The Marvel Cinematic Universe juggernaut showing no signs of slowing down. So it’s increasingly interesting to return to the handful of movies made about their characters before Marvel decided to do it all in-house.
2003’s Hulk has some excellent heft behind it. A cast of Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliot, and Nick Nolte is a good one however you shake it. And there is no denying the talent of director Ang Lee (best known for the astounding wushu experience that is Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and his superb adaptation of Life of Pi). Pre-dating the very reliable and established Marvel formula, this collection of talent was a promising mix for bringing Bruce Banner and the big green anger management failure to the big screen. So, what happened?
Ang Lee has gone on record to say he treated the movie more like a Greek tragedy than a brainless action flick. It is commendable that the script Lee developed tries to add dramatic heft to what can easily be a mindless premise. But the delivery of this means that we get tons and tons of quiet dialogue bumbling about in exposition-heavy scenes. It’s fine to have aspirations of nuanced character work, but there has to be a balance between that and the smashy smashy. 40 minutes before we even get to the gamma radiation accident that mutates Banner is just too long, however you cut it.
For the cast: Sam Elliot’s does overprotective father excellently and the scenes with him as General Ross zip with much-needed energy. Nolte, as Banner senior, spends not enough time with his son on-screen to make the psychodrama actually land, despite his best scene-chewing efforts. And Connelly is relegated to ‘female emotional support character’ but works to bring out the empathy element well. The actors and characters have good bones, but it is the overly talky dialogue that lets them down.
Bana is undeniably a great actor (check out his psychotic turn in Dirty John) but there are few scenes where he gets to really explore his character. This Bruce Banner is so mild-mannered that his transformation into the Hulk seems worlds apart from the emotional drama the movie is attempting. For a movie with aspirations to get under Banner’s skin, we never really get a sense of any anger issues – only personal tragedy barely remembered.
One aspect that stood out at the time and still works very well is the snappy and stylised editing. Lee’s direction imbues many scenes with multiple camera shots that mirror an actual comic book page. This is something that Lee does very well and it makes for a great feast of fun for the eyes.
However, despite the good core ingredients and superb stylised presentation, there is no getting away from the slow and plodding pace. If they had cut 20 minutes from the movie it would have had a better chance to shine. There are plenty of times where even the most charitable mind will struggle to remain focused.
In retrospect, Hulk is to be lauded for trying something different and having a go. But making you want to hulk snore rather than hulk smash doesn’t make for praiseworthy viewing.
Words by Michael Record