Review: Hulk

 

There was a handwritten note in the Bristol Forbidden Planet recommending a recent comic as 'an affectionate spoof on those Lee - Kirby comics which your Dad grew up with.'

Quite.

 

What would happen if you took an art-house film director, gave him a pile of old comic books, and told him he was free to do whatever he liked with them? You'd expect to end up with a very interesting movie, but one that has bugger-all to do with the original comics. That, in essence, is The Hulk—or Hulk as it quaintly wants to be known. There are obvious Ang Lee bits, like the gravity defying leaps and the Chinese-sounding incidental music. There are obvious Stan Lee bits, like when Hulk snarls 'Puny human' through the mirror. The whole thing doesn't quite work, but it's the sort of failure one would like to see rather more of.

 

Hulk re-imagines the Marvel Comic in terms a father-son conflict between Banner (David) and his son, Banner (Bruce) who has been turned into a monster because of his father's experiments in genetic engineering. But it is obvious from the moment that the first comic-book-lettering-inspired opening credit rolls that the real Oedipal conflict is between Lee (Stan) and Lee (Ang). The film is unable to decide whether it wants to grow up to be exactly like its illustrious source material, or rather, whether it is ashamed of the old man and wants to kill it an marry its money. Harold Bloom called it this 'anxiety of influence': you can see it in every three-volume fantasy that both desperately wants and desperately doesn't want to be the same as Lord of the Rings.

If the movie has a problematic relationship with its comic book progenitor, then the 1980s TV show with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrengi haunts it like a one-armed man. One reason that this film got made and, say, The Fantastic Four didn't is that, thanks to the TV show, The Incredible Hulk is the one Marvel Character instantly recognizable to people who ever never read a comic in their lives.[1] Lou Ferrengi gets a cameo, alongside Stan Lee. Bill Bixby doesn't, being dead.

 

A comic book movie is an attempt to represent an infinitely protracted soap-opera in a couple of hours of screen time. The Star Trek and X-Files movies assume that you have seen the TV show and that this is just a bumper episode: the comic book films pretend you've never met the characters before. You're talking, at the very least, 10,000 pages of published Hulk comic pages of story to condense into 3 hours of celluloid. So, the first question has to be 'What is there in the comic to adapt?' Spiderman is interesting because of his guilt-laden origin story, his web of supporting characters, and because of at least half a dozen cool villains. Daredevil is interesting because of the gothic imagery associated with him and the redheaded chick with the daggers. X-Men is interesting because 'mutation' is an open-metaphor for minority status. These key concepts find their way into their respective movies. Hulk is interesting because he is, er, big and green.

In the comic, he wandered around, from sub-plot to sub-plot, sometimes a sympathetic villain, sometimes an anti-hero. There were attempts to shoot him off into space, attempts to make a supporting cast of 'Hulk-hunters' the focus of the book; periods where he was quite intelligent and periods when he was inarticulate and bestial. His original book was cancelled after 6 issues and he was drafted into The Avengers from which he stomped out after two issues. He remained in the limbo of back up-strips and guest appearances for many years. A big green strong fierce guy is a cool icon, but Marvel themselves had the greatest difficulty in working out what stories there were to tell about him.

Ang Lee's 'unique selling point'—that Banner turns into Hulk when he gets angry, that Hulk is a metaphor for infantile rage—has only sometimes been the theme of the comic. In early issues, the main character was Banner by day and Hulk by night. Later, he had a machine to affect the transformation; at one point, he was mentally linked with teen sidekick Rick Jones; at another, he was physically separated from Banner. The Marvel Hulk is a superhero; a big green scary one, but one who spends his time saving the world from bigger, greener monsters; toad men from Mars, and of course evil commies. ('It's the end of the gargoyle' explains Doctor Banner at the end of the very first issue 'And perhaps the beginning of the end of red tyranny, too.')

All of Marvel's characters are products of the cold war. Bruce Banner becomes the Hulk because he is caught in the blast of an experimental gamma bomb. (He has gone to rescue a schoolboy who has wandered onto the test site for a dare, as one does.) In the comics, nuclear power was the magic pixie dust that gave you superpowers while at the same time being a metaphor for science misused. Genetic engineering has taken over this role in the recent comic book inspired movies. It makes little difference to Spiderman for his 'radioactive spider' to become a 'genetically modified' spider[2]. But the Hulk is, at bottom, a nuclear parable. He's an almost limitlessly powerful creation who can defeat the commies, but can also run wild and destroy America. The puny scientist with the monster inside him is the personification of the atomic bomb. With this gone the movie has to invent something else to be about.

