Way back in 2016 I reviewed The Incredible Hulk
and gave a pretty thorough overview of the character and his history. Obviously, there’s no point rehashing all of that again, so I’m just going to share this little tidbit I came across while researching this movie, because it’s the most perfect summation of the Ultimate Marvel universe I’ve ever seen.
Wow. That’s mature AND realistic.
Most people familiar with the comic book movie genre are aware that, only a scant five years before the Ed Norton starring Incredible Hulk, there was another big-screen version, the Ang Lee directed and less-boastfully titled Hulk. What many may not remember (because unlike me they are not ancient, decrepit relicts dancing forlornly on the lip of the grave) was just how big a deal this movie originally was. Yeah, sure, now it’s this weird half-forgotten little afterthought, but back in 2003 this movie was supposed to change the game totally.
Picture the scene. It’s Summer 2003. America is settling into what will surely be a short and uneventful occupation of post-Saddam Iraq and the world is breathing a sigh of relief as Vladimir Putin ushers in safe and steady governance in Russia following the chaotic Yelstin years. And at the box-office, movies based on Marvel characters have finally broken their decades long curse and are seeing box-office success and even a measure of critical appreciation. But still just a measure. Comic book movies were still regarded largely as silly, disposable (if entertaining) mental popcorn. We had yet to see a movie that could truly capture the intellectual and emotional heft of the graphic novel medium at its best.
With a few notable exceptions.
Hulk was meant to change all that. In Ang Lee, it had the most critically acclaimed director ever to helm a movie in the genre. With the Hulk, it had a character that not only had mass name recognition (thanks to the seventies TV show) but had the potential to tell a more mature tale about rage, trauma and masculinity. And the early buzz and interviews made clear that this was exactly what Lee was aiming for. This was not going to be a dumb summer actioner. This was going to be a serious film, with serious themes. This was the film that was going to force the superhero movie to grow up. This was what would finally break the genre’s “cred-ceiling”. Did it succeed?
It’s more child-like and innocent looking than either the Norton or Ruffalo Hulks and it works for me.
And, we must give credit where credit is due: it’s doing something different. It definitely is. And more power to it.
The downside is, what it’s trying to do is DULL.
And I know how that sounds! “Oh Mouse couldn’t keep his eyes open because there’s not an explosion every five minutes!” But that’s not what I mean. I am actually all for a Hulk movie where the Hulk hardly appears. My favourite part of the Norton version is not any of the Hulk scenes. It’s the first act set in Brazil where Banner is living undercover because those scenes had tension. They had stakes. That movie ain’t high art or nuffin’ but it understood how to take the concept of “if this guy gets angry, shit gets fucky” and wring some goddamn suspense out of it. Hulk 2003…something isn’t working. There’s plenty of good parts here but the wheel’s aren’t clicking.
So the movie begins in 1966 with military scientist David Banner doing some shady military science. He asks his supervisor, Thaddeus Ross, for permission to begin human trials, as killing starfish and monkeys just isn’t doing it for him anymore. Ross, of course, refuses and Banner, also of course, decides to experiment on himself because it’s the sixties and scientists in that era did not give a single solitary fuck. A few weeks later, his wife tells him that they’re going to have a baby with all the warmth and emotion of the speaking clock.
So here’s the first real big problem with this movie; every performance is so damn subdued. I don’t think anyone actually raises their voice above a gentle murmur in the first half of the movie. It’s so all pervading that it has to be a deliberate choice. And I suppose I can see why it might have worked, contrasting this quiet, universal emotional restraint against the loud raging id of the Hulk when he finally emerges but even the Hulk scenes are weirdly…quiet.
Anyway, Ross discovers that Banner’s been doing experimentation with human DNA and boots him off the project. Banner reacts calmly and with good grace by setting off a nuclear chain reaction at the base and then rushing home to his wife and baby son Bruce…
Cut to the modern day and scientist Bruce Krenzler is working in Berkeley on some medical wonder tech that involves radiation, nanomachines and frogs. Krenzler needs today’s experiment to go great because’s there’s a review coming up and complicating matters even further, he’s just broken up with his lab partner Betty Ross. Apparently the relationship didn’t work because Bruce wasn’t “passionate” enough but honestly I don’t see how it’s fair that he have to display emotion when no one else in this entire universe does.
Alright, good enough time as any to talk about the split-screen.
So one of the things this movie got quite a bit of praise for when it came out was the innovative use of split-screen to mimic comic book panels.
It’s like a page from my favourite comic; Boring Assholes #134!
