Hulk (2003) (part 1 of 13)
I’m going to begin this with an admission. I do not hate this film, and neither do a lot of people. Have we gasped yet? Is the gasping done? Alrighty, then. Let’s move on.
I knew from the outset that recapping 2003’s Hulk would be a difficult task, because unlike most of the movies featured on this site, it had an Oscar-nominated (and now Oscar-winning) director, special effects that took 12 years to develop, and a cast with good solid work behind them. This movie features Eric Bana (Black Hawk Down, Munich, refused to be in xXx), Nick Nolte (48 Hours, The Thin Red Line, Hotel Rwanda), Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind, Requiem for a Dream) and Sam Elliott (Tombstone, The Big Lebowski, and… well, Road House, making him an Agony Booth Repeat Offender). The movie is well-shot, well-directed, takes a lot of daring risks, and draws thematically from a wide range of sources, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, King Kong, and Greek tragedy.
It’s also profoundly stupid.
It’s an overblown, self-important film that spends so much time using flashy gimmicks to emulate another medium that it forgets to actually settle down and be a half-decent film on its own. And director Ang Lee—still riding that post-Oscar high like an unrepentant Lindsay Lohan coming back from Robert Downey Jr.’s garage sale—decided somewhere along the line that rampant psychobabble was a better fit for a Hulk movie than giant green monsters fighting other giant green monsters. This movie is shoved so far up its own ass that it becomes a Klein bottle.
Every single member of the cast spoons great heaping lumps of scenery into their mouths like they’re in an eating competition with Cesar Romero. The effects are competent, but they look like they belong in an animated feature, rather than anything approaching reality. This was only two years after Shrek, and I half-expected the Hulk to fart and sing “Dance to the Music”.
I suppose we should start with the film’s origins, which are pretty much the same as the comic book’s origins, as well as several other attempts at adapting it. The Incredible Hulk #1 rolled off the Marvel Comics creative assembly line in 1962, drawn by Jack Kirby with letters fitted in the speech bubbles by Stan Lee. Just as other Marvel comics of the time were seen as metaphors for social issues (Spider-Man was about teen disillusionment, the X-Men were about the civil rights conflict, the Fantastic Four was a super-powered space race, and Daredevil was about the eternal plight of blind people to try and hit men wearing giant targets on their faces), the Hulk began life as a metaphor for the cold war, and the threat of nuclear warfare.
The character was meant to depict the devastating effects of nuclear radiation, in mostly-human form, as written by people with less knowledge of how radiation works than a caveman. Which, thankfully, was about how much the average comic reader knew back then. The Hulk was a brutal, uncaring force of pure destruction that turned into a weedy, emotionally-stunted nerd. And wore purple pants. Exactly like a nuclear bomb.
Everyone knows the Hulk’s origins. Everyone knows how nuclear scientist Bruce Banner saved the life of teenager Rick Jones, who for some reason was just wandering around ground zero of a neutron bomb test, playing Buddy Holly songs on a harmonica. (Believe me, I could probably write a lengthy recap of just that one issue.)
Bruce Banner pushed Rick down into a ditch, which somehow acted as a perfect shield for a point-blank dose of over 13 times the lethal level of radiation, despite not even having a tarp over it. Bruce also became sort of a shield, because as we all know, deadly gamma radiation can’t pass through flesh. As a result, Bruce was somehow mutated, and whenever he got angry, he turned into a hulking green brick shithouse. The military, led by General Thaddeus E. “Thunderbolt” Ross, constantly tried to destroy Banner, even though Bruce’s primary goal in life became curing himself of ever becoming the Hulk again.
“Thunderbolt”, as he called himself with a totally straight face, also happened to be the father of Betty Ross, Banner’s because-the-story-says-so-zero-characterization love interest. But gasp and shocked noises! She doesn’t know that he’s hiding a terrible secret!
