The Discount Spinner Rack: HULK (2003)

Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…

Until they end up here.

The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). Coming up this week: the massively expensive and ambitious misfire that was Ang Lee’s Hulk!

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A funny thing happened in the 1980s. With the release of several prestigious comic books and graphic novels deconstructing the notion of costumed crimefighters, there was suddenly a push (from publishers, and ESPECIALLY from fans) for superheroes—up to now largely thought of as junk entertainment aimed primarily at children—to be “Taken Seriously”. Readers demanded more sophisticated interpretations of their favorite four-color morality plays; either the characters were pushed to be more psychologically complex and flawed, or the stories were pushed into darker, more “mature” directions1. This became a predominant, driving ideology in the comic book industry for decades… and it didn’t take long to seep into the movies from there. Tim Burton’s Batman was championed as a darker, more serious take on a character many still thought of as a colorful goofball2; the X-Men films would later become infamous for eschewing the colorful outfits and more outlandish premises of the comics, presumably in an attempt to seem more “grown-up” (and, yes, to capitalize on the massive success of The Matrix and its black-leather aesthetic). As the genre started to expand, more attempts to make serious, sophisticated, “mature” comic book movies have cropped up along the way– some of them successful (The Dark Knight, Logan), and some… less so (Fant4stic, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice).

But one movie would arrive at the very cusp of the superhero movie boom… one that would strive so diligently toward being a “serious movie” that its colorful detours would seem like an intrusion into a heavy-handed psychodrama. And that movie was 2003’s Hulk.

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Behold Hulk’s well-groomed cuticles!

It wasn’t always supposed to be that way, mind you. Development on a live-action Hulk movie began as far back as 1990, with Michael France (the guy who would go on to pen Fantastic Four) originally set to write. Then France was pushed aside so that Jonathan Hensleigh (screenwriter of Die Hard With a Vengeance, Jumanji, and Armageddon) could write AND direct, with a storyline that involved Bruce Banner experimenting on convicts with gamma-irradiated insect DNA and creating “insect men”. Hensleigh’s version ended up getting put on hold due to a ballooning budget of $100 million (mind you, this WAS in 1998, so that was an obscene amount of money to spend on a movie by a first-time director); Hensleigh would eventually leave the project and go on to make his directorial debut with 2004’s The Punisher3. France would come back to bang out a few drafts of the script, which also received rewrites from Zak Penn (The Incredible HulkElektra), David Hayter (X-Men, Watchmen), John Turman (The Crow: City of Angels), and Michael Tolkien (The Player, Deep Impact). One script featured The Leader, Zzaxx, and the Absorbing Man as the villains– three colleagues of Banner’s, caught in the same accident that made him the Hulk. The project spun its wheels and languished in Development Hell for a bit… until Ang Lee came aboard.

Lee, up to this point known largely for dramatic films such as Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm, was fresh off his biggest success to date with 1999’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Universal was ready to throw him a blockbuster. Seeing the story of Bruce Banner foremost as a Greek tragedy, Lee zeroed in on the classical inspirations for the Hulk mythos: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, Faust, Beauty and the Beast, etc. He seemed to be a perfect match for the material, in much the same way that Sam Raimi ended up being for Spider-Man: a distinctive authorial voice with a firm grasp of the underlying appeal of the character. The screenplay he went with followed Dr. Bruce Krenzler, a scientist at Berkley working to develop nanobot medical technology with his ex-girlfriend, Betty Ross. After an accident in the lab exposes him to the dangerous technology without killing him, he discovers that he is the son of Dr. David Banner4, a biologist who experimented on himself and passed a dormant genetic mutation onto Bruce. That mutation, combined with the nanobot technology and the bubbling emergence of repressed memories of a childhood trauma, has resulted in an astonishing transformation: now, when Bruce becomes angry or outraged, he metamorphoses into an enormous, green, incredibly powerful monster born of Bruce’s subconscious. And wouldn’t you know it: as the military closes in on this new creature and Bruce turns to Betty in an effort to understand what’s happening to him, it turns out that Bruce’s twisted father has reemerged to reconnect with BOTH sides of his estranged son…

I mean, it SOUNDS great, right? Ang Lee, psychological complexity, plenty of potential for smashing– all wrapped up in a $137 million bow. How could it NOT be great?

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… Ah.

IN THIS ISSUE: Tonal confusion! Because you see, while Lee delivers a melancholy and introspective drama about childhood trauma and repressed anger… he just can’t help but underscoring that this is a “COMIC BOOK” in the most glaring and inappropriate ways.

