Home » Ang Lee’s ‘Hulk’ Represents the Most Truthful Approach to Comic Book Cinema

Ang Lee’s ‘Hulk’ Represents the Most Truthful Approach to Comic Book Cinema

by Diego Crespo
A colorful green collage of iconic shots from the 2003 HULK movie directed by Ang Lee, featuring actors Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, and Nick Nolte.

June 20, 2003. Opening night for Ang Lee’s Hulk. My father and I leave the packed house showing of the latest cinematic adaptation of a Marvel comic. We walk past lines of eager moviegoers around the block before he turns to me saying, “Those poor people.” He was not a fan. Not many were after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) proved to be a massive blockbuster hit with audiences clamoring for adventurous character-driven spectacle at that specific point in time. So what stopped folks from appreciating Oscar-winning director Ang Lee’s huge cinematic swing at a Marvel character? And furthermore, why were people so excited about a Hulk story on the big screen of all things?

Prior to the 21st century, there were a handful of superheroes the general public could name without thinking. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, and Hulk. The sample sizes could be stretched to include one or two more, but these five were generally the most well-known given television shows or prior film adaptations. When it comes to the Hulk, the popularity stems primarily from The Incredible Hulk television series and television movies that spanned from 1977-1990 on CBS and later NBC, starring famed actor Bill Bixby and professional bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno as Banner/Hulk respectively.

You’re Making Me Character-Centric… 

The premise of The Incredible Hulk follows brilliant scientist “David” Banner (not called Bruce here) as he wanders through the world, searching for a cure for his Hulk persona and helping those in need along the way. The general public got to know about the type of man Banner was through his heroic actions, cultivating an iconic television series in the process. “The Lonely Man” theme by Joe Harnell that would start and end each episode of the show in two different arrangments is still highly recognizable to many. However, audiences in the film and television space never got to know about the character of Bruce Banner in a more direct sense. What drove the man prior to his exposure to gamma radiation? Therein lies what people perceived to be an issue with Ang Lee’s take on the Hulk.

In 2003’s Hulk – written by James Schamus, Michael France, and John Turman – Bruce Banner does not turn green until 42 minutes and 5 seconds into the film when we get our first full-faced transformation of the Hulk. With zero action dispersed in between this first chunk of the plot, it is no surprise that viewers felt, for lack of a better term, “bored” by a movie starring The Incredible Hulk. It’s a character known for causing wanton destruction and mayhem. Yet, here’s the thing: not only is all of this build-up essential for the eventual payoffs, but it is also a fascinating exploration of parents’ relationships with their children, the overbearing nature of the United States military, the diminishing of science for public resources, and so much more. 

The Style Is The Substance

Courtesy of Ang Lee’s collaboration with cinematographer Frederick Elmes and editor Tim Squyres, Hulk (2003) immediately launches into evocative comic book paneling stylization. It was a divisive decision considering the heavier subject matter, one which Lee has referred to on record as “a Greek tragedy.” Above all else, this direction is more than just fitting, it is essential. Not only is it a marriage of the two mediums, but it represents the fractured mindscape in the origins of genetics researcher Bruce Banner (an excellent Eric Bana) as well. We bear witness to screen wipes, fades, interlacing, scenes stacking atop one another, elements disintegrating into micro-biotic organisms, and even locations deteriorating into such small particles it would make a Thanos snap envious. 

Sam Elliott stars as General Thunderbolt Ross looking furious and frustrated in a three-way split comic book panel shot from the 2003 HULK film.
Sam Elliott in ‘Hulk’ courtesy of Universal Pictures

Bruce’s father, David (Nick Nolte in the ultimate Nick Nolte performance) experiments on life forms in hopes of improving human DNA before settling on his own son to harness some sort of energy that would give him unspeakable power. From the start, David is not someone who is interested in fatherhood as much as he is in the possibilities of expanding his own body. He’s absorbing knowledge and testing out the limits of the natural world. It’s why he turns a trio of dog experiments into hunting hellhounds, as if Cerberus from Greek mythology broke into three parts and had a poodle head in the middle.

