Continuing our look back at Ang Lee’s take on the Hulk from 2003. The movie has finally gotten around to showing us what we’ve known was coming for almost 2 hours–that Bruce’s childhood trauma was watching his father kill his mother. It tries to make up for this complete lack of surprise by dressing it up with lines like “It was as if she and the knife merged” (get it? like he can merge with stuff now? get it?) and artsy staging that makes no dramatic sense (why, if she’s protecting Bruce, does she stumble outside and reach for the distant base?).
It just so happens that Bruce is dreaming of this same incident in the induced nightmare Talbot is putting him through. As he begins his transformation, Talbot orders them to extract the DNA he needs for experimentation. However, the drill does not penetrate Banner’s skin, and within a few seconds, the Hulk has burst out of the sensory deprivation tank or whatever, and he’s pissed.
Talbot orders him to be gassed, which was one of the few ways the military could capture Hulk in the comics. But now the opening credits come into play. One of the abilities David Banner specifically designed into his serum was a resistance to toxins. The knockout gas just makes Hulk sneeze.
The Hulk bursts out into the corridor, where a containment team hits him with a fast-hardening foam that immobilizes him. Shades of the Trapster! Talbot defies Ross’s orders to attempt to extract a DNA sample personally.
What we have here is what Dr. Fredric Wertham called the “Injury to the Eye Motif.” I wonder if James Schamus or Ang Lee deliberately included this here because of its associations with Seduction of the Innocent, or if it’s just a coincidence?
Unfortunately, as the Hulk grows more frantic, he grows larger and bursts out of the foam. Talbot tries killing him with an incendiary grenade, but it bounces off Hulk’s rubbery hide, and Talbot is killed instead.
Ross orders the base locked down (Elliott gives a really understated but effective performance here, calmly giving orders while it’s obvious he’s saying “oh shit, oh shit!” inside). The Hulk bursts into the main hall, and wow, he’s big.
Not quite King Kong big, but really big. And though this was one major gripe from fans, I kind of like it. The biggest crutch in the history of Hulk comics was the line, “The madder Hulk gets, the stronger he gets.” Written into a corner with Hulk facing an enemy he can’t beat? Just make him madder. Problem solved. And besides, it’s not as if the Hulk’s artists were ever consistent on his size.
But here, the filmmakers have come up with a way to illustrate that “madder=stronger” correlation and have it make some sort of sense, and the fans went nuts.
So a bunch of soldiers come in to shoot Hulk, but the bullets bounce off his sea cucumber-reinforced hide, surrounding him like a cloud of gnats. When it appears the Hulk will destroy the base, Ross tells his people to shut down the lights and open the door. They’ll fight him outside. Good thinking.
Hulk runs and leaps away, adopting some cool Marvel-style poses in the air. He lands back at his old neighborhood, but as he’s remembering the day his father was taken away, as well as the cool old-school ultrasonic TV remote (the buttons on that thing would depress with a click that made your teeth rattle)…
The Army blows the whole thing up with cluster munitions. The Hulk is cut, but the cut closes and heals right away, thanks to starfish DNA (and I’m really liking the way the opening credits have set up all these abilities, so that now you’re seeing all this stuff brought full circle). Hulk leaps away again. He ends up in the desert, where he gets into a fight with a bunch of tanks.
And this is where you really see the Hulk as Hulk, bashing these tanks into scrap. I love this moment where he pauses after smashing one tank with the turret he ripped off another.
There’s one tank left, and you can tell he’s contemplating doing horrible things. But he just bends the cannon barrel and leaps away again.
Ross briefs the President on the escape (and just in case you’re not sure what the movie’s about yet, the Hulk’s code-name is “Angry Man”) and gets a task force to stop the Hulk. Meanwhile, the Hulk has stopped to look at lichen. Yes, more lichen.
Which is when he is attacked by four helicopter gunships. He tackles one and gets so mad, he punches it in the face.
He downs another by catching the Hellfire missile it shoots at him, biting off the warhead, and spitting it back at the chopper. Unfortunately, he gets cornered among some rocks which the remaining choppers bury him under. But after the copters have left, he digs out and continues on his way.
Ross orders up a couple of F-22’s to hit him, then. He jumps on one to keep it from hitting the Golden Gate Bridge and it takes him up into near-space, where he passes out and falls. As he falls, he dreams of being Banner, shaving and seeing the Hulk in the mirror (a callback to an earlier dream Banner had).
