The high expectations that I carried into the opening night screening of “The Hulk” are a result of Ang Lee’s remarkable track-record of creating completely absorbing epics of repression. Not one of his movies, even the messy forays into genre filmmaking like “Ride with the Devil,” have lacked for a wholly realized emotional depth at its core, and not one of them should be missed.
On some level, you could call my high expectations unfair given the creaky source material. And to be sure, “The Hulk” is smarter and more accomplished in piecemeal ways than most of its low-expectation peers in the increasingly crowded category of comic books made into films. It’s better than the overrated “Spider-Man,” far superior to any “Batman” film ever made not starring Adam West, and almost certainly better than the too-horrific-to-watch “Daredevil” — though it suffers beside the underestimated first two installments in the “X-Men” franchise.
Two Films for the Price of One
There is in fact a good film — an Ang Lee film — hidden inside “The Hulk,” mostly when the director lays bare his keen understanding of the humanity and pathos at the heart of the Hulk character. The best example of this is the genuine fear and confusion that Jennifer Connelly manages to communicate through her underwritten part when she first witnesses the transformation of the Hulk back into Bruce Banner. The blocking for this scene is ingenious and unconventional — Connelly watches the frightening change through a side-view mirror while sitting in her car, and remains in her seat, riveted with fear — and Lee expertly resists the urge to succumb to sentimentality.
Above: In order to realize his extremely personal vision for “The Hulk,” director Ang Lee found it necessary to film on the Engineering Room set from Star Trek.
But these moments compete for screen time with a litany of bizarrely mediocre and pedestrian action movie devices. There is a slickly pompadoured villain, a secret underground lair, an all too convenient serendipity in the back stories of the two leads, and what feels like reams of tedious expository dialogue. This is the spirit of Stan Lee at work: a showy, melodramatic storytelling sensibility that presupposes a world of hyperbolic narrative conveniences.
What’s worse, in taming the film’s inner Stan Lee, director Ang Lee has superimposed a graphical editing style designed to mimic the look and feel of comic book panels; he employs an overabundance of gratuitous split-screen compositions and plenty of the cheesiest transitions this side of a 1985 MTV video. The style seems amateur and unformed, lacking even the panache of the original 1968 version of “The Thomas Crown Affair,” which also used similar devices much more effectively.
The Hollywood Hulk
In a strange way, this struggle between subtlety and hyperbole is the perfect, ironic expression of the Hulk as a character. Watching the film is very much like watching a quieter, smarter movie repeatedly intruded upon by a careening, explosive blockbuster. However, my complaints aren’t that there was a blockbuster quality to it at all. In fact, some of the most successful parts of the movie might be considered its Hollywood aspects; nearly all of the action scenes display a true confidence and a heroic kind of thrillmaking, and the computer-generated Hulk, who looked so goofy in previews, is marvelously rendered and believable. In these, Ang Lee has succeeded, but he’s let that blockbuster quality ride roughshod over the human story at the center of the movie. What he promised was the intimate, personal rendering of a myth, but he’s delivered only sketches or fragments of that, which is why this film is such a disappointment.