Marvel Movie Madness! Part 2: Hulk

Underrated or appropriately maligned?

by | May 11, 2011 | Comments

Enter Marvel Movie Madness, wherein Rotten Tomatoes watches all of the significant Marvel movies ever made. Full Marvel Movie Madness list here. Tune in! We give you our thoughts, and you give us yours.

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Part 2: Hulk (2003, 62% @ 227 reviews)

Directed by Ang Lee, starring Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly,

Sam Elliot, Nick Nolte

Jeff: Marvel books have been the inspiration for plenty of disappointing movies, but I’m not sure any of them stung as badly as Hulk. Of all the characters who seemingly stood to benefit from modern special effects and a smart director, this guy had to top the list — but while we were watching a paint-covered Lou Ferrigno and thinking about how much cooler a comic-sized Hulk would be, we never stopped to consider how much harder it’d be to build a real human drama around him — or, just as importantly, meaningful fight scenes. Two words: gamma dogs.

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Luke: About half an hour into this movie, bored little kids started doing laps in the theater. I was hoping they’d keep running around and wreck the place — at least they were entertaining, which is more than could be said for this sorry pile up of faux heavy drama and cartoon CGI. Hey look, I’m Ang Lee and I’m making a comic book movie! You can tell because I keep sliding the panels across the screen! Just like, you know, in a comic book! Even when Yoda from Attack of the Clones showed up to trash some tanks, the kids still didn’t sit down. I should have joined them.

Jeff: What really bothered me about the sliding panels was that Lee was trying to create a real serious drama with Hulk, but he kept taking the audience out by cluttering it up with those “I’m making a comic book movie!” gimmicks. It puts a distance between the viewer and the characters, so by the time Nick Nolte is spraying through his climactic monologue, all we can do is laugh. Hulk still wouldn’t have been a good movie without the comic-style editing, but it would’ve have less schizophrenic.

Tim: I went to a matinee with my brother and his wife, and there was this family a few rows ahead of us with these two little kids running around the theater screaming. We left after a half hour in a lousy mood, but not because of the movie, which we agreed was intriguing. As I sat down to watch it in its entirety the other night, thought to myself, “When is this supposed to get bad?” I understand what you guys are saying about the self-conscious attempt to mimic the experience of a comic book, but I disagree: One of the most interesting aspects of Hulk is its bold stylistic palette. Lee is able to meld the kinetic energy of reading a comic with the airy, evocative mood of an art film — those early scenes of a young Bruce wandering around his boyhood home have a sense of patience and beauty that wouldn’t look out of place in your average Director’s Fortnight entry, while the split panels pack information onto the screen without distracting from the main points of interest. And as with Brokeback Mountain and The Ice Storm, Lee doesn’t bog the whole thing down with unnecessary exposition. A lot of superhero origin stories over-explain things, but the actors in Hulk do a good job of playing their roles with admirable restraint, creating three dimensional characters within the admittedly limited confines of the material.

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Jeff: Wait, wait, wait. Did you say restraint? I thought we were talking about the Hulk that stars Eric Bana and Spittlin’ Nick Nolte.

Tim: I’m just saying there’s a little more shading than your typical comic book movie. Actually, that’s the biggest problem with Hulk — it’s a superhero movie that’s not really a superhero movie. I hate to say this, but the inherent problem with Hulk is the Hulk himself. The appeal of the comic is obvious — Bruce Banner is cold and cerebral, while the Hulk is his raging id — but the movie does something altogether different. It promises Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but gives us King Kong instead. All the while, we’re stuck in a strange position. Do we root for the Hulk? Pity him? Marvel at the fact that he’s completely unstoppable? I think audiences were expecting “Hulk smash!” and were disappointed when they got “Hulk struggling to deal with traumatic, confusing nature of Hulk’s existence.” What can you do with the Hulk? He’s indestructible, has no control over his strange gifts, and for most of the movie he doesn’t have anyone to fight except the military — and they’re not inherently malevolent. So other than feeling protective of Jennifer Connelly, his actions aren’t really his own, and we don’t get the satisfaction of watching our hero battle the forces of evil. Ultimately, I like Hulk — heck, I like most of it quite a bit — but it’s not an unqualified success because its makers never really figured out how to make its central character sympathetic.

Jeff: I agree — that’s what I was getting at with my opening comment. A big ol’ Hulk seemed like it’d be the coolest thing ever…and then he showed up on the screen. In the comics, Hulk has meaningful enemies, but he’s also got decades of backstory; the problem with giving him an origin tale on the big screen is that the rules say you’ve gotta have action, and the screenwriter doesn’t have the luxury of spending two hours showing Banner on the run.

But that’s what I think it’d take to really build the kind of framework you need to invest an audience in a movie about a giant green monster who doesn’t really speak. And I know that’s what Lee was trying to compensate for by tilting his focus toward all that internal struggle, but I think he undercut his efforts with all those self-consciously “comics” gimmicks. They repeatedly took me out of the movie. Ultimately, I didn’t hate Hulk, but I never cared about what was happening, either.


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