May of 2012 brought us THE AVENGERS, which is not only the incredibly well-received and first superhero team-up movie of its kind, but a version of the Incredible Hulk that everyone finally seems able to enjoy on the silver screen. While written to be the same character(s) seen in Louis Letterier's 2008 movie, similarities end at a simple reference to Hulk and Abomination’s battle in Harlem. Truthfully, though, Marvel simply has not been able to break the cinematic code when it comes to successfully adapting the not-so-jolly green giant to the silver screen.
Or have they?
Ang Lee's original 2003 movie came at a time when Marvel had only the success of the X-MEN, BLADE and first SPIDER-MAN feature under its belt. Its properties were still spread across a number of different studios with equally different levels of dedication to its characters. I knew who Ang Lee was and had actually seen CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. Yet, for some reason, the movie didn't quite register with me and I was mostly indifferent towards the news of him as director of the first HULK feature film. After all, I was only familiar with Hulk as an icon, barely aware of the names and basic story constructs and without ever having read a Hulk comic or even viewed much of the Bill Bixby television show. I knew enough to know that Hulk was somewhat unique among really popular superheroes, though, so I think I was a little excited that someone with such a classy reputation as an artist in cinema, even then, was going to take the reins. Of course, when I actually saw the film, I was like most who felt that this wasn't quite what it was supposed to be. My immediate response was really akin to my initial response to Chris Nolan's BATMAN BEGINS two years later, which was that on some level the movie was just too depressing.
It's still unfortunate that the incredible visuals are not nearly as well served by its story, which isn't really as bad as it is woefully... underplayed. This is the Incredible Hulk, after all. One might expect characters in a film such as this to be more... emotional, let's say... at the prospect of a nobody scientist suddenly going green and growing to 9 feet, then 12, then 15 and so on and so forth. Also, most were not quite as impressed with the CGI Hulk as its makers seem to be in the DVD commentary and extras, though I suspect part of that is Lee's relative inexperience with these kinds of effects at the time and his somewhat unbalanced focus on performance, having done all of Hulk's motion capture work, himself. I know that sounds a little backwards, but a stick figure giving a great performance is still a stick figure. Pardon the pun, but you get the picture.
Over the years, I've taken more of a liking to the movie. I'm still not familiar with most of the ins and outs of Hulk in the comics, but to the extent that I've done at least some research, I'm not so sure that kind of knowledge would help. Naturally, people were curious about Letterier's follow-up, which he was careful to characterize as NOT contradicting Lee's film even though, in fact, it's really more an adaptation of the television show with an actual "Hulkish" comic book character as the villain towards the end.
As a comic book movie, Letterier's version is better, but what I think Lee got right was the breaking of the material down to a fairly simple concept with an understandable psychological foundation. At the end of the day, Hulk is the physical embodiment of righteous indignation combined with the frustration that usually builds up over time in those most repressed and most pressured, let's say, into conformity.
Everyone knows what it's like to want to "Hulk out," so to speak. If anything, that's where 2003's movie is actually superior to Letterier's because, in the latter, Banner spends all his time complaining about Hulk. In the 2003 movie, he at least has a moment in which he admits to enjoying the very liberating experience. On screen, that experience is chronicled in an almost lyrically beautiful way. I believe that a hero that doesn't get more satisfaction out of the time he or she spends as that hero is just not much fun to watch. Lee’s Hulk is appropriately brutish yet, as befits Hulk’s evolution in the comics, you ultimately feel that anger is not the only emotion of which this would-be monster is capable.
I think that any Hulk movie made in the near future is going to have to come up with a better balance between a Bruce Banner that recognizes the dangers inherent in his transformations, but also accepts them and, to some degree, even enjoys them. In spite of his reservations regarding his specific circumstances and environment, we still see some of that in the Bruce Banner of THE AVENGERS and that, I think, is why the performance as well as the effects has finally met with so much approval. Of course, carrying that over into a standalone Hulk film is a task that I suspect Marvel fears it could botch yet again, since I doubt the general formula it has used to inform the general tone of the rest of its Phase 1 and 2 movies would work quite as well on a hero that can’t (or won’t) crack wise or speak in Shakespearean tones every few minutes.
I am, however, cautiously optimistic and excited to see what role Hulk plays in THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. In fact, if I had to choose, I'd probably list Hulk as my favorite, uniquely Marvel hero - at least on par with Spider-Man.. In truth, my favorite Hulk movie is probably the animated PLANET HULK from 2010. Where do you guys stand?