Hulk

  • Director:  Ang Lee
  • Writer:  James Schamus  /  Michael France  /  John Turman
  • Producer:  Avi Arad  /  Larry Franco  /  Gale Anne Hurd  /  James Schamus
  • Stars:  Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Award Nominations:  VES
  • Length:  138 min
  • Genre:  Action  (Comic Book – Marvel)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  19 June 2003  (#14 – 2003)
  • Box Office Gross:  $132.17 mil
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #108 (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • Nighthawk Notables:  none

Perhaps the first thing to point out about Ang Lee’s Hulk is that it was the fourteenth highest grossing film of 2003 but it had the sixth largest opening weekend of 2003.  Hulk earned 47% of its total domestic gross in its opening weekend.  Today, that’s not a surprising number and it happens several times each year and several films with far higher opening weekends have had a higher percentage of their total gross come from that number (mostly comic book films and Twilight films).  But back in 2003, it was unheard of.  Indeed, up until 2009, it continued to be almost entirely unheard of (that was when a film with a higher opening weekend (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) finally broke Hulk’s record).  How bizarre was it that Hulk opened so well and then faltered so badly?  I haven’t finished my own spreadsheet so I can’t properly do a comparison like this and Box Office Mojo’s new site doesn’t allow for an easy determination for that answer, but before Hulk, no film with an opening weekend over $20 million had ever earned that much of its total gross in its opening weekend.  Given its massive opening weekend (the 16th largest ever at the time, larger than any pre-1997 film and larger than any pre-2001 film except Lost World and Phantom Menace), it was expected to do much more.  Of the 15 films above it, the next highest percentage was 39.8% and only two films were above 35% (a number, that if Hulk had reached, would have been a domestic gross of $177 mil instead of $132).  What all of that says (with interesting statistics) is that lots of people went to see Hulk initially but either they didn’t tell their friends to go see it or they didn’t go back to see it again.  And I suppose I can relate to that.  Of the 15 higher grossing opening weekends to that point, I saw 10 of them in the theater and six of those I saw multiple times including the other two comic book films on the list, both of them Marvel (relevant in a minute).  Hulk had been an interesting film but it wasn’t a compelling film and it didn’t draw me back to the theater like Spider-Man and X2 had.

If there is a study to be written about the way Marvel Comics have been presented on-screen (and there probably has been already), Hulk will have an interesting place and it will be fascinating to see how it’s treated in terms of the overall story.  Anyone who is thoroughly familiar with the story of Marvel Comics or who has read Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story knows that Stan Lee spent years trying to get Hollywood interested in Marvel’s characters. (a brief digression:  My book link is to Powells. Jeff Bezos is a scum-sucking piece of shit and his company is a human rights disaster that destroys the world in a variety of ways.  In this era of COVID (remember – this is Review in the Era of COVID), remember that independent bookstores are the lifeblood of communities and many of them, though not open for browsing, are open for online sales.  Don’t buy from the slave-driving douchebag who doesn’t care about humanity.  Buy from an indie.)  But no one was taking him up on it so things got piece-mealed out.  Hulk was a show.  Dr. Strange was a tv movie.  Spider-Man was sort of both.  Marvel characters that were more tangential to the Marvel Universe got feature films that sucked (Howard the Duck, Blade).  Then came X-Men and Hollywood suddenly realized, first, that it could make a good Marvel movie and second, that the movie could make good money.  But by this time, Marvel had parceled out all their major properties.  Fox was making the X-Men films and would later follow with Daredevil and Fantastic Four, which proved that they could also make shitty movies and still make good money.  Sony (Columbia) would follow two years later with Spider-Man (which was even better than X-Men and made far more money).  And then came Universal with Hulk.  Even by the time the Marvel Cinematic Universe technically started in 2008 with the release of Iron Man, the films were being released through different studios (Universal released Incredible Hulk while Paramount handled the Iron Man, Thor and Captain America films) before Disney, which would buy Marvel in 2009, would manage to pull all their MCU properties together in time to release Avengers in 2012.  So this film is pushed aside in a lot of ways.  It didn’t really lead to a franchise like X-Men had for Fox or Spider-Man had for Sony.  It isn’t considered part of the MCU so people don’t watch it when they want to binge on the most successful film series of all-time.  And yet, neither of those things is fully true and it has to do with the circumstances of the second film being made.  Incredible Hulk wouldn’t come along until five years after Hulk (X-Men only had to wait three years for a sequel and Spider-Man waited just two) and because the entire film was re-cast it was treated as it it were a re-boot rather than a true sequel.  But, given the way the story works (Bruce Banner is on his own in South America, he’s already been the Hulk, he’s being hunted by General Ross), the story treats the film as a sequel.  And for a long time, that film felt like it was separate from the MCU as it would develop because Bruce Banner would again be recast, Betty Ross wouldn’t be used again and General Ross wouldn’t show up again in an MCU film until Civil War (eight years and eleven films later) so it was really just that Tony Stark cameo in the post-credits scene that was the real connection to the rest of the MCU.

