Underrated: Ang Lee's HULK

Back in 2003, Ang Lee unleashed his film HULK on unsuspecting comic book lovers everywhere. While the film is a successful and highly personal and intimate drama about childhood trauma and its manifestation during adulthood, fans of the comic book, The Incredible Hulk, cried foul, and dissed the film almost unanimously, and continue to do so to this day. The film was too "boring" and didn't feature enough of the trademark "Hulk SMAAAASSSSH!!!" that fans were expecting. To be fair to the fans, it certainly was not an action-packed extravaganza, though this gripe is somewhat missing the point. By making a melodrama centered around comic book characters, rather than a comic book movie with hints of melodrama, Lee successfully transformed the "comic book movie" into a full-fledged movie, something that didn't need to be preceded by the term "comic book."

The importance of the story's drama to the film should come as no surprise to anyone the least bit familiar with Ang Lee's work, namely SENSE AND SENSIBILITY and THE ICE STORM, which are arguably his two best films. The traumatic events that Bruce Banner faced as a child that feed into his rage once exposed to nano-radiation make much more sense when one considers the source of the film (Ang Lee) and his previous emphasis on family dramas, even when dealing with large-scale conflicts like the American Civil War in RIDE WITH THE DEVIL or ancient Chinese mythology in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. What is surprising is the extent to which Banner's background is explicitly played out in the film. Lee almost spells out the entire reasoning for his manifestation as the Hulk, and it leaves little up in the air, which admittedly is a major draw in the comic book form. And that maybe marks the major departure for Lee from the comic - and thus hints at the disconnect the film really seems to have with fans.

The Incredible Hulk, at least early on, was a Jekyll and Hyde story, with Bruce Banner not knowing he was changing, and not being able to remember the things he did when he was Hulk. This all changed fairly quickly, and Hulk eventually became intelligent during the Peter David years. To my knowledge, the personal history of Bruce Banner never played much into the story outside of those events that were already present when he first transformed: his relationship with Betty Ross, his reputation as a scientist, etc. What Lee does with HULK, though, is move as much of this mythology into his own private universe he has created as a filmmaker, transforming the "Hulk Smash" mythos into a fairly adult take on reconciling differences between desires and commitments.

Betty Ross is the emotional center for Bruce, and her father, General "Thunderbolt" Ross, provides the biggest obstacle for Bruce both as her father who disapproves of him, and as the military commander who is most interested in bringing the Hulk down. Bruce's attempts to stay with Betty form the majority of the plot, and his presence as the Hulk take place mostly while trying to defend her or make sure she is not harmed. Despite this, he is an enemy of her father, and in the film's final confrontation must be removed from her life, either voluntarily or against his will. The result is devastating as a character film, and ranks with Lee's other films quite easily.

Hulk's emotional core is constantly on display. His rage is obviously affected by Betty's presence.

On top of this, Lee brought some amazing innovations to the screen, not the least of which were the special effects used to create the Hulk courtesy of ILM. A lot of criticism leveled at HULK was the cartoonish look of its effects. This is ludicrous to me. Just look at any screenshot and you can see the level of detail that went into producing the Hulk onscreen. The range of emotion his face shows, the sweat and dirt that cling to his body, even the transformations look amazing, and of course they're not completely realistic, but it shouldn't be. We're talking about an average guy who turns green and grows to 9 ft. tall, and then gets bigger as his rage builds. There's absolutely nothing realistic about it. Perhaps one of the most impressive scenes is when the Hulk is in San Francisco, just having run from the desert in Nevada to reunite with/rescue Betty, he is standing alone, surrounded by helicopters and army vehicles, and sees his love for the first time. Anyone who says this isn't impressive effects work is out of their minds.

For once, the CGI in a movie looks like it actually belongs in the environment it's supposed to be in. If that's cartoonish, I don't know what could possibly be expected as realism. Lee's film used effects to create a character - fully fleshed out and living - instead of a caricature, and it's been the subject of debate ever since. I just don't get it. Just look at the sub-par CG work on films like SPIDER-MAN and SPIDER-MAN 2, and you'll see what I'm getting at.

The hatred for Lee's movie ran so deep that fans out and out demanded that another film be made, focusing on action and smashing than on characters and story. As of this year, they have their wish, as THE INCREDIBLE HULK, starring Edward Norton and directed by Louis Leterier, a veteran action director of THE TRANSPORTER series and UNLEASHED, comes out this summer. The trailer is lackluster, and the story looks to be almost nonexistent. Even the Hulk himself pales in comparison to what was achieved by ILM for HULK way back in 2003. The new animation is too shiny, is disproportionate, and under-developed. Give me Ang Lee's film any day. It may be the most mature comic book movie ever made.

A side-by-side comparison of the new and old renderings.
Personally, I feel Lee's is much more representative of a character.


Luke said...

I agree with everything you said in this and I am baffled by the fact that fans and even a lot of critics think otherwise.

Oak said...

dude I totally agree as well, I'm so glad I read this...

The En.d

Emiliano said...

I agree totally!

Anonymous said...

Absolutely true! Even if for argument's sake we say that the graphics of the new hulk are better, you got to realize that we comparing a movie that was made five years ago! Well done ILM! Nobody can match them!