The track record of 21st century film adaptations of Marvel Comics characters continues here with what may be the best of the lot so far.
I’ve had mixed feelings toward how the character’s origin has been monkeyed with – you just can’t beat that “born in the heart of a nuclear explosion” riff. But since the comic origin would only take only a few minutes to tell, and the origin story is the whole story of the film, writer James Shamus’ plot quickly grew on me. Stan Lee stole the whole thing from Amazing Colossal Man anyway.
Hulk tells the story of how government biologist David Banner (Paul Kersey) was looking for a way to human cells more adaptable and resilient using reptile and amphibian DNA. Unable to get permission to use human volunteers, he did what every good mad scientist does: he used himself as a guinea pig. However, he was unable to find any concrete results until his son Bruce was born. When his Army bosses discovered what he was up to, Banner set off a gamma bomb at his lab to hide his work and was effectively “disappeared” by the government spooks for 30 years.
Coincidentally, Bruce (Eric Bana) grew up to enter the same field as his father, as did Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of Banner’s boss General Thunderbolt Ross (Sam Elliott). Perhaps guided surreptitiously by Ross, Bruce is following the same line of research as his dad, who is now hovering around the lab disguised as Nick Nolte (whose arrest photos must have served as an audition for this role). When Bruce accidentally takes an overdose of gamma radiation in the lab, it triggers his dormant mutated DNA, with his anger manifesting itself as mass. During times of stress, the normally reserved scientist loses control, becoming a huge green-skinned behemoth. And of course, the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets!
Director Ang Lee does an incredible job on all counts. The moving split-screen technique he devised to simulate comic panel juxtaposition sounds dumb when you read about it, but he makes it work wonderfully. He also uses the length of the film to his benefit, building dramatic tension slowly, then melding together fine performances and special effects in the second half.
In the comics, in the course of the first few years, the Hulk soon developed his own life and personality, leaving the (increasingly rare) time spent as “puny Banner” to just marking time until there was an excuse for Hulk to return. Even some of Banner’s friends started to like the Hulk more. In the TV series that many remember fondly, the Banner character dominated, with the Hulk relegated to a few freakouts where he lifted cars and caught the bad guys at the end. The movie allows us to get to know Bruce and get involved in his story. So even when the Hulk appears – and is much more fun, given his ability to leap 100 miles and smash up helicopters – we still care what happens to Bruce. Heck, for the first time in any medium, you can see that the two characters are really one.
The only flaw in this grand monster movie comes late in the game as a big climax is called for. David Banner tries to become a Hulk himself with a dose of gamma, but only gains the ability to replicate any substance he’s in contact with – a clear adaptation of Marvel’s villain Carl “Crusher” Creel, the Absorbing Man (who was introduced as a Thor villain, but was a natural foe for Hulk). Lee and company are a bit too vague and hurried as to just what it is happening to Old Papa Banner, and much of the audience is left in confusion.
Putting down the download-happy dolts on the web, who got hold of an unfinished cut early on and were vocal in their disappointment, the f/x are possibly the best EVER in a movie. After getting rushed trying to finish work on Mummy Returns, and having had to flush the work they’d done developing Universal’s aborted digital Frankenstein feature, the folks at Industrial Light & Magic have poured everything they have into making the Hulk as believable a character as possible, from using Ang Lee himself to perform for the motion capture, to using new techniques that render a monster with reflective hair and breathing pores. When this Hulk goes on a rampage, you’re there for every frame of it.
However, it’s the story and acting that sells the show. Wisely, relative unknown Bana was chosen to play the lead, and he helps us reshape our idea of what Banner should be. Some of the strongest scenes in the picture just feature the cast (Nolte in particular) showing off their chops, making their roles as well-rounded as possible. With all this magic at hand, even the comic lettering used for the titles feels more like a respectful nod to the comics than a note of camp.