Angry Robot


Why is everyone sleeping on the Hulk? Sure it’s a touch long, but it’s got to be considered one of the best comic book adaptations yet. Ang Lee and James Schamus wrote a great script that skips the camp. Mr. Lee makes a sincere attempt to use the visual language of comic books. The result is a slightly uneven Freudian moving storyboard. Get ready for spoilers!

While Superman is a pretty good movie, the first real superhero auteur movie is Burton’s Batman, which proved a film need not be shitty to be a marketing juggernaut. One of the crucial elements of the superhero story is the instigation to superhero life, which generally involves the hero being bitten by a radioactive creature of some variey. Batman, who is of course powerless, was a special case in that his only instigation is childhood trauma (witnessing his parents’ murder at the hands of the arch villain). His lack of magical abilities also makes the superhero – vigilante comparison much more visible. Batman has a dark side – he dresses up in a leather suit – but all in all he remains just as much the do-gooder citizen’s watchdog that he was in his Adam West incarnation. Burton allows a fair amount of humour, and even flirts with camp, mostly by proxy in the Joker’s pop-art shenanigans. But it was Schumacher who wrecked the franchise by returning it to camp absolutely, in a pair of films awash in trashy one-liners, codpieces and sculpted jock eroticism.

Mr. Lee learned from this example (or so my pet theory goes): Hulk is camp-free. Which is fascinating given the film’s look. As I mentioned above, Lee uses comic book form wherever possible, usually in the form of split screen, but even encompassing the comic book font, and at one point pulling back from an scene to reveal it’s a panel in an entire page of moving scenes. I’m not sure the technique is a total success, but nonetheless it’s curious to see such comic book visuals in a film so dramatically sober. The Hulk’s instigating moment is half radioactive bite (gamma rays), half childhood trauma. But since the cause of trauma is not an arch-villain but Bruce Banner’s own father, we see old grampa Freud is going to play a huge, uncredited role in the film.

The Hulk is barely a superhero. He doesn’t fight crime, he causes it himself by throwing his giant mutated body around. Who is his arch villain? His own father, but in an intriguing act of twinning also his ex-girlfriend’s father, Sam Elliott as the personification of the US military. Look at what the Hulk fights: his own lab (when he realizes he’s been unconsciously carrying out his father’s work), his father’s monster dogs, then papa army’s men and machines, then finally his father. The Hulk is a ball of Oedipal rage lashing back at the patriarchy that not only imprisons him but literally hand-coded itself into his genetic makeup. Hulk’s got daddy issues.

Maybe it’s to be expected, but I was happily surprised by how Asian a film Hulk is. Childhood trauma is symbolized by a green mushroom cloud – I kept expecting Godzilla to show up. As the traumatized victim who poisons the world, Hulk seemed less Batman and more like the child villains of Ringu and Silent Hill. And of course by the end, Hulk’s dad has turned himself into a giant psychological blob that absorbs everything it encounters – this had me thinking of Akira, Mononoke and countless other near-apocalyptic anime.

Let me just add two other things that I loved about the film for strictly personal reasons. One is the Hulk’s majestic leaping. My flying dreams are always leaping dreams, so any footage of beings leaping thousands of feet is like visual crack to me. I could watch the Hulk doing this for hours, and in fact if the franchise doesn’t work out the green dude could host a great travel show by leaping through exotic locales as we follow him in our soaring camera. Someone call IMAX, man. The other thing: Hulk’s journey on the back of a plane to the edge of space. The Right Stuff, which I saw as a kid, really stuck with me and I find it a moving image. (I also remember getting confused at the sperm sample scene, but that’s another story.)

Yes, the Hulk is too long. But isn’t everything these days? Maybe it was a touch of epic Chinese war movie pacing, where nothing happens for an hour and then the armies clash and break the viewer’s head. The long action-free swaths actually generate extra intensity for the rare bursts of physical action. I don’t think that anyone could fault Lee’s action scenes – could this art film veteran be the best working action director? He captures the exhilaration of an invincible temper tantrum, which Banner describes as “the rage, the power and the freedom”, a reference to Vertigo, which I’ve heard called the most Asian of Hitchcock films, a vortex of repressed memories, ghosts, reincarnation, and inexorable fate. So indeed, Hulk is one of the most revisionist superhero movies yet, and also one of the most mature.

3 comments on "Hulk"

  1. D says:

    This review is the best one yet.

  2. ÿ says:

    Neither review mentions The Hulk’s pants.

  3. D says:

    Were you wondering about that too? In the dog scene, he’s actually naked, but after that I guess he finds some super-one-size-fits-all super-spandex.

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