Rarely has a film unified American culture the way Ang Lee’s Hulk did when it opened in 2003. Comic-book fans, critics, and everyone in between agreed: It stunk. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott called the movie “incredibly long, incredibly tedious, incredibly turgid.” With its dependence on digital effects, humorless tone, and apparent disregard for the source material, Hulk managed to please no one. The movie became an instant punch line, doomed to join Waterworld as shorthand for big-budget Hollywood disaster. Apparently that wasn’t punishment enough. Last week, the Hulk suffered a new indignity: the release of a big-budget do-over, just five years after the original limped out of theaters.
The new Hulk movie took in $54.5 million this weekend, enough to put it at the top of the box office and likely enough to confirm Hollywood’s suspicion that the problem wasn’t the Hulk, it was Ang Lee. But was Lee’s movie really that bad? Or was it just not what audiences were expecting? There’s a familiar rhythm to comic-book movies, from the moment the hero embraces his newfound potential to the inevitable confrontation with his arch-enemy. But Lee wasn’t interested in going through the motions, and instead of adhering to the usual conventions of the genre, he subverted them. Hulk doesn’t really look or feel like a superhero movie. But that’s what’s great about it.
Comic-book adaptations typically invent new adventures for their protagonists while remaining relatively faithful to the back story of their heroes. Lee, however, reimagined the story of the Hulk for his picture, blending elements from the comic book, the television show that aired in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and his own imagination. In the Marvel comic, Bruce Banner acquires his Hulk powers from a burst of gamma rays during a military weapons test gone wrong, and his enemies are other green dudes with names like Abomination and the Leader. In Lee’s movie, the Hulk’s powers are the result of a toxic childhood: Since birth, Banner was the subject of DNA-altering experiments into cellular regeneration conducted by his scientist father. The Hulk’s nemesis isn’t some criminal mastermind. It’s his own father, the man who sowed the seeds of Banner’s mutation.
In your standard comic-book adaptation, there’s a moment when the superhero realizes his gift, a moment typically accompanied by an overwhelming feeling of power and often elation: Peter Parker, having discovered his ability to spin his webs, swings euphorically through the streets of New York. Later, of course, the hero learns that “with great power comes great responsibility”—in Parker’s case, this means stopping a power-mad, creatively dressed inventor called the Green Goblin from terrorizing the city with a hoverboard. Lee’s Hulk, by contrast, isn’t really all that important to the future of the world, and isn’t even much of a hero. He’s a physical and psychological casualty who spends the entire movie trying to save himself, not the world. Considered at once a threat to national security and a potentially valuable research commodity, Banner is hunted by his own government and eventually imprisoned without a trial. While the authorities decide on whether to simply execute him, he escapes, forced to hide out in the Amazon.
If this sounds gloomy, it is. The tone of Hulk was a common problem for critics, who were expecting more upbeat summer fare. The screenwriters had “forgotten the simple joys of pop,” Ty Burr wrote in the Boston Globe. “And isn’t that why we pick up a comic in the first place?” Yet while Lee deviated from the specifics of the Hulk comic, he actually made a movie that was very much in keeping with the tone of the source material. In the original comic-book story line, Bruce Banner is relentlessly hounded by the U.S. military and is nearly always on the run. Instead of embracing his powers, as most superheroes eventually do, he tries unsuccessfully to get rid of them. Lee didn’t fill his adaptation with clever winks to the fanboys, but he did manage to capture the hopeless, monster-on-the-run tone of the original comic.
But Lee’s movie also incorporated elements rarely seen in a comic-book adaptation, and this is where he really lost viewers. The script presents a series of relationships—between Banner and his ex-girlfriend Betty, between Betty and her estranged father, and between Banner and his own murderous father—that are all strained and ultimately doomed. There are no benevolent nuggets of wisdom from the likes of Spider-Man’s saintly Aunt May or Batman’s martyred father. In Hulk, family ties are the alpha and omega of emotional trauma.
In Banner’s father, Lee conjures an arch-villain who’s just pathetic enough to feel real, a man prone to anti-establishment rants and poor hygiene. When Banner’s father eventually develops his own powers, he doesn’t give himself a weird nickname or devise some overwrought scheme for world domination. Like Banner, he’s just trying to save himself, hoping to stabilize his own restructured DNA by absorbing his son’s powers. The fact that Banner won’t survive that process is an afterthought.
Even the much-maligned finale of Lee’s movie, criticized for featuring one CGI guy beating up another CGI guy, is a surprisingly complex scene. Lee tries to avoid the kind of WWE Smackdown style that’s an apparent selling point for the new movie, giving us instead a supremely weird confrontation. In the climax, the Hulk’s father has merged with a lake and is simultaneously drowning the Hulk and draining his power. Everything about a superhero movie’s final, cathartic punching match is subverted in the scene, with the Hulk left slapping helplessly at the water. The bizarre father-lake is eventually destroyed, but not through guile or cunning or heroic determination—Betty’s dad, an Army general, has run out of ideas, and fires a nuke at the both of them.
Elsewhere in the movie, Lee uses visual effects not to blow up city blocks or show off a spectacular feat of acrobatic fisticuffs, but to find moments of unsettling, alien beauty. Banner dreams of luminescent jelly fish hovering in desert mesas as desolate as the surface of Mars. In the movie’s most surreal scene, the Hulk passes out in midair after falling off of an F-16. Lee cuts to a completely domestic moment, a daydream in which Banner is shaving in the bathroom. The Hulk then shows up in the mirror, wrenching Banner back into the present. More polished superhero movies like Iron Man or Spider-Man don’t waste frames on scenes so full of raw, haunting emotion, and ones that don’t advance the plot.
None of this is to say that Lee’s movie is perfect—far from it. Some of his decisions were confusing, some just plain bad. The attempt at comic-book editing, where the screen is routinely sectioned off into panels, is the worst kind of gimmick. It seems tacked on in the editing suite, and worse, it works against the whole tone of the film. This is a story of domestic abuse, psychological damage, and the futility of rage. Campy visuals are just out of place. (Imagine if Lee had replaced the subtitles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with zany, dubbed English.) Ultimately, Hulk is a messy effort, but it’s also intricate, beautiful at times, and undeniably ambitious. Whether or not those are attributes audiences want to see in a comic-book adaptation is up for debate, but one thing is certain. For better or worse, there won’t be another movie like Ang Lee’s Hulk for a very long time.