Before there was a shared cinematic universe. Before there was Edward Norton, much less Mark Ruffalo. Before he was part of a team. Before all that there were…Hulk Dogs. And they were awesome.
This might seem like a massive troll coming a few months after the release of Avengers: Infinity War, but it’s not. I come not to simply take a position opposite that of conventional wisdom but to earnestly and unironically praise 2003’s Hulk as directed by Ang Lee.
No, the movie does not have a good reputation, having failed to a large extent to counter the negative reaction to a disastrous Super Bowl commercial that offered the first look at a CGI Hulk, reportedly before visual effects work was complete. That it was rebooted just five years later with a new actor as part of the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a testament to how Universal Studios wanted to unremember the divisive 2003 film
I am telling you, though, that the movie is worth a fresh look. It’s not exactly tied directly into the MCU as it exists today, but if you squint you can make certain elements of it work as the backstory that’s alluded to in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, but it’s also alright if you don’t want to put in that much effort. Even standing on its own the movie has a lot of positives working in its favor.
The Visual Style
Even as this is the least controversial position you can possibly take on the movie, saying it out loud will still get you run out of Comic-Con on a (light) rail. Lee’s decision to incorporate comic book-like panel structures to some of the scenes in the film turned a lot of people off in 2003. It was too confusing for many and didn’t win it any new fans.
Darnit, though, if the movie doesn’t have a wholly unique and captivating vibe when that conceit is employed, though. It’s shocking to me that so many subsequent movies have been praised for “really looking like a comic book” when this one *literally* looked like a comic book. Watch this scene and see how you can follow the conversation characters are having with each other because of the panel structure. You’re able to see everyone who’s talking without contrived cutaways or off-screen dialogue
If there’s a problem with this idea it’s that it’s not executed often enough. Good stretches of the movie go by without it being used, so when it does come back – usually during action sequences – it can be a bit jarring. It certainly is memorable, though, and Lee deserves a lot of credit for experimenting with the look and feel of the super hero genre before it succumbed to producer-inflicted uniformity.
Finally, I don’t mind the bright green version of Hulk used here. I think most of the blowback to this look for the character came more from that just three years earlier Cyclops, in X-Men, had mocked the idea of “bright yellow spandex” costumes. The black leather costumes there, the subdued colors of Spider-Man’s outfit…we were still coming out of the 90s and the dark, gritty vibe comics had adopted for over a decade. The conventional wisdom at the time held that comic book movies couldn’t look too much like comic books with their vibrancy. It would be another five to 10 years before The MCU changed that.
The Hulk as Petulant Child
One of the problems with the Hulk as a character is that his motivations are often ill-defined if they exist at all. In the comics he’s gone from the lumbering Hyde-like incarnation to a semi-literate ape to a Vegas casino bouncer to an interplanetary gladiator and more. Hulk’s retention of Banner’s intelligence has ebbed and flowed from one character to the other, but it’s been hard to paint him as Captain America-like hero because he never seems to have a driving ethos aside from “rage” or “anger.”
The version created by James Schamus, who wrote the film’s screenplay, positions him as Frankenstein’s monster, freshly born from the lab and confused about his identity and place in the world. He is lashing out because he doesn’t know the consequences of his power and has no one there to explain things to him.
In this way, Hulk here is not necessarily the pure-Id he’s sometimes painted to be. He is not acting out because he is raw power unleashed, free from conscience and norm. He’s a toddler with the power of Hercules at his disposal. The one tether he retains to his Banner persona is the trauma inflicted by the actions of his father, trauma he doesn’t have the means to express in a healthier manner. A 1-year-old does not cry when he can’t reach the cookie jar because he’s an entitled jerk but because he lacks the language to communicate more effectively. The 28-year-old who screams because his soy chai latte isn’t hot enough…that’s the jerk.
Here’s where I’m going to defend the narrative purpose served by the much-maligned Hulk Dogs. Yes, they’re kind of goofy and certainly came out of nowhere. What they show, though, is the indifference with which Banner’s father sees his son. He was just another means to an end, an attitude represented by the fact that animals were his next attempt. View them as part of his overall character and his callous disregard for scientific protocols and human life and you see how they fit into the story.