I remember reading a lot of reviews noting approvingly that this was an actual “comic book movie” rather than a movie with comic book characters. But here’s the problem. Comic book panels aren’t as aesthetic or artistic choice. They’re just a functional necessity of the medium. This is a bit like if, when directing Sense and Sensibility, Ang Lee had ended every scene with a page turning because, y’know, that’s how they do it in books. Now, split-screen absolutely can serve an artistic purpose, like how in 24 it’s used to ratchet up a sense of escalating threat, but here it’s just there. It’s just reminding us that, yes, this is based on a comic book and, yes, the creators are aware of that. Occasionally it does create a visually arresting image but more often than not it’s just distracting and gimmicky.
Anyway, the experiment succeeds only in causing a frog to explode and Bruce and Betty are devastated by this failure, and so sit alone in a room talking at each other in hushed monotones.
The next day Betty is visited by Glen Tablbot, her blond asshole ex-boyfriend with a shit-eating grin who works for her father but who’s in it for the money, not the science, man.
Thank goodness this stunningly original movie that re-defines the superhero genre doesn’t rely on stale overused tropes.
I kid, but I actually really like Josh Lucas as Talbot, if for no other reason than he seems to understand that movies should be fun. Anyway, sing along if you know the words; Talbot has heard about the incredible frog-destroying power of Betty and Bruce’s research and wants to acquire it for the military in case France starts getting uppity. But Bruce is too pure and noble a scientist for that and wants his research to benefit little sick children and injured puppies and GAWD THIS SHIT AGAIN.
I went over this in the previous hulk review but it bears repeating; Bruce Banner is not a good man. Bruce Banner, like Frankenstein, recklessly tampered with forces he didn’t fully understand for selfish reasons and was punished for his DAMNABLE HUBRIS. It’s supposed to be a cautionary tale, not a tale about the world’s nicest man getting shit on by fate for no real reason. And it’s honestly baffling to me that no live action version, whether Bixby, Norton, Ruffalo or Bana, ever had the stones to say “yeah, this dude kinda had it coming”.
Heading home for the day, Betty notices that the new janitor is considerably more “Grizzly Adams”-esque than then old guy. This is David Banner, now in his seventies and played by Nick Nolte. Nolte grew his hair out for the part into a magnificently wild and scraggly mane, which backfired when he was arrested for drunk driving during filming.
The next day, as they run another experiment there’s a malfunction and Bruce and Betty’s lab assistant Harper is almost killed by a blast of gamma radiation. Fortunately, Bruce heroically places himself between Harper and the machine, blocking the blast. Of course, gamma radiation’s distinguishing characteristic is that it passes right through solid matter which is why it’s so dangerous so Harper is almost certainly going to die from cancer. Still though, real nice gesture Bruce.
Bruce wakes up in hospital and Betty tells him that he should be dead (honestly, with this performance I’m not sure he’s not) but Bruce tells her that he’s “100%. More”.
“I’m using hyperbole Betty! Hyperbole! God! I feel so ALIVE!”
Later, after being dosed out of his gourd on painkillers, Bruce wakes in the dead of night to find Nick Nolte looming over him which happens to all of us from time to time.
From left to right: Dog, Dog turning into Nick Nolte, Nick Nolte.
David tells Bruce that his real name is Bruce Banner and he is his father and that its his experimentation that’s the reason that Bruce isn’t a giant gelatinous mass of tumours right now. Bruce tells David to take a hike but later loses his temper in the lab and transforms into a Playstation 2 cutscene.
The next day Betty finds Bruce unconscious in his home after apparently having a smashing night on the town (eh? eh?). Betty’s father, now General Ross, arrives and places Bruce under house arrest, saying they found his wallet at the wrecked laboratory.
Later that night, Bruce gets a call from his Pop telling him that he took some of his DNA and injected it into his dogs and sent them to kill Betty. Just at that moment, Glenn Talbot arrives and starts beating Bruce up because he thinks he’s going behind his back and working out a deal with Ross. This, as you can imagine, doesn’t work out to well for Talbot because the Hulk’s catchphrase is “you wouldn’t like me when I’m in a hurry to get to my girlfriend who’s about to be eaten by big green dogs”.
Bruce hulks out, smashes Talbot like Russia’s chances of winning Eurovision anytime soon and bounces over to Betty’s house just in time to save her from being eaten. I wish I could say that the sight of Hulk whaling on a bright green poodle is enough to elevate this movie to the realms of giddy comic book fun but even this SOMEHOW is boring. A lot of the fight happens off screen in a darkened forest while Betty sits in the car and looks worried.
