Since his explosive debut in May 1962, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s gamma-irradiated Jade Giant has been one of their most recognisable and successful characters thanks, in large part, to the Incredible Hulk television show (1977 to 1982) catapulting the Hulk into a mainstream, pop culture icon. Hulk has been no slouch in the comics either, being a founding member of the Avengers, joining teams like the Defenders, and has gone through numerous changes over the years that have added extra depth to the green-skinned behemoth and made him one of their most versatile and enduring characters.
Released: 20 June 2003
Director: Ang Lee
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Budget: $137 million
Stars: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas, and Nick Nolte
After being bombarded with gamma radiation in a lab accident, Doctor Bruce Krenzler (Bana) finds himself transforming into a giant green-skinned creature known as the “Hulk” (Ang Lee) whenever stressed or emotionally provoked. Relentlessly pursued by General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Elliot), he is forced to face his traumatic childhood when his biological father, Doctor David Banner (Nolte), reveals Krenzler’s true identity as Bruce Banner and attempts to harvest his alter ego’s gamma-induced super healing.
Created by Marvel Comics legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby after being inspired by the story of a hysterical mother exhibiting superhuman strength and classic movie monsters, the Hulk initially struggled a bit to find an audience with Marvel readers. After a series of backup features helped him regain a solo title, the Hulk shot to fame thanks to his popular television show. Although The Incredible Hulk was followed up by three made-for-TV movies, development of an all-new Hulk feature film can be traced back to the early nineties, when producers Avi Arad and Gale Anne Herd commissioned a script from writer Michael France for production with Universal Pictures. Jonathan Hensleigh was initially attached to the project, which entered pre-production in 1997 and would see the Hulk battle man/insect hybrids. David Hayter was then brought onboard to rewrite the script and include a number of Hulk’s more recognisable enemies before director Ang Lee joined the project and chose to focus more on Banner’s psychological issues. Unlike the TV show, the Hulk was a digital creation of Industrial Light & Magic, with Lee himself providing motion capture for the creature, something that Bana felt reduced his screen time. Although Hulk’s worldwide box office gross of just over $245 million was relatively profitable, it was met with mixed reviews; the less-than-stellar critical response quashed plans for a sequel and, when the rights reverted to Marvel, Marvel Studios instead opted to produce a complete reboot.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the Hulk; I grew up watching The Incredible Hulk’s TV movies, the 1982 and 1996 cartoons and reading stories published in the seventies, and I remember being pretty excited to see his big-screen debut thanks to how heavily Universal Pictures promoted the film. Billboards, trailers, TV spots, and merchandise was everywhere for Hulk, which sold itself as this big, action-packed blockbuster in the making but was actually a far more cerebral and poignant story about nature, nurture, the sins of the father and the dangers of science.
Right off the bat, Hulk makes a few alterations to the Jade Giant’s origins; in this film, he owes a great deal of his existence to the research of Dr. David Banner. Much of this is recounted in the film’s opening credits, which play over a montage showing that David has spent most of his scientific career trying to improve the human body’s ability to regenerate. Although close to a breakthrough, he is denied clearance from a young Ross (Todd Tesen) and, like any good mad scientist, tests his formula on himself. Although he exhibits no noticeable effects, the same can’t be said for his son, Bruce (Michael and David Kronenberg). David’s excitement over this development soon turns to horror, however, and Ross’s continued aggression drives him to take desperate measures to try and find a way to reverse Bruce’s condition.
When we catch up with the now-adult Bruce, he has no idea of his true parentage or nature thanks to having witnessed his father kill his loving birth mother, Edith (Cara Buono), and spending his entire life repressing this memory. A genius scientist in his own right, Bruce finds himself unknowing working in the exact same field as his father, only Bruce favours gamma radiation in his experiments with “nanomads”. Bruce has recently broken up with his co-worker, Doctor Betty Ross (Connelly), after his tendency to be emotionally distant and closed off pushed her away (though they maintain a generally friendly relationship despite this) and, like his father, he has a tumultuous relationship with the military, especially Glenn Talbot (Lucas). Talbot sees the potential for Bruce’s work to be weaponised, which brings him into conflict with Bruce’s more pacifist motivations.
