Hulk: Comic Myths and the Monster in Us

When Bruce Banner and his father have a problem with each other, they hash it out under a spotlight, screaming at each other against a black background; their rage is funny and cruel. This scene is in the fourth act of the film, after the natural resolution of the problem of Hulk destroying the city, as if to say that the father issue was the real problem all along. Hulk (2003) is superhero Shakespeare.

Shakespeare knew that mothers produce heroes, by divine right or a dip in a mystic river or kind words in childhood. But to make mothers completely virtuous, he also knew they had to be missing. Their absence added melodrama to his characters’ lives (or maybe he worried real mothers wouldn't live up to the image and he didn’t want to break the illusion). Absence kept her pure in King Lear, The Tempest, Henry IV, and Hulk. She’s been left out of the conflict (in most stories, it could be called mercy). The problems all start with fathers.

While a Marvel film doesn’t have the refinement of Shakespeare, Hulk has the wild sexual energy of a populist play (remember who Shakespeare wrote for and why). Danny Elfman didn’t write the score of a self-exalting hero story – he accompanies the film on a journey through genealogical terror, awakenings, and self-loathing, a house of curtains and mirrors. Its psyches are torturous and exaggerated like sculptures. And the mothers are nowhere to be seen.

I’ve heard many reviews compile the flaws in Hulk, taking its most excessive, even unnecessary moments and exaggerating them even more. The film is flawed, but many of its flaws are in our mythology; many cause the humans in the story to seem flawed and archetypical. By embodying so much of life, they become larger than it. The film is grand, suggestive, and menacing. Above all – it is never safe.

The director Ang Lee, who is most famous for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but who has never settled on an aesthetic, read his first Hulk comic books to create this film. He tributes his research in two ways. The first is in his reduction of the character to his basic elements – he read the story and thought that Bruce must have repressed issues with his father; he looked at a superhero and saw Oedipus. The second is in the aesthetic, which he often translated literally. His first decision is his best and his second is what Hulk has never quite lived down, punished for its father's sin.

Both decisions can be viewed in the opening credits sequence. The film’s first montage is awkwardly speed-corrected to emulate comic book panels, showing a scientist experimenting on himself, and unexpectedly discovering that his wife has become pregnant with his altered DNA. That child of course is Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) whom the fates promise will meet a turning point with a gamma-ray overdose at the start of the second act.

Despite its inevitability, Lee’s addition of the father has huge implications for this character. Instead of the science accident creating Hulk, in Ang Lee’s universe the gamma simply enables the Hulk that was already there. The biggest change is that the character is no longer an "accident" but an inevitability. The Hulk is a fragment of Bruce’s subconscious, a Minotaur at the center of the maze of his mind. His anger permits him to do as he pleases, perhaps for the first time in his life. “You know what really scares me?” he tells Betty (Jennifer Connelly) after calming down and resuming melanin-neutral activity, “I like it.” This Hulk is a release of endorphins, a play on its origins as a take on the Jekyll and Hyde story. But Lee asks an all-important question: what if Mr. Hyde was as empowering as Dr. Jekyll believed him to be? What would that change? In this scenario, Hulk becomes an emergence of Bruce’s instinct and unfiltered ambition. He could be read as a better form of Bruce, or at least an uninhibited one, awakened by anger and empowered for destructive justice. He is human evolution and devolution at the same time.

Yet, like the most powerful monsters, Hulk really just wants to be left alone. The military, led by Betty’s bootstrapping father (Sam Elliot), whose wife is nowhere to be seen, looks at Bruce and sees dollar signs. His name is Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (I wonder with a name like Thaddeus if a nickname even more severely epic was really needed). He seals Bruce in a sarcophagus to haul him over the Nevada desert, as many of the great monsters have been. He becomes King Kong in chains, Nosferatu in a coffin of plague death. When he wakes from a nightmare as the Hulk, you believe Bruce’s earlier statement that the Hulk isn’t just rage, but freedom.

The film communicates his emergence in tribal drums, pounding; in quieter moments, Bruce's feelings are scored by Duduks, ancient Armenian oboes, pleading. Danny Elfman interprets Mychael Danna's Eastern-inspired score in post-production after Danna left the project. The result is a fusion of Elfman's driving Gothic choruses and Danna's meditative, ancient atmosphere. The result is a film with a feeling of powerful longing, more than any other superhero film ever made. This Hulk at times seems like an earth spirit in the wrong time. He was born a mourner.

Lee’s visual restraint allows Hulk's escape to be destructively cathartic, followed by calm. He portrays Hulk's journey across the desert as scenic and diminishing. Against the natural wonders, the Hulk looks small and far away. Pondering the lichen that reminds him of his own cells, or the house that he grew up in, he is a monster in the sense that he knows himself, and likes it. It’s no accident that Hulk’s transformation for the third act occurs in a sensory deprivation tank, as the memory of his mother causes him to burst from the chamber, sopping wet and furiously alive. Whereas the monster usually represents a broken person struggling to be rid of themselves, Lee unmistakably turns the beast into Bruce’s unification. It's not torture -- it's release.

Bana has never quite fit the mold of an action star or love interest. As Bruce, he seems unlikely to have such power within him, “to share with the world,” as his mom puts it in an ignorant but true mythic prophecy. Yet this makes him more appropriate for this particular role, as an outsider in himself; unlikeliness is his power. He’s like Bill Murray in Tom Cruise's body.

