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Before Marvel made its own movies, Ang Lee offered an idiosyncratic Hulk

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With the summer movie season upon us, it’s time to sing the praises of some unsung and underrated summer blockbusters.

Hulk (2003)

Largely reviled upon its initial 2003 release, Hulk remains a disrespected gem that sharply balances larger-than-life superhero mayhem and affecting interpersonal drama. Director Ang Lee uses deft scene transitions inspired by comic-book panels, giving the proceedings a cheeky, pulpy energy. He turns his Marvel tale into one of strained father-child relationships—both between Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) and his scraggly scientist father (Nick Nolte), and Banner’s girlfriend and colleague Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) and her military bigwig dad (Sam Elliott). Both of those tense parent-child bonds are hopelessly complicated when Banner becomes the victim of a gamma-radiation accident that unleashes his green, monstrous inner id. Rather than simply a rampaging beast, however, this maiden big-screen iteration of the Hulk is depicted as something of a lonely King Kong/Frankenstein/Mr. Hyde, a notion beautifully evoked by a nocturnal moment in which he gazes sorrowfully at his own reflection in a pool of water.


To be fair, an encounter with some “hulk dogs” is undone by some undeniably mediocre CG effects. Yet Lee’s emerald behemoth boasts an expressive face wracked with both confusion and sadness, and his rampage through a military base and subsequent leaps across a desert have a thrilling muscularity that help the film deliver requisite wham-bang-pow thrills. Far more compelling than Hulk’s action, however, is its Freudian-tinged human drama. The natural chemistry between Bana and Connelly gives weight to their characters’ fraught romance and, eventually, the tragedy of their circumstances, which is compounded by their kindred struggles to break free from domineering paterfamilias. Consequently, it’s the fathers that ultimately take center stage—and none is more ferocious than Nolte, an alternately muttering and screaming-mad wacko whose unhinged lunacy is the perfect human counterpart to the film’s uninhibited green goliath.

Availability: Hulk is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix, and to rent or purchased through the major digital providers.