Marvel Universe

Movie Review: Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) – A Frankenstein for the Modern Age

Written by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, James Schamus, John Turman, and Michael France
Directed by Ang Lee

It could be argued that the 2003 Ang Lee film Hulk is actually the first of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The sequence of events here is never “reimagined” by future films in the series. The character moves along quite well from this film to The Incredible Hulk and then his first appearance in The Avengers.

This is not a bad film to put into that position.

Rather than relying strictly on special effects and battle-type action sequences, Lee tells the story of the human at the center of the storm. Bruce Banner is a human with something inside him that he doesn’t realize exists. He was created by accident, when his scientist father, David, used himself as the subject of genetic testing before impregnating his wife. When Bruce is born, he seems quite ordinary. David took blood, though, and sees something different. At that point, the government finds out about his experimenting on himself and shuts him down. In a fit of rage, David Banner destroys his laboratory and murders his wife.

Bruce’s natural inclination to science ends with him working in his own government laboratory with the beautiful Betty Ross. Unknown to both of them, they were both at the base that day when the elder Banner’s lab exploded. Now they are co-workers with a relationship that didn’t quite work. As they are about to make a breakthrough on their own work, something goes wrong. Bruce takes what should be a lethal dose of gamma radiation to protect a co-worker. Instead of killing him, it seems to enhance him physically.

Of course, that’s not all it’s done…

Hulk has always been the anti-hero. His story is not interesting because of his abilities. It’s interesting because he’s consistently put in a situation where people want to harness his abilities for their own end. This film is no different. With the exception of Betty, nearly everyone Bruce encounters wants to either kill him or exploit him. This film sets in motion Bruce Banner as the lonely drifter trying to fix himself, while wanting to work for good in the world, as well as stay out of the hands of those pursuing him.

I absolutely loved Ang Lee’s use of split screen and moving frames to create the feel of a comic book. I loved the visuals and the use of this rather than constantly cutting back and forth. The special effects are good, although I think the Marvel films perfected the look of the Hulk further down the road. Here he does look more cartoonish although the CGI of the creature in between actor Eric Bana and his final look was very well-done.

The acting is good. Bana manages to be very convincing as both the scientist and the man afraid of what’s inside of him. Jennifer Connelly is good as his love interest and scientist. She’s afraid of what’s going on and trusts the wrong person to help. Both of these actors are portraying characters who grew up damaged due to fathers whose need to prove themselves outweighed their desire to be a parent. Nick Nolte portrays the elder David Banner, looking more like a homeless man in need of a good bath than someone who is believable as holding a job as a janitor. Sam Elliott portrays General Ross, Betty’s father and the other megalomaniac who sees the Hulk in terms of black and white; good and evil.

There’s another story involving another villain who wants to harvest Bruce’s DNA to create a race of super-soldiers, but that feels like it was thrown in to satisfy studio heads. This is really a story of monsters, both those created and those that reside inside many ordinary people.

Hulk isn’t intended to be a superhero movie. If you’re looking for him to score one over the “bad guys”, that’s not really his story. His story is where a monster is created and the man who has it inside him tries to stay alive. That was the basis of his story for many years. He was only a hero when he had to be, not because he went out looking for trouble,

Give Ang Lee’s Hulk a chance. It’s a better film than it has a reputation for. I’ve watched it several times and enjoyed it each time.

Stan Lee cameo: with Lou Ferrigno portraying a security guard walking out of the laboratory the first time we see Bruce Banner entering this building. Ferrigno portrayed the Hulk in the television series.

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