So, here we have the original Hulk film, the first time that the Hulk would appear in a feature film, the first time he would appear as a CGI creation rather than just Lou Ferrigno covered in green paint (Ferrigno’s son appears very briefly as Hourman in the pilot of Stargirl which premiered the other night if you have any DC interest and it’s only tangentially connected to the Arrowverse, so you don’t feel like you need to watch 20 seasons of four other shows first) and the first time we would really see on screen what he could do.  It’s one thing to have Ferrigno smashing a wall that falls down or bending a steel bar.  It’s quite another when the Hulk picks up a tank, twirls around with it and then hurls it hundreds of yards.  It’s the film that was a big success (16th highest opening weekend ever at the time remember) but also wasn’t (only 13th highest grossing film of its year).  It’s a film that would spawn a franchise (a sequel, other films with the characters) but also wouldn’t (no actor in this film appears in those films).  It’s a film made by a truly visionary director (it’s safe to say that this will remain the only comic book adaptation in cinematic history that will come as the middle film between two DGA winning films) but, even though it’s his highest grossing film domestically, it’s unlikely to get much of a mention in any retrospective of his career.

So what do we really have?  Why did it open so well and then falter so badly?  How good of a film is it actually?  And if there is blame to be laid, where does it belong?

Well, the film is fairly decent.  It is by no means a great film, it is far inferior to X-Men and Spider-Man and, if it is to be considered part of the MCU (which technically it isn’t) it is definitely weaker than almost all of the other films and might be weaker than all of them (Thor: Dark World definitely gives it a run for the money).  But it’s far, far superior to a lot of Marvel films from the same era (Daredevil, Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider – and that’s not even including the horrible sequels all of those films).  It has an interesting visual look that basically no other comic book film has followed upon, the idea of breaking up the screen into panels that give it the feel of reading an actual comic book.  It has solid visual effects that just barely miss out on a Nighthawk nomination in a more than solid year.  It’s true that the Hulk doesn’t look nearly as good in the sunlight as he does in other scenes and there are some visuals that don’t look all that great.  But his leaps through the air, his picking up the tank and hurling it, the way he explodes through walls, those are all very impressive (more so if you consider this was almost a decade before Avengers, a decade in which visual effects really got better and better).  Eric Bana, who had been cast based on the performance he gave in Chopper (which is far more interesting than anything he gets to do here) does what he can, but he never really seems comfortable in the role.  Jennifer Connelly, who won an Oscar just two weeks after the film started shooting, is mostly around to look beautiful (and succeeds) and Sam Elliott mostly plays the cartoon version of a bad guy, although not as much of one as Josh Lucas does (see my review of Ford v Ferrari here to see what I think of Lucas).  Then there is Nick Nolte and that’s where we get into what the film does wrong.

The major problem with the film is the script, which makes it appropriate, I guess, that apparently several members of the cast signed on without having read the script just because Ang Lee was directing.  Lee’s angle was to approach it like a Greek tragedy and there definitely is that element there.  But it plays up the father-son relationship too much and then brings Nolte in to either be mysterious or ham things up (he never seems quite certain which he’s supposed to do) and then turns him into two completely different Hulk antagonists, neither of which is the Abomination, which is the problem, since that’s the villain that really works against the Hulk.  This is the big problem – you have to have a worthwhile villain for the Hulk to fight, especially with his strength.  That’s, I think, the main reason why the Mark Ruffalo version never got his own film, even with the massive expansion of the MCU.  They just don’t have a good story and a villain to give him.  That was the problem here.  The script just never really comes together.

This is a mid to low level ***, about the same as the sequel, which is ironic, because the strengths of the two films are very, very different.  Edward Norton would take over the role and give a much more compelling performance (I’m not sure what I think of Bana as an actor, since he was quite good in Munich and god awful in Star Trek) and there would be a much more interesting villain.  But it also wouldn’t have the visual flair that Lee would give this film that makes it stand out in its own way among all comic book films.

Hulk is currently airing on Starz in the States or you can watch online through Hulu with the Starz add-on or watch it for a few bucks on YouTube or ITunes and is available from Netflix on DVD and Blu-Ray.