Thirteen years after its release, one doesn’t have to look far to harness the consternation beating within Ang Lee’s tortured inferno of a motion picture. A poetic, lyrical, even hushed Shakespearean tragedy about generational sin and the disjuncture of personal selves, the film had the distinct whiff of a confidence trick when it was released in 2003 to superhero-hungry audiences. Rather than quenching adolescents’ Pavlovian bloodlust for improbable brutality, Lee’s film whispered sweet nothings of brash, brazen, smash-em-up violence in our ears and swindled us, harnessing that madman superhero energy and the cushy budget into a thoughtful, vital study on personal identity that mirrors, more or less, Lee’s own misfit status as a sensory-minded, sensitive art-cinema poet donning mainstream, blockbuster airs.
This bedeviling confusion at the time also stokes the film’s fires today. In 2003, the modern superhero film was still divining its own identity, but by 2016, the camps have been harshly, dictatorially divided, distinguished primarily by color palette and ensuing, corollary moods. Deadpool is fluffy and ironic, while Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is lugubrious and oppressively grim, both feigning distinct identities when they copy paste other films, and both superficially proposing that they surpass the superhero genre or expand its mission statement when they largely doodle inside the margins, if even that. Lee’s film, however, is legitimately unique, even when it isn’t always the best version of itself, or even wholly functional at all. Call it a failure or a success, but definitely do not call it a tax write-off.
Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) doesn’t exactly have it easy, having been mentally tormented in his childhood when he was unceremoniously tossed away from his family and forced to shack up in a new, adoptive home. Dedicating himself to science to mollify the rage inside him, his proclivities for life in the lab one day get the better of him when he is exposed to hostile levels of GAMMA RADIATION! and is curse-gifted when they activate and energize the clandestine mutant genes his father left him. His personalities uncoupled, now whenever he, you know, gets angry, he transforms into an irradiated green monstrosity with fists and an id ready for reckless endangerment. Plus, lest we forget, he has a soul. His ex-girlfriend/co-worker Betsy Ross (Jennifer Connelly, trying to sell the name “Betsy” in 2003) gets ensnared in the mix, especially when her father Thunderbolt Ross (Sam Elliot, selling the name Thunderbolt in every film he’s ever been in, so not much of a stretch here) mounts an expedition to capture and experiment on the Hulk for reasons of national security. To make matters worse, Bruce’s biological father David Banner (Nick Nolte, crusty as ever) returns to the scene of the crime with his own, more infernal, reasons for hunting down Bruce.
In 2003, infernal was the word, and infernal the film can be, with a functionally thin structure pushing the furniture of “event” to the side so writer James Schamus can massage the maximum amount of room in each scene for metaphysical commentaries on the nature of the mind and all that good stuff. Not only unconventional but shockingly anti-adolescent, the morbid but not moribund film inlays odes to classic genre cinema, with Frankenstein echoed in visual cues and King Kong strongly invoked thematically, both films that wielded themselves like outsider experiments seeking to push the limits of their respective, nominally adolescent genres.
Adventurous though doesn’t inherently equate to success, and on the latter note, the film is on questionable footing, required viewing for connoisseurs of the genre though it is. Lee’s somewhat brooding, literary ambitions do hobble the film when he overextends certain monotone metaphors (the military, at the onset of war in the Middle East, doggedly pursues the not-so-jolly green giant only to energize him and fan his flames with every misguided, egotistical attempt to capture him without first investigating what they are up against). Tripling up on science is also worthy of reprimand, the sort of excuse or call for legitimacy always donned in a film when the filmmakers are under-confident in their command of the material and need science gobbledygook to serve as a pinch hitter. Much of the film, not to its benefit, is shockingly oblique, more like a private head experiment for Lee and Schamus working their Hollywood muscles for themselves rather than for anyone else. Didactic springs to mind as an adjective, and the leaden inlaying of flashbacks at times conjures images of “maniacal” in the dictionary. Lee sometimes misapprehends the inherent motion of a comic book, retexturing it as still-life.
Also troubling: Lee’s habit of literalizing the comic book equivalence by throwing comic book frames and transitions into the film willy-nilly and with little discretion as to why. The effect reads a little like a man with extremely passing familiarity with comics (Lee has admitted as much over the years) who desperately wanted to prove his mettle with the kids while also pursuing the antithetical texture of no-kids-allowed cinema-as-college-thesis. So, while the tone is oblivious to the impulses of stylistically kinetic fun, Lee tries to mask the lugubriousness of the picture by spraying kinetic comic book style all over the place. The stylistic erection is more off-putting than a thunderous lightning bolt though, distracting from the interplay of imagery by overloading it with vastly too obvious, deadening comic book tricks that don’t find tenancy in the film at all. Lee, perhaps drunk on budget, fails to harness the grammar of a comic book into anything resembling a definitive purpose. Admittedly, he seems to have much to say about “frames” in the form of cloying, near-continuous refrains to eyes, going so far as to literally split the screen (without the demented cartoon zeal of De Palma, famous for the same trick) to bifurcate the perspectives and intone to us from his mighty mind that we should, you know, see things from multiple perspectives at once. Of course, having something to say and understanding how to say it are separable, and Lee does not hone in on the latter here even as he is overloaded, even inebriated, on the former.
So The Hulk aims for a facsimile of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s interplay of cosmic-minded lyricism and comic, even punchy playfulness, but it is considerably more lead-footed and witless in its application of both. Like its titular Frankenstein, the film is a miscreant cast out in the land, and it doesn’t yet have a clear grasp on the semiotics and syntax of a particular language (visual in this case) to express itself. But how it tries, and for that, it’s certainly special. By which I mean misguided, of course, but also fascinating and magnetic, an envoy to a form of superhero movie that doesn’t shoehorn itself into typical aesthetics and tired, overly-charred seriousness. Speaking of which, it’s also beautiful, less for the special effects than for Frederick Elmes’ moody, saturated (but not grotesquely so) cinematography; a midnight rumble between the main man and three gamma irradiated dogs is killer, all husky blues and passionate forest greens (implicitly mocking the Hulk’s more putrescent, toxic green skin color, like a bastard child of the more full-bodied colors of true nature).
A cross-hatch, a jumble, it may be, and although it could use smoothing over, jettisoning its accidents would also come at a cost. Namely, sacrificing the film’s personal stamp, warping it from a combative, confrontational oblong object to a too-cordial do-as-it’s-told creature. The film’s choices – solemn tonal melancholy and florid, pulpy style – may be insoluble, and the film deserves a modicum of its stigmatization, but when the vastness of the modern superhero machine sinks in, the ham-fisted schizophrenia on display in Lee’s film mushrooms into something more endearingly misshapen. It probably begs for a patch-up or a fix, but when chips and breakages show handcrafted wear like this, why ruin it by “fixing” it?