by Steve Habrat
One of the most polarizing films in the Marvel Studios line of films is Ang Lee’s 2003 splashy origin tale Hulk, which shows us the unfortunate accident that turns mild mannered Bruce Banner into the smashing and thrashing Hulk. The film has seemed to divide audiences and critics over the years—some standing by Lee’s psychological evaluation of the pain the Bruce bottles up inside and some practically retching at the mere mention of the film. I stand firm in the above average crowd. Personally, I’m a fan of the aesthetic that Lee applies to the jolly green giant’s first cinematic outing and I do enjoy some of the camp that he lays on oh so thick. Hulk does come with several flaws that do hold the film back, mostly the poorly executed action sequences and some of the brooding character development that takes place during the sagging middle of the film. Much of the grim stuff could have been left on the cutting room floor. Yet when Hulk is firing on all cylinders, it is really, really good and it is hugely innovative.
Hulk tells the tale of genetics researcher Bruce Banner (Played by Eric Bana), who nurses a tragic past. Banner is working with nanomeds and gamma radiation to discover a cure for cancer and multiple other diseases. He works close to his main squeeze, the pretty Betty Ross (Played by Jennifer Connelly), who is the daughter of scheming General Ross (Played by Sam Elliot). When Bruce was young, General Ross and Bruce’s father David (Played by Nick Nolte) had a feud that caused David to be put in prison for many years. After an unfortunate accident, Bruce is exposed to gamma radiation but he miraculously survives. At first, Bruce feels better than ever but he quickly discovers that when he gets angry, he transforms into a destructive monster that lays waste to anything in its path. Fearing for the life of his daughter, General Ross demands that Bruce be taken into custody by the army before he can hurt anyone. To make matters worse, Bruce’s father returns to continue the work that he was torn away from all those years ago and undergoes a dangerous transformation of his own.
The best part of Lee’s Hulk is without question the comic book panel aesthetic that he uses to sculpt the film. It makes Hulk a constant visual treat—like we have cracked open the pages of a long lost Hulk comic book and the pages suddenly sprang to life. Lee’s film could be considered one of the first superhero films that tried to mimic the pages of it’s source, opening the door for films like Sin City, 300, etc. Hulk is one big cartoon, drenched in vibrant colors and action that would seem more at home on the pages of a comic than on a movie screen. Yet it is this very action that causes Hulk to hit a wall. When Lee throws an action sequence at us, he can’t quite keep Hulk contained and on track. These scenes, which are mostly the Hulk versus Hulk-dogs showdown and the final confrontation between Hulk and David Banner swirls into incoherency that completely removes us from the fun.
While Hulk is a visual treat, the subject matter veers into heavy territory that the comic book genre wasn’t particularly used to at the time. Lee doesn’t hesitate to give us multiple glimpses into Banner’s heavy heart and he marries the bottle up demons within Banner with his transformation into the Hulk. His pain and anguish is literally explosive. Lee drags Hulk out to two hours and twenty minutes with breathlessly explaining every psychological aspect of Banner’s inner turmoil. Lee uses Betty as the Banner’s psychologist, someone who stands back and baits Banner into decoding hazy memories from his past. This would be all okay except that Lee begins to repeat himself and he never really attempts to break the film up. He does finally lighten the mood with an extended battle between the Hulk and endless waves off army tanks, helicopters, and waves of soldiers.
Hulk does feature some first-rate performances from its colorful cast, mainly from Nolte as the mysterious David Banner. Nolte, looking as scruffy as ever, is a tortured soul much like Bruce, one who buries secrets within and then explodes into a force of nature. It’s a shame that Lee forgets about his character half way through the film and then suddenly remembers that he has to work him in and give him something to do with his sinister new powers. Connelly is given the routine superhero’s girlfriend job of putting herself in harm’s way but her interactions with Bruce are at times touching. She does everything she can to rise above her clichéd role and often does. Bana does a bang up job of playing the brooding nerd and I have to say I really enjoyed him. He does really send a chill when his face begins to bubble and he sputters out with, “You’re making me angry!” Sam Elliot as General Ross is an egotistical man who torments Banner every chance he gets. He’s the true villain here even if he is planted behind computer screens and shouts orders to never-ending troops of soldiers.
With fairly memorable performances and lots of visual bells and whistles, Hulk musters up several nifty moments throughout its lengthy runtime to really make it a winner. I personally enjoy the cartoonish special effects here and I think they have held up quite well over the years. I enjoy the hell out of the Hulk’s showdown with the army near the end of the film and I personally think it is the highlight moment. Just wait until the Hulk bites the tip of a missile off and spits it at a helicopter. Yet I don’t think a character like the Hulk truly needs such an emotionally complex origin tale for a hero who is basically a green wrecking ball. Furthermore, I really don’t think that Lee needed to drag it out as long as he does, as more than once I checked the time while I was re-watching it. What I want out of a Hulk movie is lots of smashing, destruction, and mayhem with a tiny bit of romance thrown in. I commend Lee and Hulk for trying to add some depth to the superhero genre and for that, I say Hulk is pretty darn good. It’s a risky experiment of imagination and Lee, God bless him, almost pulls it off.
