Every now and then, I’ll allude to the opinion that Ang Lee’s Hulk is one of the best Marvel movies out there. And I’m generally greeted with shock and horror, as the fan consensus is that movie was terrible. For most people, that’s little more than received wisdom, and in many ways, it’s one of the best superhero movies ever made.
It Makes The Hulk Watchable
Let’s get this out of the way: Yeah, the Hulk was great in The Avengers, but notice that he’s basically limited to a couple of action scenes in the movie. There’s a reason for that, and that reason is Bruce Banner is a terrible character.
If you or I run into a problem, we may get angry, but we generally deal with it constructively or at least civilly. Bruce Banner, in real life, is the guy you hear about on the news beating somebody up in a McDonald’s for not buying his food fast enough.
When he’s barely in the movie, you can gloss over this, which is more or less what Joss Whedon did. Ang Lee and James Schamus, though, make it a focus by necessity; why is Bruce Banner such a damn mess? And why should we care about him, when he’s terrible? That has a few pleasing results elsewhere, like for example…
The Characters Are (Mostly) Complex
One of the more confusing aspects of the Hulk comics is why General Ross keeps up his Don Quixote-like quest to beat up the Hulk with giant robots. Beyond a certain point, you’d think the military would either take him off the Hulk project, or fire him outright. But in the movie, it makes perfect sense; he thinks Bruce is going to kill his daughter. Hell, she’s convinced Bruce is going to kill her, something the movie communicates in one of its many gloriously weird, blatantly Freudian dream sequences.
This isn’t true across the board; Josh Lucas plays Talbot as such a cartoonish dickhead he might as well brag about his time in the Cobra Kai. Even the movie hates him: The movie takes such glee at beating the hell out of Talbot he turns into comic relief, right down to his hilariously undignified death. But, as a rule, in any scene there’s a lot more going on than just “Hit this guy really hard” or “Hit on this plot point.”
The Action Scenes Have Actual Meaning
Thanks to how the characters are drawn, the movie does get off to a slow start. But first of all, it’s one hell of a pay-off. This action scene, for example, is what Hulk fans had been waiting to see for decades:
It’s got a little bit of everything: Destruction, humor, characterization, and destruction. Secondly, every action scene has an actual meaning to it. Take Bruce’s climactic fight with Nick Nolte’s weird mashup of Zzzax and The Absorbing Man; at this point, it’s not just about smashing the American West. It’s Bruce facing up to the fact that he’s a screwed up human being and expressing his feelings. Except instead of long monologues, he hits things and nuclear weapons are involved. And if there are monologues, it’s at least two actors having fun; it’s no coincidence the movie’s climax kicks off with Nolte biting into a piece of scenery. That said, it’s got a flaw or two.
It’s Faithful To The Comics, A Little Too Much
One of the common responses to this movie is “COME ON! HULK DOGS! Those were stupid! Why did they ever make a movie with HULK DOGS?!” Weeee-ellllll… this may have had something to do with that.
Similarly, Lee’s experimental editing in the movie is spectacular, but alienating for audiences used to movies cut a certain way. Lee plays with frames within frames and how they flow into each other in a way that’s almost giddy.
The funny thing about Hulk is that the reaction to it was very similar to Man of Steel, in that Ang Lee sat down, read a massive pile of Hulk comics, boiled them down to their key themes and ideas, and made a movie out of it. And people, supposedly, hated it.
It Defines, For Better Or Worse, The Marvel Cinematic Universe
Hulk didn’t get a favorable reaction when it came out, to put it mildly. Arguably Marvel uses it as a blueprint of what not to do; don’t hire an arty filmmaker, or at least not one with the ability to say no, and get rid of them once they start getting feisty. Include enough of the comics to please the fans, but not enough to alienate people who’ve never touched a comic in their lives. Stick to action and leave the thinking part to the Oscar bait.
But should they? One thing I’m fond of pointing out whenever this movie comes up is that despite the received wisdom that everybody hates it, Marvel and Universal went back and made exactly the movie fans claimed they wanted five years later, Louis Leterrier’s pretty good The Incredible Hulk.
The results were exactly the same, financially, and critics were unmoved. Even though they did everything possible short of burn Lee in effigy to announce this was the fun dumb Hulk everyone wanted, it turns out… nobody really wanted it that much. To this day I wonder how much of Hulk’s failure was about Lee’s excesses and how much was about the fact that really just nobody cares about the Hulk that much.
All that said, I’d rather a filmmaker swing for the fences than just hit all the points a screenwriting manual insists have to be there. The key thing about Hulk is that everybody has an opinion on it. They may love it, they may hate it, but they always remember it. And honestly, how many superhero movies can we really say that about?