After a succession of big-budget comic adaptations, from Spiderman to Daredevil, Marvel’s™ most troubled character finally the hits the screen. Not since Hollywood put Shakespeare and Freud into the blender and came up with Forbidden Planet, has mainstream cinema dabbled with the id so directly. Hulk is Ang Lee’s first dive into the precarious – and frequently vacuous – waters of the traditional summer blockbuster and the result is fascinating, if not entirely successful.
The pitch fits the staple of seasonal no-brainers: Bruce Banner is exposed to gamma rays, grows large and green when pissed off, causing havoc for anyone in his way, before finally returning to a normal state, only to spend his life as a drifter, being pursued by the military. Never less than ambitious, Lee has attempted to merge his screen Hulk with the format the character originated from. For almost the entire movie, Lee follows the principle of the comic book, frequently splitting the screen into frames, with the camera following each shot as though it were reading one of Stan Lee’s comics. The result, though occasionally jarring, is an interesting attempt to tackle the process of adaptation, from page to screen.
Those looking for confirmation of Lee’s status as an auteur are unlikely to be disappointed by the film’s first hour. Heavy with, if not overburdened by, lengthy exposition, Bruce Banner’s past reveals Lee’s signature fractured relationship between father and child. Banner senior – always a few elements short of a periodic table – has passed his self-modified genetic make-up on to his son. All that is needed for Bruce’s full transformation into a destructive mass of computer generated mayhem is exposure to an ordinarily unhealthy dose of gamma rays, which he gets when a lab experiment goes awry.
Certainly, this may be the most cerebral summer movie, revelling in – though frequently obfuscated by – a wealth of Freudian and Nietzschean references. And if the central Oedipal crisis weren’t enough, Betty Ross, Banner’s ex-girlfriend, also has father issues. Moreover, the two patriarchs are bitter enemies, divided less by personal differences than by the moral consequences of playing god, be it is as a scientist or a military commander.
However, this being a summer movie, audiences will only listen to so much psychobabble before the craving for mindless action takes over. When Bruce does finally lose all control and give in to his anger, the monster within proves to be a complex beast, caught up in the emotional shackles of his human alter ego. Less threatening than one might have expected, Hulk is a sad creature. No longer a spray-painted body builder, Lee’s beast is a remarkable piece of animation, capable of Olympian feats; from tearing buildings apart to crossing an entire continent in the space of hours. What appeared laughably OTT in the trailer makes more sense in context of the entire film. The creature’s unwieldy mass is in keeping with the films erratic tone; one extreme in the pendulous motion of the narrative, between highbrow musings and schlock thrills.
The original TV series, thanks to Bill Bixby’s melancholy performance and Joeseph Harnell’s hauntingly sparse music, which closed each episode (Lee’s film ends dismally, with a Bruckheimer-esque guitar-frenzied track of forgettable soft rock), was marked by a downbeat tone missing from other popular series of the day (The Dukes of Hazzard, Charlie’s Angels etc.). In its opening credit sequence, Banner’s exposure to an excessive bout of Gamma radiation is premeditated, enacted out of despair following his failure to save his wife from a burning car. Lee’s Banner is troubled more by memory loss and emotional immaturity. And therein lies the rub. The film is played out as a Greek tragedy when it is, at best, yet another – be it more surreal – take on dysfunctional family life at the heart of WASP America. Bruce’s troubles lack the tragedy required for the audience to feel sympathy for him.
Hulk is entertaining (at least until its inexplicably weak final act), even though it is Lee’s most uneven film. He has proven elsewhere his abilities as a director of actors, action (even Crouching Tiger’s fight sequences pale against the stunning recreation of the Bushwackers’ storming of Kansas in Lee’s criminally underrated civil war epic, Ride with the Devil) and emotions. If nothing else, he should be credited with the unbridled enthusiasm with which he takes on each project and genre. Less a mistake than an interesting misfire, Hulk may not turn other summer blockbusters green with envy, but it may, in time, be worth revisiting.