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Hulk (2003)

So, haven’t written about the MCU in a while! Been a….it’s been quite a few months, huh?

But wait, hark, you say-I’m assuming, I don’t know what you talk like. Do Marvel fans say hark?-how is this movie, of all movies, an MCU movie?! It came out 5 years before Marvel jump-started its film division! The events are never referenced, or even hinted at, in the subsequent films. Most people just ignore this, and rightfully so, because it’s a shitty movie, right?

I mean yes, sure, these are all valid, reasonable points to bring up, I’m not stopping you from thinking any of this. But let me argue this: The Incredible Hulk is an Evil Dead Sequel to Ang Lee’s Hulk.

What’s an Evil Dead Sequel?

You’ve all either seen, or heard, of the Evil Dead trilogy, Sam Raimi’s crowning achievement in video nastiness (and soon to be a quadrilogy, apparently). His debut film, and its sequels, have a huge cult following, and made an icon out of one Bruce Campbell. And Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness both open by essentially remaking  their prequels in rushed, truncated fashion. What’s funny is that this was done out of necessity, not by design. Raimi intended each film to have archived footage of their prequels to set up the next one, as the Evil Dead trilogy takes place over the course of a few days (give or take time travel). However, he kept losing the rights to the movies he made, so he just recreated the previous versions by recasting parts outside of Campbell and redesigning them so audiences get only the information they need for what’s coming up (for example, Ash’s girlfriend from the first film is the only character he travels to the cabin in Evil Dead 2 with instead of his two other friends from the first film because her corpse is reanimated in the sequel).

This creates this kind of Schrodinger’s Cat-kind of situation, where the movies are both standalone and follow ups of previous films at the same time. What you imagine they are is entirely up to you. And that’s an argument for Hulk-especially as, well, a truncated opening in The Incredible Hulk covers Bruce’s backstory and we push him into a new adventure. So you can pretend this film is the first one in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or, more likely, ignore it and just live with the fact that an opening credits sequence is Hulk’s origin in these movies.

Does that Hold Up to Scrutiny, Though?

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I mean, like, probably not? There are a lot of discrepancies here. For one, Hulk ’03 takes place mostly in California where Bruce’s work is. His lab in the ’08 film is firmly established in Virginia. It also needs to be situated near a desert, which suits the California setting a lot better. Also, well, Glenn Talbot makes an appearance in Agents of SHIELD, when (spoilers, btw) he dies in this film. Now, the canonicity with AoS in the MCU is debatable, but it’s got a stronger case than this film!

Finally, the origins of Bruce’s powers are a lot different. In the ’08 movie, Thunderbolt Ross recruits Bruce to recreate the Captain America supersoldier serum, and the meek scientist is exposed to gamma rays when it fails. In the Ang Lee movie, it’s due to a supersoldier experiment (unrelated) Bruce’s father tries on himself. He passes this genetic code onto his son, who is unaware of it until trying to discover a way to use nanomeds to create instantaneous cell repair in humans to cure diseases. An accident in their lab exposes Bruce to a massive amount of gamma radiation which they were using to test their experiments, where his body absorbs it and triggers his cellular growth, creating the Hulk. These things really cannot be reconciled the same way the Evil Dead movies can, but hey, it’s fun to pretend! Bruce never mentions his father in any of the MCU movies, after all…

So was this a long way to excuse why I’m even talking about this film? Well, partially, but pretending this is a proto-MCU movie is a fun one, because it reveals how unlike the popular universe-spanning franchise this movie is.

Hulk is Not a Superhero Film

I don’t think I’m rocking anybody’s universe by pointing out that superhero movies has a formula. Really, it’s just the formula of any popular blockbuster film with the words “spandex guy/crazy baddie” etched in there. Let’s take a look at Spider-Man 2, one of my favourite superhero movies and a great example of this very formula:

-Open with a thesis statement of sorts, sometimes with the villain hatching their schemes, sometimes establishing what our hero is gonna struggle with in a sort-of microcosm, sometimes both! In Spider-Man 2, we get a montage of Peter trying to balance his Spider-Man and Peter Parker life.

-Let’s introduce the cast! Main characters tend to get shepherd out by this point, including subplots, which are important because they help break up the monotony of a singular focus and allow comic book publishers to play with their stable. Nearly every single important player in this story is reintroduced in one party, including re-establishing Harry’s hatred of Spider-Man which plays throughout the film. We also hear about May’s eviction.