Clearly a complex and tormented individual, Bruce nevertheless willingly sacrifices himself to shield their lab assistant, Harper (Kevin Rankin), from a burst of gamma radiation; initially attributing the improvements in his physical condition to the nanomads, Bruce is pushed to the edge following pressure from Ross and a visit from his birth father. When his emotions get the better of him, his rage literally explodes out of him, transforming him into a mindless, green-skinned beast of pure unbridled fury. The Hulk is characterised as being the unapologetic, mutated physical expression of Bruce’s repressed trauma and memories; although Bruce barely remembers his time as the Hulk, he is terrified by the appeal of the Hulk’s uninhibited anger and power, but the Hulk just seems grateful to be out in the world and free from the trappings of his puny human self. Despite being a largely silent character, the Hulk is given a great deal of characterisation through his facial expressions and body language; he has a child-like quality to him and is quick to fly into a rage when provoked or upon seeing Betty in danger.
Betty finds herself irrevocably drawn to Bruce; she feels an empathy and attraction to his intelligence, emotional instability, and his mysterious past that he adamantly refuses to discuss at every opportunity. While they both share a love for science, they also share a bond in their unresolved issues with their fathers; Ross has successfully managed to ostracise his daughter with his officious and militaristic demeanour and Betty is enraged when he pursues Bruce with a stubborn vendetta. Seeking to protect Bruce and standing by him through her father’s persecution, Betty is nevertheless both captivated and terrified by Bruce’s transformation into the Hulk; this compels her to turn to Ross for help but, when she sees how insane David is, she does everything she can to try and help Bruce piece together his fragmented memories and come to terms with his violent childhood.
Initially appearing to be a devoted scientist and loving husband and father, thirty years in confinement have driven David to near insanity. The film goes to great lengths to explore the depravity of David’s motivations; the cold-hearted disdain he shows towards Bruce makes him positively reprehensible. David’s obsession with improving himself, gaining power, and avenging himself against Ross and the world makes him a hermit-like, bat-shit crazy mad scientist who cares nothing for his son and wants only to harvest his gamma cells. David’s mockery of Bruce in the finale, followed by his enraged outburst, are a perfect example of just how disgusting, twisted, and very personal he is as a villain since he purposely withholds information from Bruce regarding his birth mother. Having lived half of his life blaming his violent actions on others (specifically Ross), David is willing to manipulate, torment, and attack anyone with his gamma minions to attain his goals, to say nothing of exposing himself to Bruce’s blood and research in order to augment his physical form.
General Ross is probably one of the most stubborn, pig-headed, and aggravating characters ever put to screen. A loyal patriot, Ross has spent his entire career putting his work before his family; hiding behind his uniform, Ross justifies his actions out of his genuine desire to protect Betty from Banner’s dangerous nature. To that end, he pursues Bruce without any evidence that he’s actually guilty of anything and is fully prepared to lock him up just for being his father’s son. When Ross witnesses Banner’s transformation, he sees the culmination of David’s obsession brought to startling life and throws everything he has at the Hulk to try and subdue him. Still, it’s obvious that he deeply cares for Betty but his method of protecting her is mainly to purposely and officiously keep key information from her and to rage at Bruce for doing nothing more than existing. Ultimately, Betty is able to convince Ross just enough to arrange for a face-to-face between the two Banners but, even then, Ross is fully prepared to electrocute them both to death if they show signs of being a threat.
Ang Lee’s decision to incorporate split screens, dissolves, and multiple camera angles into the same scene is definitely a unique one. While many of these make for some unique and entertaining shots, and they do make the film visually interesting compared to others, it can’t be denied that they are used way too often and become quite distracting at times. One thing that Hulk definitely has going for it, though, is the quality of the actors; Sam Elliot is a notable standout and makes for quite the vindictive interpretation of General Ross by exuding authority and bringing a gravitas to the film in every scene he’s in. However, while far from the longest film I’ve ever seen. Hulk does seem to drag a bit in places; Hulk’s more methodical pace means that it’s not really the sort of film I throw on casually or can just have running in the background.