Now keep in mind, it’s actually kind of hard to be critical of Hulk, because, well… a lot of it is pretty darn good. Ang Lee is a skilled cinematic craftsman with a talent for bringing out potent, layered performances from his cast– and for all its faults, this film is no exception to that. See, for instance, the scene in which Betty (the incomparable Jennifer Connelly) reunites with her father, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Sam Elliot and his bristly mustache): both of them have plot-related reasons to meet up, but their silence and awkwardness upon coming face to face reveals a world of distance and, for Betty at least, pain lying between them. The scene is laden with subtext and reversals, and with every twist in the power dynamic, the camera breaks the 180-degree rule5 to disorient the viewer– turning a simple conversation at a table in a restaurant into an emotional battlefield. And the two actors sell the hell out of it: Elliot’s leathery mask of stoicism cracks near the end only when he realizes he’s hurt his daughter, but Connelly’s face is awash with vulnerability, barely hidden pain, and sadness. It’s beautifully constructed cinema.

… So when the Hulk, a giant green man-baby, shows up and starts smashing sh*t like he’s in a monster-truck rally, the film switches gears so fast it leaves the audience with whiplash.

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“Subconscious Manifestation of Repressed Rage and Unresolved Childhood Trauma SMASH!!!”

Yes, the film is actually so well constructed as a sullen, muted drama about repression and father issues that when the Big Green Guy does show up– ostensibly the WHOLE POINT of this movie to begin with– he feels completely out of place, like a pro wrestler showing up in the middle of a ballet6. And mind you, this tonal mismatch isn’t unintentional. Lee wanted to use the Hulk sequences as a cathartic release from the tension and restraint of the main storyline… a sort of power-fantasy-as-pressure-value approach. And when the Hulk DOES hit the screen, things get pretty goofy. Most people remember the infamous Hulk Dogs sequence, where the Hulk does battle with a gamma-mutated pit bull, mastiff, and… uh, French poodle… but there’s also the moment when Hulk bites the warhead off a missile, Hulk growing his way out of a hardened foam shell7, and of course, the climax, where… well, we’ll get to that.

But even those beautiful, dramatic scenes I mentioned earlier aren’t completely safe from the film’s inappropriate attempts at bombast. Somewhere along the way to making this movie, Ang Lee decided that he wanted to visually emphasize the story’s roots as a comic book. How did he do that? By carving up the frame into panels, inserting multiple shots onto the screen to imitate the look of a comic page. This style choice is genuinely disappointing, as it suggests that Lee has conflated the substance of the story with its medium— assuming that audiences won’t accept the conceits of the narrative without directly associating them with fanciful drawings on a comic page. But more importantly, it’s f%$#ing annoying, because it breaks the flow of imagery and movement in unnatural ways and jars the audience right out of the viewing experience.

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EVIL GLENN   Nanomeds

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“Overkill” doesn’t seem adequate to describe it.

As I mentioned earlier, the central story is a strong one. Dr. Bruce Krenzler/Banner’s arc is all about coming to terms with and accepting the darkest parts of his own psyche. He spends much of the movie either in denial of- or attempting to suppress the trauma that he experienced, but when he’s confronted by his father for the first time in thirty years, he can’t hold back the torrent of anger any longer. The movie does phenomenal work of getting inside Banner’s head and the flood of returning memories by representing them in flashes of imagery: desert rocks and plants, stuffed toys fighting, his mother, a closed door, his father’s face, a knife. Unfortunately, the movie HAS to do this, because for most of the film, Bruce is a blank slate; a man repressed, so disconnected from his own emotions and humanity that he acts and sounds just this side of a robot. He HAS to be like that, by the very nature of the story Lee is telling. And making matters worse is the fact that our Bruce Banner in this film is Eric Bana, a veritable charisma vacuum who looks like a Ken doll with clinical depression.

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Look, everyone! It’s… SOME GUY! (Man, what was with early Marvel movies and their bland leading men?)

This Banner isn’t the hyper-nerdy brainiac of the comics, nor is he the friendly paternal figure of the TV show. He’s just… there, without any distinguishing or particularly likeable qualities (aside from that one time he leapt in front of a gamma ray blast to protect his lab assistant… I guess that was pretty cool of him). But what pushes us to root for him is the opposition he faces– because after all, a hero is only as good as his villain. And this film lines up a doozy for him.

David Banner– Bruce’s abusive, murderous father– is a mad scientist, a self-made monster, and a straight-up bastard. Played by Nick Nolte at his Nick Nolte-est, the elder Banner is a grizzled, ragged mountain man of science, seemingly possessed of no human empathy or remorse, but rather a driving desire to seek power through knowledge and the manipulation of nature. He’s an elemental force through most of the movie, with a voice like gravel and cold, unfeeling eyes.

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… Like a doll’s eyes…

Yet even he has moments of depth and humanity– such as when he first stumbles across the Hulk and recognizes the face of his boy Bruce inside, walking up close and caressing his cheek. By the halfway point of the film, however, Banner exposes himself to the same accident that turned Bruce into the Hulk… and rather than becoming, say, the Maestro (which I’d honestly though/hoped he would become when I first saw this), the process changes Banner into the Absorbing Man– a creature that draws on the essence of things, including people, to sustain himself and grow stronger. David becomes something of an emotional vampire to Bruce, making him angry so he can feed on his power (literally draining the life out of him by filling him with rage). And that leads us to the film’s climax, which…

… Alright, I’m gonna give it to you straight. In trying its best to be mythic and abstract in terms of what’s actually happening in the final battle between Hulk and the Absorbing Man, the climax becomes almost completely incomprehensible.

