Super Movies – Hulk

So although Out of the Vault is not green this month, Super Movies certainly will be, with a 6 week look back at the two feature films featuring Ol’ Jade Jaws. The funny thing is, if you had asked my teenage self which Marvel character would be best suited to make the transition to the screen, I would not have said the Incredible Hulk. So I think I was as surprised as anybody when the Universal TV pilot starring Bill Bixby as medical researcher turned green monster David Banner was not only picked up as a series, but had a successful five-season run, followed by three more TV movies.

I was always ambivalent about the TV show. On the one hand, I thought the pilot film was well done, and I liked anything that helped bring comic book superheroes into the mainstream.

On the other hand, the show actually had nothing to do with the comics character beyond his skin color (not even his name), and I don’t think any show was ever quite so nakedly formulaic. With only a couple of exceptions, if you had seen one, you had seen them all.

So by the time the show was cancelled, I think for a lot of people it seemed as if the entire concept was just worn out. But then along came Ang Lee.

Lee had blown people away with the remarkable Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a film that somehow managed to be a kickass martial arts drama while also dealing with some heavy themes. Like James Cameron, it seemed that Ang Lee was one of those guys who could do action movies for smart people. When it was announced that he would be directing a new movie featuring the Hulk, fans were genuinely excited. If anyone could breathe new life into the character, Lee could.

Doubts started to arise when the first footage of the Hulk debuted in a much-hyped TV spot during the Super Bowl (which ILM attributed to the fact that the footage had been rushed out before it was completely finished). And when Universal released the film in 2003, the reaction was not good.

So what went wrong? Was it really as bad as everyone says now? Let’s take a look.

Hints to both the film’s strengths and weaknesses can be found in the film’s opening credits.

The  credit sequence runs for five minutes and tells the backstory of an obsessed scientist (we’ll later find out his name is David Banner) attempting to isolate genetic traits from jellyfish, salamanders, starfish, and lizards that enable them to adapt to threats. This information is all given in quick visual cuts featuring lots of jittery editing, and to give everything a comic-book feel, the colors are bright and the credits are done in a hand-lettered comic book font. But notice also the letters reflected on Banner’s face. Every credit has extra touches like that, and I like that the movie pays attention to details.

Something else you see during this opening sequence: split-screens. Movies have toyed with splitting the screen forever, but rarely does it make up so much of the movie’s visual language as it does here (The Boston Strangler and More American Graffiti are two that spring immediately to mind). And I can see why Lee does it: to propel the storytelling while mimicking the feel of comic books (George Romero did some similar tricks in Creepshow).

I think it works well in places. In other places, it seems more like Lee’s showing off, thinking he’s being much more revolutionary than he is because he’s not really a comic book guy, like a mainstream author trying to write science fiction.

So the credits are done, but we’re not done with backstory yet. Banner meets with a Lt. Colonel named Ross (who looks amazingly like a young Sam Elliott) and tells him of his idea to create soldiers who can adapt to any environment, regenerate wounds, resist poisons. Ross for some reason is really upset about protocol not being followed and forbids Banner from doing human trials.

So Banner injects himself with the compound, but it doesn’t make him into Wolverine. It apparently does teach his boys to swim, though, because suddenly his wife is pregnant. And the baby, when she has it (literally at the moment she announces her pregnancy, thanks to a split-screen wipe), gets mottled green skin when he’s angry. Banner realizes that whatever his formula did to him has been passed on to his son. So he tries to fix it without letting his wife find out (shades of Gladiator).

And while all this is going on, we get several shots of desert flora, stunted trees and lichen. I’m not sure what Lee’s trying to say with the lichen, but he keeps cutting to close-ups of it throughout the movie, so get used to it.

Anyway, his wife never finds out, but Ross does and throws Banner off the project. So Banner sets the self-destruct mechanism on the base, because he’s a little crazy. Oh, and although the self-destruct mechanism uses the standard two-key fail-safe we’ve seen in movies for decades, don’t these locks seem a little close together to you?

Isn’t the point to have them far apart so it takes two people to activate? Then again, this is just the nuclear destruct mechanism for a top secret military base. It’s not like they’re growing wheat or anything.

Banner rushes home as the alarms are sounding. He grabs Bruce’s mother and drags her into the next room, where there are screams and we know he’s going to kill her,  but the movie drags that realization out for over an hour.

