“Betty, I am 100%........more”
Is the now infamous Ang Lee directed version of the Hulk just a misunderstood classic, ahead of its time, not what anyone was expecting and far too intellectual for its target audience?
No, I’m afraid we are not talking about another ‘Blade Runner’ here. While I will, and always have praised its actors, its unique editing style and the CGI creation of the Hulk, that cannot take away from the fact that the film is badly paced and structured as well as being emotionally detached from its story and characters. I can totally accept that Lee made ‘Hulk’ as a drama first but no matter what genre it belongs to, it still needs to adhere to these basic rules to work as a successful piece of cinema.
I’ve been trying to get to the root of why the film doesn’t work as a ‘Hulk’ story. I think the answer would have to be this. The story of the Hulk, to me, at least in the earliest comics is a classic monster tragedy. It is a tale of two lovers who seem destined to be together and to live happily ever after but pay the price for meddling in forces beyond their knowledge and comprehension and are forever torn apart. In the film, the audience does not get to feel any tragedy because Bruce Banner and Betty Ross are already separated when we meet them.
Maybe somebody in the comments section can enlighten me as to why this choice was made because I cannot understand what the film gains by it. The scenes between Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly play out pretty much as if their characters still were in a relationship. The characters still clearly have feelings for each other. Since Banner isn’t facing off against a super powered villain with plans for world domination or some sort of gamma bomb Armageddon, the only thing driving the character through the piece is the need to rid himself of the Hulk so he return to a normal life with Betty.
It makes too much sense that, since the Bruce we meet at the start of the film has had such an angst ridden upbringing (something Bana plays very well), Betty represents the light at the end of the tunnel. The film should have introduced us to two people madly in love, united by their common bond of passion for science and their non-existent relationships with their fathers. This way the audience is invested in the film right from the start. We are paying attention because we know this relationship is doomed and it is only a matter of screen minutes before that happens.
I do enjoy the film’s central theme of why everything goes to hell for Banner. The movie is primarily about fate and how it relates to the genetic pool. It is a rather cynical viewpoint embraced by the film that individuals cannot escape the fate which is written into their DNA as passed down by their parents, both on a physical and metaphorical level. Even though Bruce Banner has been separated from his real parents at an early age, changed his name and doesn’t even know about his past, he still ends up working in the same field of scientific research as his father. Even though his is exposed to the gamma radiation as an adult, it only amplifies the formula he was injected with as a child. No matter what, Bruce was fated to be the Hulk.
His father David Banner simultaneously admires the power his son has obtained and resents that he has not been the one to acquire it given that everything which has transpired as done so according to his design. Meanwhile, from the perspective of Bruce and Betty, rather than reuniting with their children out of any sense of love or commitment, it has taken this tragic accident and the fear of its repercussions to bring David Banner and General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross out of parental exile and back into their lives. For all the reasons that the Hulk drives a wedge between Bruce and Betty, it is really these two failed fathers that seem determined to ensure their children will never lead a happy life.
As far as I’m concerned, this is all great stuff. Rather than creating a one dimensional super villain or a barking mad military grunt to force the Hulk into a conflict, we have real characters with motivations. Rather than creating a King Kong/Frankenstein clone where Hulk is chased by army vehicles endlessly for two hours, there is a really interesting story to be found in the film but the finished product just wears you down in the delivery.
I think there really is an obligation to have a Hulk origin story on a large scale with momentum. You cannot introduce Bruce Banner and then spend another twenty five minutes on intimate conversation scenes before he has his accident. You certainly cannot bombard Bruce with gamma rays and then spend another twenty minutes before he actually becomes the Hulk. You cannot alienate and bore the audience with trippy dream sequences. You cannot ask the viewer to accept the concept of a mutant dog when they are only just getting to grips with the Hulk creature itself. You cannot cram all of your ‘Hulk vs. military’ action set pieces into the final act rather than spreading them evenly across the movie.
But the finished film does all of these and that is why it fails. If we met Banner as an adult on the same nuclear test site he grew up on, carrying out the same research, caught in the blast of a gamma bomb not ten minutes after his introduction, transforming into the Hulk very soon after that and forced to go on the run with General Ross in pursuit, that would have given the film all the momentum it needed to hold our attention while still allowing Lee to tell a compelling ‘sins of the fathers’ story.
If only somebody could have leaked concept art of the ‘Hulk Poodle’ before they started shooting. At least we would have known what we were in for.