Why was Ang Lee’s schlock-Freudian blockbuster such an outcast?
Ang Lee’s Hulk is a film about duality. The property itself has as much of a split-personality as the eponymous character at its centre. With the 2003 film, we have a superhero story helmed by a director who was just as concerned with the schlocky action elements of a story about a destructive green monster as with its Freudian underpinnings. On one side, it’s a moody, psychological drama about the scientist Bruce Banner, the son of a scientist before him, working through the process of uncovering repressed childhood trauma. And on the other side, whilst this all happening, we have a big green monster in purple shorts smashing up things.
This identity crisis resulted in a messy film. Contemporary critics were left surprised by Lee’s approach to the source material. Writing for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw said:
“With a scholar’s care, Lee has created a respectful and weirdly sober version of the Hulk. He punctiliously attempts to duplicate the “panel” effect of the original comic book with clever use of split screen, but tries also to deepen and enrich our less-than-jolly green giant with a Freudian backstory about his father.”
And Todd McCarthy wrote in Variety:
“No contemporary filmmaker has taken a comicbook character more seriously than Ang Lee takes Hulk. A seriously brooding psychological drama for much of its somewhat overlong running time, this impeccably crafted piece of megabuck fantasy storytelling aims to pull off the tricky feat of significantly reworking the superhero format while still providing the expected tentpole-type entertainment thrills for the international masses.”
This confusion from critics, but also seemingly from those who made the film, resulted in an unpopular adaptation of the Marvel story, and two more attempts to reboot the character, before finally settling on Mark Ruffalo’s interpretation, perhaps due to the fact that this Hulk is not a central character, but a team-player in the Avengers. Interestingly, films such as The Avengers, and its contemporary Marvel counterparts have worked upon the ethos not to make a film like Ang Lee’s Hulk, arguably resulting in perfectly packaged blockbusters, with their easily likeable characters and quickly digestible storylines driven more by action and conflict that pop-psychology. Because of this, despite its obvious flaws, it makes Hulk an interesting film to look back upon from the privileged vantage-point of an oversaturated, yet highly successful, superhero movie market.
Also like its central character, Hulk has daddy issues. In Ang Lee, Marvel chose an auteur: a filmmaker coming off the back of the huge success that was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a film arresting in its visual and stylistic beauty, winning four Oscars, two of which were for cinematography and art direction. At the time this probably didn’t seem such a risk, but now it seems hard to belief that Marvel would ever repeat it due to Hulk’s lack of success. Modern Marvel are more likely to choose much more sensible directors — ones that they can control or rein in — such as the likes of Jon Favreau (Iron Man 1 & 2) and Kenneth Branagh (Thor) — both talented technical directors who made solid superhero films, but more importantly, directors who don’t have a particularly distinctive visual style and can makes films in line with Marvel’s ethos. Though it appears Marvel are willing to take more risks with their films now — James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films and the R-rated Deadpool, for example — it can safely be said that in the early days of the cinematic universe mega-franchise, their was a default stylebook that had to be followed in order to comfortably feed this new cinematic world into the heart of popular culture. Now look at it. This helps understand why the over-ambitious and misguided DC Cinematic Universe has struggled, and also this is what makes Ang Lee’s Hulk such an interesting film upon rewatch.
Hulk is also not a superhero film in the conventional sense. It’s not as outrageous as Deadpool, not as zany as Guardians of the Galaxy, and not as crowd-pleasing as The Avengers. Instead it is a film about a man struggling with issues both parental and internal. Lee draws upon the Victorian psychodramas of Jekyll and Hyde and Frankenstein rather than the safe successes of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and the X-Men series. Scenes such as Hulk smashing up San Francisco or fighting the machines of war out in the vast desert, are more like King Kong than The Incredible Hulk. The final fight scene of the film — where Hulk and his supervillain father face-off — isn’t the show-stopping all-action climax that we’ve come to expect from superhero films. Instead it borders on abstraction, relying less on dazzling choreography and dramatic action, and more on a conceptual representation of all that the film hopes to divulge about troubled father-son relationships. And it is this climax that proves that though the film tries to position itself somewhere between Hollywood schlock and a repressed trauma drama, its psychological themes are its main emphasis. Ang Lee hoped to shoot an oedipal tragedy merely told through the lens of a superhero story, and this resulted in Eric Bana commenting that the mood during shooting was “ridiculously serious and morbid.” Unsurprisingly, the film was criticised as being an overly serious superhero film.