Finally backstory’s done and we can start getting to the good stuff. No! It’s teenaged Bruce with his adoptive mother, planning to be a scientist. And now finally, Bruce grows up into Eric Bana, and presto! He’s a scientist at the Berkeley Nuclear Biotechnology Institute. He rides a bike, so we know he’s a nerd. And as he’s walking in, we get the requisite Stan Lee cameo, with bonus Lou Ferrigno (TV’s Hulk) thrown in.

Bruce has just broken up with hot, hot Betty (Jennifer Connelly, playing another comic book girlfriend), but they are also partners on a project at the Institute, so you know the whole break-up thing isn’t going to take.

Bruce and Betty are developing a project with nanomeds, super-tiny robots that are intended to heal wounds. They experiment with a big frog with a cut on his back. First he inhales the nanomeds until they have dispersed throughout his system, then they hit him with gamma rays (which I’m guessing are supposed to give energy to the tiny robots). The frog’s cut heals instantly. But the fun doesn’t stop there.

The nanomeds apparently don’t know when to stop and end up creating exploding tumors or something. Which is not as useful as you might think.

But to Glenn Talbot, defense contractor, the project shows promise, and the fact that he has the hots for Betty doesn’t hurt. He hits on her while making a job offer with a huge salary; interesting way to hire a prostitute. She turns him down.

So then–hey look, it’s Daniel Dae Kim from Lost.

He’s reporting to General Ross, and now we know why the younger Ross looked so much like Sam Elliott.

I hadn’t realized just how many genre movies this guy had been in until I started writing them up in detail. The General is, of course, Betty’s father.

Meanwhile, Bruce is looking at an old photo of Betty and flashing back on a memory of her telling him about a disturbing dream she has had. Except Jennifer Connelly’s performance starts out all flirty, so it’s weird when there actually does turn out to be a dream (about Bruce hurting her). Oh, and we get some more shots of lichen-encrusted rocks.

Bruce goes home and waters his lichen-rock garden (seriously) while the mysteriously creepy new janitor at the lab analyzes the DNA from a hair sample taken from Bruce’s lab to discover that Bruce Krenzler (his adopted name) is really Bruce Banner. Bruce wakes up from a Hulk-y nightmare and sees the janitor lurking outside with his three creepy dogs (a mastiff, a pit bull, and a standard poodle).

Next day, lab assistant Harper is fixing the gamma ray thingy when it shorts out, releases a cloud of nanomeds and begins counting down. Bruce pushes Harper aside and blocks the gamma rays with his body, because it’s not like gamma rays are extremely high energy radiation that can go through practically anything.

But although the movie has stuck with the TV series conception of Bruce as a medical researcher rather than a bomb designer, this origin is not too unlike the original comics story, from Bruce heroically risking his life to save a douchebag to the focus on Bruce’s frightened face.

When he wakes up in the hospital, Bruce feels wonderful, although Betty is freaking out. Bruce goes to sleep, dreams of lizards and lichen and wakes up to find the janitor sitting in his room with the three dogs.

And of course, the janitor is actually David Banner, Bruce’s father, played by Nick Nolte. He does a little mad raving, telling Bruce that together they can rule the galaxy as father and son. And he warns Bruce not to trust Betty or her father.

Which is a coincidence, because General Ross has just told Betty the same thing. Betty calls Bruce later to tell him about the visit, but Bruce is busy having acid flashbacks while making funny faces.

Actually, he’s reacting to the stress and fear of everything that’s happened to him in the entire movie. Problem is, it’s hard to relate to this as a reason for his first change, as opposed to somebody, say, beating him up. This just seems like a weird choice, for both Lee and Bana.

But suddenly, Bruce begins to scream and stumble through the halls as he turns big and green and computer generated. He goes nuts and smashes up the lab, saving his biggest rage for the gamma bomb that zapped him. He throws it right through the wall.

And once he’s done, he calms down. Calm, his face is soft and rounded, almost like a big baby.

Which I guess is Ang Lee’s point here. The Hulk is like Bruce’s repressed childhood anger given physical form. He doesn’t figure out solutions to problems; he throws tantrums, which just happen to be shaped like gamma bombs, or later, like M1A1 tanks.

But his janitor walks in after the destruction is over, which just pisses the Hulk off all over again. He smashes up through the roof and screams his rage at the city, then leaps off into the distance.

The Incredible Hulk has been loosed upon the world. Continued next week.

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