Hulk (2003) A Misunderstood Marvel Masterpiece or Malignant Misstep?
The path toward Marvel's success in cinema or live action for that matter, has been an arduous journey whose beginnings were perceived as humble and in minor ways, successful but for the most part, not well received as most projects were either entirely dismissed or at best, deemed cult favorites thanks to a loyal fan base. Five years before Marvel Studios' Iron Man which successfully served as the tentpole for what is now commonly known as the "Marvel Cinematic Universe ", there were two projects based on the comic publisher's 1st and 2nd tier characters.
After the success of Blade, X-Men and especially Spider-Man, Marvel was finally realized as a hot property despite past failed attempts such as 1989's The Punisher, Albert Pyun's Captain America, and the biggest culprit of them all, Howard the Duck...well, not exactly as Roger Corman's Fantastic Four takes top honors. Now with studios scrambling to produce nearly any film based on Marvel's properties,beginning with Daredevil released through 20th Century Fox, and soon afterwards, Universal's Hulk.
Based on one of Marvel’s most popular characters, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Ang Lee of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon directs what is probably his most underappreciated work. Starring Eric Bana in his first major role as Bruce Banner, Hulk ditches your archetypal Superhero formula in favor of a psychodrama approach where the film's opening credits combined with storytelling sequences, serves as a starter for Banner's suspenseful arc, that begins with his father "David Banner" played brilliantly by Nick Nolte in all his mad scientist tropes who destroys his research facility after Colonel Ross, at the time shuts down his project, further leading to a very traumatic scenario.
Fast forward decades later, while working for a lab facility alongside his former love interest Betty Ross, (Jennifer Connelly) Bruce experiments on the field of Gamma research in hopes to advance scientific information that may benefit mankind e.g., provide cures to serious ailments be it Alzheimer’s or cancer. During a freak accident, Bruce is "belted by Gamma rays" by a malfunctioning Gammasphere. Compound with reoccurring (suppressed) memories of his traumatic childhood, and an imminent takeover from Glenn Talbot who wants to utilize the scientists' nanomeds research for creating super soldiers, mild mannered Banner is pushed over the edge, and becomes a not so jolly green giant. The transitions of comic panels contained within nearly each scene, is the very first implementation of this concept although some critics and moviegoers were not too reciprocal. Personally, I thought it was a clever experiment in cinemaphotography.
Eric Bana looks reminiscent to artist Herb Trimpe's Bruce Banner but it's how he channels both Banner's mild-mannered persona and his ‘inner Hulk”. But it’s Ang Lee who is the big co-star of this astonishing tale, who performed the Mocap for the titular hero’s CGI, does a satisfying job. You can easily read what Hulk is emoting as shown while he shows up near Betty's cabin to save her from David's "Gammahounds."
Sam Elliot as Thaddeus "Thunderbolt " Ross, is another estranged father who is determined to stop Bruce after learning that he is the son of David Banner, and more important, his powerful alter ego. Yet, his motives are conflicted when his daughter Betty, still harbors feelings for Bruce.
"You know what scares me the most? When I can't fight it anymore, when I totally lose control... I like it."
What is so brilliant about Ang Lee's Hulk, is how it took a page literally from writer Bill Mantlo's stories about Bruce having repressed memories brought on by a traumatic experience, is the sole factor of Hulk's unfettered rage. All comes to a close during the third act where Bruce confronts "Bad Dad" David, that nearly breaks the fourth wall, via stage play immersion. This is where Nolte channels the insane, narcissistic Supervillain persona where he tries to persuade Bruce into his plans for "world conquest" but got a refusal which he doesn't take likely. David's gamma exposed powers incorporate at least two familiar characteristics from Hulk's rogue’s gallery, Zzzax, and most notably, the Absorbing Man.
The climax is not exactly what you may expect from a Comic movie, in exchange of fisticuffs, the confrontation plays into a more atmospheric approach between father and son with David unable to maintain the absorbed power to which the mute Hulk finally speaks, “Take it ALL!!" Part suspense, part horror with an injected love story in the form of beauty and the beast, Hulk is a very nuanced comic book film that has bold direction and at times, a phantasmagoric fever dream.
Composer Danny Elfman's score, especially Hulk's theme is both haunting and majestic. It's a major contrast albeit, welcome addition from his previous work in Batman, and Spider-Man.
James Schamus' script culled from writers who previously worked on the project, feels organic and more of a thinking man's Superhero film despite missing that key Hollywood action dynamic found in major films of the genre. The sad thing about the film's semi lackluster reception, is that most moviegoers, critics including Comicbook aficionados at the time, didn't quite get what Ang Lee was trying to convey. So now Hulk is deemed as cult status and i'm completely fine with that. Perhaps now, more people who dismissed it, will come around.
Lee has done an exceptional job, when expressing creative liberties, but enough to pay a modicum of fan service via Easter Eggs, or clever nods to the comics and the Seventies TV show. After 20 years, it’s still a solid film that in various ways outdoes some of today's comic-based movies! I applaud the director for his most ambitious production. While not as critically acclaimed as its predecessors, Hulk is another solid entry that helped paved the way for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Although deemed a "misfire," Hulk's box office reception has surpassed 2023's The Flash regarding Box office opening results.
Hulk is available for streaming via Peacock. (As of this writing.)