Another of its biggest failures is that the Hulk doesn’t look scary. The Hulk should be a physical embodiment of rage: the dangerous and destructive nature of science given green fleshy form. Instead, Lee’s interpretation appears childlike, almost babyfaced even. Whether this is intentional by Lee, or a byproduct of the cartoony underdeveloped early-2000s CGI, it emphasises the Freudian heart of the story. Even this hulking mass of Hulk, that grows in size and stature as the film progresses, is dwarfed by the dramatic landscape of the desert, and appears an angry baby throwing its toys out the pram when he twists a tank gun back on itself, and returns-to-sender a chopper missile after catching it midair and biting it apart. It is this bad CGI that was knocked at the time of release, and unsurprisingly doesn’t hold up now. The combination of a big green cartoon and a moody psychodrama isn’t a common one. And the CGI hulk-dogs don’t help the situation in a terribly choreographed and downright dull fight sequence.
However, Lee’s ambition is something that cannot be knocked. Hulk is so interesting to look back on because it came out around when the Hollywood superhero movie machine was just starting to turn its gears, and its perhaps one of the most unique and unusual treatments of a Marvel story ever. It is a superhero film with a distinctive style — something that is rarely seen. Unlike other Marvel films, it tried to simulate the style of the comic strips that inspire the films. Lee uses montage and a split-screen panel effect to replicate the experience of reading the page of a graphic novel, as if to always remind us that what we are watching is a fictional comic book film. It because of these stylistic choices, that, though ambitious, often unfortunately come off as gimmicky and unnecessary, seeming to serve Lee’s vision more than the actual story, that the film suffers from an identity crisis where its two halves don’t seem to add up to make a whole. In fact, ambition is what this film has lots of. Despite being a disappointing film, one cannot say that Ang Lee was attempting to bring his unique vision to fruition.
Perhaps Lee’s biggest failure was that he promised a superhero film, but didn’t deliver it. Hulk is like going to McDonald’s craving a Big Mac, but instead receiving a three-course sit-down meal, where the steak is overcooked and still has to be eaten inside a loud and messy McDonald’s restaurant. There’s a lot to chew on, but are you really enjoying it? And shouldn’t superhero films be fun? It also goes to show how the Hulk is a rough character to work a film around. The audience wants the complete opposite of what the character wants. Banner doesn’t want to be the Hulk, so most of his plot line is him trying to cure or stop being the Hulk. The audience, however, is only watching for the Hulk. Thus, taking this concept, and making it not just the thematic emphasis of the film, but effectively the entire story, makes the film not very fun. And fun is what Marvel have now perfected best. And then even when an apparently serious film is peppered with cheesy instances like Josh Lucas’s ridiculous fiery death, it all seems a bit messy. Which is what makes the film so strange. It is a film without an identity, and probably too ambitious a project for Lee — or even just straight up misjudgement. But despite this, it is an intriguing film, and one that can certainly be respected for that.
A year after Hulk — a film that was critically panned and left audiences confused and disappointed — Ang Lee went on to again win big at the Oscars. This time, he took home the Best Director award — that he was previously nominated for with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — for Brokeback Mountain. Lee has proven that he can take pre-established IP and work it into something great, but maybe the world just wasn’t ready for a Jekyll-and-Hyde-psychodrama disguised as a cartoon monster movie.