-Let’s get in that love interest tension! The main guy and gal (because it’s always a guy and gal, of course) cant just get together at the beginning, they have to play that tension out! We get a lot of moments of Peter and MJ being awkward, and eventually she reveals she has a new boyfriend

-We get a bit more asserting the main conflict for our hero, what drives the story. The scenes with Peter’s landlord tend to fill out this function, as well as others.

-Villain time! We get a soft intro, usually he’s an ally or not as big a threat just yet. For Doctor Octopus, he acts as a mentor figure to Peter, a picture of what he thinks he can have.

Until, well…

-Further complication to the main story! Usually with an action sequence to pad out the time, but Spider-Man 2 mostly does this with the swinging. Peter’s powers begin to wear out.

-Further development of the subplots! Harry funding Otto’s work and trying to fill his father’s shoes, and this leads to Otto’s accident, resulting in Doctor Octopus.

-The May subplots culminates in the bank fight, our first big action set piece. We tend to get one around this time to break monotony. Peter is soundly defeated though saves May. We also get the moment that MJ tells Peter she’s engaged, leading to:

-The midpoint. The emotional lynch-pin on the story. In this movie, we have Peter’s dream with Uncle Ben and him tossing the suit.

-Further displays of the consequences to that plan-for Peter they are immediately positive as he excels in his personal life.

-Subplot culminations can also lead to thesis statements about the main story, even if they don’t directly interweave. That happens with May’s subplot: she gives up her house and inspires Peter with a speech (I skipped over a LOT with May here, but like watch the movie)

-Usually this is around the point where the subplot interweaves with main plot in order to get a sense of threads lining up. Ock forces Harry to get him the phlebotinum, but Harry wants Spider-Man in exchange.

-The culmination of the consequences of the hero’s actions are seen out here, in this case Otto attacks MJ to try to get to Peter to get to Spider-Man. We then get the triumphant return of Spider-Man, leading to:

-The second act culmination fight. This is a small one to get us hyped for the climax. In this case it happens to be one of the most beloved fights in all of superhero movies, but oh well. The train fight.

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-As we go into the third act, we need to wrap up those subplots in order to funnel in on the final climax. So here we go-Harry finds out Peter is Spider-Man

-Rolling onto the climax, our love interest is involved here and it brings another subplot into the mix. Peter wins, Otto dies and MJ finds out who Spidey is

-Coda, we get a sense of closure and, because it’s superheroes, sequel bait. Harry wants to be all Goblin-y, MJ wants all Peter-y and Peter ends with a sense of accomplishment as Spidey

This isn’t a rigid formula that all of them stick to, more a general outline of how the plots flow. There’s nothing wrong with formula depending on what story you tell. But here’s the funny thing about Hulk, it doesn’t follow any of this, not really.

An Exploration of Very Few Characters

Stories tend to have characters (just-just ask me if I’m going too fast for you, here), and superhero movies have a huge advantage because the continuous narrative from the books means a sheer truckload of characters for any filmmakers to play with! So to go on Spider-Man 2 again for a bit, we have roughly 5 principle characters: Peter, Harry, Mary Jane, Aunt May and Doctor Octopus. But we also have a plethora of supporting characters, like the Daily Bugle staff, John Jameson, Peter’s landlord and his family, a cavalcade of “Oh, *they* were in this?!” walk-on roles, etc.

Hulk? Has five. Characters. And even then, Talbot wouldn’t even pass as a principle character-he provides a minor obstacle in the bridge from the second to third act and plays on some romantic tension with Betty that doesn’t go anywhere. And sure, there are other characters-Bruce’s adopted mom is her for one scene. There’s Bruce and Betty’s dopey lab partner who Bruce saves and gets hit by the gamma radiation, then he basically disappears from the movie. So we have essentially four characters: Bruce, David, Betty and Thunderbolt Ross.

And I really dig the parallels between Bruce and his father and Betty and hers. There’s actually an interesting cycle of control and how both lost their children in really different ways, and Betty and Ross’ relationship is probably the strongest aspect in the film. You really get a sense that there’s an unspoken tension, resentment and regret there, all conveyed by just how great the actors are. As contrived as Ross being the one who stops David’s experiments is, it is kind of nifty that this cast feels so insular and how involved everyone is in each other’s storyline. Not a lot of superhero films feel this intimate or have this zero-focused in of a cast.

What about origins? Let’s talk about them!

