The Universal Studios brand famously adorns the best Hollywood monster movies. Now two men named Lee have joined forces to reinvent the monster movie and the comic-book movie in one collective stroke of mad genius. Ang Lee's Hulk serves up an indordinately thoughtful take on the vision of comic-book auteurs Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, the Marvel Comics kingpin. Admirably, Ang Lee takes big risks with Hulk; not everything works, but this unusually artful, big-ticket tightrope act is capable of generating a lasting state of wonderment in open-minded viewers.
A prologue set in 1966 introduces the pivotal scientific and psychological concepts at the root of the Hulk's angst. The not-so-jolly green giant known as the Hulk (government code name "Angry Man") is the alter ego of research scientist Bruce Banner, played solidly by Aussie Eric Bana. As a result of his father's self-experimentation, Banner was born with a genetic deformity and raised with a repressed trauma. An accident as an adult awakens the beast within: soon, fits of anger begin transforming the impassive, "bottled up" Banner into an oversized green behemoth, a stomping, leaping id. After his first "Hulk-out," the scared but euphoric Banner explains, "It was like being born."
Stan Lee says he initially envisioned the Hulk as a cross between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein. Ang Lee tosses in King Kong for good measure. Like Mr. Hyde, Banner's alter ego forces him to look in the mirror, to attempt to catch his own Shadow. Bruce's father David (played by a convincingly frazzled Nick Nolte) fills the role of the tortured, cracked Dr. Frankenstein. And Jennifer Connelly's unfortunately injudicious Betty--Bruce's not-so-ambivalent "ex"--hath charms to soothe the savage beast, making her a latter-day Fay Wray.
Aided and abetted by two great talents--cinematographer Frederick Elmes (Blue Velvet, The Ice Storm) and composer Danny Elfman (Batman, Darkman), director Lee takes a creative and unpredictable tack with the stuff comic-book dreams are made of. Lee employs dynamic "graphic" technique to overlay comic book style on a combination of realist drama and presentational melodrama. Using a variety of digital wipes and dissolves, splitting the screen, and shifting the film frame to reveal multiple panels, Lee reimagines the comic-book-come-to-life with nary a dutch angle in sight. Lee also slyly unsettles by editing together shots--in two-person dialogue scenes--taken from both sides of the actors' fretful faces.
The "man against the world" who Bruce/Hulk represents quickly takes on the metaphorical weight of archetypal masculinity. Coiled, impotent rage--the poisoned fruit of social frustrations--breaks out in violent, unreasoned aggression. Lee and regular writing partner James Schamus (sharing writing credit with John Turman and Michael France) explore Banner's powerlessness from every conceivable angle: sexual, professional, psychological, and Oedipal, all functions of his father's obsessions and abuses. Papa Banner doubles as a revision of the comics' Absorbing Man, an unspoken pun for David's global designs and paternal power over Bruce. Nolte's casting resonates with his earlier role in Paul Schrader's Affliction, in which he played the dysfunctional manchild of James Coburn's teetering father-monster. Sam Elliott, as Betty's Army-general father, provides another Jekyll-Hyde iteration of love and hate.
As a bizarre romance, Hulk is the story of a man finding himself and others, and how those objects are eternally at odds. The quiet flats of the desert military base--the visual counterpart to bustling, rolling San Francisco--evince the "fear and loneliness" Betty sees in the men in her life. As a subversive social critique, Hulk comments on our basest impulses: "When it happens, when it comes over me, when I totally lose control—I like it." As such, Lee and his writers also wrestle overtly with American militarism. Bruce's father raves of overthrowing America's "petty rule"; though his tone is hardly seductive, his rhetoric is, as he urges Bruce to be "reborn a hero of the kind that walked the earth long before the pale religions of civilization infected humanity's soul."
But it's not easy making green. While dollar signs danced in executive heads, Lee indulged the rhythms of dreams and nightmares. Withholding the Hulk--and therefore, the orgiastic action summer audiences demand--Lee stirs the hungry Hulk in each audience member. Building slowly and, yes, sometimes awkwardly, Lee understands that we, too, await the release of our aggressions. Once Bruce lives his self-described dream of "Rage, power, and freedom," Lee trumps Sam Raimi's building-hopping Spider-Man with a canyon-bounding Hulk.
The Hulk himself--understandably a digital performer--can trash a room as well as Russell Crowe and yet lacks physical presence at times. At first, the Hulk moves with the halting effect of a Harryhausen puppet. But he grows on you (literally and figuratively), becoming a psychological projection which seems progressively more real. When Lee finally delivers the action-movie goods, he dares you not to thrill as the Hulk takes on clusters of tanks, helicopters, and police cars.
In the end, this problematic but extraordinary amalgam of styles and subjects cannot be easily shaken from the mind. Lee has given us what so many of us claim to want: dazzling, but smart, popular cinema.