This review contains minor spoilers
Comic book movies. What are they? Are comics-to-film a genre? What is the
filmmakers’ task in creating a comic book movie? These seem to be the questions
filmmakers stumble on from time-to-time.
One school of thought is that comic book movies are, in fact, a genre and
that, when adapting a comic book, you should not only adapt the stories and
concepts, but the “comic booky-ness” of it as well. You adapt the
This gives way to things like the “Batman” TV show, with the voice
over narration standing in for the captions found on the comic book page, and
graphics reading “BAM,” “POW” and “ZAP” appearing
on the screen, obscuring the action.
Another example is the “Dick Tracy” movie in which all art design
was mandated to be in four colors, just like the comic strips.
This thinking generally leads to some miserable film fare. After all, why use
sound effect graphics when you can actually use audible sound effects? Why try
to enforce a four-color palette, when you have a much greater variety (or lack,
if black and white is your choice) of colors as a filmmaker? Isn’t a big, red
When adapting a novel, would a filmmaker try to emulate the words-on-paper or
turning-pages presentation of the book?
No, the best comic adaptations are the ones that adapt the stories and
concepts without trying to adapt the medium itself. Let the film be the film.
Ang Lee’s “The Hulk” is a highly ambitious attempt to do a movie
that is part adult psychodrama, part popcorn, roller coaster tentpole, part film
and part comic book. Yes, Lee trips on the idea of bringing the comic-booky-ness
into the film, but for the most part the movie succeeds many levels.
THE COMIC BOOKY-NESS
This is my major complaint about the movie so lets get it out of the way,
before moving on to the good stuff.
I got a sinking feeling when the titles for “The Hulk” started to
roll. After rolling the now-familiar Marvel card (although it’s been turned
green and Hulk-i-fied for this picture) we get into the main credits. Although
they play on a suitable creepy montage of mad-scientist experiments being
conducted by David Banner the credits themselves are rendered in standard,
hand-lettered comic book font.
To me, this is a good example of an aesthetic misfire prompted by an
attempt to capture the comic-booky-ness of “The Hulk.” Why not use a
font that mates with the dark science lab setting? Perhaps one that mirrors
David Banner’s journal scrawl or a computer readout. Why choose a comic book
font that would be glaringly incompatible with this sequence in any other movie?
The misfire is repeated in the closing credits as well, which are not only
rendered in the same font, but also bounded by panels and word balloons.
For me the most jarring application of comic booky-ness is the multi-panel
split screens and whiz-bang transitions employed by Lee throughout the movie.
Yes, in “The Hulk” the story is sometimes displayed in two or more
panels on the screen: just like a comic book!
The idea is to intensify the affects of certain scenes by giving you the fine
details along with the big picture. For example, you can get two or three close
up reactions along with the large action of the scene, all one the screen at the
On my first viewing of the movie, I found the effect very distracting. There
were times I found myself thinking less about the story and more about the
Indeed some of the transitions (especially one focusing on Glen Talbot
mid-way through the movie) are so over-done that they complete defuse the
carefully built tension of the scene.
While the effect of the panels and transitions was lessened for me on the
second viewing of the movie, I still think they detract from the movie more than
they add to it. In some cases it was downright frustrating to have the most
interesting image crowded out by others.
The attempt to bring comic booky-ness to “The Hulk” often times
prevented me from getting immersed in the film, which is too bad because it’s a
film worth getting immersed in.
Jarring stylistic problems aside, Lee’s approach to “The Hulk” may
be one of the most serious-minded comic adaptations in quite some time. The
journey of repressed scientist Bruce Banner is a dark and lonely road.
Bruce was born on a military base in the western desert. His father, David
Banner, is a military scientist obsessed with the study of genetic alterations.
In classic mad scientist form, David experiments on himself when the military
oversight gets too restrictive. As a result both he and baby Bruce are forever
Outraged by Banner’s lack of ethics, General Ross shuts him down and thereby
thwarts any opportunities the man has to cure his child. What follows is a dark
traumatic event that will plague young Bruce into present day.
This is how you adapt a comic book: isolate a great story beat from the
series and focus the movie’s story on it.
