Lee vs. Lee

The HulkUnexpectedly, the battle that’s truly at the heart of “The Hulk” is not the one that the titular green antihero fights with society at large, the massive arsenal of the U.S. Army or even the tortured depths of his own soul. Rather, it’s the battle between the moviemaking prowess of Ang Lee, who has been responsible for some of the most intricate and touching personal epics committed to film, and the cantankerous spirit of Stan Lee, controversially-proclaimed father of the famed stable of Marvel Comics super-heroes. What results is a movie that pits a grotesquely literal interpretation of the graphical storyteling of comic books against a psychologically complex exploration of human horror. It’s not an altogether disastrous experiment in opposing sensibilities, but it is ultimately, hugely, disappointing.

Great Expectations

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.

Scene from “The Hulk”

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.



  1. khoi.

    i finally got around to seeing the hulk, though it held my curiosity for many months prior to its release. my expectations were much lower than yours because i’d read so many vicious reviews of the film.

    i agree with your assessment that there was a better, smaller film struggling inside this blockbuster. sort of like an anti-hulk – this sensitive creature stuck within a blustery, bombastic show-off.

    i think one of the biggest problems with this film, besides its attempt to accomplish far too much backstory and present-story at once, and its HORRIBLE villains, was that, at its very center, it dealt with four very emotionally isolated characters: banner, his father, betty, and her father. it makes it hard to penetrate the movie because there is such an unwillingness on each character’s part to reveal anything or genuinely connect. the fact that this responsibility (for creating emotional connection) was given to a 15-foot green monster is perhaps more than any director should have to handle.

    there was a lot about this movie i loved. the action sequences were extraordinary, really. just super-organic and insane. watching the hulk free-fall from outer space was totally inspired. i also loved ang lee’s weird obsession with nature, particularly in the scorched desert. he spent a lot of time contemplating the twisted trees and rocks with his camera. and only ang lee would show the hulk sitting in the middle of the desert, staring thoughtfully at a patch of growth on the face of a rock.

    i think i’ll like this movie even more on a second viewing, where i can more easily untangle the good from the very bad.

  2. I bet I’ll like this movie more on the second viewing, too. I bet I’d like it even more if I could give it a ‘Phantom Edit’ treatment, cutting out all the crappy parts and leaving a shorter, leaner, more entertaining film. Somebody should develop a kit that makes it dead easy for home viewers to separate the wheat from the chaff in these bloated Hollywood blockbusters. I’m halfway serious about this — I wish there was a breakbeat version of “The Hulk” — and countless other films — so I could mix my own version.

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