Hulk is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Feature: The Summer of 2011 Belonged to Superheroes
by Steve Habrat
It’s official, boys and girls, the summer of 2011 belonged to tights clad do-gooders who saved the world countless times from certain doom. They protected the innocent from world annihilation and we cheered them on every punch and kick along the way. We saw three superheroes from the Marvel Comics camp and one lifeless cosmic cop from DC Comics. I feared that Marvel would have too heavy of a presence at the local cinema, but I have to commend them for the quality films that they delivered. They were smart, colorful, and just downright entertaining until the last villain was knocked out cold. I had some hostility to Thor at first, but after watching him hurl has hammer at Loki a couple of times, I was hooked. I loved his brutish arrogance and empathized with him when he had his powers taken by his old man Odin. I had my doubts about X-Men: First Class. I was convinced it would be a cheap money grab of a film that was just milking a name. What I saw was easily the most unsettling, brooding, and arresting superhero film since The Dark Knight. Sure, there were moments were it winked at it’s comic roots, but that earth shattering climax is a must see and was played absolutely straight. And how about Captain America? How could that not put a smile on your face?! It was a retro, rip-roaring escapade that was actually better the second time I saw it (and yes, I LOVED it the first time I went to see it). It was the kind of summer movie we wish for but we rarely get. We just get more transforming robot aliens and alien invasion movies (yawn).
Many audience members will be quick to argue that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 was the real king of the summer but let me point something out to the ones who defend the Boy Who Lived until they are blue in the face: He had no staying power. As quickly as he made a bang, he fizzled. He quickly faded from the memory of audiences and we were right back to rallying behind Captain America. Sure, it was sad to see the Potter franchise finally come to an end but the film was honestly a bit underwhelming. I will give Potter credit, he now holds the title for the biggest opening weekend of all time but let’s not overlook those inflated 3D tickets. Thor opened to a respectable $66 million when it debuted, X-Men: First Class pulled $56 million, and Captain America mustered up $65 million respectably. And yes, I am aware Thor and Captain America were in 3D as well but they seemed to linger a bit longer near the top of the box ofice than Potter did. I still distinctly remember moments of Thor and I still shudder at the final frames of X-Men. The most distinct memory I have of Harry Potter was the jaw dropping teaser trailer for The Dark Knight Rises and few haunting images from the film itself. But as far as moments go in HP, I got nothing.
Perhaps the nation was under Potter fatigue. They were ready to just get the inevitable end over with. Yet I feel like more people actually saw Thor, X-Men, and Captain America than saw Harry Potter. I have one theory as to why audience members responded well to those three films. If we take a look at the news, all we see is one disaster after another. This year alone, we have seen the devastating tsunami that ravaged Japan, a shooting rampage in Norway, a shooting rampage in Arizona, another shooting rampage right in my backyard (Copley, Ohio), Casey Anthony found not guilty for the murder of her daughter, war in Libya, riots in Egypt, Hurricane Irene, etc. The world seems now more than ever in need of some form of hero. The times are undeniably grim and now, we are coming up on another anniversary of the horrifying September 11th attacks. Maybe that is why we flock to see the heroes vanquish evil. We need some form of comfort and even if it’s just pretend, we can still sleep better at night with the hope that someone will come around and protect us.
Next year, the summer movie season will see The Avengers, which teams up Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and The Hulk to wage a war on terror in the form of Loki. We will see a fresh take on everyone’s favorite web head, The Amazing Spider-Man, and to top it off, we will see the third and final chapter in Batman legacy, The Dark Knight Rises. Next Christmas, we will see the return of The Man of Steel himself, Superman, to stand once again for truth, justice, and the American way. While I feel that Batman is really the only superhero to actually engage politically (rather blatantly might I add) as The Dark Knight is now acting as the defining film of the Bush era, there is still something about the remarkably wholesome Marvel good guys. If we also look at the suspected plots of these films, there are some rather disquieting comparisons to what many speculate will occur next year: An unstoppable, apocalyptic event. We see four powerhouse heroes joining together to fight Thor’s God-like half brother and (supposedly) a race of aliens in The Avengers. In The Amazing Spider-Man trailer, Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard asks Spidey if he’s “Ready to play God”. Judging by the trailer, this will be a much darker portrayal of the character and there are a few moments of what appears to be apocalyptic action. But what does this particular line of dialogue mean? Spidey has to play God and save us all from destruction? And lets not forget that jarring trailer for The Dark Knight Rises. It is rumored that Batman is going to need a little help from Catwoman to defeat the brute force that is Bane and save Gotham from annihilation. Just take a looksy at the final image from the trailer, which shows Bane advancing on a winded, clearly in pain Batman. Gotham is going to need more than one hero to save it. When we look at The Man of Steel, all we can do is speculate, as we have no trailer to go off of. The main villain has been confirmed as being General Zod, who wields the same powers as Superman. Has Superman finally met his match?
It makes sense to me that both Marvel and DC Comics would unleash their A-team next year to protect us from the rumored apocalypse. Maybe it is to subconsciously reassure us and give some hope to the individuals who are convinced the apocalypse will occur. But one aspect is certain, that superheroes were the true rulers of this blockbuster heavy summer. Together, Marvel had a mighty pull and combined, the three films were a juggernaut. Combined all together, I suspect that The Avengers is going to become one of the highest grossing films ever made. And what about the hype that has surrounded The Dark Knight Rises? It’s poised to become another monstrous victory for superhero movies. So is the Boy Who Lived really on top? He won this battle, but he will most certainly fall to another do-gooder next summer. His triumph was brief. Enjoy it now Potter fans, because it’s a superhero world and we are all just living in it.