As for Bruce, he doesn’t understand why he has nightmares. He isn’t keen on fixing that problem either. This clearly causes issues in his relationship with Betty Ross (an incredible Jennifer Connelly insists on stealing the film whenever she is on screen). He discovers his origins alongside the viewer, where the wildly oscillating tonal shifts matched with comic book panelings become much less jarring. 

We begin to see recurring images of a green mushroom cloud from an explosion of gamma testing in a desert military base. This base is the home Betty and Bruce shared as children, where their fathers worked together, one bathed in perpetual sunset and surrounded by a seemingly never-ending desert. It looks like a Norman Rockwell or Edward Hopper painting. It’s never explored, only glimpsed in passing, like a half-forgotten dream the characters won’t ever fully understand. The mushroom cloud that presumably evacuates the civilians will repeat multiple times throughout the film.

These are the memories from our three biggest leads from the cast; Bruce, Betty, and her father, Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (an iconic Sam Elliott). The cloud additionally appears twice outside of the memories. Once, when David Banner finally completes an experiment that allows him to absorb elements around him, his blood bubbles from a wound in his hand into that familiar mushroom cloud shape, finally seeming in control of his actions that robbed him of a future. The final appearance comes at the climax of the film, which will be discussed momentarily.

Bruce Banner's mom Edith reaches her hand out towards a green mushroom cloud explosion in the distance of an empty desert in the 2003 HULK movie directed by Ang Lee.
‘Hulk’ courtesy of Universal Pictures

Hulk Smash Metaphors

While the first half of Ang Lee’s Hulk lays the groundwork for Bruce Banner’s fractured psyche, the second half is entirely payoff. Not just in action sequences, many of which remain highlights in the Hulk’s cinematic oeuvre to this very day, but also in the emotional climaxes. The conflicts of the three primary characters expand here with a showdown in the military base below the ruins of their former forgotten homes. No longer hospitable to livable circumstances, it only houses more of the same machines that caused the conflict they find themselves in. 

The following escape and desert chase sequence is often highlighted as being the film’s high point and it’s easy to understand why. The imagery alone is constantly evocative of Bruce Banner/Hulk’s struggle. Once out of the metallic prison facility, the Hulk is surrounded by desolate landscapes, empty valleys, and abandoned ghost towns he no longer recognizes but once called home. The only people he encounters in this stretch of the story are the United States military, hellbent on killing him without hope of containment.

But the one other living thing Hulk comes across? The natural plantlife of the California desert. It exists in an environment that is hostile to everything else around it. It’s a death sentence for so many things though it remains a natural element, something that can still provide some semblance of peace and co-existence. We watch as Hulk stares deep into the green moss and grass, recognizing this as well from earlier in the film when we saw similar life thriving in the desert base alongside young Bruce. It’s a fleeting moment, yet it may be the sign of hope that the Hulk/Banner dynamic needs to eventually achieve a sense of inner peace. Life, no matter how difficult, is achievable.

Bruce Banner wipes away fog from a huge mirror revealing his Incredible Hulk persona staring back at him on the other side in the 2003 HULK movie.
Eric Bana in ‘Hulk’ courtesy of Universal Pictures

Ang Lee shoots the pivotal third-act confrontation between Bruce and David Banner like a stage play. Two spotlights on them, a black backdrop, and the performances carrying every bit of emotion built up over the movie’s runtime. Every move David makes against Bruce is him angling to appease the Hulk. When Bruce begins crying over the lost memories of a mother he never knew, David delivers an immediate rebuttal: “I didn’t come here to see you. I came to see my son. My real son.”

Elemental Rage

David is a disheveled mess of a human being, but he is nonetheless a monster intent on taking more for himself. So what does he say to Bruce after he asks to see the Hulk? “Stop your bawling.” There was never any desire to foster a life for this man. David was only concerned about what Bruce could do for him. To draw his creation out, he drains the surrounding power given to him by the very military that imprisoned them both.

