Friday, April 24, 2015

Thoughts on Hulk (2003) and The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Hulk (2003)
Directed by: Ang Lee.
Written by: John Turman and Michael France and James Schamus based on the Marvel comic book character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Starring: Eric Bana (Bruce Banner), Jennifer Connelly (Betty Ross), Sam Elliott (Ross), Josh Lucas (Talbot), Nick Nolte (Father), Paul Kersey (Young David Banner), Cara Buono (Edith Banner), Todd Tesen (Young Ross), Kevin Rankin  (Harper), Celia Weston (Mrs. Krensler).

The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Directed by:  Louis Leterrier.
Written by: Zak Penn.
Starring: Edward Norton (Bruce Banner), Liv Tyler (Betty Ross), Tim Roth (Emil Blonsky), William Hurt (General 'Thunderbolt' Ross), Tim Blake Nelson (Samuel Sterns), Ty Burrell (Leonard), Christina Cabot (Major Kathleen Sparr), Peter Mensah (General Joe Greller), Lou Ferrigno (The Incredible Hulk / Security Guard), Paul Soles (Stanley), D├ębora Nascimento (Martina).

Sometimes I amuse myself by wondering if the Superhero movie landscape would be any different today if Ang Lee’s Hulk was more successfully – either with audiences or critics. The film came out in 2003, when superhero movies were nowhere near as prevalent as they are today. Joel Schumacher had killed Batman, and Christopher Nolan hadn’t resurrected him yet. Superman had been dead for nearly 2 decades. We had no idea what the Marvel Comic Universe was. There was only two superhero franchises – still in their infancy – going at the time. Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) had been a hit, and the sequel came out the same summer (although later) than Hulk. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) had been the highest grossing film of the year – beating out the second Lord of the Rings movie and Star Wars Episode II, which no one thought it would do. Then, with a lot of fanfare, Hulk was released – and more or less bombed. Yes, it made $132 million at the box office – but Spider-Man had made $400 million. If they had plans to make Hulk into a franchise, they stopped. Watching the film again, for the first time since it came out, it’s easy to see why it didn’t do particularly well with anyone – it quite simply isn’t very good (that’s not to say it’s bad). It’s both a mediocre superhero movie and a mediocre Ang Lee movie – but the thing about it is this – it IS an Ang Lee superhero movie. I’m not sure how many superhero movies since Hulk – aside from Nolan’s Batman films – undeniably feel like the work of their directors, and not like the work of some corporate committee. To be fair, many of those movie are far superior to Ang Lee’s Hulk – but I still dream of a world where even huge blockbusters that cost hundreds of millions of dollars feel at least somewhat personal.

To be far, even if Ang Lee’s Hulk had been successful, at best it would have just delayed the inevitable transfer from personal to corporate vision. When the Marvel Comic Universe on film started, they did hire at least (somewhat) more personal filmmakers – like Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Iron Man 2), Kenneth Branagh (Thor) and Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger). Even Louis Leterrier, who they hired to reboot The Incredible Hulk, just five years after Lee’s failure, was an action director of some experience – having made the first two Transporter movies as well as the Jet Li vehicle Unleashed. His hiring sent a message though – that this Hulk would be more action oriented than Lee’s morose character study of a man haunted by childhood abuse. This new film would be more smashy-smashy, and less weepy-weepy. It’s a similar message Marvel sends now – replacing directors like Favreau, Branagh and Johnston with TV vets like Alan Coulter (Thor 2: The Dark World) and Anthony & Joe Russo (Captain America: The Winter Solider, the next Captain America and the next two Avengers movies after Ultron), or a relative directing novice like Shane Black (Iron Man 3) or replacing the singular Edgar Wright with the not singular Peyton Reed on the upcoming Ant-Man. Marvel now has a house style, and they do not want singular visions anymore – they want people who will make the movies look and feel like all the others, with a few touches here and there to differentiate between them. I enjoy James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy as much as anyone – but it sure doesn’t feel much like a film from the director of Slither or Super. I look forward to Avengers: Age of Ultron, and think Joss Whedon is incredibly talented – but even he, who is as responsible as any one person is for the direction of the Marvel movies over the past decade, has not been able to add much in the way of strong female characters to the films – which is normally a Whedon trademark. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow may be a great character – and Johansson is consistently excellent in the movies, but she’s always playing second fiddle to at least one male character. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora is a great character, but she’s still behind a dancing Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Anyway, I seem to have gotten off track a little bit here. Back to Ang Lee’s Hulk and its problems. As a film, Hulk really is kind of a mess. There is a lot of heavy (and heavy handed) character driven stuff in the first hour or so in the movie. It introduces us to Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) via his tragic backstory – adopted when he was still a young boy after his parents were supposedly killed in an army base explosion. But we know more than Bruce does in the early going – that his father, a scientist, had been experimenting with something to alter his own DNA, to make him stronger, and that he passed that down to Bruce. Bruce is now a scientist, working with gamma radiation, which he thinks may help people in the future cure all sorts of diseases and make them stronger – but all he has been able to do so far is blow up frogs. Then, in a heroic act, he saves a co-worker by taking a huge dose of gamma radiation himself – something that should kill him, but of course doesn’t. But now, when he gets angry, he’s no longer Bruce Banner – but he transforms into a giant green monster – who many people at the time said looked like the Jolly Green Giant – and they weren’t exactly wrong – the coloring is strongly reminiscent of that Brussel sprout pitchman.