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Pictured: the grand finale of a $137 million tentpole summer blockbuster.

I don’t want to get into recapping the final battle– blow-by-blow, it’s definitely a strange one– but the general idea of it seems to be that David tries to drain Hulk’s life away by tricking him into fighting, and Bruce/Hulk finally lets go of ALL of his repressed rage, overloading David and freeing himself of his psychological burden. It’s good stuff, on a symbolic level. But on a LITERAL level, this is represented by Hulk screaming at the Absorbing Man as a tornado of green energy swirls out of him, and David first reveling in the power… and then calling out for mercy as the chain reaction of gamma energy transforms him into a gargantuan, glowing, floating jelly fish.

Really.

Yes, jelly fish are a recurring motif in the film, as the opening credits montage establishes that they were part of David Banner’s experiments to– no, no, you know what? I’m not going to try to justify the giant glowing jelly fish. Because while Hulk is a film that wants to be taken seriously, that tries to be seen as a more mature, grown-up take on the material (and it even SUCCEEDS on the level of pure character drama)… it’s also a film that can’t reconcile that maturity with its own core premise, instead opting to split the movie definitively between the dramatic and the absurd. It’s a “serious” comic book movie from a director who doesn’t actually take comics seriously.

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It’s a hell of a good-lookin’ movie, though.

IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: If you can get into the off-kilter psychological melodrama that Lee has shaped the narrative into—which IS solid on its own terms—and if you can get past the baffling style choices, then it’s definitely worth the watch. But don’t go into this expecting a “superhero movie”. Rather, think of the bright, colorful, often goofy action beats as… punctuation.

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“EXCLAMATION POINT!!!”

DISCOUNT PRICE: $1.00 (A Must-Buy!) (I swear, I didn’t make it green just because it’s the Hulk!)

FAVORITE BITS:

  1. I’m a child, I know: This might be the dumbest thing in the film to single out, but it gets me every time. Early in the film, David Banner sneaks into Bruce’s office to steal a sample of his hair. He brings it back to his home, where he uses a makeshift laboratory set-up to break down the hair and analyze its DNA. As his computer goes over the nucleobase pairs, Banner repeats the sequence off the screen, writing them down on a notepad: “C, T, G, A, G… (underlines notes) …BRUCE.” And EVERY SINGLE TIME, I think to myself, “Dammit, Banner– that’s NOT how you spell ‘Bruce’!
  2. The Final Confrontation: So before the completely insane climactic battle between Hulk and the Absorbing Dad, the movie gives us a meaty final scene between Bruce and David Banner. Bruce describes his mother, whom he can finally remember, and begins to cry; David initially feints compassion, but soon reveals just how completely sociopathic, abusive, and insane he truly is. It’s a stark scene– just the two of them in a massive warehouse, framed in spotlights– that grants us our deepest and truest insights into the two characters as they let everything go. (And then David turns into a giant lightning man, and it all goes to Hell.)
  3. Going to the Dogs: It’s the film’s biggest, dumbest, most fun action sequence as the Hulk goes toe-to-toe with three vicious Hulk Dogs! This sequence has it all: dubious physics (the dogs seem to FLOAT rather than leap), questionable animation (watch the poodle’s face droop like rubber when it gets smashed, or watch Hulk beat one dog by inflating his shoulder muscle like a balloon!), and the crowning moment when one of the dogs bites the Hulk in the dick. And just to keep this PG-13, the dogs don’t get CRUSHED so much as pop, in a vivid burst of green powder.
  4. This Movie In a Nutshell: David Banner confronts Betty Ross in her home, and the two go back and forth about what David has done to his son. Then the movie busts out this exchange, perfectly illustrating the film’s frantic shifts in tone:

    DAVID BANNER: “And what have I done to my son, Miss Ross? Nothing! I tried to improve on the limits in myself. MYSELF– not him! Can you understand? To improve on nature, MY nature, knowledge of oneself! It’s the ONLY path to the truth that gives men the power to go beyond God’s boundaries!”

    BETTY: “… You know what’s beyond your boundaries? Other people.”

    That sudden leap between snarling megalomania and flat, sincere melodrama… I love it! It gets a laugh out of me every time.

  5. That Teaser, Tho’: Okay, this one’s kind of a cheat, since it’s not actually a part of the movie itself… but the teaser trailer for Hulk is a WONDERFULLY creepy slice of atmosphere and dread. This sucker was attached to screenings of Spider-Man in the summer of 2002, and the first time I saw it, it blew my fifteen-year-old MIND:

NEXT TIME: Let’s turn back the clock and check out the VERY FIRST bad superhero movie ever made: Richard Lester’s 1983 snooze-fest Superman III, starring Richard Pryor and Robert Vaughn! (Oh, and, uh, Christopher Reeve, as well.)