I love that the Hulk is so huge and intimidating that his fingertip is the size of Banner’s hand. And this is where the Hulk says his first line: “Puny human.”
Which leads to another fan gripe. The silent Hulk is a product of the TV series. I can only remember Ferrigno’s Hulk ever saying one word in the entirety of the series: shouting “no” when Banner’s wife played by Mariette Hartley died.
But in the comics, Hulk has always been a chatterbox, and for some reason, some fans wanted to see that Hulk on screen. The problem is that Hulk’s dialogue has mostly been pretty awful, the kind of stuff that can only work in a medium like comics where you’re not actually hearing it.
(Tanks shoot Hulk) You think you can shoot Hulk with tanks? Hulk will smash your puny tanks! (Hulk smashes tanks) Ha! Hulk smashed puny tanks! Hulk is the strongest one there is!
Seriously, Lee’s version of Hulk has many, many problems, but Hulk not talking is not one of them.
So anyway, Hulk splashes down into the bay and then tunnels underground to emerge on a hill in San Francisco. And finally, after Hulk has overcome every weapon Ross threw at him, the general allows Betty to try to calm Bruce down.
I love Hulk’s posture here, like a puppy who has just been discovered chewing up a shoe or something and knows he’s going to get it. Once again, when Lee’s Hulk isn’t raging, he’s like a big child, and it works for me.
So as Betty draws closer, Hulk grows shorter and skinnier until he’s normal Bruce again. He and Betty hug as they are surrounded by about a million soldiers and SWAT guys. And why one of them doesn’t just “accidentally” put a bullet through Bruce’s head right there is beyond me.
All told, the entire sequence, from first transformation in the tank, until he finally powers down and collapses in Betty’s arms, is about 25 minutes long, and it’s a good 25 minutes. This was the Hulk I came to see, fighting back against the forces of a world that just won’t let him alone, smashing up a bunch of stuff.
And seriously, the movie should have ended here, or at the very least, David Banner should have accompanied Betty so that the big final confrontation could work itself out immediately.
But no. Now we have to endure the suck. Every good thing from the previous sequence is going to be forgotten in this mess.
Betty convinces her father to let David Banner talk to Bruce. So they chain Bruce to a chair between two giant electrodes, so they can kill him if he starts to change again.
And what follows is the most painfully awful scene in the film. Nolte raves about soldiers and religion, telling Bruce that he needs to absorb the power from Bruce’s cells to control his own mutation. Meanwhile, Bana is snorting and whining and finally out of nowhere gives this primal scream. And then, desperate for a way to get out of the scene, Nolte bites into the power cable to the electrodes and absorbs the electricity to become a lightning creature.
Bruce changes to the Hulk, and though Ross gives the order to fry him, the soldiers can’t comply, because David Banner has absorbed all the power. And then a storm comes, and David drags Hulk with him along the lightning in a confusing montage of almost still images that flicker in and out in less than a second.
Father and son end up beside a mountain lake, where the lightning creature becomes a rock creature until Hulk throws him into a lake. Then he becomes a water creature and drags Hulk under the water. And one thing that’s frustrating about this sequence is that the elder Banner changes form so often, it’s hard to grasp exactly what he’s doing.
And what he’s doing is absorbing Bruce’s power. So Bruce tells his father to take it all, and pours out all his rage into his father, who immediately regrets his decision. All of Bruce’s pent-up rage pours out in this weird green stream into the weird green Water David face, which then forms this weird hate blister hovering over the lake.
It’s a mercy when the military finally just nukes them both. But of course, they use a gamma bomb, and since it was gamma rays that helped create Hulk in the first place, chances are that Bruce will survive this.
Which he does. A year later, we see him giving medical care to refugees in South America, until a troop of government soldiers comes to seize the medicine. Bruce gives the famous TV series line (“You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”), and we’re out.
Bottom line: I don’t hate the movie as much as most of my peers. I like the fact that Lee tried to bring an emotional subtext to the movie. I like the way the origin was updated. I like the internal consistency of Hulk’s powers with the animal research his father did in the opening credits, even if it’s not classic “comics” Hulk. I like the extended battle with the military that is the true climax of the film. I don’t mind the Hulk Dogs too much, and I even like some of the visual gimmicks.
But the teasing reveal of the trauma that’s obvious from the opening sequence does nothing but slow the film down. The repetition of lichen close-ups just baffles me. And Nolte’s performance overall is weird, but especially so in the disjointed, slapped-together ending that ends up leaving a bad after-taste for the entire thing. Disappointing after such high hopes.