There is, of course, a lot more story than that. There’s Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), Bruce’s girlfriend and partner in the lab, who is many ways is reprising her Oscar winning role in A Beautiful Mind (2001) – as the woman who has to be depressed, and look morose, as her genius mate cannot control himself. There’s Ross’ father, General Ross (Sam Elliot), who knew Banner’s father on that army base, and both wants to protect his daughter, and figure out what this new Banner is hiding. There is Talbot (Josh Lucas), a corporate stooge, who also works with the army who wants to figure out how to turn what Bruce is doing into a weapon. And then there’s Nick Nolte as Banner’s long lost father who gets out of jail at the most convenient time imaginable, but doesn’t want a heartwarming father-son reunion.

Ang Lee may seem today like a somewhat surprising choice to direct a big budget action movie – but it made some sense back in 2003. His last film was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), a brilliant action epic, and although its breathtaking effects were mainly practical and wire work, it seemed like it was a good idea at the time to allow him to direct action. But this is also the director of films like The Ice Storm (1997), a morose (yet brilliant), family drama, and that Lee shows up in the early scenes of Hulk. Eric Bana makes the choice to try and make Banner into a repressed character suffering the effects of his traumatic childhood – but basically, he just comes across as bored. The movie drags in the first hour with all this weight. The second hour is a mess of one action sequence after another, and Banner transforms and fights off the army – the angrier he gets, the bigger he grows – and eventually having to confront his father, who has transformed into something greater as well.

I have to give Lee credit for trying something new here. It’s becomes fairly standard issue for comic books movies to try to be very, very serious now – but it wasn’t back in 2003. Lee wanted to make a movie about a man who turns into a giant monster every time he gets angry, but take it seriously. That may sound strange – but it’s basically what Nolan did with a trilogy of movies about a billionaire who dresses up like a bat to fight a man with a burlap sack mask, a guy in clown makeup, and a muscle bound man with a strange breathing apparatus. It worked for Nolan – it didn’t really for Lee. But dammit, he tried. He also tried some interesting things visually – experimenting by splitting the screen, and having boxes, so at times the screen looked like a comic book. Again, I’m not sure it totally worked (in fact, I know it didn’t) – but it was an interesting idea.

What ultimately undoes Hulk is that the film takes itself too seriously for a movie where the special effects are not good enough to take seriously. This Hulk never feels real – never looks real, has an offputtingly bright shade of green. The action scenes are confused and overlong. And Eric Bana doesn’t have Christian Bale’s charisma to make a sulking man into anything other than a bore. Hulk is a flawed movie to be sure – but it was an ambitious one. It failed – but it was trying for something.

In contrast, the 2008 film The Incredible Hulk, directed by Louis Letterier, and starring Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, has far less ambition, but it is far more successful working on its own terms. Thankfully, the film doesn’t try to truly reboot the franchise – the film disposes of the origin story during some flashes over the opening credits - and it’s not the same as the one in Ang Lee’s Hulk – although Banner starts this movie where Bana’s Lee ended, in South America. Banner is living anonymously – working at a soft drink bottling plant, and trying to discover a cure for his affliction. He is also learning ways to control his anger, so he doesn’t just Hulk out every time he gets angry. Of course, General Ross (William Hurt) discovers where he is, and sends a team – led by Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) after him, and of course, Banner escapes and comes back to America. He re-teams with his old flame Betty (Liv Tyler), and tracks down a scientist he thinks may be able to help him (Tim Blake Nelson) – all the while on the run from General Ross and Blonsky.

There is much less plot in this version of the Hulk than in Lee’s – and no real unnecessary characters. Everyone in the movie basically has one function, with no real complexity to them, and the film is basically one big chase, with a few stops along the way for a Norton to Hulk out and smash a bunch of things – leading, of course, to a big showdown with Blonsky – now a gigantic creature himself – on the streets of Harlem.

Marvel learned a thing or two from their experience with Lee and his Hulk. People do not want nor need a complex backstory. They just want a lot of things to be smashed- and the movie delivers on that. Actually, watching the film now, 7 years after it was made, is how low stakes the film feels when compared to the rest of the Marvel films. Blonsky may turn into a monster – but the fate of the world is never at stake – just the fate of one street in Harlem. The film has almost no ambition – even by the standards comic book movies. But what it sets out to do, it mainly does. They did a smart thing and made this Hulk a darker green than Lee’s – no Jolly Green Giant this time. They also have little backstory, little character development and never takes itself very seriously. It’s a straight ahead movie.

It was used simply as a way to re-introduce the character to audiences before The Avengers. Of course, the movie didn’t really make any more money than Lee’s Hulk, and Marvel didn’t get along with Norton, so they once again had to recast the role for upcoming movies (with Mark Ruffalo). There have been rumors of a standalone Hulk movie with Ruffalo – who audiences seem to like more than Bana or Norton – but then again, he doesn’t really have much to do in The Avengers. Everyone remembers the lines “I’m angry all the time” (which, to me, simply raises more questions, not answers any) and of course “Puny God” – which is my favorite moment in the film – but he barely has a character to play in the film.

So what film is better? The ambitious film that fails to live up to its ambitions, or the non-ambitious film that delivers exactly what it sets out to do? I’ll let you decide that. I hadn’t revisited either film since they came out – and probably won’t revisit them again anytime soon. Neither is a great film, neither is a disaster either.

I do know which film I wish had been successful – Ang Lee’s. Had Lee made a successful film, perhaps superhero movies today would be different – and for the better. Probably not. Sooner or later, when hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent, the people putting up that money are going to want a lot of say. But it’s nice to think what could have been.

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