Hulk uses jumps in time and perspective to try and communicate the unification of this unlikely human with its monster, a change that Lee sees spread out over decades of comics and tries to condense. Through repeated flashbacks, he takes the film on its spiritual journey. A door hides a perilous secret. The child Bruce opens it and sees the outline of the Hulk, before he knew who that was. Then that climatic recollection of seeing his father’s murderous rage open the door makes Bruce’s dilemma coherent: the power that he loves in himself, is him becoming the father that he hates. Freud would probably call this a universal truth of boyhood. For all the film’s weirdness, there's ambition in turning Hulk into a symbol with so much angsty power. Can you honestly recall any truths of this character portrayed that strongly, in any of the last twenty-two Marvel films?

The Hulk of today has been reduced to an in-joke, relegated to pantomimes of Looney Tunes comedy; he dabs for selfies behind his blue light glasses in Los Angeles cafes. Disney has sanitized him; to do so, they’ve persecuted the psychology out of him while barely paying lip service to it in the first place. Even his half-hearted attempt at a standalone arc seemed like an afterthought in the MCU, or an obligation. When the new Hulk said, “Puny god" in The Avengers, he meant that he was more physically powerful than someone who claimed to be a god. There’s no revelation in that statement, which is a fact, that he’s literally bigger and stronger than Loki. When Hulk in the 2003 film says, “Puny human,” it’s in a sinking nightmare: Hulk says this from behind a foggy mirror, and he’s talking about Bruce.

Compare the fight against Abomination in The Incredible Hulk (2008) with that against the father in Hulk. Nolte is a campy, exasperating presence in the third act of Hulk. He's dad-rage, full of impudent snark. It comes out against Bruce as though he's finally old enough to see it, like he didn't feel right swearing in front of Bruce until now, even though he killed his mom. Abomination and Hulk are similar on paper, yet in practice, the scenes share almost nothing. The final fight in The Incredible Hulk is pure animated mayhem, a fight with no context, no shared goal, no history. But the battle against his father in the thunderstorm in Hulk is fake-painterly; it’s trash fresco art. It culminates so much of his journey into an extravagant, poignant series of singularly angry images. Nolte overworks the conversation, in which Lee puts father and son on an over-lit stage as prisoners of the same life choices, and lights their emotional fuse. The father’s placation, his rage, his regret, are all so funny, pathetic, and threatening that it could have come straight from Shakespeare on a sarcastic day. It’s a comic book soliloquy. As his father dies, he becomes an atmospheric bubble of primal energy, memories and neurons becoming physical images. The story, the film itself, is in the panel.

This poignant over-portrayal could only come from a director engrossed by this material. Yet the Hulk knocking himself in the limes with a tank turret is an example of how things also lost their way, for a director trying to take decades of comics and represent it all with one movie. His act of reduction is not always an act of refinement. Sometimes, it feels more like compression.

I have often asked myself what turns people off of Hulk. I believe the visuals are more responsible for its reputation than the story. The design of Hulk himself is strange: he is, of all things, kind of good-looking, like the handsome Shrek at the end of Shrek 2. Lee tries to emulate the frame of the panels with the lens and the work is effective only half the time. It works beautifully when the screen is split between perspectives or times, something Brian De Palma did well in Phantom of the Paradise. The diverse angles of visual attack in the scene where Bruce is transported in his vacuum-sealed coffin or when he destroys his office after transforming for the first time are visual wonders. Tension in the gamma accident scene is choreographed by separations between panels, much like a comic book (in a good way). But sometimes, Lee goes too far, switching too fast, or even displaying a character’s death as a silly combination of 2D cut-outs and CGI transitions, an example of taking a stylistic feeling and making it literal in a medium it was not made for.

The Josh Lucas character could be removed from the film, as could the impossible-not-to-mention scene where Hulk’s pants are ripped off in a moonlit fight against buff poodle mutants injected with the Hulk genome. If ever a scene was made to be cut out of a movie and added as a bonus bit on a DVD, that would be it.

People are right to nag these choices, but there’s emotional resonance at the core of Hulk that should have been a source code for the rest of superhero films to build on and improve. It’s so theatrical and perversely gratifying that its visual critiques are not on the same level as its victories. There is simply no room in the Disney machine for emotions on this psychological scale. Lee’s Hulk isn’t sterile and perfect; he’s not resolved with the human within him. He doesn’t dab or joke with Thor with his jolly green butt hanging out. Most importantly, he’s not a hero. The journey he takes is broader and more mythologized than any taken by the new Marvel characters, who are so concerned with remaining consistent to the broader franchise that their emotions go numb and fall off.

The new Marvel movies are not bad. In some quantitative ways, they are better made than Hulk, which often tears at its seams and causes collateral damage all around it with its weird choices and techniques. But in the case of the emotions in the new Marvel franchise, it’s always safety first. Hulk, by nature, is least able to survive that restriction.

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Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Universal Pictures

This article is a re-upload from FilmObjective, February 4, 2018

Cast & Crew

Ang Lee

James Schamus (screenplay and story)

Michael France and John Turman (screenplay)

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (based on)

Bruce Banner/HulkEric Bana
Betty RossJennifer Connelly
Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" RossSam Elliott
David BannerNick Nolte
Glenn TalbotJosh Lucas
Edith BannerCara Buono

138 minutes

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