Sometimes comic-book yarns are just comic-book yarns, and can’t be molded into something bigger and better through technical mastery. We know this because of director Ang Lee’s “Hulk” (2003). Never before or since has such a basic, wide-audience screenplay been treated with such languid care in the performances, the special effects and the editing. Lee’s craftsmanship would’ve worked wonderfully on a thematically rich, complex narrative like, say, “Watchmen,” but when applied to the origin story of Bruce Banner/Hulk (Eric Bana), the result is slow and boring.
I knew this from my 2003 theatrical experience, which inspired me to call it the worst movie of the year, but I felt I owed it a rewatch. I now realize it’s not one of the worst superhero movies – it’s merely mediocre and misguided – but it’s a shame because Lee and the cast and crew clearly pour so much of themselves into “Hulk.”
The opening act of this 2-hour, 18-minute (!) epic tells of Dr. Banner (Nick Nolte) doing military science experiments on himself back in the day on a desert sands base. His proto-Hulk powers get passed on to his son, and an hour later in film time we get the classic gamma-ray lab accident that triggers Bruce’s Hulk qualities. At first I thought pushing back the mad-scientist story to a previous generation was unnecessary padding, but there is a certain appeal to how Lee tells this tragic family story. Since there is no action or surprising drama, Lee and editor Tim Squyres tease false momentum out of split screens, quick wipes and other editing tactics that mimic comics.
Plus, the performances are good. In addition to Nolte as the power-hungry dad, we also have a brooding Bruce who looks similar to his CGI Hulk form, Jennifer Connelly as a Betty Ross who signifies classic love and beauty but is also a competent scientist, and Sam Elliott as a General Ross focused on the Hulk’s threat at the expense of his relationship with Betty.
But the two father-child relationships and the one romantic relationship – even though well-acted across the board — don’t justify the film’s slow pace, and those editing tricks only work for so long; after awhile, they become a bug rather than a perk. I felt like I had seen a whole movie by the completion of Hulk’s battle with Hulk-dogs, but that only marks the 1-hour point.
At least watching at home, I can take breaks and appreciate certain chunks of the film. The Hulk’s desert battle against tanks is well-crafted. The big green dude looks like part of the environment, featuring stretches of sand backdropped by gorgeous rocky crags, and I like how it takes true effort for him to rip apart a tank. It’s plain entertaining to watch him whip large hunks of metal through the air like he’s throwing a baseball. Hurting the action segments is radio dialog from the soldiers indicating that they are fine — perhaps a studio or ratings-board mandate.
“Hulk’s” little moments of action-movie humor – like when he twists a turret around to point into a tank’s cockpit and the gunner blankly stares at him – don’t read as funny because the early slow pacing saps all potential emotional energy from the film.
“Hulk” is a draining experience that ultimately lacks the fun of a superhero actioner, even though the specific action sequences might be better than what’s in, say, “The Incredible Hulk” (2008), which marks the character’s entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Interestingly, that film was devised as a sequel to “Hulk,” and it can still play that way if you only watch the ’03 and ’08 films. The narrative reason why “Hulk” doesn’t fit into the MCU is that one character (Josh Lucas’ Talbot) dies here and later turns up in TV’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” played by Adrian Pasdar.
The practical reason is that it wouldn’t be good to have the MCU viewing experience start with “Hulk,” if it was to be retroactively added to the official saga. No one from this film comes off as incompetent at their craft. The big problem is that no one told Lee that his interest in wallowing in the psychological trauma of being the Hulk is not matched by any other human being.