This is the sixth article in my ongoing series, examining the impact and importance of comic book movies since 2000. Check out my take on X-Men, Blade II, Spider-Man, Daredevil and X2: X-Men United. Now we're on to Hulk, Ang Lee's 2003 superhero film about the green rage monster.
The Film: Hulk (2003)
Director: Ang Lee
Producers: Avi Arad, Larry J. Franco, Gale Anne Hurd, James Schamus
Distribution: Universal Pictures
Cast: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliot, Josh Lucas, Nick Nolte
Plot: Bruce Banner becomes the Hulk and has to deal with the military, his girlfriend and his power hungry father.
Looking back on superhero films so far: X-Men, Spider-Man, Daredevil has seen the story of a hero or heroes in costume. Hulk is the first superhero film where the main character is mainly represented through computer effects. This is a huge step forward for technology and for superhero movies in general. Whilst the special effects were certainly not perfect (the Hulk is clearly a different size in every scene) they are still pulled off very well for the time.
However, Hulk tried to follow the X-Men path, setting out to deliver a message and ask questions. But whilst the X-Men found a balance between the two, Hulk's director Ang Lee decided to primarily focus on the imagery and themes of the character.
Also, more than any film before it, Lee tried to carry over the comic book in the purest sense. He used strange split screen and transition techniques to frame the film as a kind of comic book that moves. Did it work? Well let's just say there's a reason it's never really been tried again.
Hulk is a middling superhero film. There's some bad stuff in there (Hulk dogs), but there's also a sense that somebody had a genuine go. Unlike later mediocre comic book movies, this at least feels like a director had a unique vision which he tried to put onto the big screen.
However, the key talking point of this film is whether it was right to go for a more thoughtful vibe. The Incredible Hulk (2008) was a movie which focused more on action, this one looks deeper into the character. The Hulk is the type of character for which this is possible, but it was out of touch with what audiences wanted to see. The timing for this film was not right, audiences hoped it would be a fun punch up, coming off the overly brooding Daredevil and fact that the X-Men movies, whilst brilliant, are a bit of a downer. They hoped for something fun, a romp. They didn't get it.
Eric Bana is a talented actor who has never really found his niche in Hollywood, mainly because he is better known in Australia as a comedian, something he's never really tried overseas. While many suspected that he was cast simply for a great pun, his performance was more than serviceable, in a role which required more than what would normally be expected. Bana may not be the most remembered Hulk, but he gave it his all. The rest of cast are both good and bad in patches, with Nick Nolte's performance in particular being divisive.
Overall, critics were actually fairly positive on the film, but its tone and content failed to entertain audiences, and they were less than impressed. However, the film (which had a bigger budget than X2) still made a neat box office profit.
Rotten Tomatoes: 61% Fresh (61% Top Critics, 29% Audience)
Budget: $137 Million
Box Office: $245.3 Million
Hulk may not be the best superhero film, it's probably not even the best Hulk film, but it is still an attempt by director Ang Lee to make something different, it just wasn't what the audience wanted. The special effects were fine for the time, although they don't stand up now. In many ways, Hulk was ahead of its time, but in others it was well behind, the Hulk dogs feel like something lifted straight out of the 90's. Hulk probably doesn't deserve a lot of the hate it gets, but let's not get ahead of ourselves, it isn't very good.
3 Lessons from Hulk
1. Try something. This film gains kudos from being a genuine attempt at something unique and original, a failed attempt, but one that puts the movie ahead of more generic movies of similar quality.
2. Sam Elliot's mustache will never not be awesome.
3. Know your special effects limitations and your audience expectations.