In 1998, Blade was released in theaters and became the first successful Marvel comics movie adaptation. That Wesley Snipes film and the first X-Men (released in 2000) helped put the superhero films back on track following the spectacular failure of Batman & Robin in 1997. 2002 would be an important year for the genre, with the release of Blade II and, more importantly, of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. The latter would become a box-office juggernaut and was received enthusiastically by critics, who appreciated its tone, action scenes and character development. The film grossed over $800,000,000 worldwide against its $140,000,000 budget so production on another Marvel adaptation obviously began immediately. 2003 would bring us three Marvel films: Daredevil, X-Men 2, and Hulk. While Bryan Singer's X2 was a great success and is now regarded as the best of the X-Men series, both Daredevil and Hulk share a rather bad reputation and were minor hits upon release in theaters. Despite its huge budget, talented cast and crew and the hype surrounding the project, Hulk only grossed $245,000,000 out of its $137,000,000 budget, which is far from Spider-Man's numbers. Ang Lee's film stands at a 61% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which means it remains a very polarizing subject to say the least. So what about it?
I want to make a few things clear about that film before going into details. First, Hulk is not a superhero movie. It's not an action epic with some human drama thrown in it; it IS a human drama with some action scenes. And as such, it is pretty good. However, fans of the comic book who were hoping to see Hulk smash things around and fight a worthy adversary will probably feel like the film is lacking something. The tone of the movie is pretty dark and overall very serious, not unlike recent DC movies. Due to that, Hulk is arguably the odd one out if you look at all the Marvel comics adaptations. It is also what makes the film so fascinating to me; it is unique and I think time has been quite good to it. I absolutely love the way the character's origin story is treated and adapted to screen. I believe that if Hulk was released nowadays, it would fare better and resonate much more with its intended audience.
The origin story of the incredible Hulk is known by literally everyone so I won't bother retell it here. The film's plot follows the comic book pretty closely as far as I know and the accent is put on Bruce Banner's psychological problems caused by the abuse he endured by his dad when he was young and what happens with him when he transforms. I was surprised by how seriously that story was treated. The tone is diametrically opposed to what fans saw in the 70's TV show starring Lou Ferrigno or even the next movies with the Hulk (2008's The Incredible Hulk and The Avengers films). When your film centers around a scientist who transforms in a green giant when he gets angry, you know it could be played for laughs easily (like some recent Marvel films). That's not what happens here as there is a lot of dialogue and exposition scenes dealing with Banner's troubled mind and the abuse he barely remembers. As such, some even complained that the movie was too serious, depressing, overly long and very slow. I agree that the film is indeed a bit too long for my liking as there are a lot of scenes that features slow dialogue and flashbacks that don't always feel really necessary. We don't see Hulk until far into the movie, which made a few viewers angry and bored. However, the amount of time and effort put into character development is not at all surprising when you realize that the director is Ang Lee, who is well known for his well rounded psychological dramas and whose films often feature characters with suppressed or hidden emotions, making him the ideal director for a project such as this. He reportedly approached the story as if it was a Greek tragedy, which is quite an inventive way to see the Hulk's story. The film is not lighthearted and I don't recommend watching it if you are an easily depressed person or if you expect the same amount of action as in the recent Marvel movies.
What I like most about Ang Lee's directing style for the film is the use of split-screen in a lot of scenes. I believe this was used to recreate the panels of a comic-book. It's the only time I've seen the technique used that way and it is absolutely engrossing to watch, making the film flow naturally and setting it apart from others. A few critics complained it made the film hard to follow at times but I don't agree at all! I also like the inventive transitions used throughout the movie. It helps make the long exposition scenes and flashbacks more exciting. Hulk is a very beautiful movie to watch all along that is creatively directed by a man with a strong sense of style and who clearly knew what he wanted to achieve, something that seems lacking in a few recent superhero films (hello Batman v. Superman...).
The main cast includes Eric Bana as Bruce Banner/Hulk, Jennifer Connelly as Betty Ross, Nick Nolte as David Banner/Absobing Man/Zzzax and Sam Elliott as General Thunderbolt Ross. Their work in the film is pretty flawless as they all give heartfelt performances and obviously take the material very seriously. However, I do have some issues with the characterization of the Banners. Let's start with Eric Bana. He makes the best Bruce Banner on the silver screen so far I think, beating Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo. He genuinely seems troubled and desperate and Bana successfully takes you along the psychological trauma his character is going through, hence making the film unusually poignant at times. The only issue I have here is that he doesn't seem to care about anything else but he and Betty. When he realizes the damage the Hulk is causing, he never seems to worry about the innocent victims he makes. As such, the character does not appear really sympathetic to me. Both Connelly and Elliott play their roles very well but their characters are pretty stereotypical. They are portrayed just like in the comics (so we can't really complain I guess) and it fits the tone and story perfectly. Connelly is a great actress and she displays a lot of emotion in a few powerful scenes with Bana. Their relationship is very believable and she is, of course, absolutely gorgeous (sorry, I'm a guy after all).