The Banners and Origin as Metaphor

So, like a lot of comic book movies, this has a prologue to give us a taste of our characters’ origins. But his origins are told through the villain. Usually, in superhero movies, the prologue gives us a taste of our hero (especially in an origin film) or the villain. This one shows how connected these two things are, and it really goes to show how important Bruce’s father is to the proceedings. He’s almost the protagonist in his own right.

David is a man who pushes the story along because he is highly motivated. He has an experiment and he’s willing to see it come to completion, even abandoning his son and manipulating his life in order to create the conditions necessary to bring out his genetic code. This plays into Bruce himself, who is being driven by his father and actually does something I complained about in The Incredible Hulk and stops Bruce from being too passive. He’s not just being told by people he can be cured and going along with it, he’s having the secrets of his life, stuff held over him since he was a child, right there in his grasp and he’s trying to access them, even with the military and even Betty for a while trying to get in the way of that. He’s still not the one truly driving the story, but it gives him a sense of purpose in his own movie.

What Hulk is a metaphor of is pretty obvious: it’s parental abuse. His father was a man who burnt every passion and fibre of his being into this superweapon experiment. His attempts to create monsters for the US government turned him into one; a twisted, paranoid man terrified and resentful of his son, but still obsessed with his research. Bruce’s mother died stopping his father from killing him, all because of the hatred and bile his father passed on, quite literally in his genetic make-up. Making him The Absorbing Man (even if it doesn’t quite line up on a metaphysical sense…) is a nice metaphor for David “absorbing” all that bile and hate the world threw at him and it making him a worse person.

This is a great contrast with Ross and Betty’s relationship. While it’s not as fleshed out, you get the sense that Betty resented her father’s fastidious and callous obligation to law and order, and the terrible things he has done to justify it in his head. David’s abuse was an tethered will to create, Ross’ was a dispassionate steadfastness to control, both screwed up their children and their relationships to them. Though, well, Bruce came out a lot worse for wear,.

This all left Bruce with traumatic scars and repressing all of it. I find it interesting that the gamma experiment he was working on was to replicate the genetic restoration of certain animals onto humans through nanobots. His father’s experiments were all about destruction, his are about healing. And The Hulk is a coping mechanism. It’s not a remotely healthy one, but it’s how Bruce’s body healed physically but also psychologically, unleashing his unbridled anger and hurt into this unstoppable rage monster. This is all good stuff and a clever use of the premise. Conceptually.

So what really doesn’t work in this famously bad film if I’m praising it so much? Time to segueway into production! Let’s talk about:

What the FUCK is With the Editing and Shot Composition in this Film?!

Superhero films just don’t feel cinematic-they’re *really* cinematic. They’re balls out high-octane “These are your favourite characters leaping from the page”-style productions and why they’re consistently blockbusters. They’re larger than life, and so are their movies. So it makes sense for our anti-superhero superhero film to do something a little different for its presentation-to make it look, move and feel very differently from, say, your Spider-Mans or your X-Mens. The direction they go in, however, leaves a lot to be desired.

With all that said, the hell is with the panel frames and swipe cuts? They happen a lot and are a huge motif in the cinematography, and they’re distracting and really, really poorly implemented. It’s one thing if this was more comedic, or leaned more heavily into that comic book whackiness, but it doesn’t. It’s a sombre, introspective family melodrama, with the heightened comic book-y stuff there to give if flavour and metaphorical confidence rather than tone and style. It’s a rather common complaint of this film, so I won’t dwell, but it severely impacts your ability to take any of this seriously and is generally ugly to look at. If this was an experiment, it failed.

Shout-out to the funniest goddamn thing in the film

There’s also a lot of weird filters and flashes of greens and purples to depict Bruce’s messed up broken mental state. They’re really silly and on-the-nose, and don’t really depict what he’s going through with any gravitas or intensity like they’re clearly trying to hit. I get that they’re trying to distill importance and reverence to Bruce’s psyche and his untapped anger issues, this is the main crux of the story after all. But these don’t need to be so silly and in-your-face to get that effect, and it feels like a goddamn film student showing off with stock footage and colour filters in his editing programme.

It’s not just the weird frames, though. This has possible some of the worst moment-to-moment editing I’ve seen in quite a while. This movie is over 2 hours long, and you could easily chop about 15-20 minutes off it if the conversational scenes flowed a little faster. I’m not expecting fast-talking, action-focused dialogue in my contemplative Ang Lee art piece about a rampaging green monster or anything, but fucking hell, these scenes just drag on and on and on. They sap all the tension and emotional weight out of the film, and it absolutely destroys the pacing. None, more so, than the worst sequence.

