In 2017, it’s increasingly difficult to remember a time when superhero movies weren’t one of the biggest pop-culture phenomena in history. Way back at the beginning of the millennium, however, the genre was going through a more awkward adolescence than Peter Parker. Those years between Tim Burton’s Batman and the dawn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe brought us such red-headed stepchildren as Daredevil, Catwoman and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and most of them aren’t looking any better with age.
It’s tempting to toss Ang Lee’s Hulk onto the same reject pile. While it made a respectable $245 million at the box office, it left audiences and critics unimpressed. While actors like Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. were a perfect fit for their characters right from the off, Bruce Banner had to be recast twice by Marvel. Yet look beyond the slightly dated special effects and Hulk feels remarkably ahead of its time; a precursor to how diverse superhero films would come to be.
Asking the director of Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to make a superhero movie, particularly one about an enormous green rage-monster, undoubtedly raised more than a few eyebrows back in 2001. On paper it sounds almost as unthinkable as giving the job to, say, one of Britain’s foremost Shakespearean actors. Or the guy who wrote Lethal Weapon. By now we’re used to the fact that the superhero genre is a vast and malleable one, which encompasses everything from colourful space operas to gritty espionage thrillers, and by the same token Hulk is, first and foremost, a monster movie.
As he was originally created in 1962, the Hulk is an amalgam of Mr Hyde and Godzilla – a metaphor for humanity’s fear of our base, primal nature and the terrifying destructive potential of the Nuclear Age. Despite taking place long after the end of the Cold War, Lee’s film, released in 2003, manages to tap into that underlying fear – and the urge to repress it – in a way that no version of the Hulk has managed since.
In the vastly inferior 2008 film The Incredible Hulk (still the MCU’s only real dud to date), Edward Norton seems at times almost blasé about his alter-ego. By the time Mark Ruffalo steps up to the plate for The Avengers, Bruce Banner has found the secret to controlling it – always being angry.
By contrast, that constant struggle for control is something that Eric Bana absolutely nails. Bana’s performance is often derided for lacking emotion, but that blankness is entirely the point – the Banner of this movie is an orphan, with no memory of the traumatic events that led to the death of his mother. He’s been repressing his emotions long before his exposure to gamma radiation, and when he finally lets go for the first time the results fill him with fear – in particular, fear of how much he enjoys it. Watching Banner transform for the first time, howling like a wounded animal, is reminiscent of David Naughton’s transformation in An American Werewolf in London. It isn’t cool at all. In fact, it’s kind of scary.
Ang Lee has stated in interviews that he wanted Hulk to feel like a “Greek tragedy”, and even 14 years later the intimacy of its plot is striking. There are no Infinity Stones floating about in the cosmos, and no groundwork to lay down for a dozen future films – at its heart this is a story about the sins of fathers, and the sons (and daughters) upon whom they are visited.
As played by a filth-covered Nick Nolte, Banner Senior is a genuinely compelling villain; a mad scientist twisted by a Faustian desire for knowledge, even at the cost of his own family. At his polar opposite stands Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, played against type by the incomparable Sam Elliott – a military man so used to quashing emotion that he’s unable to communicate with his daughter.
And then there’s Betty. Liv Tyler would later turn her into a wide-eyed damsel with an annoyingly breathy voice, but here Jennifer Connelly made Betty Ross feel like far more than just a love interest. She’s an intelligent and grounded character with her own set of motivations and a complex relationship to Bruce, not simply a beauty to soothe the savage beast.
Hulk is a deliberate film, its pace measured and its story slow-burning; it’s almost half an hour before we see Banner ‘hulk out’ for the first time. But it’s far from boring, and when Hulk finally does get to smash it’s a joy to see. There’s genuine variety to the action sequences; as well as mowing down waves of soldiers, the big green beastie gets to fight a trio of gamma-enhanced dogs (including an oddly adorable poodle) and for a finale takes on his newly-superpowered father, capable of trippily absorbing the properties of any material he touches.
The special effects may look dated – even the mighty Industrial Light and Magic could only do so much in 2003 – but the film remains visually striking to this day. Superhero movies have gotten better at adapting their characters’ ridiculous costumes for the screen, but Hulk is one of the few films that tried to emulate the visual language of comic books; splitting the screen into panels and shifting focus between the foreground and background in a way that hasn’t been attempted since. And while many complain that the music in Marvel’s movies all sounds the same, Danny Elfman’s score remains distinctive.
Perhaps Hulk failed to find a following because at the time, nobody knew who it was for. Back before the likes of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy or Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the idea that the superhero blockbuster and the arthouse film could ever be one and the same was practically inconceivable. But now, as the concept of shared continuity makes the division of genres increasingly redundant, maybe it’s time we gave Ang Lee’s film a second chance.