Superhero Movie Month: "Hulk" Review

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

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Rating: PG-13
Length: 138 minutes
Release Date: June 20, 2003
Directed by: Ang Lee
Genre: Action / Sci-Fi

Directed by Ang Lee after the director's enormous success with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in 2000, "Hulk" is a unique type of superhero movie. Although it uses many of the background story details from the comic book series and the television show, Lee injects new life into the transformation of a common man not so much into a superhero as into an outsider. While this may not have endeared hardcore fans of either the comic book series or the television show, "Hulk" is a complex film. It dares to look at the darker side of a character who through chance and the deeds of others has acquired superpowers that can be harnessed for good but can also be perceived as monstrous. In the end, "Hulk" is a film more in the tradition of Gothic novels such as Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and Bram Stoker's "Dracula."

At the height of the Cold War era, scientist David Banner (played with a deranged glee by the inimitable Nick Nolte) is involved in dangerous genetic research to help soldiers quickly heal from serious wounds. When he is denied permission to conduct human trials, Banner experiments on himself, and things quickly go awry. He soon realizes that his mutated DNA has been passed to his son Bruce and that the military is shutting down his experiments. In a furious overreaction, Banner triggers a lab explosion and decides to sacrifice his son, whom he fears will develop monstrous traits. In the confusion, Banner stabs his wife to death. He is sentenced to a long prison term, leaving his son to grow up in foster homes. It becomes evident later that the troubled child has repressed memories of these troubled years.

At first glance, this action-packed sequence does not seem a significant departure from the formulaic superhero movie, complete with a gamma explosion and a grisly stabbing. However, this background sequence establishes many of the themes and motifs that set "Hulk" apart from the more traditional superhero fare, including the conflict between parents and offspring and the idea of escaping the burden of monstrosity. This latter element serves as the prime motivator for the character of Bruce Banner throughout the rest of the film.

Eric Bana stars as Bruce Banner, now known as Dr. Bruce Krenzler, a scientist at the University of California at Berkeley who, decades after his father's breakdown, is conducting innovative research in nanomedicine. By chance, the same military officer who was in charge of shutting down David Banner's experiments, Thunderbolt Ross (played by veteran character actor Sam Elliott), is the estranged father of Bruce's lab partner, Betty. Ross grows concerned, although he does not realize that Bruce is David Banner's son.

Bruce's lab is also infiltrated by David Banner, who has been released from prison and is posing as a janitor. Major Talbot (played by Josh Lucas with a villainous edge that will prove to be misleading) has been sent by the military to investigate the benefits of Bruce's research. Bruce, meanwhile, is having no luck with his research. Major Talbot's offer to experiment on healing soldiers is tempting, but Bruce declines. After an accident in which Bruce is exposed to gamma radiation and nanomeds, he survives because of his mutated genes. The comic book superhero is then born.

However, in Lee's film he is anything but a superhero, and his main concern quickly becomes survival and escape from those who want to make him into something he is not. Major Talbot wants to turn him into a military superweapon. His father, after revealing himself and coyly warning Bruce that he should refrain from getting angry, wants Bruce as a partner in vengeance. Bruce cannot accept either of these propositions. In his escape from the snares of his father and the pursuing military, Bruce as the Hulk becomes destructive and dangerous in spite of himself. He is only soothed by the comforting presence of Betty, who defies her father to come to him.

Lee's Hulk is the pursued ogre in a medieval sense, and the film's dark colors, phantasmagorical settings and moody score help intensify this idea. However, the director's explorations of the sins of the father save it from becoming a victim narrative. The real ogre in the film is David, a classic villain who, once wronged, now seeks destruction for all. It is apt that the final conflict is between father and son, given how much time is spent on the dramatic history between them. Bruce's choices at the end and his willingness throughout the film to shake off the role that others would have him play poses a variety of intriguing questions about the roles of those with superpowers. What of those who would rather not serve? What if serving means not ridding the world of evil but adding to it? Perhaps it was such questions that left fans of the less complex comic book series and television show unnerved.