The biggest issue I have with the film is regarding Nick Nolte's character, who still gives a powerful performance. He portrays Bruce's father and he is really mean. Nolte is perfectly cast as he is genuinely scary and intimidating in some scenes. He experimented on himself with the gamma technology he created to give birth to super soldiers when he was younger before his wife got pregnant. Afraid that he might have passed his bad genes to his child, he attempts to kill his son but he ends up accidentally stabbing his wife. That scene is shown is flashback and is quite traumatic, even for an adult. That movie is clearly not aimed at children! Following Bruce's accident that allows him to become The Hulk, David tries to recreate it in order to get the same powers. It does not work and he instead has the ability to adsorb any materials and energy he touches. Why? It is never explained in the movie and and we get a weak villain. Fans might have thought that he would be the Absorbing Man but then he transforms into lightning, echoing Zzzax, another comics character. To me, that is all pretty confusing and the final battle is honestly very boring to watch, as Hulk and David fight in the sky and we can't see a thing. The ending would have been much better and action packed if David had turned into the Abomination, a villain that is equally powerful as The Hulk and who would appear in the 2008 reboot. Nonetheless, Nolte steals the show every time he is on screen, not unlike Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man.
The special effects, handled by ILM, were a much discussed point of criticism at the time of the film's release. Some argued that Hulk looked like Shrek! I honestly think that's exaggerated as I never had any problem with the way Hulk looked in the 2003 film. In fact, I prefer his look here than in the 2008 reboot ! Call me insane, but I think the CGI effects for the character still hold up quite well today. The weak spot is during the fight scene involving the mutated dogs. They look terribly fake (look at the pic up there) and it's probably why the scene is set at night! The transformation sequences with Hulk are OK but inferior to what we would see in the 2008 film or The Avengers. The pic on the right doesn't do the film justice and it is not as bad as that when we watch it. Apart from that, the special effects are spectacular, especially during the other big action sequence, wisely set in the desert. Hulk always gets to fight with the U.S. army and Ang Lee created an awesome sequence that is the highlight of the film for me. After all, no Hulk fillm would be complete without him smashing things around. Pure childish fun!
Set Me Free by Velvet Revolver
Another strong point of Hulk is its music. Michael Danna, a frequent collaborator of Ang Lee, supposedly created a score that was rejected by the studio at the last minute, which featured African music influences and electric guitars instead of the more traditional symphonic approach. Danny Elfman was then hired to create yet another superhero soundtrack. He was not new to the genre at all, having scored Batman (1989), Dick Tracy (1990), Darkman (1990), Batman Returns (1992) and Spider-Man (2002). His score for Hulk is excellent and features a memorable main theme that is both sad and touching, fitting the character perfectly. The bulk of the score sounds a bit like Spider-Man at times but it has its own identity as it notably features African chants and a few more exotic instruments, not unlike Danna's rejected score (?!). The album is worth seeking out if you like film music and want something different than just another standard bombastic soundtrack like we get in most superhero films lately. Elfman always writes intelligent music that is memorable and Hulk is no exception. Surprisingly, there wasn't an album of pop/rock songs released alongside the film, as was the case with Spider-Man (2002) or Daredevil (2003). However, the Velvet Revolver song Set Me Free was used during the end credits and a promotional video using footage from the film was released. The song is quite good and was also featured on their first album Contraband (2004).
Hulk Soundtrack Suite by Danny Elfman
Watch it !
Following the release of Hulk in 2003 and its rather bad reception, Ang Lee considered retiring from the movie business, before changing his mind and directing well received films such as Brokeback Mountain (2005) or Life of Pi (2012). He keeps working steadily, just like the film's stars who did not seem to suffer any backlash after the film. The next Marvel comics adaptations except Spider-Man 2 (2004) would generally be average at best, until the release of Iron Man in 2008, a well done film that marked the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Many more films followed, including The Incredible Hulk (2008), a reboot of the Hulk starring Edward Norton and directed by Louis Leterrier, which was met with better reviews than Ang Lee's film but grossed a similar amount at the box-office. I personally prefer the 2003 version much more as I find the human drama very engrossing and I love Eric Bana's performance as Bruce Banner. The 2008 movie is not bad at all but seemed hollow to me when I saw it. Hulk (2003) has a very unique style of its own and is different from the rather formulaic Marvel films that have been released since the beginning of the MCU. The movie is both intelligent and entertaining; it's not only a repetitive mindless blockbuster. Watching it now feels like a breath of fresh air into an oversaturated market. Don't miss it!
Thank you for reading!
The official trailer
Chad on July 16, 2019:
Even though I'm a few years late to the party I really enjoyed this review. However, to say that comic fans just wanted more "action" is just not true. The most legendary run up until the recent masterful Immortal Hulk that has been running for a few years is the 11 year run from 1987-1998 by Peter David of The Incredible Hulk. Really this film pulls a lot from that. David's work really got to the heart of the Hulk character and was much more character driven and introspective rather than just action everywhere. The first volume (probably out of 4) Omnibus of David's run comes out in January of this 2020. I agree with a lot of your assessment except that comic fans just wanted more action. The comics of Hulk in the right hands like David showed something so much deeper like this film.
I do think there are some flaws of this film but it is really a mis-understood film that I think came out too early and was really ahead of it's time. I think now something like this a little more polished would have been met with better reception.
Alex Dino (author) from Canada on August 20, 2016:
Interesting idea ! I would definitely buy that graphic novel !
Scribbling Geek from Singapore on August 19, 2016:
I appreciated the different direction Lee Ang tried for this. But frankly, it was a turn-off going into the cinema expecting an action hit, and getting a Freudian like kind of analysis. It probably would have worked better as a limited edition graphic novel.