In the present Bruce (Eric Bana) goes by his adopted name Krenzler. Like his
birth father he’s a brilliant scientist pursuing genetic studies. He’s aided by
the beautiful Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) in the development of
gamma-irradiated nanomeds, designed to heal humans from catastrophic ailments.
Circling the project is General Ross (Betty’s father played by Sam Elliott),
Glen Talbot (a slimy military-scientist-turned-corporate-weasel played by Josh
Lucas) and the university’s mysterious new janitor (Nick Nolte).
As expected, when one of Banner’s experiments goes terribly awry, all Hulk
“The Hulk” is blessed with a cast of immense acting talent.
Eric Bana gives a terrific, understated performance as the uber-repressed
scientist. For most of his screen time, Bruce Banner comes off like a guy who is
genuinely uncomfortable in his own skin.
He’s almost completely incapable of dealing with confrontations. When his lab
assistant points out that Banner seems geeky, even to other scientist, the best
Banner can muster is a lame retort. Later, he’s no match for the in-your-face
machismo of General Ross, the intellectual manipulations of Banner Sr. and the
venal aggression of Talbot.
But the enemy that Banner struggles with most is the enemy within and that
dark secret that lurks behind the closed doors of his childhood.
Bana conveys his character’s pervasive unease with stares and body language
that speaks volumes.
Nick Nolte is mad scientist to the hilt. Pretty much looking like his
drug-bust mug shot and dressing in the latest homeless fashion, Nolte gives the
most riveting, if over-the-top performance of the film. He ranges from quiet
menace when confronting Betty, to disturbing appeal when trying to win back
Bruce, to frail, fractured victim when confronted by Hulk, to raging madman when
he fully steps into the villain role.
Whichever way he plays it, Nolte’s scenes are always interesting. You can’t
take your eyes off of him.
Jennifer Connelly is, once again, cast as the girl worth staying sane for.
While Banner is beset on all sides by characters wanting to a piece of him for
their own ends, Betty is the only one looking for his soul. Indeed one of the
most heartfelt scenes in the movie is when Bruce tells Betty, “You found
CGI LEADING MAN
One concern on everyone’s mind is the CGI. The Hulk may be the most ambitious
CGI character of all time, having to carry a large portion of screen time, range
from comic book action to human emotion and fit in with real world cast and
settings. Indeed, it’s the main point fans have been fretting over since Super
There are moviegoers who will know going in that they dislike the CGI Hulk,
and watching the movie probably won’t change their minds. In certain scenes Hulk
does look like a CGI cartoon character: Shrek on steroids.
The effect is worst when the character is in enclosed, real-world settings,
like his lab early on. But while these scenes may have looked “too CG”
they never failed to look cool. Watching Banner Hulk out and smash up the lab is
just good fun.
When the CG Hulk busts out of the interiors and rampages through outdoor
settings the character really shines.
The brutal fight with the hulked-out dogs in the redwood forest is a
Hulk’s battle in the desert with tanks and helicopters is, quite simply, one
of the most staggering examples of comic-book action ever rendered to film.
There’s a shot where Hulk has realized there are tanks nearby firing on him
and we see, through the perspective of the soldiers, this massive, green monster
running at us through a hail of artillery and sand…it’s pure, stomach-dropping
This is how you adapt a comic book: isolate what’s cool about the source
material and blow it up in a way that only film can.
From that moment on “The Hulk” offers up one visual spectacle after
another, building up with the climax where Banner and Hulk have to confront
their true foe.
The movie is not without it’s flaws. As mentioned, I found the stylistic vote
for comic booky-ness to be a detraction.
I also have to admit that the movie seems slow getting started. Like the
lengthy preamble to this very review, it takes a long time for Lee and company
to get all the pieces (both physical and metaphysical) in place. The first leg
of the movie is likely to elicit some yawns.
There are also certain plot devices that break down if you think about them
too much. The nature of the Hulk dogs is sketchy, as is the nature of David
Banner’s mutation. Why is Betty so adept at locating a fugitive when her
father’s vast military resources cannot? How does David Banner manage to keep
such a low profile when he always seems to be traveling with three large,
In spite of the flaws, Hulk succeeds in what it sets out to be: a mix of
high-octane summer action and moody drama. No Hulk fan, particularly one who
loved the Hulk vs. military leg of the character’s long-running exploits, will be
disappointed by the movie.