The 2003 Hulk movie is a film that is often maligned by fandom. Its ratings on the internet are mediocre with most sources such as IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes giving it a score of 5 or 6 out of 10. Yet, with the Avengers series of films and the reboot of the Hulk within that franchise it seemed like a good time to take another look at this movie and compare how well it did at depicting the character onscreen.
The late 80’s and 90’s Hulk comics written by Peter David were focused on the psychological aspects of the Hulk. David was interested in what made the Hulk tick. Why did exposure to radiation change Banner not only physiologically but also mentally? It was explained with trauma. Banner had a split personality and when the Hulk came out it gave that personality that had seen his mother murdered a physical form and expression for its rage. The Hulk is an angry child because the event that birthed it was that of a child feeling angry and helpless.
With that in mind the 2003 series does a fantastic job of embracing its comic heritage. Rather than making the Hulk a one-note super strong monster that just happens to help people as in the late 70’s/early 80’s TV series, the Hulk here is a nuanced creature made from the psyche of Bruce Banner. Although the nanites used in this movie are an attempt to give more of a scientific basis to the Hulk’s transformation, the core idea is there. The machines were designed to heal damage to a host organism. Yet when people feel extreme anger it can create physiological changes and that the machines are acting on those changes in some way that creates the Hulk. The discussion that while a physical wound is finite but an emotional wound could potentially be infinite is a nice metaphor. The Hulk gets stronger as he gets madder because there is no upper limit either to his rage or the strength that he can exhibit.
The casting in this movie is also near-perfect. While no actor who has played the Hulk in the last eleven years has been a bad choice, Eric Bana does a good job of playing Bruce as an emotionally distant and haunted person who has no memory of his early past but also knows that something is wrong. Jennifer Connely is perfect as Betty Ross, giving the character the warmth and intelligence that she needs to bring her to life. Another inspired peace of casting is Sam Elliott as General Thunderbolt Ross. If any man was ever born to play a role it would be Elliott for Ross. He has the concern for Betty, the loathing for Banner, and the paranoia about the Hulk down to a science and he’s fantastic to watch in every scene that he’s in. Josh Lucas also does a fine job playing the slimy, Glen Talbot, a man who not only wants Betty’s affections but who also wants to harness the power of the Hulk for the military. Stan Lee also gets a fun cameo this time as a security guard working at the university building where Banner works. He’s seen chatting with fellow security guard Lou Ferrigno, the actor who played the Hulk in the 1970/80 TV series.
The real sins of this movie are threefold. The first is Nick Nolte. They were obviously going for name recognition and throwing a big name like Nolte at the movie certainly got some interest, but this stunt casting was a such a bad decision. It seems clear that Nolte would not take the part unless the movie revolved around him, so rather than just providing background on Bruce’s relationship with his father, Nolte became the centerpiece of the movie. This forced the filmmakers to merge him with the villains that they’d intended to use in the movie, The Absorbing Man and Zzzax. Part of this requires making the dad a scientist who experimented with Bruce when he was little and this whole arc seems to lumber the movie down. An origin story for the Hulk could have easily been about the Jekyl and Hyde aspects of the character and about keeping him out of the hands of the military and didn’t need a super villain fight at all, but even if they did have one it would have been nice to make it a far more straightforward relationship and for a cleaner resolution than what this movie had. Having the father being unable to absorb the rage he created in his own son may be elegant in some respects but it does not translate well to the screen and it seems like many viewers were confused about what they were watching.
Another issue with the movie was the strange pacing. There’s almost no action for roughly 2/3 of the movie but then the final act is pretty much a Hulk-fest. Evening out the action would have helped audience impressions immensely. Many lament the lack of action but forget about the third act, showing that they had already tuned out by that point.
The third issue is that Ang Lee’s artsy experimentation with comic book panel style layouts didn’t really endear him to audiences. It’s understandable that for a comic book movie that he was trying to utilize comic panels to convey the same kind of information that you could in a comic book. Yet, most people in the general public know the character of the Hulk from the TV series starring Bill Bixby and many in the general public don’t even think of him as a comic book character. Those people found the effect cheesy and weird and since it didn’t really add anything to the film it is definitely a failed experiment.
The DVD or blu-ray adds a lot of value to the movie this time. Both feature the same extras, although the blu-ray also features “U-control” so that the features are interactive while you’re watching the movie. This movie has a nice director’s commentary by Ang Lee as well as several featurettes on the making of the movie, the direction, the evolution of a scene, and the various effects. There’s also a featurette on the evolution and history of the Hulk in comic books. The whole package comes through your home theater system in 5.1 DTS surround sound, which gives you a very nice auditory experience.
In my opinion the Hulk succeeds more than it fails. Its a pretty decent movie that’s about who Banner and the Hulk are. Some details are changed, yes, but details are changed in every superhero movie. This remains one of the most faithful movie adaptations of a comic book character. It’s a little on the slow side and takes a while to get to the action, but once it’s there it’s awesome. If you can just squint your eyes past Nolte and just watch this for the great acting then I think that many people can reevaluate this movie as the good film that it is.
Directed by Ang Lee
Produced by Avi Arad, Kevin Feige, Larry J. Franco, Gale Anne Hurd, Stan Lee, James Schamus, Cheryl A. Tkach, & David Womark
Screenplay by John Turman, Michael France, & James Schamus
Based on the character Hulk created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby