It could’ve worked. Maybe it should’ve worked. You can understand what everyone involved was thinking. Superhero movies were making money. Marvel movies were making money. Just a year earlier, Spider-Man had been a global phenomenon. Superheroes weren’t necessarily nerd shit anymore. Computer-generated effects had advanced to a certain point. People knew about the Hulk, the one Marvel superhero who’d starred in a successful live-action TV show. And Universal had Ang Lee, one of the world’s most respected and sought-after directors.
Three years before Hulk, Ang Lee had made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a movie that did pretty much everything a movie like that could possibly do. It brought respect to a widely disrespected genre. It made tremendous money. It scored huge Oscar nominations. It combined dazzling action scenes with a story full of simmering familial conflicts and quiet, lyrical subtlety. If Lee had been able to do for superhero movies what he’d already done for wuxia movies, Hulk would’ve been an all-timer.
He certainly didn’t lack for ambition. Lee’s Hulk wasn’t even really a superhero movie. Other than beating up some radiated dogs and managing not to get killed by his own father, Lee’s Hulk never actually does anything heroic. He doesn’t wear a superhero costume, unless ripped-up purple pants count. He doesn’t talk. He’s a public menace, a living manifestation of boiling rage. Lee wanted to make a mass-culture summer entertainment, but he also wanted to make a heavy, intense family drama with Greek-tragedy overtones. He wanted to subvert a genre of movie that was only just coming into its own. He wanted to make a superhero movie into a personal auteurist vision. And his failure changed the fate of the genre more than a success might have.
On some level, though, Lee’s whole version of the Hulk was poisoned from the start—sort of like his version of Bruce Banner, mutated by his father’s experiments when he was still a zygote, long before his fateful gamma-ray accident. There’s a problem at the heart of the movie, and that problem is Banner. Lee’s version of Bruce Banner is a drag. He’s a closed-off, non-responsive cold fish. Before the movie even starts, Jennifer Connelly’s Betty Ross has dumped him, with good reason. (In her first scene, she calls the whole relationship “a by-product of my inexplicable obsession with emotionally distant men,” not the sort of line you hear in too many superhero movies.) The Australian actor Eric Bana could play vibrant, erratic personalities, as he’d done in the great low-budget crime movie Chopper. But to play Lee’s version of Banner, he had to flatten himself out completely. (I like imagining that he got cast just because his name sounds like “Banner” if you say it in an Australian accent.)
Banner spends the entire movie fighting to keep control of himself, to avoid transforming into the green smashing machine. But everyone watching the movie wants to see him become the Hulk. Nobody wants to sit around watching Bruce Banner do animal experiments and try to repair his relationships. Banner is the movie’s hero, and yet we, the audience, can only root for him to fail.
Lee’s movie isn’t constructed as a superhero origin story because he doesn’t see the Hulk as a hero. If anything, he’s a tragic monster, one who ends up throwing around tanks because he just wants to be left alone. He’s King Kong or Mr. Hyde. There’s no scene of Banner joyously, disbelievingly discovering his own powers because his powers are an affliction. And with its desert setting and constant anxiety about nuclear radiation, the movie feels a lot like a cheesed-out ’50s sci-fi creature feature, like the giant-ants movie Them! It’s even constructed the same way: lots of long, drawn-out scenes of people looking concerned in labs, leading up to the fun and ridiculous finale.
Lee filled his movie with great actors in vaguely ridiculous parts. Besides Bana, there’s Connelly, terse and distrustful, with all of the brain-melting beauty but none of the wide-eyed charm that she’d had in The Rocketeer, a deeply different superhero movie. (Connelly has since returned to the genre as the voice of the Stark Industries spider-suit in Spider-Man: Homecoming.) With Sam Elliott as General Ross, Betty’s stern father, Lee cast one of Hollywood’s most enjoyably chill actors as a military blowhard.
And then there was Nick Nolte, in full wild-haired gravelly-voiced breakdown mode, as Bruce Banner’s abusive father. Nolte goes way over the top in the movie, and he’s fun to watch even when you have no idea what he’s saying—both because he’s playing a genuinely unhinged mad-scientist philosopher and because his husky whisper-rasp is so ravaged that you can’t make out the actual words. (Between the near-silent dialogue scenes and the loud action, good luck watching this movie in a house where people are sleeping. You need to be a ninja with that volume button.) When you can understand him, Nolte is an evil force way more unsettling than what you’ll see in the average superhero movie. Late in the movie, we learn that he murdered Bruce’s mother around the same time an experimental A-bomb went off: “It was as if she and the knife merged.” It reminds me of the whole idea, from Twin Peaks: The Return, that the invention of the atomic bomb unleashed some primal and eternal evil upon mankind. That, for a Marvel movie, is heavy.
Hulk is a fascinating combination of factors that ultimately don’t add up to a coherent movie. But there are so many ideas! Lee is clearly in love with the notion of a comic book movie, and he wants to explore what that might mean. He has crazy amounts of fun with split-screen editing, trying to approximate comic-page layouts, to the point where the credits are in comic book font. The editing doesn’t actually make the movie look like a comic book, but it’s dazzling in its own way. It makes for a whole new style of filmmaking, a whiz-bang expressionism, that no director has attempted since. It’s a total one-off. And certain scenes—the gamma-ray accident, the baffling final battle—verge on total abstraction.