The final fight hammers this elemental theme home between the father and the son. David launches Bruce into the sky with electricity (the closest element to fire). They are thrown through the clouds (air), then battle it out in a dark desert landscape (earth) before culminating in a lake (water) which subsequently freezes over. David’s absorbing powers draw upon not just the irradiated powers of the Hulk but of everything instilled into Bruce. The rage, the confusion, the strength; it all proves to be too much for the villain, so Bruce gives it back. For once, David could only take so much. And as jets fly overhead to detonate missiles on this clash of elemental titans, we see the imagery of a mushroom cloud repeated one last time. David never had control of it. Bruce never wanted it. The powers that be sought to destroy it all the same.

The Absorbing Man fights the Incredible Hulk in a dark cloud in the sky showing his face made up of bright blue lightning in the 2003 HULK movie directed by Ang Lee.
‘Hulk’ courtesy of Universal Pictures

Betty and General Ross end the film with a conversation similar to their initial scenes. The General apologizes and wants to prove to Betty that he does care about her – his rigid militaristic worldview unable to allow him to get any closer. Betty understands his apology and reasoning but knows her father will never stop hunting Bruce. She knows he will have her under surveillance as long as anyone thinks the Hulk is still out there, somewhere. Betty can’t even finish describing how much she loves Bruce, and yet it’s clear, for now, that she hopes he stays as far away as possible. That’s if, he were alive. 

Heartbreaking Farewells

We end with Bruce somewhere in the Amazon, now helping people through his knowledge of science and medicine. When a group of soldiers arrive to pillage Bruce’s campsite, he warns them “You won’t like me when I’m angry.” Something is different here though. The implication is that Bruce now has control over when the Hulk can be unleashed. If the stern look Bruce gives isn’t enough of a signifier, a tree frog (mirroring the much thornier test frogs from earlier) climbs upon his hat, practically joining his defiance of more militaristic men. We pull back into an aerial view of the lush green rainforest as one final Hulk roar accompanies a bright flash of green that envelops the screen.

While the two leads are nations apart by the end, Betty and Bruce share a great apotheosis even if they never fully land an onscreen kiss. Rather than a negative, the film turns that lack of closure into a strength. It’s a tragedy that these two can’t be together. In the isolated universe of 2003’s Hulk – one which has no bearing on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that would follow with Edward Norton as Banner in another solo film in 2008 with Mark Ruffalo eventually replacing him in the Avengers franchise after Universal Pictures failed to do anything with the rights to the Hulk – Ang Lee leaves it up to us to guess what happens next to our gamma-crossed lovers.

Personally, I think they found each other again. Down the road, of course, after the canceled Hulk sequel that would have been about Banner protecting a Native American reservation from the United States government (yes, really) with Abomination and possibly The Leader as antagonists (also, yes, really). There is no world in which their story ends like this. Just look at what is arguably the most romantic scene in the movie. Hulk ceases his rampage as Betty walks down a flight of stairs while he slowly morphs back into the human Bruce Banner. The two breathe sighs of relief into one another:

Bruce: “You found me.”
Betty: “You weren’t that hard to find.”
Bruce: “Yes I was.”

Betty Ross played by Jennifer Connelly walks down a flight of stairs to meet the Hulk transforming back into Bruce Banner played by Eric Bana in his large purple shorts from the 2003 HULK movie.
Jennifer Connelly & Eric Bana in ‘Hulk’ courtesy of Universal Pictures

20 Years Later

Until quite recently, it was difficult to come across positive responses and assessments of Ang Lee’s Hulk. One proponent since its initial release was one Roger Ebert, who gave it 3 out of 4 stars, but questioned whether or not the target audience would respond to the “dramatic ambition.” In the decades since its release, we have seen many reevaluations of movies that were born outside of our current Hollywood systems. It’s natural for fans to look back and say “They don’t make them like this anymore.” Although Hulk (2003) is a special case where that may actually be true now – it was even true back then! During an interview with Charlie Rose, Lee even claimed to have the final cut on the picture. A first for his career, and one of the last for the genre. 

