(Best of 2003)
I kinda would have liked to be able to toss off a “it’s not easy being green” quip about Hulk and be done with it, but damn if Ang Lee hasn’t gifted us with a film that I don’t want to be flip about. Yeah, it’s about a rather enormous green guy who smashes stuff… except that’s like saying that Hamlet is about this college kid who goes crazy. Hulk is way at the opposite end of the comic-book-movie spectrum from, say, Daredevil, which was about Ben Affleck looking cool in a leather jumpsuit, and little else. Lee’s film looks like a comic book — all split screens and simultaneous multiple views replicating the kinetic energy of the panels of a graphic novel — and it feels like a cerebral and satisfyingly disconcerting stew of Jekyll and Hyde and King Kong and Greek tragedy.
With his screenwriters — frequent Lee collaborator James Schamus, John Turman, and Michael France, working, of course, from the Marvel character created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee — Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ride with the Devil) has pulled off the neat trick of making a comic book film that takes itself seriously without telegraphing its seriousness. It’s an art film disguised as a popcorny summer action flick. Sure, it’s all gamma rays and mad-science human experimentation and clothes ripped to shreds and the Hulk smashing stuff and army guys trying to kill him. But the reasons the Hulk is smashing stuff are more about sublimated male emotion and a father’s sad legacy of anger to his son than about just smashing stuff cuz it’s cool. This is a movie about getting the audience — okay, the young-men-12-to-34 part of the audience — riled up about stuff being smashed that would like that audience to question why it finds stuff being smashed so exciting, and what are you bottling up, anyway, dude, that you need the emotional release of cheering at a large green guy smashing stuff? That’s messed up, man.
Bruce Banner has a lot to be angry about, it would appear: His girlfriend, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly: A Beautiful Mind, Requiem for a Dream), has just broken up with him. The father he thought was long dead (Nick Nolte: The Good Thief, Simpatico) has just shown up and revealed that he used the baby Bruce as a guinea pig for his insane genetic research. And a corporate slimeball named Talbot (Josh Lucas: Sweet Home Alabama, The Deep End) is threatening a hostile takeover of Bruce and Betty’s own science project. Eric Bana (Finding Nemo, Chopper) is an inspired choice to play Bruce — an expressive and emotionally eloquent actor, he turns what could have been a man with no feelings into a man who has feelings but doesn’t understand them and so ignores them. When he blinks at Betty’s explanation for the breakup, that he was just never passionate enough and so she had to let him go, it’s not incomprehension so much as denial and repression: If he doesn’t think about it, it doesn’t exist. Which was of course the problem in the first place.
But then… the rage, the rage. Bruce’s initial transformation into the Hulk might almost have been prompted not by gamma rays bombarding his already corrupted DNA but by Bruce finally allowing himself to feel and discovering how angry he really is. All the smashing of stuff? It’s half misplaced aggression, the man beating up on himself — the very real pain on the artificial CGI face of the creature is genuinely poignant — and half accurately placed aggression, against authorities who want him for his potential as a weapon.
And here’s the thing. In a movie full of ironies and tragedies — only the woman who told Bruce he was too emotionally distant can bring him back from the raging edge; the father who accidentally turned his son into a monster would rather provoke him than help him — the biggest one is that for all its summer-blockbuster trappings, Hulk resists giving in to the baser instincts of the audience, particularly that 12-to-34 guy audience. Terminator 2, for instance, was criticized for pretending to an antiviolence message while reveling in more than a bit of the ol’ ultraviolence. Hulk is about rage and anger, and sometimes even why they’re necessary, but no one will be able to say the film wants to incite its viewers.
See, the big, meaty, jaw-dropping showpiece of Hulk is an extended sequence in which the U.S. military piles on the hardware in an attempt to recapture the metamorphosed Bruce, who has escaped from a secret army base under the Western desert and is heading to San Francisco, to Betty. Tanks, choppers, jet fighters, everything short of nukes are called up for duty… and yet there’s a kind of sad impotency about the military might. It’s not just that it’s pretty ineffective against the Hulk, it’s that the military might is really kinda a pathetic extension of the inadequacy of the man commanding the tanks and the choppers and the fighter jets, General Ross (Sam Elliott: The Contender), Betty’s dad. He’s furious, too, but without an iota of the justification Bruce might have, and able to do a lot more damage than Bruce, too.
There’s a whole lot of anger in Hulk about the misuse of the U.S. military, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Ask yourselves, though, guys, when those helicopters that were chasing the Hulk crash and utterly fail to blow up, as we’ve been trained by the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer to believe must happen whenever anything crashes even when their fuel tanks are on empty, why you so desperately wanted to see them blow up. What are you bottling up, anyway, dude, that you need the emotional release of cheering at something blowing up?