The central Lee (Ang) plot, about the relationship between Bruce Banner and his scientist father, owes nothing to Lee (Stan). Really, only one thing from the comic finds its way into the movie. Where Spiderman had Jonah Jameson, the evil tabloid-editor convinced that the crime fighting teen was a menace to society, Hulk had Col. Ross, an evil military commander who was convinced that the big green monster who smashed things was a menace to society. You slightly felt he had a point. But Col. Ross's daughter Betty is dating Dr Banner, who is really Hulk.

Gosh, how ironic! as they used to say in the comic books.

 

The film shows signs of having been constructed from the center outward. A core sequence of, I suppose, 30 minutes shows us Hulk doing Hulk stuff—smashing out of a desert prison, rampaging around the desert, leaping tall buildings in a single bound, smashing tanks, smashing aircraft, generally smashing, before being cornered in San Francisco. He then sees Betty, turns back into Dr Banner, and everyone resists the temptation to say ' 'Twas beauty killed the beast.' As spectacle, this was done about as well as it is possible to imagine. Lee makes Hulk 15 feet tall, which, while it makes romantic scenes with Betty look ridiculous, allows us to believe that he can whirl tanks round his head and hurl them through the air like a shot-putter. (Depending on your precise definition of he word 'believe', obviously.) The scenes work through the expected monster-movie imagery: Hulk gets to wave his fists at airplanes like Kong and have his savage breast melted by beauty, like Frankenstein. But the scenes are only spectacular. Hulk has bulletproof skin and Wolverine style super-healing. We know none of this stuff can hurt him; there's no actual tension or excitement.

The rest of the film feels like a protracted build up to this central riff; as if Lee had said 'Angry monster in desert being chased by soldiers, what process could have brought him there?'

Uniquely ion the annals of superherodom, Bruce Banner doesn't have to avenge his father's death: indeed, he doesn't even have any father that I can remember. So Lee (Ang) helpfully provides one. The first section of the film introduces us to Bruce's father, David. (An in-joke this: the main character in the TV series was called David Banner because the producers felt that Brucie was insufficiently macho.) It transpires that David injected himself with some kind of biological genetic jiggery pokery as part of a forbidden experiment into things that man was not meant to know, and that his son inherited the mutation. (There may also have been a nuclear explosion. At any rate, there are mushroom clouds. But they may possibly have been metaphors. I found this section confusing. It was that kind of film.)

Bruce doesn't know who his father was, but he is also a scientist, working on nanotech. He gets caught in an explosion in the lab and exposed to the nanobots. His long-lost and now totally mad father starts visiting him. This provokes the first change into a big green monster. So, Bruce's curse results from nukes, nanotech and genetics—the three things which man was especially Not Meant to Know—and also from a sort of ancestral curse.

But there's more! As a child, Bruce had a deeply traumatic experience relating to his father, and it's his long-repressed anger about this that he lets out when he becomes Hulk. So we have a whole series of monster movie elements living in a sort of unnatural symbiosis. Hulk is irresponsible science running amock. He is the flawed creation of a (literally) mad scientist. Bruce Banner and Hulk are, in different ways, the son of David Banner—the product of his experiment; the product of his genetic mutation and his natural offspring. As the movie goes on, David gets to play an increasingly god-like role. At the end of the movie, Hulk is left raging against a sort of cosmic thunderstorm which is, in some vague way (plot in any conventional sense has rather broken down by this point) the personification of David Banner. So Hulk is fighting his creator while raging against the Creator: very Mary Shelly and very Stan Lee. Hulk's rage is the rage of a very nerdy man who has repressed the memories of a very hurt little boy. He is quite explicitly likened to a baby throwing a temper tantrum with superhuman strength; which probably makes him the classic Freudian Id. This means that David, as God / Creator / Father is some kind of superego. There's even a hint, at the very end of the movie that having Dealt with his Father and Let His Anger Out, Bruce may be able to use the power of Hulk altruistically from now on.

All of which is very clever, but not necessarily, in the context of a fairly long movie, very interesting. It takes us a long time to get from the flashback sequence to the adult Bruce; longer for Daddy David to show up and start being cryptic; and even longer for us to find out exactly what it was that David did which Larkinned Bruce up so comprehensively. I know that I was supposed to be thinking 'How very interesting, a serious director telling us a thought provoking story in a low brow medium'; but I was largely thinking 'If we don't get to see the Hulk soon, I'm going to get angry, and….'

