Not to be corny, but today marks the 15th anniversary of the not-so-jolly green giant’s big screen debut, Ang Lee’s underappreciated “Hulk”. It also probably marks at least ten years since I last watched it and I’d always considered it the lesser of the two Hulk movies but it really isn’t. Revisiting it now, at the height of the current superhero boom, it’s a dazzlingly visual take on Dr Banner and his emerald alter ego.
Bruce Banner (Eric Bana), a gifted geneticist is working with his ex-girlfriend, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connolly), on experimental medical nanotechnology. When the experiment’s program sequence is triggered by a fault, Bruce throws himself in front of a colleague to shield him, absorbing a lethal dose of gamma radiation. But unknown to Bruce, his father was also a scientist, who experimented with genetic modification and may have passed some of his mutations on to his son.
Rewatching it now, I was surprised to find I vastly prefer it to the play-it-safe approach of “The Incredible Hulk” and kind of wish they’d found a way to incorporate this Hulk into the MCU (and I say that as someone who loved what Mark Ruffalo and the MCU proper have done with the character).
Ang Lee’s sublime, ambitious direction captures a comic book cinematically in a way not even Zack Snyder, comic panel recreationist extraordinaire has managed since. Not content with making the panels themselves come to life, he breathes dynamic, kinetic life into the frames themselves. Even the opening credits are suitably comic-book like, buoyed by the use of marvel lettering fonts and an impressive score from Danny Elfman. Although it starts slowly and somewhat enigmatically and then continues in that meandering vein for a considerable time, it’s a rewarding exploration of the emotional themes and issues which underpin the Hulk’s appeal rather than just jumping straight to the SFX smash-‘em-up.
Offering us two alternative takes on the sins of the father, both Bruce and Betty must confront the legacy of their parent and, in some way, find atonement. It may stray too often into the metaphysical when you’re craving the uber-physical but it all adds up to an impressively emotion-packed if somewhat abstract finale. There’s a sly, slow reveal approach to letting us see the Hulk and it’s quite some time before we get to see him in full daylight. But when we do, it’s fantastic. The whole sequence of Hulk busting out of Ross’ subterranean lab and fighting his way across the desert to San Francisco is one of my all-time favourite sequences in any superhero movie, even if it does culminate in our hero emerging into the streets of San Francisco literally covered in shit. The retconning of Bruce’s origin to include his father David Banner (Nick Nolte) – named as a nod to the TV series – might get a little bit convoluted but it helps give the final confrontation an emotional heft sorely lacking from the battle with The Abomination. The action sequences are helped by the sure hand of producer Gale Anne Hurd who in turn was supported by a young up and coming Executive Producer called Kevin Feige. I wonder what ever became of him?
Eric Bana is great as the troubled Bruce Banner, Jennifer Conolly is great as Betty Ross and Sam Elloitt is outrageously good as General Ross. In every single main role, “Hulk” is a step above their “Incredible” counterparts. Yes, some of the then cutting-edge CGI looks a little bit ropey but overall its aged pretty well and the stuff with Absorbing Man is sensational.
Yes, the pacing is a little bit wonky and it occasionally shows the bumps and bruises of its long and troubled development and at the time it seemed to be a bit of a mess. But, fifteen years later, looking back from a distance, it’s a cinematic impressionist masterpiece, a rhapsody in green that dared to give us a serious, thoughtful explanation of a cartoon character.