This is because, unlike the vast majority of superhero films, especially at the time, Hulk is a much more cerebral film; rather than make a mere monster movie or an action-packed extravaganza, Ang Lee explores Bruce’s emotional and psychological trauma, both of which are portrayed as just as important to his becoming the Hulk as his anger and gamma exposure, which is also true of the character in recent Marvel Comics storylines. A slower, methodical film than many were expecting thanks to the trailers and the general understanding of the character, Hulk in many ways seems to be the exact opposite of what makes the character appealing and yet tackles the route of Banner’s complex psychological profile head-on. To me, this makes for a very interesting character study; even I, a big Hulk fan, never really thought about how complicated Banner’s emotional stability was until this film and Lee does a wonderful job of making the Hulk’s appearances a big deal in the film. When Bruce gives in to his anger (masterfully portrayed by Bana’s intense facial expressions), it is presented as a veritable explosion of repressed emotion rather than merely being an action scene for the sake of having one and the film does a surprisingly good job of delving into the traumatic psychology behind Banner and the Hulk to make the character more than just a mindless monster.
For the most part, the Hulk is quite an impressive digital character; it’s difficult to bring a character like the Hulk to life and not make him appear cartoonish because of his green colouration and immense size but Hulk set a pretty decent standard. Obviously, some shots and sequences are better than others; thanks to poor lighting and deliberate framing, Bruce’s initial transformation is quite impressive…until the Hulk walks into frame and we see him unimpeded. Lee has the Hulk increase in size and stature as his anger grows, just like in the comics but, at times, the Hulk’s green is a little too bright, his skin a little too smooth and unnatural as well, with the scene of him being encased in expanding foam probably being one of the worst shots of the film. Of course, even the worst shot of the Hulk can’t really compare to David’s gamma dogs; no amount of darkness can hide how terrible these slobbering, cartoonish beasts appear and I can’t help but feel it would’ve been better to save some money and give David just the one dog and focus a bit more on the Hulk’s battles against Ross and his military forces.
When out in the desert battling with tanks and helicopters, the Hulk looks amazing and exudes menace and character with the way he toys with the vehicles attacking him. Similarly, his rampage through San Francisco and the way he “melts” down into Banner are equally impressive, especially as this entire sequence is shot in full daylight. It’s disappointing, then, that the finale takes place under murky darkness; having gained the ability to absorb and take on the properties of things he touches, David transforms himself into a creature of pure, ever-transforming energy in a bid to absorb the Hulk’s great strength. Sadly, this robs us of the power and allure of Nolte’s performance since he transforms into a gigantic electrical beast, a rock monster, and a big…bubble…thing. Unfortunately, this final confrontation is absolutely ruined by being too dark and blurry and confusing, which makes it all but impossible to figure out what’s going on. While it probably would’ve been equally disappointing for David to transform into a grey-skinned version of the Hulk, at least that fight might have been a bit easier to follow; instead, it’s a bit of a bewildering and anti-climatic ending as Bruce manages to overload his father with his rage and is then assumed dead in the aftermath, only to wind up treating the sick in South America.
It’s not easy to defend Hulk, to be honest. Many of the character’s best aspects are set aside in favour of a methodical, psychological thriller rather than focusing on action or excitement, and I can totally understand why the film’s slower, more cerebral approach to this of all superheroes would put some people off. However, for whatever reason, I often find myself enjoying this film. The actors all put in great performances, bringing a legitimacy to the source material in a way others might not, and the Hulk himself looks, for the most part, very impressive. Some shots don’t work, some of the CGI hasn’t aged well, and some of the stylistic decisions might be a bit questionable but there’s no denying that Hulk is a visually impressive film, and quite a unique take on the source material and the genre. More of an introspective character study rather than a bombastic action film, Hulk definitely suffered from poor marketing and I feel is well worth revisiting, especially now when superhero films are bigger and more popular than ever. As much as I enjoy Marvel Studios’ interpretation of the character, which basically erased this movie from continuity, I would have been happy to see a direct sequel to Hulk back in the day and still like to set aside a couple of hours and really get to grips with the film’s character study of the Jade Giant.
Are you a fan of Hulk? Did you enjoy the film’s slower, more cerebral take on the character or were you put off by the psychological aspects of the film? What did you think to the CGI and the film’s portrayal of the Hulk? Would you have liked to see a sequel to this film or do you prefer the Marvel Studios interpretation? What is your favourite Hulk story, character, or piece of media? How are you celebrating the Hulk’s debut today? Whatever your thoughts on the Hulk, go ahead and leave a comment below and check in next Wednesday for my Hulk content.