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Ain’t He Unglamorous?
by Lucius Shepard
July 8, 2003

Back in the day when movies were movies and Humphrey Bogart loved Lauren Bacall and cartoons were less than ten minutes long and ran before the feature, the appearance of comic-book/strip characters on film was generally limited to Saturday-morning serials that played to audiences of children. Now that a large majority of the American audience have, for all intents and purposes, been reduced to children, their critical faculties nearly obliterated by decades of real good blow-up and cartoonish scenarios, comic-book heroes and villains zoom across the screens of the nation’s theaters a half-dozen times a year in films with nine-figure budgets and scripts churned out by an assembly-line process that might be as well served by the employment of chimpanzees as the doubtless far more impeccably tailored—yet no more gifted—writing “talent” that in fact does the actual typing. If there exists a comic book not currently in development, then surely it must be under option. We are already beginning to see remakes of comic-book movies, the next in line being next year’s The Punisher, which will likely be a better film than the 1989 version starring Dolph Lundgren . . . but probably only marginally better and ten times more expensive to make. This year’s comic feast has thus far included such ghastly menu items as Daredevil and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a relatively palatable X-Men sequel, and several overdone slabs of deafening Dolby-ized gunge (T3, The Matrix: Reloaded, et al) that, while not directly derived from comics, reference the comic-book tradition. The difficulty with most such films, at least to my mind, has been that those charged with adapting these simplistic, violent stories have not taken into account the dynamics and demands of the medium to which they are being adapted. Instead of seeking to translate the stories, to imbue them with the heightened complexity and depth that would allow them to be cinematically compelling (as, most notably, Tim Burton did with Batman), their main goal has been to transfer them to film and thus preserve the materials as inked upon the page so as not to annoy the title character’s fan base. This may or may not be a wise marketing decision, but it has certainly proved to be, generally speaking, a horrid artistic choice. So it was that when I learned Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) had signed on to direct Hulk, and that the part of Bruce Banner would be played by Eric Bana, whose striking debut in the Australian film Chopper marked him as an actor to watch, I thought this combination of directorial and acting talent might be capable of creating a comic-book film that would satisfy on every level.

I find it amusing that one of the more frequently voiced complaints about Hulk is that the Hulk himself does not look real. The celluloid version of Doc Bruce Banner’s inner child seems considerably more real to me than does the print version, and I can’t help but think that were a fifteen-foot-tall, green-skinned humanoid figure with limbs like oak trunks to materialize in the parking lot adjacent to my building and begin tossing cars about, or whatever suited his pleasure, he would look distinctly unreal by any standard. If truth be told, the Hulk is the most realistic element of Ang Lee’s movie. Though the effects do not achieve the uniform brilliance of those in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, several sequences capture an equivalent magic—in particular, a long chase scene during which the Hulk, having escaped from captivity on a secret army base, is hunted through the desert by fighter jets and choppers, and, while running, discovers that he has a prodigious ability to leap. This scene and others are enhanced by split-screen effects designed to give the frames the look of comic-book pages and are themselves enhanced by a variety of digital zooms, wipes, and dissolves. Images are spun, split, letter-boxed, shunted to one side, etc.—this is one busy, busy motion picture. The overall effect is like having opened a comic book whose pages then come to life—though sometimes confusing, on the whole it’s a stimulating and beautifully managed device. If they had used these techniques in Operation Iraqi Freedom, it would have been even more popular a mini-series.