It would have helped if any of the major characters had been remotely engaging; but Bruce was (necessarily) a boring wimp; Betty didn't really get beyond 'hero's egg-head love interest', and David Banner is camp and OTT. There's a pointlessly evil corporate guy who spends his time trying to buy out Banner's experiments and then experiment on Hulk: he seems to have checked into the wrong movie by mistake. Col. Ross is the closest the film has to an actual likable character.

 

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created a powerful character, a myth, a metaphor—its like a Greek tragedy, y'know, or at any rate, like one of those Universal horror movies, which are filmed in black and white and so must be Art. So yes, I know I made a movie about Jane Austen and another one about Chinese people who can fly, (which was SO artistic it wasn't even filmed in English,) but, no, I am not remotely embarrassed about the fact that my new movie is based on 'comic books' as I believe they are called. But I am not sufficiently relaxed that I can just take the story and turn it into a movie—as was done with, say, Road to Perdition. I want to show how far I have moved beyond the comic book, thrown off the limits of The Source and made a very serious and philosophical movie. But I am also going to show that I am being loyal to my Source, by dropping in sly references to Comic Books in almost every scene.

In one sense, the movie is appallingly pretentious—particularly the completely over the top ending, with Dave Banner making Shakespearian speeches and somehow merging himself with the forces of nature, in a sequences that looked terrific but which I couldn't understand at all. Almost all direct references to the comic book storyline have been ruthlessly excised. But having distanced himself from his source as much as possible, Lee (Ang) proceeds to give us opening and closing credits in the style of comic-book lettering; complete with speech bubbles. He films everything in that brighter-than-bright over-lit post-card photography: presumably to suggest either four-colour comics or else 70s TV. He makes extensive use of split screen montages and transitions; characters can't pick up a phone without the screen being divided in two. There are lots of clever segues, where close ups of Hulk's eyes turn into those of a frog. Some of these are extremely clever—such as when we appear to be looking at a desert panorama, the sand and the sky divided by a long horizon, and realize that we are actually looking at too different views, split horizontally across the screen. Some are just so audacious as to make the audience want to applaud, as when a single figure of Hulk jumps between three different pictures of the Grand Canyon. A lot of the time, it's just irritating.

But what it wasn't was anything at all like a comic book. Scott McCloud has shown that the whole point of comic book panels is that they use space to represent time: two panels juxtapose two images of the same scene or character at two different moments. The Ang Lee gimmickry shows two different viewpoints within the same time frame. You feel that he's spotted that 'comics have frames', decided to mimic this in his movie to 'make it more like a comic', but not really understood what comics were doing. It's no more than a sophisticated variation on the 'WHAM!' captions in the execrable Batman TV series. Why couldn't someone have taken him to one side and said 'Ang, Ang, Ang: A comic book is just a storyboard for a movie they haven't made.'

In the climactic Hulk-out, the film turns almost 100% into a comic in terms of imagery and structure; I am sure that a Hulk-o-phile could tell me which issue each scene was drawn from. At the end of the movie, when Hulk is captured, Bruce confronts his Dad and David overacts at him, the whole thing becomes deeply serious, has if Ang has finally cast off the influence of Stan. But it is not to be. Not only does the final battle turn back into a series of comic-book covers; not only is the first epilogue—a scene between Betty and her Dad—introduced by a 'One Year Later' caption, but the final sequence allows the movie to be smothered at birth by its Only Begetter. Bruce gets to quote a line from the TV show. Guess which one?

What can one say? I don't think that the film succeeds. It's too dull to be an action movie, and the plot isn't really clever enough to be 'serious' sci fi. On the other hand, I came out of the last three Marvel movies thinking 'that was fun, I'll probably get the DVD'. Hulk left me saying 'That was clever, but I don' t know if I 'got' it; I need to see it again.' Whatever else it was doing, it wasn't establishing a franchise. Letting interesting directors do experimental takes on Marvel characters is a far more worthwhile exercise than producing an infinite series of comics-on-the-screen.

 

That your Dad grew up on, indeed. 

 

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[1] The most remarkable thing about Tim Burton's great folly was that it wasn't, definitely wasn't, the Adam West Batman TV show: but it only took two sequels before a lad in green tights was saying 'Holy volcanic rock, Batman!' Alex Raymond's great fantasy comic strip probably deserves a serious high budget treatment, but it will never now be able to escape from the classic line 'Flash…aaa-aaa.'

[2] Although 'Is he strong—listen bud, he's got genetically modified blood' doesn't scan nearly as well.