The Worst Sequence in the Film, and Other Messy Things

I guess I’ll talk about the action, because there tends to be a structure to those too in superhero films (big one at the start to set the conflict, another one to stop tedium from kicking in, a midpoint battle, one last action set piece  leading us into the climax, and the climax itself). Hulk, surprisingly, follows this pattern, but it’s saved from having to follow it too closely as the premise itself lends to them being a little unconventional. Our protagonist is the monster causing the damage, after all.  These are all framed around Bruce’s transformations, so let’s look into them!

The first one is in his lab, and it’s pretty quick and mostly just wanton destruction. The part where he throws the dome onto the police car was a bit much-guess they realised he wasn’t really being all that destructive-but I do like the beat where he sees his father, him calming down  before he crashes through the roof. It’s also mostly in shadows (similar to his first appearance in the ’08 movie), which is some nice build-up and hides the limitations of the CG. Overall it hits the beats needed, though it kind of just peters out and it feels like the plot goes on as normal.

The next transformation is a lot more plot relevant, and it has another really infamous element: the Hulk Dogs. David has a trio of dogs he experiments on to recreate the genetic absorption technique. They turn into monsters-one of them is a poodle. I honestly do not mind them-in terms of the narrative, they do serve as a nice outlier that, despite David’s passionate demeanour, deep down he only sees his son as a lab rat (or dog, I guess). But they really do not serve a huge purpose here, and really feel like they were tacked on from an earlier draft of the script to give us another action scene and break up the monotony (too late). But yeah, the fight is effective, brief, punchy and takes advantage of the dark. Though the CG on the dogs is worse than the Hulk.

Pardon the pun here, but woof…

Then, finally, we get to the plot cul-de-sac that is the fucking army base. First of all, the way they show the conveyor platform is so, so dumb. Also this is an entirely meaningless sequence as you could have had Bruce get arrested without the stupid shit of the military trying to use the Hulk. What does this add to everything going on with David Banner or even Ross? This movie does not need to be this long, and shit like this is why the entire pace is so unbearable. And, like, it probably would have been salvageable if we just had Banner attack the base and cut to him being back in San Francisco after he breaks out of the base. There is some entertaining destruction and it’s not entirely awful.

But oh, oh man, once we get to the desert chase, the plot just stops. First of all, as I’m defending the CG for its time, it does not work in the very, very sunny sequence involving him jumping around a lot in landscape shots of nothing else but desert. He looks like a goddamn balloon! Second of all, he’s way too powerful and you never, ever buy that the army are a remote threat to him. Where’s the tension here? I don’t give a shit about these nobody pilots and The Hulk will be fine until we get to the climax. And it goes on and on and on and there’s so little actually happening outside of the choppers trying in vain to stop him or slow him down. We do not need to see Ross give up on detaining him by force, he’d probably already know that after he escaped the base and got Talbot and the other men killed! There’s not a lot that sticks to you in this film, but the arduous time spent watching this moment really does, and it reflects so badly on the rest of the proceedings, which aren’t exactly something to write home about either.

There’s one more….action, I guess?…scene, but I want to save that for talking about the script, so:

A Hodgepodge of Ideas Not Well Executed

If the 2003 Hulk film is a departure from the standard superhero norm, at least in terms of how it was understood in 2003 at least, its biggest is in its script. It’s not a high octane, carefully thought of action adventure. It’s a slow, contemplative and interpersonal film with way smaller scope and stakes, even bringing the giant rampaging green rage monster the military want to weaponise. Doing something against the norm in mainstream blockbuster cinema is rewarding, and daring, but if you don’t stick that landing it will look doubly embarrassing. Hulk, for all the good graces I give it, does not stick that landing.

I think this is best exemplified in its score. Now, you can criticise Danny Elfman for many a thing, but the man knows how to create an effective atmosphere. The score has a lot of superhero whimsy, but then it randomly goes to some Western-y feel or even more tribal affects, it’s hard to tell what he’s trying to hit at here and doesn’t go with the general tone here. While the movie is kind of over the top in a Cold War nuclear paranoia sense, it’s also more demure than Elfman’s usual bombast really hits, and it just doesn’t work here.