Again, if there’s issue to be taken with this portrayal it’s that it doesn’t go far enough while also getting bogged down in the story of how Banner’s father used him as an unwitting test subject as a child. The stronger story there is how children who grow up after losing both parents might harbor resentment they are still dealing with later in life, resentment that when triggered can lead to lashing out and heightened feelings of anger.
The Hulk’s Evolving Powers
Building on that point above, one of the more interesting elements utilized by Schamus and Lee is the idea that Hulk grows not only stronger the angrier he gets but physically larger. That’s something that, again, has been inconsistently explored in the comics over the years but it makes as much sense as anything else about the character. If he goes from human to jade giant because he’s angry it stands to (suspension of disbelief-aided) reason that he would become even bigger the more he’s provoked.
Watch this clip from shortly after Banner’s first transformation into the creature. He’s grasping desperately at the device as if he’s unsure if he can handle it or not. Contrast that with scenes later in the film where Hulk handily grabs a missile from mid-air and flings tanks left and right. Also note how Hulk’s initial leap from the rooftop isn’t very strong or very far, while later he’s seemingly covering miles at a time, practically flying through the air.
An All-Time DGAF Nick Nolte Performance
Nolte’s performance ranks as one of the great “I don’t even know what movie I’m in, I’m just going for it” turns in cinematic history. Your tolerance and taste for this will certainly vary, but for my money when he mocks his son’s whining while they’re both strapped in by Gen. Ross…it’s just fantastic, while also being a reminder that Bruce is dealing with a father who saw him as just another variable in his experiments, not a human being who needed love and caring.
OK, There Are Issues
Eric Bana just can’t summon enough personality for us to really care when Banner is on screen. He’s giving Episode II Hayden Christensen a run for his money in the “Most Bland Performance Of The Early 2000s” here. Also, How can you give Jennifer Connelly that little to do? More broadly, why does Hollywood keep giving talented actresses so little to do in super hero movies as a whole? I’m looking at you Zack Snyder, and your constant wasting of Amy Adams.
Those performances are contrasted against Sam Shepherd, who’s able to do more with his role as Gen. Ross than he should be able to. And Josh Lucas as Glenn Talbot is so mustache-twirling broad in his performance you’d think he was selling it to the cheap seats, blowing past caricature to be…not bad.
The future incarnations of Hulk, both from Norton and Ruffalo, had the advantage of not needing to cover the origin details. Again, if you want to make the end of Hulk, where Banner goes off to live in South America, fit with the opening of The Incredible Hulk where he’s keeping a low profile working in a bottling plant, you can. And if you want to make the end of that movie, where he’s gone off to get zen about his powers, fit with where we find Banner at the beginning of The Avengers, you can. You don’t need to, but you can. Both, though, were able to portray a weary Banner who had experience with the monster inside, something Bana couldn’t.
Hulk as (Fill in the Blank)
As I said above, Hulk has never been an easy character with one *definitive* interpretation that’s held fast over the last 50 years. What the version envisioned by Ang Lee and James Schamus offer here is one who represents the dangers of unexpressed emotions built up over a lifetime. Put aside the science and military elements of the story and you have someone struggling to simply come to terms with what he’s feeling and process that in a healthy way.
Those have, for me, always been the most interesting Hulk stories. When he was introduced in the 60s he was the lumbering brute representing the darkness that simmered under the surface of polite society. That version has come back over the years a few times with various twists.
Perhaps that’s why Ruffalo’s Hulk in The Avengers was so intriguing. At one point he talks about how if Nick Fury’s plan is to kill him it’s not going to work. “I got low,” he says, and tried to kill himself, only to have “the other guy’ spit the bullet right back out. Then, during the final battle, he reveals his secret to maintaining control: “I’m always angry.” That idea of anger – expressed, repressed and under control – is setup in Hulk and Avengers, but almost completely abandoned in Incredible, where the secret to not Hulking out is (checks notes) not letting your heart rate rise too high.
There are certainly issues with the movie, as there are with most. Sure, you can laugh at the Hulk Dogs if you want. But appreciate how Lee and Schamus weren’t making a super hero movie but one that held a mirror up to the dark places found in the human psyche with Hulk as metaphor and allegory and you have a much different film, one that deserves at least a second look.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.