After killing the dogs, Hulk changes back into Bruce and Betty calls her father who takes them both back to the secret military base where this whole farrago began. Betty convinces Ross to try and help Bruce, although he’s doubtful that David Banner’s son can be anything but a menace.
As if to prove his point, David Banner breaks into the lab and subjects himself to the same experiment which turned Bruce into the Hulk. He doesn’t get to be the Hulk, but he does get a decent consolation prize. He turns into the Absorbing Man, with the power to absorb literally everything he comes in contact with and make it part of himself.
I think this explains why Disney don’t want this to be canon. Probably hits a bit too close to home.
At the base, Talbot, still somehow alive, takes over Bruce’s treatment and starts torturing him to try and get him to hulk out. That goes about as well as could be expected and soon Hulk is rampaging through the base and we get a ridiculous moment where Talbot is blown up and freezes in mid-air because Ang Lee really wants you to know this is a comic book movie.
Oh ho! We have fun here.
Hulk escapes through the desert, and I have to give credit here, the scenes of Hulk just bouncing languidly across the desert are very comic faithful. Ross gives chase with half the US military and they eventually track the Hulk to San Francisco where Betty is able to calm him enough to change back into Bruce.
Bruce is placed in a special prison cell probably built by the same company that did Magneto’s and his father is placed in with him, David having surrendered himself on the condition that he be allowed to speak to his son.
We now get probably my favourite scene in the whole movie, which is just this stark little minimalist two-man play between Eric Bana and Nick Nolte. And it’s weird, but it kinda works for me? Maybe it’s just the theatre snob in me.
I would absolutely pay $200 to see this and then pretend I understood it afterwards over wine in the foyer.
Seriously though, both Nolte and Bana go HAM and this one scene really does stand head and shoulders above everything else in the movie. And it’s just two men talking. But it’s not boring, I’ll tell you that. Banner tells his father that he remembers his mother (and remembers that it was David that killed her). David tells Bruce that he’s come to see his “real” son, because he needs to absorb the Hulk’s strength to destroy the US military and when Bruce refuses he takes a bite out of a power cable and absorbs an entire military base’s worth of electricity.
“I know actors who only metaphorically chew the scenery and they’re all cowards.”
What follows next is unwatchable. I don’t mean bad, I mean I literally am unable to watch it. I cannot visually parse what is supposed to be happening here.
While Hulk and the Absorbing Man battle in a poorly lit vat of pea-soup, Betty helpfully explains that David is absorbing all the ambient energy which is certainly one way to explain her performance.
Anyway, something happens, there’s an explosion and everyone thinks David and Bruce must be dead.
But, far away in the Amazon rainforest, a mysterious American doctor has started treating the locals and warning the local ruffians that they wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.
Is it better to strive for greatness and fail, or aim for competence and hit your mark? Hulk 2003 has plenty about it that’s interesting but, if you’ll excuse me, so the hell what? Interesting isn’t good. Interesting isn’t moving or thrilling or transcendent. Interesting just makes you go “huh” and that doesn’t justify the cost of a cinema ticket.
Look, I realise this is the most basic, unenlightening criticism you can make of a movie but it’s boring. It is. It just is. There’s no life. There’s no spark. It’s DOA. Dull. Overly-Pretentious. Annoying.
Somehow makes one of the most bombastic and visually spectacular characters in the history of comics boring.
Our Heroic Hero 09/25
A decent and quite faithful depiction of ol’ Jade Jaws let down by a distractingly awkward and just plain…off…performance of Bruce Banner.
Our Nefarious Villains 14/25
If everyone in this thing had managed to rise to the level of Nick Nolte it’d be a better movie.
Our Plucky Sidekicks 05/25
I would hereby like to withdraw my previous critique of Liv Tyler as Betty Ross as low energy because my God, Jennifer Connolly makes her seem like Margot Robbie on uppers.
No stinger in these barbaric, pre-MCU times.
Wait a minute, was that Stan Lee?!
That was Stan Lee, appearing as a security guard with Lou Ferrigno, the original TV Hulk.
Any names of comic book characters clunkily worked into dialogue that no one would ever say in real life?
“My father sent them. He is my father. He wanted me to change. He wanted me to change into that mindless hulk.
FINAL SCORE: 36%
NEXT UPDATE: 31 March 2022
NEXT TIME: Pokémon? Is that like Digimon?