Ang Lee's Hulk Is An Overlooked Tragedy
I remember a time when not every film was interconnected to a franchised Goliath. A time when directors were still allowed to take chances once in a while. I even recall a time when the most popular cinema wasn't a sequel or a reboot. Before the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) hit the stage, there was "X-Men" (from a director not to be named) and Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" earning the world of Marvel a large sum of money. With Spidey being Marvel's second success towering over what its predecessor "X-Men" had made the next hero to hit the big screen would be Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's "The Incredible Hulk." with the Hulk Marvel wanted to find the next promising director who had a unique vision for its character. Who better than the director of the Oscar-winning kung fu action flick "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" Ang Lee?
"Hulk" was in development since 1990 but due to various screenwriter and director shifts and the production being over budgeted the film was placed on hiatus until Lee was cast to direct the picture. Dissatisfied with the lighter direction that Michael Tolkin and David Hayter took Ang Lee opted for the earlier drafts of the script that were developed by James Schamus and Michael France. Their script formed into the 2003 melodrama that ultimately released in theatres dealing with issues of Bruce Banner's abusive father and Bruce's previous problems with his anger manifesting into the Hulk which only worsened banners life. Lee drew influences from "Jekyll and Hyde," "Frankenstein," "King Kong," "Beauty and The Best" classic monster movies dealing with split personalities resulting in the protagonist's downfall. Mr. Lee would often refer to the film as a tragic Greek Mythology. The picture's lead Eric Bana who played Bruce Banner/The Hulk cited the production as "ridiculously serious... a silent set, morbid in a lot of ways." The fun adventure that was present in "Spider-Man" or "X-Men" was replaced with an introspective drama that audiences were not expecting.
When the trailer to "Hulk" was released, everyone thought it was going to be a crazy thrill ride. The trailer had the usual assortment of fast cuts mixed with high octane action music. The tagline voiced by the late trailer voice actor Don LaFontaine "don't get even, get mad" pumped some excited blood into the veins of audience members. When "Hulk" was released, it had a large domestic premiere despite its mixed reception from critics earning $62,128,420 in the first three days of its opening weekend, in its second week the numbers plummeted to $18,847,620. "Hulk" became the butt of many jokes revolving around how the CGI looked fake on the character. I even recall Conan O'Brien saying it looked like "a piece of crap" on Late Night. Audiences were completely puzzled why a movie about a guy who turned into a big green monster was adapted into an emotionally heavy art film.
"Hulk" was the straw that broke the camel's back allowing any semblance of personal vision regarding commercial filmmaking into Marvel's repertoire. (redacted name) Was removed from directing "X-Men: The Last Stand" since he was directing "Superman Returns" for DC at the time and the studio didn't want to wait for his entry, so they hired Brett Ratner of "Rush Hour" fame as a seat filler for the director's chair. Sam Raimi was heavily compromised on "Spider-Man 3" with the studios demanding for Venom to be in the film causing an already stuffed film to be more crowded. Then the fateful Disney buyout of Marvel came into fruition. Within less than five years since the big green man's cinematic debut, 2008 saw the release of "The Incredible Hulk" a film that was by definition a forgettable mess that made the grave mistake of casting Edward Norton who did his usual thing which is overhauling the production to suit his creative demands. Ultimately those demands didn't quite pan out. Where "Hulk" introduced originality "The Incredible Hulk" aimed for familiar mediocrity. Any semblance of individualistic creativity was Hulk smashed in favor of building the MCU.
Next came the biggest gamble that paid off magnificently. When Marvel finally had a clear vision of how to make their movies the world was introduced to the rest of their characters that built the Avengers franchise. Now with ten approaching on eleven years later the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a part of our cultural heritage. The absolute need for world building became essential for all comic book development houses. "The Avengers" is just as big as "Star Wars" with all of them puppeteered by Mickey Mouse's hands. A director can't have a singular vision. Just ask Edgar Wright what happened to him with "Ant-Man. It's all part of an extensive system that produces films mixed with a formula that is never to be disturbed with at all because one day a Taiwanese filmmaker wanted to turn a commercial property into his own dumb little passion project. Well, I very much miss projects like that.
Say what you want about how inadequate "Hulk" was, but there is no other commercial film like it today. "Hulk" was a picture that is far more fascinating than most of what Marvel produces currently. Where else are you going to find a picture that examines the tragedy of humanity's constant need for war by fetishizing its military instead of trying to understand those who need psychological help? Where are the MCU films that deal with mental issues in a serious manner that's relevant to the central character? What about an MCU film that tackles parental issues or an MCU film that examines America's love for nuclear deterrence? You may find hints of that messaging in the masterfully crafted "Captain America" trilogy but not to the extent nor with the same personal connection as "Hulk" did.
"Hulk" isn't a perfect film but a movie I yearn for since it was released during a time when filmmakers mattered, not the studio heads overseeing the production. Even when some films failed at least they creatively dived into the unknown. Sometimes even in the case of Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy, the payoff was extraordinary. I'm no fool; I realize "Hulk's" many glaring flaws. It's structurally sluggish. Bruce Banner along with Betty Ross are duller than the Hulk staring at a flower for several minutes. Most of the CGI does not hold up. The killer dogs scene is eye-rolling, Nick Nolte's laughable casting in this film is close to being in an incarnation of his DUI arrest tape, and Josh Lucas is an utterly forgettable antagonist. The strengths for me however far outweigh the movie's weaknesses. It's a fascinating commentary on mental awareness placed within a commercial property. Although everyone hates the comic book panel editing, I thought it gave "Hulk" an auteur aesthetic which gives the picture a distinct voice. Sam Elliot's rendition of General Ross is the definitive version of the character which far exceeds William Hurt's portrayal. It featured one of the best scores Danny Elfman has ever produced for a movie. Lastly, I generally felt heartbroken for Bruce Banner as he's an allegory for society's lack of self-control which perpetrates a consistent need for war. With all that said I stand in remorseful awe that a film like this dared to hit cineplexes.
Movies like "Hulk" hardly exist anymore. They're too dangerous. Everything must be played safe. If not played safe you risk an enormous financial cost that could greatly affect studio investors. I love the MCU films like everyone else, yet I grow tired of them. I can't wait to see what happens to Thanos in "Avengers: Endgame." I know however that I'm going to feel checked out by every Marvel sequel after it. "Endgame" is the finale to a fabulous ten year 22 movie saga but enough is enough. I want something different after that. Every-time I finished watching another Avengers related film I felt like I gained my entertainment, but none of the films stuck with me the way "Hulk" did since they are all the same. They're just as easy to consume as they are to forget. Much like Bruce Banner's tragedy in that he's not allowed to be angry filmmakers are no longer allowed to enter uncertain territory cinematically within Disney's playground. It's a tragedy that would "make Hulk sad."