It was Ang Lee who brought this wildly talented group of creatives together for a specific vision. A vision it seems we are only beginning to accept. A special mention should go to legendary composer Danny Elfman, who brought over his oscillating genre sensibilities only a year after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man debuted and managed to create something that built its own sense of mythos and tragedy. In fact, it was Lee that drew Elfman to the project in the first place, that and a studio that got worried Lee had delivered a film too off-the-beaten-path with his summer blockbuster. If anything, the musician deserves more than what a single retrospective article can entail. 

Even Josh Lucas, who plays Glenn Talbot in the film, had “…nothing but respect for it.” When speaking recently to The Playlist, Lucas teased that Lee’s ambition was perhaps larger than what we saw. “I know he was pushing the team of people who were on the CGI of Hulk to make something that, technically, maybe wasn’t capable of being at the level he wanted it yet. And so I think he was very frustrated with that movie by not being able to get what he wanted… but I also agree with you, the way he was morphing, the way pages were flipping. I mean, he was creating a visual comic book. And I haven’t seen anybody do it quite the same way he was doing it – think about it, that’s twenty years ago, right? So, there’s an incredible auteur filmmaker beneath this monster, an early Marvel movie.” 

Director Ang Lee blocks a scene with actors Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly in a science lab on the set of his 2003 Marvel film HULK.
Ang Lee, Eric Bana, & Jennifer Connelly on the set of ‘Hulk’ courtesy of Universal Pictures

The Subculture of Ang Lee’s Hulk

In 2023, moviegoers are now primed to expect a certain level of levity and entertainment in their blockbusters. They hit certain story beats, land a joke, and if we’re lucky, land some emotional payoff. It is almost algorithmically determined how some (not all) Hollywood blockbusters are made, especially comic book movies and superhero films. Ang Lee wasn’t interested in that with Hulk. The visionary filmmaker who would go on to helm Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi wanted to tap into something deeper than two hours of popcorn and soda. He went so far as to put the motion capture suit on himself to fully dive into the headspace of the Hulk. If he was painting on the largest canvas of his career, he was going to make something that spoke to our deeper interests in storytelling. He was going to craft a myth that stood the test of time.

In discussing the theatrical re-release and restoration of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon earlier this year, Ang Lee himself confessed to DiscussingFilm that his aspirations to make Hulk more like a psychodrama and sci-fi/horror film was an indulgence he got away with considering how loose the studio system was at the time, “which I think is harder to happen now” he says. “Only years later, I didn’t know there was kind of a subculture. [Hulk] was like a cult movie, but it wasn’t meant to be that way. It was a big, expensive studio movie. But I’m happy some people like you really like it. I’m happy about that.” If more people look back at what Ang Lee’s Hulk represents outside of its place in comic book adaptations and simply as a film made by a group of talented artists, I’m willing to bet they can find something worth appreciating too.

Ang Lee’s Hulk is streaming on Peacock!

Follow Contributor Diego Crespo on Twitter: @thediegocrespo

2 comments

Bluesun June 20, 2023 | 6:52 pm - 6: 52 pm

No it didn’t.

Reply
Longinus June 24, 2023 | 4:13 pm - 4: 13 pm

I loved the style of this movie, and it’s a shame that it’s lack of success might have torpedoed others from going that route. And I also approve of its ambition, especially with a character that too easily could end up without much story to tell. This one was just a little too much in that direction, especially with the way what the father had done was revealed and with the final conflict (which was rather disappointing). All the main characters were well cast and left strong performances, and the chase/battle scene in the desert represented some of the best of classic Hulk action. It was closer to something cool or even special than it probably felt like at the time, and I’d wager it would be appreciated a lot more now give the Marvel assembly line that gives us plenty of worthwhile stuff but also has become too collectively uniform.

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