was none more evident to me than after re-watching it yet again recently, to cleanse my palette of the foul Iron Man 3 – a boring, bloated exercise in trying to wring heart and heroism out of a trilogy that has been mishandled since Tony Stark put on the suit. I don’t really want to write about Iron Man, but there are some interesting parallels. Namely, the implications of weaponizing science, which IM3 uses as a throwaway stepping stone to a larger, far messier political play, and which Hulk manages to deftly explore both politically AND personally. They’re also both about dealing with the heroes’ true selves being the ones they face the bad guys with, and the unhealthy attraction to (and trauma of) that escape. Iron Man in more of a “Honey, you’re home late AGAIN because you’re Iron Man!” way, and Hulk in more of a “Honey, remember when your father killed your mother while he was trying to kill you? And now he’s trying to kill me!” sorta way.
At its heart, Hulk is about genetic destiny. This is manifested in a variety of interesting ways, foremost in the relationships that the two main characters – Bruce Banner and Betty Ross – have with their fathers. David Banner’s experiments on himself were accidentally passed on to Bruce, and they can finally harness the results together if Bruce would only understand. “Of course, you’re my flesh and blood. But then, you’re something else too, aren’t you? My physical son, but the child of my mind too.” While David spends the film trying to extract what’s left of himself in his son from his son, Betty’s father General Ross is simply trying to protect her from a man who shares the Y chromosome that murdered his mother. Though he’s also trying to balance not killing the man his estranged daughter loves with the realities of protecting the rest of the country from him.
These multifaceted motivations run deeply throughout Hulk. The only character (Major Talbot) with a singular motive (money) unceremoniously dies in a fire somewhere along the way, because Bruce’s personal struggle is greater – and more interesting – than his genetic worth. For Bruce, it’s about the freedom that same power brings with it. Freedom from his nightmares, freedom from the romantic missteps that drove Betty away from him; a cathartic release against a lifetime of repressed memories and stunted emotional experience. It’s far more open-ended than the responsibility that great power brings, but far more interesting as a result.
He hasn’t pushed Betty completely away though. Where Tony Stark and Pepper Pot’s relationship in IM3 is built on one-liners and clichés, Bruce and Betty have a history you can feel, and Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly sell it beautifully. I particularly love the scene of Bruce unknowingly describing his first transformation to her the morning after. “I had the most vivid dream. It was like being born. Coming up for air. Light hitting my face. Screaming.” I love the way he describes Hulk’s booming heartbeat. I love everything about the scene in which Betty first sees Hulk – as a silent guardian outside her cabin, not knowing exactly why he’s there beyond a fuzzy imperative from the puny human in his head. The way he gently sets her on the car to bring her closer to him, and then pushes her firmly inside moments later to protect her from incoming enemies.
The “Hulk fights a mutant poodle” scene seems to be the one that everyone remembers as evidence that Hulk is a bad film. Of course the Hulk dogs are silly on paper, but in execution it’s the best fight scene in any Marvel film. It’s brief, and lacks the bombast of everything since, but the savagery and intensity are just awesome. For the most part, it manages to feel more captured than choreographed, which I’m still astounded by every time. This isn’t the WWE Incredible Hulk, or the lovable angry ape of Avengers (though he was lovable); this is the essence-of-rage Hulk, where the violence is as startling as it should be.
Nick Nolte as David Banner is the other element of the film that people tend to throw back in its (my?) face. He’s over-the-top, a caricature, but also the most vital, memorable antagonist in a superhero film save for Ledger’s perfect Joker. It’s a complete performance, from the shaky but deliberate way he moves through the world to the raspy growl you can never entirely trust. His delivery of “Miss Ross, how unexpected…” (when she shows up at his home) is a favorite of mine, as after multiple viewings I still can’t tell whether his character is being facetious.
The most memorable moments of Nolte’s come near the end, where the film resolves its remaining threads in almost an epilogue of sorts. The military holds both Banners; David now super-powered with energy absorption, ceaselessly mocking Bruce’s weakness. Again over-the-top, again effective as an unstable ex-con who has just been imbued with inconceivable physical potential and dealing with the impotency of his “true son”. Things happen, and moments later Hulk is fighting his father as they move through the clouds (a gorgeous, almost slideshow-like snapshot of battle), before landing in a rocky canyon aside a lake, the scene of their final encounter. The epilogue all moves quickly, and is again savage and destructive. But Betty isn’t put in danger, there isn’t any great revenge, and an outside party ends the battle. In short, it isn’t typical. The pacing of those last 10 minutes may be a step off beat, but I’m again happy with the choices, and feel that they present a film that isn’t easy, or templated, or forgetful.
Hulk himself is still an amazing creation, and the CG has aged incredibly well (and far better than the likes of other early Marvel flicks such as X-Men and Spider-Man). This is most evident in the quieter, contemplative moments. Hulk sits cross-legged in the desert, admiring the mottled green moss on a rock; Hulk closes his eyes at the zenith of a massive leap, feeling the wind whip against his face. His humanity is always evident, and though he never (really) speaks, you know that it isn’t beyond him, and you’re curious what he’d say.
It’s a gorgeous film, too, from its cohesive palettes of color and lighting to a true effort to incorporate comic panel structure into its cinematography, with amazing transitions and multi-camera shots displayed on the same screen that speak to its success. It also goes the extra mile to give the viewer a sense of place, and show how different locations are connected. Even the underground military base that Hulk is held in is fully telegraphed on the way down, so that his escape upward and outward makes perfect spatial sense.
There are so many other things that make Hulk great. Danny Elfman’s fantastic score and soaring/pensive/exciting/moving main theme, which hits all the right notes without feeling too Elfmanesque; the opening credits, which cleverly set the scene of genetic potential and manipulation in the natural world; the way that the few seemingly cheesy lines go the extra mile to keep things thoughtful, and even sweet. In the final city scene after Betty’s beauty has calmed Hulk’s beast, sloughing off the anger and danger and literally falling into her arms as Bruce, he tells her “You found me.” “You weren’t that hard to fine.” “…yes I was.”
Hulk is a beautiful story, beautifully told. A film brimming with thoughtful writing with just the right touch of comic book excitement and flair, engaged, empathic acting from everyone involved, and a clear dedication from its director to bring to life his serious, unique vision of one of the most iconic pieces of pop culture. Give it another try, and stop being satisfied with Hollywood’s modern lens of Marvel. These films can be artful, considerate, and above all, human.