The early comics also featured Glenn Talbot, the traditional jerk sidekick there to make the main bad guy look slightly less evil by comparison. Talbot is in love with Betty Ross too, of course, because the giant rampaging monster wasn’t enough drama, and the whole scenario is just screaming out for a love triangle.
Rick Jones decided to hang around with Banner as well, because I know that if I happened to be a do-nothing, freeloading teenager who said things like, “What’s the haps, daddy-o?” and “This shin-dig’s bonkers! It’s totally nuts-o-riffic!” I would team up with a man that can smash buildings whenever he gets annoyed. It’d be just like the Odd Couple, only with more brutal murder.
The Hulk acquired a few other hangers-on in later years, most notably Doc Samson, a gamma-irradiated superhero psychologist who gets his strength from the length of his hair (seriously), and She-Hulk, Banner’s 7-foot, green, voluptuous, vivacious cousin, who is the single hottest thing on the planet. She’s like putting Wonder Woman, an Orion Slave Girl and Joan Jett in a blender and setting it on damn. It’s a real shame that she buys all her tops at the same place her cousin buys his pants, but I guess that’s life.
The Hulk’s rogues gallery was far less compelling. The Hulk really only had three adversaries that bear mentioning.
The Abomination is basically a bigger, greener, uglier, communistier version of the Hulk, with exactly the same superpowers. Only, he’s not quite as strong as the Hulk, so he’s never really a threat, just kind of a recurring annoyance.
The Leader is the opposite of the Hulk, in that he’s a short, skinny, green man with an enormous brain. He has some kind of brain-based powers, but he’s basically a 98-pound man balancing a watermelon-sized head on a skinny pencil neck going up against a 15-foot gamma-roid-fueled ragemonster. So, he doesn’t have a whole lot going on in the “posing a threat” department, either.
Finally, there’s the Maestro, who’s the Hulk from one of Marvel’s fifteen alternate post-apocalyptic futures. He’s the Hulk, only older, balder, beardier and arthritisier, so he’s exactly the same as the Hulk’s Grandpa. Only evil.
The rest of his enemies are the B-List of B-Listers, so I won’t even bother to mention them. But here’s the thing: not a single one of these villains is in this movie. Really, none. Not even the mostly-crappy ones.
The Hulk starred in four TV shows before this movie. The first was part of the 1960s “Marvel Superheroes” Saturday morning anthology series. The show was extremely accurate to the comics, because in lieu of actual animation, they just Terry Gilliamated shots of the comic book panels. We’re talking animation that was significantly cheaper than the animated Star Trek series. The most memorable thing about the show was its unbelievably goofy theme song, which somehow rhymed “gamma rays” with “unglamorous”.
The next and most famous adaptation was the 1977 Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno TV series. This show became one of the best-loved action shows ever, despite (or possibly because) they stripped out all of the secondary characters, the entire Marvel universe, and the main character’s first name. This arguably worked greatly in the show’s favor, because being stripped down to his essence is what made the Hulk a whole lot easier to identify with.
The show had a simple formula of Banner Comes to Town, Trouble Afoot, Don’t Make Me Angry, Hulk Smash, Sad Walking Away Music that people just loved. Bixby’s hapless David Banner, combined with Ferrigno’s gentle giant Hulk, made the character instantly relatable. It worked by simplifying the character and making him easier to understand; essentially, the exact opposite of what this film does.
After that, there were two animated shows. The first was in 1982 and I had honestly never heard of it, because it was overshadowed by Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. And when a show is overshadowed by Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, that just about says it all.
The second Hulk cartoon suffered a similar fate, showing up in the waning years of the loosely connected Marvel Animated Universe. It came out in 1996 after Fantastic Four and Iron Man had bit the dust, but before the X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons had ended. And like Fantastic Four and Iron Man, this Hulk cartoon had the misfortune of co-existing with those two juggernauts. In addition, it ran on UPN, a network that at the time reached an audience of about five people.
But all of these previous adaptations had one thing in common: They are all far superior to this movie. If not in accuracy to the source material, then certainly in just generally not-being-ass.