In the dark times, before The Empire, comic book adaptations were a mixed bag of barely passable quality that the geek community just accepted as a reality. Sure, there exist some really great ones from that time period but, for the most part, they pale in comparison to what we are treated to currently.In 2003, one of those adaptations was going to see The Incredible Hulk unleash his rage across the silver screen. Until then, we only had a painted Lou Ferrigno taking on the role of the green beast but this movie promised something that could potential do the comic book justice. Sadly, it didn’t and the Ang Lee directed film was met with mixed reviews and a whole lot of angry comic book fans (I know, I was one of them. Hell, I nearly turned into the Hulk as I walked out of the theater and realized I paid to watch this piece of garbage). With 14 years acting as a buffer zone for the film, I revisit it with one question in mind: Was it THAT Bad?
You know about the Hulk, right? Well if you don’t, the film centers on the comic book character of Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) and it seems his daddy (Nick Nolte) had experimented on himself in an effort to create a super-soldier formula while working for the government. His experiments were a success as the formula passed on genetically to Bruce. Years later while experimenting with Gamma radiation, Bruce ends up in an accident that awakens something inside him—an ability to turn into a giant, green powder keg of strength and an inability to control emotions. Now Bruce’s dad is out to collect his research in the form of his son and the military aims to stop the Hulk because he’s a danger to himself and the world. Sounds like a whole lot of smashing is in order, eh? Too bad there wasn’t… and that’s a big part of the problem.
So, what it THAT bad?
Short Answer: Yes. Oh yes, it was.
Hulk has a lot of problems and they really all stem from the studio’s choice in director. Ang Lee was clearly the wrong person to lead this production as his lack of understanding in who the character was is very apparent. It’s been said over and over again that Lee had a specific vision for the film but watching it proves that it’s very difficult to understand what he was going for because visually and tonally the film is all over the place—even the music and score can’t keep a steady course (which, I guess is a way of expressing the dichotomy that is the Bruce Banner/Hulk but this aspect feels less like a subtle commentary and more like a tragic accident).
In the film, Lee attempted to recreate a comic book visage with the editing style he chose. Events unfold in a blocking pattern that is layered over one another in an attempt to be reminiscent of a layout that you’d see on a page in a Hulk book. While this is fine in theory, in practice it’s absolutely obnoxious as it gets overwhelmingly used in a short span of time only to be forgotten for a longer period of time—and then returns to once again being overused. It’s like this very editing style was contained in a hose that was pinched closed and then released so all the backflow of it all is released in one quick rush. This editing style also makes the film a bit comical at time—albeit, completely by accident.
For example, when Josh Lucas’s character dies while attempting to extract some DNA from the Hulk, he shoots a missile at him only to have it bounce off and explode off the wall behind him. Now, this could have just been a moment where a character is lost in a ball of fire and death is implied but Lee decided that the moment needed the character to freeze in mid-air while the fire continued to move around him and consume the still frame of the actor… and then the still proceeded to fade to white and disappear. It’s completely bonkers to witness and insanely hard to take seriously. Now, imagine the film is literally littered with moments like this every 20 minutes or so… and then imaging that this film is over two hours long and has the pacing of a snail that has been on an all-night bender of booze. If you got all that, you got Ang Lee’s Hulk.
The next big problem that highlights that Lee just didn’t understand the Hulk is the pacing of the film. It’s clear that Lee wants to make an introspective, artsy feature (well, kinda clear anyway) and the unfolding of the plot mirrors that by being slow and methodical (with very little action). The problem is that this doesn’t reflect the character at all. The Hulk is a visceral character who is more akin to a raw nerve than something more introspective. Sure, you can analyze the very nature of the beast but the fact remains that the Hulk is a monster that even the host body can’t control and falls victim to his unbridled emotions. When you try to force that character into a slow-moving art house piece with little to no action and enhance it with distracting editing, you have a recipe for failure.
Finally, the next big problem with Hulk is the special effects. While it’s amazing to hear the lengths that Industrial Light & Magic went to in order to digitally create the Hulk, there’s no point in attempting to ignore that he still looked bad. With odd body proportions and a color that looks more primed for an animated Hulk cartoon series than a live-action feature, you are left with a hero that stands out like a sore thumb and feels extremely fake when interacting with the real environments and actors.
There’s also some other issues with this film in the form of Josh Lucas doing his usual style of overacting, Jennifer Connelly looking bored in her performance, a final fight that is so poorly constructed that it’s impossible to tell what is happening, and the fact that Lee never, not even for a single goddamn second, wants you to forget that the primary colors of the Hulk are purple and green. Seriously, nearly every second of the film is saturated in tones of green and purple that it stops being thematic and starts to look lazy and almost like Lee thinks this is the defining trait of the character. Of course, he also thought a being that is built on destruction and unbridled angry was worthy of a slow-moving tale makes that argument seem almost 100 percent accurate.
While Hulk may have some redeeming qualities in the fact that Eric Bana is a decent Banner (although he has since gone on to be a bit of a whiner for any and all criticism the film has taken over the years), Nick Nolte channels his crazy well for his role, Sam Elliot was a great choice for General Ross and the battle between the Hulk and the military in the desert is actually fairly decent, the film ends up being an experiment in patience and pain. The whole feature gets bogged down and muddled with distracting editing choices, CG effects that just didn’t pan out, and a director who clearly had no understanding of the character. Oh yeah, and mutated, Gamma irradiated dogs. It’s actually amazing that the studio didn’t automatically shut production down with that one. So, to sum it up, Hulk really is THAT bad.