Saturday, July 11, 2020

Ang Lee's Hulk Dared To Smash Traditional Superhero Movie Rules

Ang Lee's Hulk is the Johnny B. Goode of superhero movies.

In Back to the Future, Marty McFly delivers a lively performance of Johnny B. Goode at a 1950s prom. Similarly, Ang Lee unleashed his unapologetically unique Hulk move onto the public in June 2003. The creative ambitions of McFly and Lee were clear. They both knew exactly what they wanted and were executing their creative visions to match those ambitions. Unfortunately, both the teens at that 1950s prom and summer moviegoing audiences in 2003 weren't receptive to what McFly and Lee, respectively, were dishing out. "I guess you guys aren't ready for that, yet," McFly said once his Johnny B. Goode performance went over like a lead balloon, "But your kids are gonna love it!"

The same can be said for Ang Lee's ahead-of-its-time Hulk. In 2003, there was a strict way superhero movies had to be. Superhero fare had to adhere to traditional blockbuster formulas, hence why the X-Men wore black leather outfits more like the costumes from The Matrix rather than anything they wore in the comics. To deviate from the visual and storytelling norms, like Joel Schumacher's Batman movies had done, was to invite ridicule. In a world of superhero movies that follow a strict set of do's and don't's, here comes Ang Lee's Hulk. Lee dared to put smashing on the back-burner in favor of explorations of the long-term effects of psychological trauma.

In incurring the wrath of fanboys in 2003, Hulk made something occasionally messy, sure, but also impressively ambitious. This particular Hulk movie is an origin tale, one that follows geneticist Bruce Banner (Eric Bana), whose living under the identity of Bruce Krenzler. A freak accident in his laboratory has exposed Banner to a high level of gamma radiation that has unleashed the titular green beast. Turns out, though, that Hulk was always hidden inside him. Bruce's dad, David Banner (Nick Nolte), did experiments on child Bruce that helped pave the way for Hulk's existence. Now David Banner, as well as vengeful General Thunderbolt Ross (Sam Elliot), are out for Bruce, a guy who can prove to be quite a handful if you get his temper going.

What most sticks out to me about Hulk is its bold visual tendencies. Two years before Batman Begins would inspire a trend of gritty-and-realistic comic book movies, Hulk makes no bones about reminding viewers they're watching a film through its grandiose shot transitions. Hulk doesn't just cut to new locations. The camera will instead zoom in to enter a whole new time period altogether or a character will walk across the frame and teleport the viewer to a new location. Oh, and I would be remiss not to mention those split-screens meant to emulate comic book panels. These recurring visual flourishes demonstrate so much creativity, but as a comic book geek, the emulation of comic panels genuinely touched me.

Lee is clearly not ashamed of adapting a comic book. On the contrary, he's delivering some of the most overt visual homages to the artform of comics you'll find in a non-Spider-Verse superhero movie! The distinctive visual sensibilities of Hulk extend to the blocking and lighting of crucial sequences, particularly the haunting nature evoked by shots of Bruce and love interest Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) surveying Bruce's now desolated hometown. A shot of Betty swinging on a swing while Bruce stands nearby, both figures dwarfed by the massive empty space surrounding them, is so evocative, particularly because it's framed in bright daylight. All this brightness makes the void around Bruce chillingly apparent. There is nothing obscure this environment nor the loneliness Bruce feels with his Hulk condition.

An opposite type of light is employed for one of the other most visually dynamic sequences in Hulk. This scene focuses on a chained-up Bruce finally have a prolonged conversation with his father. The two of them sit across from each other in an almost entirely dark void in this massive empty room. Once again, Lee proves to be a master of making every inch of the empty space in a frame to reflect Bruce's sense of isolation. Meanwhile, the scene, at times, takes on the feeling of a one-act play with its sparseness and emphasis on an actor (in this case, Nick Nolte) monologuing. It's not every superhero film whose visuals echo one-act plays, but Hulk's ambitious visual sensibilities clearly indicate it isn't trying to be just another superhero movie.

After all this praise, I do have to say that, if there is one weak link in the movie, it's Eric Bana as Bruce Banner. While not terrible in the role, Bana struggles to adapt to the specific acting style Hulk requires. This is a movie where the performances are as much of a live-wire as the stylized scene transitions. Nick Nolte, Sam Elliot, and Jennifer Connelly all have no trouble adapting to this style of acting. In fact, Nolte and Elliot thrive in an environment that insists they chew the scenery. Bana just doesn't leave as much of an impression, which was maybe inevitable when you're tasked with playing the calm contrast to a massive green monster.

Watching the glorious ambitious nature of Hulk, I have to wonder, would this movie play better in 2020? Would the kids of those 2003 moviegoers really "love it"? Who knows. Superhero movie audiences are a bit more flexible these days with distinctive titles like Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse thriving. Still, even in 2020, I feel like Ang Lee's Hulk would struggle to find mainstream approval. That's OK though. Box office doesn't equal quality. Hulk doesn't need a billion dollars worldwide to be memorable. This is the movie of real-world comic book panels. This is the Hulk-Poodle movie. This is the movie where Nick Nolte chomps down on electrical wires like they're Pop-Tarts. This is Ang Lee's Hulk, the Johnny B. Goode of superhero movies.

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