And Lee also gets into ideas of generations-long resentments and predestination. General Ross and David Banner feuded bitterly, and their kids end up falling in love with each other even though it makes no narrative sense for them to be drawn back together. Bruce Banner becomes a nuclear scientist, just like his father, even though he has no memory of his father. He’s the son of a murderer, and he pathologically buries his own explosive feelings. It’s a bit much, but it’s trying for something.
As popcorn entertainment, which is certainly how the movie was marketed and positioned, Hulk is a mixed bag. A lot of it manages to be both confusing and boring, a bad combination. The Hulk himself doesn’t show up until nearly an hour in. The early fight with the monster-dogs is both stupid and ridiculous. And yet the movie’s long centerpiece, the Hulk’s rampage through deserts and into San Francisco, makes for beautiful filmmaking. In Hulk’s tremendous leaps, there’s some of the same visceral thrill of Spider-Man swinging through skyscrapers. To watch the beast smash and fling tanks is to experience a very simple and profound joy. His skin ripples when bullets hit it, and he bites the warhead off of a missile and then spits it back at a helicopter, which rules.
And there’s a scene where Hulk rides a fighter jet into the atmosphere that echoes The Right Stuff and makes me want to gnaw my own skin off. I had that same blank, overwhelming physical dread watching Spider-Man hanging off the spaceship in Infinity War. That shit was way scarier to me than anything in The Babadook or It Follows. Maybe it’s just me.
And yet those moments of pure cinematic joy work, on some level, as concessions, as the shit that Lee had to throw in there to get the movie made. (It doesn’t help that the Hulk himself is a repulsively ugly CGI creation, or that Josh Lucas’ cartoonishly evil corporate-functionary character gets a deeply goofy death scene.) Lee’s interest, instead, seems to rest with the dreamlike return-of-the-repressed overtones, or with Nick Nolte braying about partaking of the essence of all things. And so Hulk makes for a fascinating anomaly: a mega-budgeted summer blockbuster where the filmmaker and the audience want two vastly different things.
Hulk made decent money and got mixed reviews. It wasn’t a boondoggle, and it remains a strange and fascinating rewatch. But within the genre, it exists at a fulcrum point. Lee got the Hulk job after Bryan Singer had done X-Men and Sam Raimi had done Spider-Man. He wasn’t the first respected filmmaker to get a crack at a Marvel movie, and he wouldn’t be the last. But he would, I’d argue, be the last to get a real shot at using the medium of a Marvel movie to tell a strange and personal story. In the years since, that’s just not something filmmakers have gotten to do. Maybe that’s a good thing.
In any case, it’s been fascinating to see how Marvel has treated the Hulk character ever since getting the rights to the character back from Universal. Early on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they tried to make a generic B-level summer Hulk vehicle, and that didn’t work either, especially after star Edward Norton seized control of the production. Since then, the Hulk has been reduced to an ensemble player in Avengers movies and in Thor: Ragnarok. And weirdly enough, he’s thrived in that setting, with Marvel’s streamlined and crowd-pleasing storytelling braintrust getting across all those ideas of rage and repression while still using Hulk in service of entertaining action scenes. So, as superhero movies and auteurist filmmaking have gone in vastly different directions, we’ve lost the promise of challenging, original visions. But we’ve had some fun, too. Is that a fair trade-off? I don’t know. I’m happy that Lee’s version of the Hulk exists, but I’d rather watch the MCU one.
Other notable 2003 superhero movies: Bryan Singer’s X-Men sequel X2 is a pretty ridiculously great comic book movie. It builds on the vision of the first movie, keeps the societal-alienation themes intact, raises the stakes, expands the canvas, and introduces a whole lot of fun new characters. There are great set pieces: The White House invasion, the Blackbird crash, Magneto’s escape of the ultra-secure prison. There’s a great villain in Brian Cox’s fascist blowhard General Stryker. And there’s a slightly lighter, goofier tone. It’s basically everything that a superhero-movie sequel should be, so of course the series got turned over to a total hack one movie later.
On the other side of the spectrum, there’s the masterpiece of half-assery that is Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil, a clumsy Batman rip-off with an insultingly shallow script (“I’m not the bad guy!”) and Ben Affleck at the absolute nadir of his first blockbuster-paychecking phase. It’s some kind of corporate malpractice that Affleck got to play the real Batman after farting his way through a whole movie as a fake Batman. The fake-Matrix wire-fu fights and the criminal way the movie wastes both Colin Farrell and his character, Bullseye, make this some of the worst money I ever spent on a movie. I guess a couple of Affleck children owe their existences to this one, but other than that, there’s nothing to recommend here.
Steve Norrington’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen deserves all the same rancor, though at least we can blame discord among director, star, and studio for that one. The central idea of Alan Moore’s comic book is undeniably cool: public-domain Victorian pulp-literature characters refashioned into a Justice League-style superhero team to combat an H.G. Wells Martian invasion. But the movie version does away with Moore’s terse characterization, his disturbing threats, and his whole thing about superheroes being inherently fascistic. Instead, we get sub-video-game CGI effects, a clearly befuddled Sean Connery sharing the screen with an absolutely undistinguished supporting cast, and a plot that genuinely makes no sense whatsoever. Also, token-American CIA agent Tom Sawyer, who wasn’t in the comic book, makes sarcastic jokes. Fuck this movie.
Other than that, the only things we can talk about are the non-superhero comic book adaptations Bulletproof Monk and American Splendor—the latter of which couldn’t possibly be less superheroic if it tried, even if star Paul Giamatti did go on to play the Rhino in a Spider-Man movie.
Next time: Brad Bird and Pixar give the world one of history’s most purely entertaining superhero movies with The Incredibles.