On top of all this, the script is kind of a fucking mess of ideas and directions and story beats it tries to hit. I’ve already gone through….lots of these, but let me just make a kind of go through them in bullet points, kind of:

-Bruce being an adoptee with amnesia is really poorly communicated, and how this affects his mental state is not entirely spelled out. I completely forgot about this plot point until Ross refers to him as “Krenzier”. The scene with his adopted mother is also extremely awkward and doesn’t punctuate any of this well at all.

-As previously mentioned, Ross’ connection to Bruce and David’s past is so, so contrived, and it makes his relationship with Betty a little sketchier and unclear. Did Thunderbolt just…follow Banner around and somehow rope his daughter into his life? This is one element that should have been removed in development stages, as the cast are insular enough as is and connecting Ross directly to Bruce adds nothing.

They DO have better chemistry than Norton/Tyler’s versions, admittedly

-David goes from somebody who was examining his son and seeing how his genes were being affected by the gamma radiation to…randomly decided to test it on himself. At least they rationalised why he did this the first time-his experiments were being discontinued and he was pushed to the point of desperation. Here he just does something incredibly stupid because he’s bored of examining his son I guess? This just seems like a lame reason to not make the final fight more boring by having him be The Absorbing Man, and suddenly make his motivation needing Banner’s DNA to stabilise him.

-While I’m here, the climax is also kind of all over the place as it’s hard to get a really good beat at where these characters are supposed to be. David changes at the drop of a hat because he’s just crazy now with no other motivating factors, and Bruce just seems mildly annoyed at his father, and that leads to the point where he tries to force David to absorb his radiation. Like, what would have happened if that bomb didn’t annihilate him? Whatever happened here is extremely unclear, not helped by the dodgy CG and murky colour scheme.

-I complained about Talbot a lot, I know, but literally his role here seems to be to drag the plot out. He’s the reason Bruce ends up in the underground base out in the desert, and why he’s forced into Hulk and escapes. He’s literally at the centre of a lot of elements I hate about this movie, and on top of that his death is really arbitrary and stupid.

(I will never not share this shot)

Really I’m at the risk of repeating myself, so let me just sum this up by saying the biggest problem with Hulk is Hulk himself. While Bruce Banner is a little more motivated here than in the ‘08 film, this one just fails to make him all that compelling. I can’t tell if this is down to Bana’s performance or the script, but he doesn’t come across as that damaged as the film kind of needs him to be to make any of the stuff with his dad work. He’s just kind of a dull dude, and with the characterisation working pretty well for everybody else, not getting that sense of cohesion and motivation for our lead just leaves the film being empty. I don’t know Bruce’s damage, or really his desires with understanding his tragic past, and it makes me wonder why I should care at all about anything going on.

But hey. At least he enjoys a good shave

Conclusion

You can be charitable and say the Ang Lee Hulk film is an honourable failure, but a failure nonetheless. While it distinguishes itself from the plethora of comic book movies that came both before and after it by being more singularly focused and examining internal dramas, breaking the rigid superhero formula. Unfortunately, it does this with some truly awful pacing and shot composition, an incredibly all over the place script without a sense of focus, and a dull, charmless lead that doesn’t convey any of the emotional baggage really needed to sell this more psychologically driven story.

And I mean, I don’t want to shit on this entirely like so many others have. It’s got some actually really interesting scenes and moments-I really love a more emotionally complex direction to tell this story, and the Rosses are a hell of a lot more interesting and dynamic here than they are in the future outing. The cinematography is crisp and clear, giving the film this very bouncy yet muted look which fits it perfectly. It’s got a great tone and style from the way it’s shot-like a more sombre version of the Cold War paranoia-soaked 60s comics I truly love the tone and drive they were trying to go for-some Cold War paranoia sci-fi but told through a more personal story. David is a compelling antagonist (until he isn’t), and the metaphor for Bruce’s transformations being rooted in parental abuse is inspired. It just doesn’t quite gel together, and I can’t pretend that it’s good just because it’s different.

And I wish so badly more comic book films were this different! I do not think superhero movies need to go without this kind of nuance or against the grain filmmaking. Hell, Logan is a lot more insular and emotionally driven, and while that may have a more conventional plot, it succeeds on being tonally and thematically very distinct from usual superhero fare. It’s one of the best comic book movies made in over a decade. But I feel studios are gun shy to make such a drastic risk in terms of structure or mood, though they are at least opening up to taking some risks. A lot of the reasons are due to 2003’s Hulk. It failed to smash.

But yeah. Interesting, if fatally flawed, first outing for the MCU. Let’s all go watch some Evil Dead.

Final Rating: 4/10

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