The origin story of the Hulk has been scientifically upgraded, lent a smidgen more plausibility, by attributing Doc Bruce Banner’s Hulking-out not merely to being belted by gamma rays, but mainly to self-experimentation done by his father, David Banner, while working on a military project dealing with regeneration. When the gamma rays finally strike Banner the Younger, they activate mutated genetic material that has been passed down to him from his father, and they further serve to amplify a rage born of childhood trauma, this stemming from a terrible domestic event involving his mother that Bruce has blacked out and that is fragmentarily revealed during the course of the film. Said trauma has made Bruce, according to his ex-girlfriend Betty Ross, “emotionally distant,” a charge that strikes an odd note given the emotionally distant fashion in which Jennifer Connelly establishes the role—she displays throughout a gloomy stupefaction overlaid by what seems a Valium-induced calm. For the most part, Bana offers little contrast; only when he’s beginning to change into the Hulk does he exhibit strong emotion. Sam Eliot, as Betty’s father, General “Thunderbolt” Ross, is appropriately, gruffly martial. He was the head of the project on which David Banner worked and knows something of Bruce’s secret. Nick Nolte, as the elder incarnation of David Banner, who returns into his son’s life after more than twenty years’ incarceration, is not to blame for the unevenness of his performance—that blame and, indeed, blame for the majority of the movie’s significant problems, must be attributed to the script, to writers of record John Turman, Michael France, and James Schamus, and to the god-knows-how-many-other trade rats who took their turn gnawing at its edges. As it’s written, Nolte’s character alternates between that of a deeply troubled obsessive and that of a ham-fisted evil guy, and no substantial logical support is given for either condition. As a result, it’s tough to discern the path that led David Banner from his misguided scientist phase to the cosmically demented supervillain—the Absorbing Man—whom he ultimately becomes. Not that such a road is required by the dictates of the basic story, but Ang Lee, by virtue of both his reputation and his leisurely approach, seems to promise us one, and thus its absence comes as something of a letdown.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong in beginning what is essentially an action picture with forty minutes of character development; but if you’re hoping to please an action audience—any audience, for that matter—you’d best make said development good and dramatic. The lugubrious exchanges of dialogue between Bana and Connelly that dominate the first third of the film are marked by a flatness that makes the Mojave look like a mountain range. For the life of me, I can’t remember a thing they talked about; not a single line had sufficient pungency to linger in my memory. The interjection of a minor-league villain/potential romantic rival, a smarmy corporate pirate played with an Oil Can Harry-ish lack of shading by Josh Lucas (last seen smirking at Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama), does absolutely nothing in the way of striking a spark, even though it’s his unrelenting no-goodness that eventually pushes Bruce’s badass button. By the time Bana morphed into the Grumpy Green Giant, I was reduced to wondering whether Jennifer Connelly’s moist-eyed somnolence was a directorial choice or the result of mild flu; to hope that the mountain-bike-riding Bruce would hit the mother of all gopher holes, take a terrible spill, and subsequently lay green-fisted waste to all the little forest creatures; and to speculate that Ang Lee might have decided to do a Zen thing and film the first superhero movie in which the central figure was merely thought about and never seen.

Once the Hulk puts in an appearance, the pace of the movie switches gears with alarming suddenness. It’s rather like watching a car that’s been idling at a stoplight for the better part of an hour, while its occupants chat about interesting topics like their favorite brand of paint thinner, abruptly peel away from the intersection, downshifting, swerving, ramming into garbage cans, roaring past plot points, whoosh, with only Jennifer Connelly gazing out the passenger side window with her lovely gray eyes and dovelike gray composure to remind us, I suppose, that it’s all so very sad and slow and we’re really going nowhere, don’t you know . . . A gradual build would have been preferable, but once the film gets up to speed, there are plenty of good moments as the Hulk is captured, escapes, smashes stuff, gets recaptured, all leading to his final battle with the Absorbing Nick Nolte, looking here as ratty and forlorn as he did in his famous mug shot. Special mention should be made of the scene in which the Hulk hitches a ride on the rear of a fighter jet, whose pilot flies up into the troposphere in hopes of rendering the Big Green Guy unconscious. As they fly higher and higher, the Hulk’s monstrous visage grows to fill the canopy above the pilot’s head and that face, barely conscious, eyebrows frosted, registers with us in the cool and poignant way that only great comic-book imagery can, here lent the added potency of motion and the semblance, however unreal it may be judged, of life. I won’t go so far as to say that moment alone is worth the price of admission—ten bucks should still buy more value than that—but it does go to show what might have been done with this property had someone other than Messrs. Schamus, France, and Turman been handed control over it.

And, of course, someone other than Mr. Lee.

I’ve been told that when Ang Lee was approached by studio people to direct Hulk, he responded that he didn’t know if he could make a good comic-book movie, but he did know how to make a good Greek tragedy. Unfortunately, he made neither one and perhaps the fact that he thought he knew how to make a Greek tragedy should have disqualified him for the job. Even the Hulk, among the darkest of the Marvel heroes, has about him an innate silliness, a humorous aspect (he’s a green muscle freak who’s capable of bouncing like Super-Super Mario from the bottom of a well to the top of Mt. Everest, for God’s sakes!) that Lee apparently failed to notice, a quality that demands something less declamatory than the Classical treatment. There is about Lee’s movie an unmistakable whiff of pomposity, and that attitude, along with the characterlessness of the dialogue, doomed Hulk to be not so much a smash as a dull, disjointed thump. It turns out that what was needed to transform Bruce Banner into a monstrous green symbol of the beast within was not a tragedian, but someone who—though they might be conversant with the mechanisms of Greek tragedy—knew a little more than did Lee about Saturday-morning serials.