Vibrant Hulk: The Green Hero at the Heart of Ang Lee’s Underrated Film

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Vibrant Hulk: The Green Hero at the Heart of Ang Lee’s Underrated Film

As studios have gotten better at commodifying fan knowledge and identity, nostalgic nods have turned into storytelling tools, using alternate universes to encompass as much as they like of what they’ve produced into singular canons. The relatively coherent continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe felt groundbreaking for a time, while the superhero films of the 1990s and 2000s laid the groundwork for what we have now. Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness rejuvenated interest in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, but there should be similar reappraisals of Ang Lee’s Hulk, a film which shines brighter every day in the increasingly dull sky of superhero films. Hulk’s emotional depth of character and unique visual style hasn’t been matched in the 20 years since, while the character has been gradually reduced to comic relief.

Hulk is a vivid, colorful film. Its Hulk is an inhuman green, conveying that he’s not just poisoned (implied by the fleshy combat-camo-khaki green of the Ed Norton/Mark Ruffalo Hulks) but radiating energy. Hulk looks of its time, which means there are occasional shots of military computer screens that look like they’re pulled from Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun. In exchange, exterior shots are composed from the real world and not purely green screens—canyons, deserts, lakes, forests, even the streets of Berkeley and San Francisco are presented as real physical places with this giant green man dropped into them. A preponderance of practical effects makes the protagonist’s impact on the setting feel real.

There are also, from the opening credits, recurring close-ups of sea life, desert life, near-microscopic life. Hulk casts its eye on starfish, cacti and frogs, but also on fungi and moss, full-screen dreams and nightmares of vibrant spores and blending colors. In these shots of lab stills, of natural landscapes, of the Hulk and Bruce Banner in forests, there is naturalism and an interest in depicting the living world. 

Even mundane acts of destruction feel magnificent because they feel real: An exploded sidewalk or destroyed lab have the texture of something you could experience, with the characters reacting to it authentically, highlighted by tight camera angles and creative editing that invoke panels and page-turns. Likewise, you can feel the hot blaring sun beating down in the civilian cul-de-sacs of the desert military base, the dry air scratching your throat. And, of course, the superheroics of throwing missiles back at helicopters are spectacular. But the emotion of the film comes from following Bruce Banner’s life from infancy through adulthood.

The screenplay (by James Schamus, Michael France, and John Turman) begins with Young David Banner (Paul Kersey) working for a military applied science division in the Mojave Desert to replicate the way some animals regenerate cells. Over the credits, we see him taking notes and experimenting on animals, the camera accentuating his focus—his obsession. He injects himself with an experimental DNA-altering formula, passing its traits on to his son, continuing to run tests on him without his mother’s (Cara Buono) knowledge and is concerned with unexplained side effects. 

Bruce is presented from childhood as burying his feelings, never verbalizing them even when he’s shaking with rage after another kid leaves him bleeding during playtime. He’s depicted as quiet, possibly emotionally scarred, and always destined for great things, as his adopted mother (Celia Weston) tells him as he goes off to college. As we speed from his childhood to adulthood, his quiet nature is a mainstay; withholding of emotion causes the failure of his romantic relationship with fellow scientist Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) as an adult. After Bruce (Eric Bana) absorbs radiation during an experiment gone wrong, the genes his father altered activate, causing him to become the Hulk and destroy his lab while fighting anxiety, stress and the reemergence of repressed memories after a visit by the new lab janitor claiming to be his father (Nick Nolte). 

In Bruce’s interactions with Josh Lucas’ Glenn Talbot (a mid-level executive for military contractor “Atheon”), Bruce seems, like Ruffalo’s Hulk, “always angry” just beneath the surface, and—while he loses control in their first violent encounter—he can hold the Hulk back, with tremendous focus. Meanwhile, the Hulk’s tender and protective treatment of Betty conveys that he is more a representation of Bruce’s inner self than a competing personality. A fight against the military set across the stark desert backdrop leads him to San Francisco, where he’s recaptured after Betty pacifies him; running through the film in parallel to his own journey of self-discovery is her consternation about their relationship and her frustration with her father. 

Hulk culminates in David, jealous of Bruce, calling the Hulk his real son. As Bruce—coming to terms with his suppressed memories—attempts to control the Hulk and David attempts to draw him out (while General Ross is threatening to fry them both), Hulk hits its emotional apex. David lambasts the world order that the military industrial complex is at the center of, trying to enlist Bruce in a rampage-revolution, before biting into a power cable and turning into a being of pure electricity. Some of the most evocative special effects work in the film shows them fighting in the dark gray-blue sky, flashing through clouds, soundtracked by thunderclaps, visions of the Hulk wrestling with a man made of lightning. This ends with David trying to drain Bruce of his gamma radiation in a lake, then, overwhelmed by the mass of it, exploding into a gamma radiation bubble after the Air Force fires an irradiated missile at the combatants. Hulk disappears soon thereafter.

In the final scene, Bruce Banner has run from the California desert to the Amazon jungle, where he is providing local people with medical treatment. When soldiers claiming to represent an unnamed government roll in to confiscate the medicine, we see the telltale green cloudiness roll into his pupils. As the camera zooms out and the overhead shot of lush forest fades into a screen-filling Hulk green, we hear a roar. The Hulk is still alive in Banner, but controlled. The last note of Hulk depicts a man using his scientific training to help people, and using his augmented abilities to protect them.

Just five years later, Universal rebooted the franchise with The Incredible Hulk, setting its first several scenes geographically close to where Hulk ends, while the backdrop to the opening credits shows a different story of how Bruce Banner got to South America. Hulk had a vivid and singular vision, a visual playfulness, a vibrant Hulk, a compelling and intimate storyline. The Incredible Hulk was more polished, but more interested in explosions and a superpowered adversary (Tim Roth as Abomination) with no emotional connection to its Bruce (Edward Norton).

The Incredible Hulk was a transition film into the MCU, so its ties were established as bookends: Stark Industries blueprints in the backdrop of the opening credits; Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark appearing near the end. In the mainline MCU, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk has gone from dangerous ally in the first two Avengers films to intergalactic fighting champion in Thor: Ragnarok to composite between Banner and Hulk in Endgame, with the stories evolving the character from one version to the next happening completely off-screen. His origin’s emotional tension was cause enough to leave Earth, then became a punchline. Now it’s been resolved without the audience getting to witness the work of its resolution. The Hulk remains one of Marvel’s most iconic heroes, but the character’s film presence has gone from front-and-center to supporting, despite being pivotal in Endgame. In Ang Lee’s Hulk, he’s a brilliant scientist working through repressed trauma and trying to conquer himself. In the era of MCU dominance, he’s The Incredible Also-Ran.

Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.

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